Thursday, January 21, 2016

VIA Operation Axle, March-June 1992

VIA No 62 arrives at Kingston on March 30, 1992 with 6413-15420-5584-3246-5448 (above). VIA No 63 arrives one hour later with 6425-15478-9624-3201-5458-5529-5576-3224 (below). At the time, these trains were the only VIA trains operating between Montreal and Toronto with a baggage car. However, it would normally be an ex-CP HEP or ex-UP HEP baggage car and LRC coaches!  The lucky folks in southwestern Ontario would see blue & yellow cars until the mid-90's on trains like VIA Nos 72, 73 and 78, hauled by 6400's and sometimes SGU's.                       
In the early 1990s, VIA Rail experienced axle failures on its Light-Rapid-Comfortable (LRC) cars. Such axle failures had the potential to cause serious derailments.  VIA’s organizational response and ensuing operational modifications led to some unexpected travel hiccups for passengers, while producing interesting train consists for those of us who were trackside. This tenuous period in VIA Rail’s history has been dubbed by some - Operation Axle. I touched on this period in my second book on VIA Rail, and now I'll give Trackside Treasure's readers more background and depth here.


The first LRC locomotives and cars entered service in the summer of 1981. Conceived by MLW (later Bombardier), Alcan and Dofasco, the bilingually-titled Light-Rapid-Comfortable/Leger-Rapide-Confortable prototype locomotive and coach were built by MLW in 1973. VIA placed orders totalling $93 million in 1980, eventually totalling 31 locomotives (6900-6930) and 100 coaches (3300-3399) which were delivered between 1981 and 1984. The wedge-nosed 6900's produced 3700 hp, and the coaches' steps were 10 inches from low-level platforms, compared to 21 inches for conventional coaches. Starting with the fall timetable, the LRC equipment was expected to replace fifty percent of the ex-CN equipment by mid-1982. In December 1983, VIA removed its 50 LRC cars from service for inspection by Bombardier and replacement of wheel bearings. Resulting car shortages required leasing of GO equipment for some trains west of Toronto. Foreshadowing of things to come, perhaps.


A minor derailment on early in 1991 was followed by more in 1992. 
On January 31, 1991 VIA No 37 derailed at Mile 72.9 of CN’s Alexandria Sub. The train’s consist comprised F40PH-2D 6423-VIA 1 ‘club’ car 3474 and coaches 3339-3317-3343 and it was 3474 to which the derailment cause was traced.

On February 17, 1992 Ottawa-Montreal train No 34 derailed two LRC cars at 78 mph, near Glen Robertson, Ontario at Mile 15.3 Alexandria Sub. The break was at the bearing backing ring groove of an axle under coach 3339.

An axle defect inboard from the brake rotor led to the next LRC derailment less than two weeks later, on February 29 at St Lambert, Quebec on CN’s St-Hyacinthe Sub.  LRC coach 3319 was one of the coaches on Quebec-Montreal No 621, which was moving at only 15 mph at the time.  The axle had only been in service since December 19, 1991.

Finally, on March 16, Toronto-Ottawa No 46 experienced a broken axle east of Belleville, Ontario at Mile 204.3 of CN’s Kingston Sub – the third in a one-month period. VIA 1 club car 3461 suffered an axle break in the area of the bearing backing ring shoulder groove while the train was travelling at 89 mph. The story made it to the pages of the Kingston Whig-Standard:


Previously, in 1990, VIA had altered its wheel shell size condemning limit from one-inch to one-and-a-half inches, in reaction to proposed limits to be stipulated in Transport Canada minimum safety standards for passenger equipment. Wheel shelling can occur if the wheel’s entire tread surface is heated to high temperatures for long periods of time. The steel surface is weakened and contact rolling stresses cause tiny cracks called heat checks on the tread surface. If the cracks are not worn out, the cracks will eventually link together, pit out, and form a shell.

As a result of preliminary information, the Transportation Safety Board (TSB) forwarded a Safety Advisory to Transport Canada in April 1991, advising that axle failures may be related to corrosion pitting, and that early signs of failure might be detected using ultrasonic testing techniques. VIA performed subsequent ultrasonic testing of axles, finding six axles with an anomaly. These LRC coaches were removed from service. As a further preventive measure, VIA began using another lubricant, this one containing a corrosion inhibitor, on roller bearings of LRC axles.

