VIA RAIL CANADA CORRIDOR TRIP/NOVEMBER 1982

This article originally appeared in the April 1983 issue of THE FAST MAIL, publication of the 20th Century Railroad Club. Some information in the article has since changed.


Amtrak's new International Limited between Chicago, and Toronto has opened up new travel possibilities between the Midwest and Canada. Originally I envisioned taking a one day round trip over a portion of the Grand Trunk Western route, but eventually that idea turned into an eight day Canrailpass for the Quebec-Windsor Corridor. The pass was only $15 more than a Toronto-Montreal round trip, clearly making it economical. I departed Chicago on Thursday, November 18, on #364, a typical Amfleet consist. Because I have relatives in Kalamazoo, the old Michigan Central route is familiar to me. West of Battle Creek, I entered new territory, due to the new routing via GTW through Battle Creek. Detroit trains rejoin the old route at Nichols, where the two lines formerly crossed. The GTW continues straight, past the Battle Creek yard and towards Lansing. The GTW lives up to its slogan as the "Good Track" road, but Amtrak is limited to 65 mph. The line is double track to Durand, the location of a classic station at the junction with GTW's Detroit line. Beyond Durand the line is single track CTC. At Port Huron we met #365, running five hours late and utilizing the Canadian Tempo consist with an LRC locomotive. At Port Huron the crews changed, we then backed up to reach the track leading to the single track St. Clair Tunnel, which is operated by Canadian National. At Sarnia, Ontario. the lights went out momentary, while the F40PH locomotive was switched to the standby mode for the customs stop. After the customs officials boarded and quickly cleared us, the Canadian passengers were permitted to board. Now in Canada, we continued east, as VIA train #88, with a top speed of 80 mph, on well-maintained track.

Durand Station

I got off at London, Ontario. and stayed overnight before continuing east. The next day I rode #82, a typical Canadian corridor train with an FPA4 and three conventional cars, to Toronto. Most corridor trains are powered by FPA4's and FPB4's, along with FP9's and F9B's. Coaches are from the 5000 series built by CCF in 1954, with comparable equipment providing food service and the first class "VIA 1" service. Although steam heated, the equipment is well maintained and kept comfortable, not too hot or too cold.

At Bayview we joined the Toronto-Hamilton main line used by GO Transit, the Government of Ontario commuter trains. One difference between GO Transit and other commuter systems stems from the fact that GO didn't start until 1967. Toronto's suburbs were not built around the locations of suburban stations as they were in the Chicago area. As a result, many GO suburban stations require large park-and-ride lots to accommodate for their locations. We passed those stations, with full parking lots, at 80 mph before arriving Toronto.

I did not ride any GO trains during my few hours in Toronto, as the only off-peak trains run on lines I would be covering that day with VIA trains. After a quick lunch in the station, I boarded #64 for Cornwall. Again this was a conventional consist with an FPA/B4 combination and 8 cars. The Montreal-Toronto line is mostly double track CTC, and the heavy freight volume makes frequent reverse-running necessary. In addition, trains making stops are routed over the track nearer to the station, whenever possible, to minimize the crossing of tracks by passengers. Kingston is the most important intermediate stop on the route. It is also where VIA buses for Ottawa connect with some trains, including #64.

We arrived Cornwall about 30 minutes late. The delays were attributed to heavy passenger volume at Kingston and other stations and to the frequent need to cross over from one track to the other. These 45 mph crossovers can really slow down start-to-stop scheduled speeds of over 75 mph. The 25 year old equipment performed remarkably well, attaining the 90 mph speed limit with no problem. While the U.S. has a federal speed limit of 79 mph on lines without Automatic Train Control (ATC), and a 59 mph passenger speed limit in unsignalled territory, Canada does not have such laws. One advantage VIA has over Amtrak is that it had no Penn Central-like predecessor from which to inherit a deteriorated corridor service. Canadian National, before VIA, was always committed to passenger service, and thus retained the traffic to Justify seven trains a day. If only that kind of service existed on the Chicago-Detroit Line! Overall, I was impressed with the Montreal-Toronto corridor.

Montreal, with CN office building above Central Station visible

I stayed in Cornwall the next three nights, riding into Montreal each morning on #58 on its last leg of the overnight run from Toronto. This 68 mile commute was not impractical with the Canrailpass. During my first day in Montreal, a Saturday, I rode the two major commuter lines. Without the benefit of a public transit agency, Montreal's commuter trains have been neglected until recently, when Montreal's transit system, the CTCUM, stepped in. Certain fares have been cut service, however, remains scarce on the Canadian Pacific line. A single bilevel push-pull consist is sufficient for the four Saturday round trips between Windsor Station and Vaudreuil. The day I rode it, the train was powered by FP7 4070, used in the movie "Silver Streak."

FP7 4070 at Windsor Station

The other commuter line serving Montreal is CN's electrified line to Deux-Montagnes. Although the MU's used on off-peak trains were built in 1952, their interiors don't look much more modern than Illinois Central's MU's built in 1926. Train orders are required to confirm a clear route on the single track segment north of Val-Royal, and it was here I learned about the existence of bilingual train orders in Quebec. Because the previous southbound train arrived at Val-Royal at the same time as our northbound train, it took a while to transmit, type, and repeat the order in both French and English.

