The Canadian as farce

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Wednesday, February 4, 2015

On Friday evening, my friend and retired Norfolk Southern luminary Bill Schafer and his wife Linda host a journey of more than 100 friends, strangers, and their spouses aboard Via Rail Canada’s Canadian, a four-night, three-day adventure across the great Dominion, from Vancouver, B.C., to Toronto. This group includes active and retired railroad captains whose names you would recognize. My advice to them: Call ahead to every Canadian National Railway friend you have, up to and including CEO Claude Mongeau, and beg for some indulgence, that is, for a little bit of mercy.

I’m just back from the same trek, a week ahead of Bill’s Moonlighter group, and I have bad news. CN is systematically and purposefully destroying the Canadian, sending its clientele home tired and unhappy, muttering those never-again words. Moreover, I understand why and I am (so sorry, everyone) in sympathy with CN as much as I am with Via Rail Canada. Bear in mind that I’ve ridden the train so many times the past half-dozen years that on-board employees greet me as Mr. Fred. What I witness this time is the culmination of an evolution at how CN treats this iconic passenger train.

As is usually the case, the first 20 hours are a breeze, along the rivers and through the mountains to Jasper, Alta. Opposing freight traffic is not that great. As always, trouble begins the closer we get to CN’s operating epicenter of Edmonton. “It’s a mess out here,” I hear the engineer radio the Canadian’s service director, as I hit the sack at midnight. When my eyes open the next morning we are three hours to the bad.

Across Saskatchewan and Manitoba our timekeeping slowly worsens. Edmonton to Winnipeg, Man., is Canadian National’s core route, and it is busy. When I get up on day three, east of Winnipeg, we are five hours behind our forgiving schedule.

And now CN’s handling of our train becomes abundantly clear. The apparent goal: Make the Canadian invisible to its freight trains. To accomplish this, the CN train dispatchers (they’re called “rail traffic controllers” in Canadian lingo) appear to establish a least-delay point for meets with its freight trains, and then hold the Canadian back by one siding. That way the westbound freights never see even an advance-approach signal. But every meet becomes a 15-30 minute wait for us in an Ontario siding.

This goes on all day. This is strikingly different from even a couple of years ago. Yes, the Canadian always took the siding, but the opposing freight would be arriving on the main track when we got there.

At 5 o’clock our engineers from Sioux Lookout remind the RTC that their 12 hours of on-duty time will expire at 10 p.m., and it is clear they won’t make it to Hornepayne. The dispatcher says he’ll take care of it. But 10 o’clock finds us 40 miles short of Hornepayne, and there we sit for four hours until a westbound freight drops off a relief set of enginemen. At dawn on day four we are 12 hours late.

Day four is Yogi Berra Day, deja vu all over again. More interminable waits. Particularly vexing are the last four sidings into Capreol, which should take an hour but consume three. The yardmaster there is having a bad hair day, hanging up on our engineer when he calls to ask to be let into town. Now we’re 14 hours late and counting, with the service director estimating a midnight arrival in Toronto (scheduled time is 9:30 a.m.). But even that is clearly overoptimistic. So as soon as I get an internet signal as we glide into Capreol, I kiss goodbye to $319 and book the 6 p.m. Air Canada flight from nearby Sudbury for Pierson Airport in Toronto and bid this proud old train adieu. I think my sleeping car attendant envied me. At any rate, long before the Canadian gets to Toronto, I am asleep in Virginia.

The Canadian has never been schedule-friendly, but this is a whole new level of hurt. From somewhere above at Canadian National, the word is clearly out: Can’t someone rid us of this pesky train? CN is under threat of $100,000-a-day fines by the government for not moving two back-to-back mega-harvests of wheat to the ports faster, never mind that the ports cannot keep up with what the railroad delivers. Oil prices may be at five-year lows, but gobs of tank cars are aboard every general freight that leaves Edmonton. Long lines of finished lumber adorn these trains, too, and the intermodal and automobile businesses are booming. The railroad is clearly under stress keeping up with its popularity.

Now throw in the Canadian, which CN handles for next to nothing (terms of the CN/Via contract are secret, but one supposes Via pays about what Amtrak does in the U.S.). Why throw its freight trains to the dogs for 50 people riding a winter Canadian? Try as I might, I can’t think of a reason.

I wish for the Moonlighters a great trip. What I experienced, for the second time in three trips, was farce, something you’d expect in Argentina, maybe. It becomes harder and harder to recommend this train to anyone.—Fred W. Frailey

P.S.: From Mark Hallman, CN's director of communications and public affairs, comes this statement: "In 2014, CN invested more than C$100-million to install sections of double track, extended sidings, crossovers, high-speed switches and yard improvements in the Edmonton-Winnipeg and Winnipeg-Chicago corridors. That followed a C$100-million program in 2013 to increase capacity on CN’s main line and parallel Prairie North Line (PNL) between Edmonton and Winnipeg to support growth. The PNL can serve as a “relief valve” for the main corridor providing flexibility and resilience to the network.

CN in 2015 will continue to invest in main line capacity between Edmonton and Winnipeg and Winnipeg and Chicago, as well as in additional support yards in Edmonton and Winnipeg to reduce the switching workloads at major rail car classification yards such as Symington Yard in Winnipeg. Furthermore, CN plans to continue to invest in additional siding capacity in northern Ontario to accommodate longer freight trains. In 2015, CN plans to invest a total of approximately C$2.6 billion in capital programs across its North American network, of which approximately C$1.3 billion is targeted toward maintaining the safety and integrity of the network, particularly track infrastructure. The capital program also includes funds for projects supporting growth and productivity."

Mark also provided a list of the major delays sustained by the train I rode, which I will list in a response to this blog. FWF

To leave a comment you must be a member of our community.
Login to your account now, or register for an account to start participating.
No one has commented yet.

Join our Community!

Our community is FREE to join. To participate you must either login or register for an account.

Search the Community

Newsletter Sign-Up

By signing up you may also receive occasional reader surveys and special offers from Trains magazine.Please view our privacy policy