Thursday, January 7, 2016


Hat-checks! Boarding VIA Rail today means printing your e-boarding pass (airline-ish and distinctly un-railroadlike) before you board, which includes a QR code. The on-board VIA service attendant or service manager scans the code from the paper pass, or your device, and a beep confirms you as part of the train's passenger manifest. Before you reach your destination, a PA announcement lets you know you're almost there and it's time to gather your personal belongings. "On behalf of the crew, I'd like to wish you a pleasant day - bonne journee - and thank you for travelling VIA Rail". (Also kinda airline-ish) It's interesting to note how the VIA Rail passenger experience has continually evolved from the passenger-handling practices of the railways of yore to one that would be distinctly at home in an airport terminal or onboard an airliner, reflecting the travel tastes of the present-day public.
Way back in 1976, VIA Rail had just taken over CN's Corridor tran service and this reddish-coloured example (top photo) of a hat-check bore the VIA/CN logo. Upon presentation of your paper ticket to the trainman, he punched it or removed a carbon copy for the conductor. To mark your place and let the other crewmembers know your ticket had been taken, and how far you were travelling, a hat-check would be placed in a small, two-sided metal clip on the luggage rack above your seat. Using a marker, grease pencil or pen, a one- or two-digit number or written destination was scrawled on the cardboard hat-check, large enough to be visible from the aisle. As of the early-80's, and likely before, here is a list of destinations on CN's Kingston Sub east of Toronto*:
  • Oshawa 14
  • Cobourg 8
  • Belleville 3
  • Napanee 0
  • Kingston 7
  • Gananoque 90
  • Brockville 91
  • Prescott 89
  • Cornwall 81
The hat-checks above, slightly-faded, found trackside, and some dating from 1979, depict the evolution from the CN and CP systems through the early VIA/CN then VIA Rail hat-checks. In the second photo, I've flipped five of them (from the first photo) to show written destinations, a punch, and Kingston destination '7' written on them. I assume the two underscores mean two passengers travelling together. Interestingly, the CP one was found on the ground in Portage la Prairie, one year after the Canadian left CP's rails there. Notice how these early ones have serial numbers and date blocks for marking, though this was apparently rarely done.

As you neared your destination, the trainman would walk through the car, announcing the upcoming stop and removing your hat-check from above you seat. For instance, all hat-checks bearing the number 7 were gathered just before Kingston, indicating those seats as available for boarding passengers.

Here are some long-distance, larger-format hat-checks. Due to numerous coaches on long-distance trains, the seat numbers and car numbers are meticulously inscribed by the trainman. Note the chit on one of these hat-checks that could be removed by the passenger if desired, especially if walking to the lounge or dome. Dayniter hat-checks were classy, completely different animals!
Today, VIA Rail still uses hat-checks, though today's version are like little post-it notes. If you're given the safety talk (hey, there's something else airline-ish!) you receive a second hat-check to alert the crew to your briefing on evacuation procedures. There are even separate ones for briefings on door AND window evacuations. Ideally, these briefings are given to passengers travelling to the end of the line. Approaching Union Station from Kingston, the post-it hat-checks are pulled off the above-seat luggage bins they were stuck to (jeesh, airline-ish again!!) and crumpled up.  Unless of course, a collector is aboard!
VIA post-it hat-checks, some with written destinations, including the Window and Door safety briefings which are dealt with before tickets are taken. Notice how the language has changed slightly: from 'keep this check in sight' to 'keep this check in view'.

*Former VIA trainman Steve Lucas has noted that these numbers were shortened versions of previous Grand Trunk Railway station designations, for instance:
  • Belleville 103
  • Napanee 100
  • Kingston 97
and that these designations may well have begun from the east in either Portland, ME or even Riviere du Loup, QC!

Steve also mentioned that VIA did not start using post-it hat-checks until the mid 1980's. Also, the LRC coaches were not delivered with hat-check holders on the overhead luggage bins. Interestingly, Steve noted that hat-checking passengers in the ex-GTW 4884-4886 coaches meant a bit of a reach.

Funny story from a passenger a personal wakeup on overnight Cavalier VIA No 58 five minutes before Cobourg, the passenger swore at Steve and apparently fell back to sleep. The somnolent seat-sleeper approached Steve farther east around Brighton, saying he'd slept through his stop! Steve arranged to have the panicked PITA passenger put on westbound counterpart VIA No 59 at Belleville. A passenger who'd heard their discussion wryly commented, "He thought he was really funny when he told you to **** off ."

Thanks to Steve Lucas for his assistance with this post.

Running extra...

Rapido' Trains Rapido rapidly rendered radically rabid railfans to Exporail for the Icons of Canadian Steam product launch. I appreciate the inclusion of the duly-credited (in the credits, no less) trackside video footage captured by my daughter with logistical support from my wife and I'm-there-in-spirit support from me. Check the 2:17 mark even if you don't have 11 minutes to watch the entire just-released video. An Exporail audience member video captures the launch from a different viewpoint.
Tonight's Jeopardy, hosted by recent ortho surgery patient Alex Trebek; the category "Trains" had me on the edge of my hassock! I scribbled the category's progress as I would a passing VIA consist:

  • $400 INDIA - the Maharajah's Express operated in this country...
  • $800 TORONTO - The Canadian makes a 2,775 mile trip from this city to Vancouver.
  • $1200 CITY OF NEW ORLEANS - Arlo Guthrie song train restored by Amtrak in 1981. Incorrect answer given - Wabash Cannonball!
  • $1600 SYDNEY - The Indian Pacific route includes a 297 mile stretch of straight track to...
  • $2000 TGV - This three-letter train achieved a record speed of 357 mph Well, it sure ain't V-I-A! between Paris and Strasbourg.


DaveM said...

Great that you've managed to keep a hold of these pieces of history.


Eric said...

I agree, Dave! At least these little hat-check fellows don't take up much room. Like the rest of my collection, some day when I'm gone, I've told my wife at worst, it's all recyclable in the grey box! Much better than collecting MG sports cars or Coke machines. Bulky items.

Seriously though, hat-checks were a pretty darn ingenious way of tracking passengers on-board. These days, changing seats is akin to a crime. "Weren't you over there in that seat?" A more human way to travel? Cattle have more options for movement in transit! And that's not saying much.

I recently saw a clutch of CNR-lettered hat checks for sale on ebay! Very same block and serial number pattern as on later CN and early VIA hat-checks!

Thanks very much for your comment,