Observations about Observation Cars

Posted by George Hamlin
on Friday, February 17, 2023

It's about zero degrees F, and I want the shot, but don't have a tripod, or even a monopod. So, I hold my breath; take multiple shots in the half to full second range, and hope that at least one works. VIA's eastbound Canadian waits at Sioux Lookout, Ontario, while a CN snowplow sits in the background, on February 26, 2002.

After retreating to the warmth of the Strathcona Park on the rear end of VIA train two, there was a nagging concern that I may, or may not have, succeeded.  This was still in the film era of photography, more than twenty years ago; no immediate feedback existed.  Come to think of it, that’s why there wasn’t a histogram to consult to see if the exposure was correct, either…

The camera and I would be on the train for about another 24 hours yet, to be followed by the journey back to Virginia from Toronto the following day. The film wouldn’t go into the mail for processing until the next day following the return home, and then there was the inevitable wait for the return of the processed slides via what is now labeled derisively as “snail mail”.

Fortunately, you the reader don’t have to endure all this dead time to see the result; likely it was the first thing you saw when this page opened on your viewing screen. Yes, I was pleased with the outcome, and also was glad that I had made multiple exposures of the scene, not all of which worked.

Even in 2002, finding an observation car to ride in scheduled service pretty much came down to VIA’s Canadian, or the occasional other uses they made of these dome-lounge-sleeper configured passenger conveyances, including a relatively short-lived overnight “Constellation Class” service in the Montreal-Toronto market.

Unfortunately, this travel delight recently has become constrained significantly, and could be at risk of exiting the stage entirely.  As reported in TRAINS “Newswire” in October 2022, there now are concerns about the crash-worthiness of the cars used on the Canadian, to the point where extensive testing is being undertaken, and as an interim measure, non-occupied passenger cars are now being used as buffers fore and aft of the regular consist, essentially obviating the view out the rear of the Park cars.

While most of us probably thought that the Budd shot-welded postwar stainless steel streamliners were essentially indestructible, this may not be the case.  The Canadian’s cars were delivered in 1954 and 55; next year some of them will be seventy years old.  To put this in perspective, when Amtrak was formed in 1971, the idea that a passenger car from 1901 might make the cut didn’t merit any consideration.

I’m glad that I had the opportunity to ride on the Canadian; and also that I actually got out during the stop at Sioux Lookout, pressed the shutter and held the camera reasonably steady during at least one exposure.  There were many enjoyable things about the trip, but if I had to pick one “visual souvenir” from this land voyage to remember it by, it would be the image at the top of this page.

Photo by George W. Hamlin

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