Aboard the last streamliner

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Thursday, February 11, 2010

Fifty-five years ago this spring, Canadian Pacific introduced its new transcontinental train, the Budd-built Canadian, operating between Montreal and Toronto in the East and Vancouver on the Pacific Coast. It was the proud accomplishment of N. R. (Buck) Crump, CP’s president during the mid-Twentieth Century. Legend has it that within six months, Crump realized that even the newest and finest streamliner in the world would never come close to paying its way, and Canadian Pacific rapidly began removing itself from the passenger train business. Little did anyone know that today, the Canadian would still be with us — the last classic streamliner in North America.
Today, of course, the Canadian is run by VIA Rail Canada and operates hardly at all over its original CP route, using instead Canadian National’s more prosaic line through northern Canada. But if you want to experience passenger-train travel in 2010 as it was at its zenith more than half a century ago, there’s only one train left to do it on.
Despite numerous overhauls, refurbishments, and modernizations, the equipment remains almost as it appeared leaving the Budd Manufacturing Co. factory near Philadelphia. I’m writing this in the tail lounge of the Park-series dome observation car. The sleeping cars all contain upper and lower open sections, as well as roomettes, bedrooms and drawing rooms. Dinner in the diner is as much an event as it ever was. The dome cars fore and aft provide a view available no Sightseer Lounge on Amtrak can quite equal.
Would I rather the train were back on N. R. Crump’s railroad, going through Banff and Lake Louise, Alta., and over the mighty Selkirk mountain range? Obviously, yes, as would almost everyone but the leaders of VIA Rail. But today, with the sun finally popping out as we left Blue River, B.C., and confronted the Canadian Rockies, the Canadian National version of mountain railroading is spectacular in its own right. You won’t feel cheated in the Scenery Department. Even the cook in our dining car popped out this noon long enough to snap photographs of Mount Robson, the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies (see middle photo).
Most seasons of the year, the three-times-weekly Canadian will run with 14 to 28 cars. In January and February, the norm is nine cars, including a sleeping car held in reserve should another freeze up or become unusable. If you like peace and quiet, this is the perfect time to ride the train. Leaving Vancouver last night, No. 2 carried just 17 sleeping car and 14 coach passengers. East of Jasper tonight, we’ll have even fewer. “I’ve never seen it this bad, even after 9-11,” says Janet Fletcher, the train’s service manager, who has been with VIA Rail for 31 years (see bottom photo).
I feel badly for VIA Rail. But whether we’re traveling in a lower section berth or occupy the drawing room in the Park car, we two dozen or so travelers who gather for dinner tonight will feel among the most privileged people on earth.
Make Janet Fletcher happy. Come ride the Canadian in winter and lose the world for three and a half days. — Fred W. Frailey

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