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Via Rail's "Canadian"
Plus Memories of Montreal


The "Canadian" has been a world-class, world-famous streamline passenger train since 1955, using Budd-built stainless steel rolling stock and (initially) General Motors E7 diesels. Although the cars are more than 55 years old, they are still clean, tight, and shiny -- inside and out. Comfort, fittings, food, and staff are top of the line.

GM's "Train of Tomorrow" of 1947 became the inspiration for the "Canadian", when it toured North America. GM's demonstrator train, in blue and silver, consisted of four custom built Pullman cars (coach, diner, sleeper, observation) each with an "Astra-Dome" observation deck above the lower level of the car. Now commonplace, a dome car in 1947 was a novelty..

My father and I visited the "Train of Tomorrow" in Montreal in 1949. It was impressivly huge for a 9 year old. And I didn't get to ride it's Canadian cousin until 63 years later.

Originally run from Montreal and Toronto through Winnipeg, Regina, and Calgary / Banff to Vancouver by the Canadian Pacific Railway, it was transferred to Via Rail in 1978 and re-routed to Canadian National tracks in 1990. This made the route longer and slower, running Toronto  to Winnipeg via northern Ontario (instead of the Lake Superior route), then to Saskatoon and Edmonton / Jasper to Vancouver. Many have never forgiven Via Rail for this politically motibated change, as the scenery and roadbed was far better on the southern route.

In season, the train boasts 21 cars 3 times a week and is booked well in advance. It covers 4466 km (2775 miles) in about three and a half days. This is a full 9 hours slower than the original 71 hour schedule of 1955. Freight trains have priority on the tracks so the average speed is low (33 mph) and there are frequent stops to pass opposing traffic.

I rode the "Canadian" in September 2012 to celebrate my 50th anniversary of graduating from McGill University in Montreal. The train leaves Edmonton, Alberta eastbound at midnight, so there is not much to see until Saskatoon next morning. Prairie scenes and potash mines make up the ride through Saskatchewan to Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Here we change locomotives and service the train, then head into northern Ontario for two nights en route to Toronto, Ontario. Fifty tiny towns, 50,000 tiny lakes,  and a few billion trees later, orchards, dairy farms, and the suburbs of southern Ontario finally show up. It is probably the roughest, wettest roadbed in the country, and yes, it's boring. A change of train and a first class coach with excellent food and unlimited alcohol fueled us on to Ottawa, Canada's capitol city, and my original home town. After a couple of days sight-seeing in Ottawa, we drove to Montreal to check out old haunts, old schools, and old residensces of my boyhood days.

The food and service on the "Canadian" are five-star and the ride in the Skyline dome car is superb, evem on the rough roadbed. We slept in a deluxe double berth cabin in a "Manor" series sleeper eastbound and in a similar unit in a "Park" series observation car on the way home. In 2014, some of the deluxe cars are being converted to "super-deluxe" -- the various bedrooms will be much larger, so fewer passengers per car, at twice the price (or more). The last three cars of the train will be super-deluxe, so the peasant-class will not get into the tail-end lounge. They will have their own Skyline lounge.


The original "Canadian" on CPR tracks along the Bow River, west of Calgary, Alberta, from a
photo by Nicholas Morant

SCENES ALONG THE WAY

Replica of the derrick that drilled the famous Leduc #1 oilwell at Devon, Alberta. Oil, gas, grain, cattle, and lumber are big business in Alberta.

                
                A potash mine near Saskatoon. Potash, oil, grain, and cattle
                are the backbone of Sasjatchewan's economy.

 

 


Head-end from the middle dome car, eastbound at Rivers, Manitoba   Trees in Nortern Ontario



 Our destinations: Parliament Buildings in Ottawa ..... then on to downtown Montreal by car


Heading home: the ornate Winnipg Station                         Reboarding "Banff Park" after a 4 hour stopover


Westbound from the dome of "Banff Park"              Truss bridge over Saskatchewan River in Qu'Appele Valley


Sunset from "Banff Park" dome -- later, moonrise -- one more night in the sleeper before reaching Edmonton

Montreal Memories -- McGill 50 Year Reunion
I had not been back to Montreal since Expo 67. In 2012, Sonja and I took the ViaRail "Canadian" from Edmonton to Toronto, continued on to Ottawa, then drove with my brother and his wife to Montreal to see our old homes, schools, and other haunts. Amazingly, they were much as I remembered, with little change or decline. Old Montreal has been beautifully restored, a far-cry from the grubby, hectic harbourfront of my youth. Faster highways, the Metro, and lack of English signs are the only outward signs of progress, but the downtown traffic and pedestrians are still frantic. Commuter trains are streamlined diesels instead of steamers, but when it rains you can still smell the coal dust in the ballast.

Art deco sign at Chalet BBQPrevious commitments meant I could not attend the McGill Engineering "Class of 62" 50th anniversary reunion in October, but Bob Smythe, an old school chum, escorted me around McGill, commenting knowledgably on all the changes and additions. The lower campus still feels like the refuge it has always been. New and renovated buildings push outward on the perimeter. Activists are still active, freshmen looking lost still troop the pathways. Afterward, we checked out Westmount and Mont Royal lookouts to compare the skyline with old postcard views from the 1950's. Later that day, we relived the family outing to Chalet BBQ on Sherbrooke St West -- menu, flavour, location, and staff (or their clones) unchanged since 1944. "Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose".

Montreal Tramways #1 "Gold Car" open-air observation streetcar at ExpoRail Museum, near MontrealThe best memory brought back in force was the ride on the "Gold Car", an open-air sightseeing streetcar at ExpoRail (Canada's Railway Museum) that used to run in summer in Montreal. This was our favourite outing when we were kids in the 1940's and 50's. The ride, and the tour of the Museum, was escorted by Steve Cheasley, the museum President, who generously provided a personalized commentary on the background and significance of each exhibit. It was a wonderful  re-visit to the railways of my youth, all the way back to my grandparents early days, with some of the best restorations in the world on display.

I thought I would feel more nostalgic, even sad, to see these memories brought to life again, but it was - thankfully - really pleasant. They say "you can't go home again", but this trip was pretty close. Like the airline pilots say before landing in New Zealand, "Set your watches back 40 years" -- Montreal is in that time zone too.

A few maples were just beginning to redden, the weather was clear and mild, and the train trips across half the continent were very restful. Good food and good companions made this a vacation to remember.

 

SCENES OF MY YOUTH - 50 to 60  YEARS AFTER

 
Walking the beach at Constance Bay, near Ottawa          Locks on Rideau Canal, downtown Ottawa


Our house on Strathearn Avenue, Montreal West


Montreal West Hardware, where I worked as a teen   Montreal West High School, now Royal West Academy


Royal West Academy                                                    Streamline commuter train


Montreal West Station


"The" Elizaeth Ballentynegrade school                         Patricia Avenue fourplex in Notre Dame de Grace


The 1944 apartment building on Decelles in Cote Des Neiges. The fountains and statues are more recent.


My maternal grandparents house on Claremont Avenue in Westmount


View from Westmount Lookout                                     St Joseph's Oratory on Queen Mary Road


View from Mount Royal Lookout                                   McGill University Arts Building from Roddick Gate
 

Links:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canadian_(train)
http://www.viarail.ca/en/explore-our-destinations/trains/rockies-and-pacific/toronto-vancouver-canadian