At Deux-Montagnes

After covering the commuter lines, I rode back to Cornwall on #55, which now doubles as the Canadian. Judging from the eight car consist of CN and Budd CP equipment, transcontinental service seems to warrant just the one train from Montreal via Toronto during much of the year. I rode a Budd-built coach which was, again, as comfortable as any modern Amtrak equipment. Observation dome Yoho Park carried the markers, with a Skyline dome three cars ahead.

The following day, after again riding #58 into Montreal, I rode RDC train #31 to Ottawa. While the area between Montreal and Toronto is well populated, things changed once we left the main line at Coteau Jct. There is not much from there to Ottawa along the single track CTC route, but because Queen Victoria selected it as the capital of Canada in 1858, Ottawa must be accessible. And accessible it is, with well-maintained RDC's and other equipment traveling at 80 mph. The modern station, which compares to an airport, is not convenient but connecting bus, however, is available. I took the bus into Ottawa and saw a few sights before continuing to Brockville on #45.

The route to Brockville to dark territory, utilizing a CP line south of Smith Falls. It was hardly the route to sample the potential of #45's LRC equipment, as the train's first high speed opportunity would be on the main line west of Brockville, where I got off. However, earlier that day on #58, I obtained a train order with an 80 mph restriction for LRC locomotives because of bugs in the new equipment, so it appears I didn't miss anything special. After a quick meal I returned to Cornwall on #56, which originated in Toronto.

On Monday, November 22 I rode #58 into Montreal for the last time. After arriving Central Station, I walked through the underground shops of Place Bonaventure to Windsor Station, where I boarded #160 for Quebec. The train was a single RDC-2 9305, still with CP red trim. Seats had been installed in what had been the baggage compartment, and from there I had a good view of the line ahead. We traveled at 75 mph much of the way on this single track signaled line which was relatively free of curves.

Trois-Rivieres was the only intermediate town of significance. It was there we met westbound #159, with VIA RDC-2 6209. Beyond Trois-Rivieres to dark territory, but we continued at 75 mph, something which would be illegal in the U.S. Near Lorette we switched to a CN line to head south, and for some reason we backed in from the wye at Cap Rouge to the station at Ste. Foy. Ste. Foy is even farther from downtown Quebec than the Ottawa station is from its downtown, but, again, there is a connecting bus chartered from the local transit system. After spending a few hours exploring the narrow streets of this walled city, the only one in North America, I returned to Montreal on #25.

Because it was dark outside during the trip over the CN line, I caught up with my sleep. I then slept quite well on #59, the overnight from Montreal to Toronto. From Toronto I rode the Amfleet Maple Leaf to Niagara Falls, where I had a chance to do some exploring before returning to Toronto on an RDC train. The 65 mph line from Niagara Falls to Hamilton is double track dark territory, a method of operation rare in the U.S. Hamilton is an unscenic industrial area, but the view improves around Bayview. From Toronto I was hoping to ride #665 to London via Stratford, but the gate man refused to let me on, reserving the RDC train for local passengers. As a result I was stuck with #87, operating nonstop over a line I had already ridden. It was on that train where I bought what has to be the worst roast beef sandwich I've ever had. I staved overnight in London before returning to the U.S. the following day.

The International that day was running with the Canadian consist of five Tempo cars. This time I had daylight to witness passage through Sarnia-Port Huron, not that there was much worth seeing in this industrial area. After leaving Durand I bought a hamburger, which was okay, in the snack car. Although the food had originated in Canada, and the Canadian train had a Canadian bilingual menu, the Amtrak snack car attendant charged me the listed prices in U.S. dollars. With the Canadian dollar worth about 80 U.S. cents, the cost of the food seemed high. This was the first month of Canadian equipment venturing onto an Amtrak route, it is hoped that they will come up with a better system of food prices.

Because it was the day before Thanksgiving, many students from Michigan State University boarded at East Lansing. Near Charlotte we met eastbound #364 with its Amfleet consist, and the few minutes we had lost at Port Huron and at East Lansing were recovered by the time we arrived at Battle Creek. Due to the passage of #353 from Detroit 50 minutes earlier, not too many passengers boarded. When I got off at Kalamazoo though, the station was jammed with passengers traveling east on #352, which was due in a few minutes. I didn't see #352, as I was on the way to my relatives' house, to spend Thanksgiving. That Thanksgiving Day though, I returned to Chicago on an eight car #353 which, presumably, was the previous day's #352 to Toledo. Only a few cars were open, however, as there were few Thanksgiving Day travelers to accommodate.

I arrived in Chicago 15 minutes early, winding up this week of traveling. I covered the entire Canadian corridor except for the Windsor line and the line via Stratford. It was time to return to the U.S. and to think about future trips. Midwesterners should take advantage of favorable exchange rates, the economical Canrailpass, and a convenient new train to see how VIA Rail Canada operates its corridor service.