Further investigation of the axle failures revealed that other factors, in addition to corrosion, had caused the failures. Therefore, in March 1992, the TSB made the following recommendations:

R92-01: The Department of Transport ensure that all axles on VIA LRC equipment that have not been ultrasonically tested within the past month be removed from service for testing as soon as practicable.
R92-02: The Department of Transport require that the axles of all VIA LRC equipment be ultrasonically tested at intervals not to exceed the average monthly mileage of the LRC fleet, to ensure the continuing integrity of the axles.
R92-03: The Department of Transport inform any other operators of equipment employing axles of the design used on LRC equipment of the potential for rapidly-propagating fatigue cracks.
R92-04: The Department of Transport require a program of dynamic testing on LRC axles to assess in-service stresses under actual operation conditions.
R92-05: The Department of Transport, in cooperation with VIA, evaluate the adequacy of the current LRC axle design, manufacture, and maintenance, and if necessary, develop a plan for the replacement of all current LRC axles.

VIA took immediate action with regard to recommendations R92-01 to R92-04. In February, VIA had already begun in-depth ultrasonic axle inspections.  The broken axle in the March 16 incident had been inspected on March 4, and had travelled 4,800 miles afterwards, only half the inspection interval recommended by the TSB.  This unfortunate and unforeseen event, coupled with the potential for a major derailment, led the TSB to issue an urgent warning of “life-threatening mechanical defect” for the LRC coaches.  VIA management decided to withdraw all LRC coaches and club cars from service until better inspection methods restored confidence in predicting axle breaks. The LRC-2 (6900-6920) and LRC-3 (6921-6930) locomotives were unaffected, and some continued to operate during Operation Axle with non-LRC cars.

On April 5, 1992 an instrumented test train of LRC equipment was operated on CN’s Kingston Subdivision. Results of the testing showed that axles equipped with shelled wheels recorded dynamic stress peaks, specifically in the area of the bearing backing ring grooves and inboard rotor seats, that were near the endurance limit of the axle. The endurance limit is the stress limit beyond which an axle can fail.

Metallurgical analysis by the Engineering Laboratory of the TSB revealed that the steel conformed to Association of American Railroads Standards and Recommended Practices as did the size design specifications of the axles. However, the micro-hardness examination of the bearing backing ring grooves failed to indicate the effects of cold rolling as indicated in the manufacturer’s drawings.

Public safety was paramount.  Railway industry experts, VIA officials, the TSB and Transport Canada’s Railway Safety Branch worked together in an extensive investigation.  A group of replacement axles first used in 1983, as well as original axles manufactured by Dofasco in 1978-1979, were found to contain manufacturing defects which could rapidly lead to total axle breakage and failure.

VIA subsequently acquired and installed new axles for its LRC fleet. Corrective action involved complete replacement of LRC coach axles, at a total cost of $750,000.  VIA contracted CN’s Atelier Montreal Facility at Pointe St Charles to produce 500 new axles with wheels pressed, including 100 to be held if needed.  After research and testing indicated the replacement axle design was acceptable, VIA resumed LRC service in April, 1992.

Douglas N W Smith's excellent Canadian Rail Passenger Yearbook 1993 Edition contains the only photo I've seen of Operation Axle replacement actually in progress. Doug's photo, used with permission, shows a shopped LRC coach with a line of inspected axles ready to be installed:
A TSB Safety Advisory was forwarded to Transport Canada in May, 1992 proposing the definitive condemning limit for passenger equipment to be one-inch diameter. Shelling in the VIA LRC fleet was widespread, with 43% of wheels surveyed having shells larger than the one-inch condemning limit, 11% of wheel sets with wheels of varying circumferences, and 7% with radically out-of-round (eccentric) rolling surfaces. VIA continued to use the one-inch standard.

VIA introduced revised inspection procedures and increased audits to ensure proper wheel inspection, introduced a program to upgrade LRC axle manufacture, testing and maintenance, wheel tread standards and the use of rust-preventative compounds.


Since the withdrawn LRC cars were the backbone of VIA’s car fleet in daily Corridor service, replacements had to be found – quickly!  VIA hustled to inspect and return to service conventional blue & yellow cars that had been stored serviceable. The last conventional equipment between Montreal and Toronto was on VIA Nos 62/63 into May 1991, and Nos 168/169 into 1992, though blue & yellow equipment would continue in intermittent use into 1996 in Southwestern Ontario. There were not enough such cars immediately available, so trains ran with only three or four cars in an attempt to protect schedules.  VIA was forced to borrow bilevel coaches, APCU’s and locomotives from GO Transit. Passengers were not used to riding commuter equipment in longer distance intercity service! VIA F40PH-2D’s operated with GO Transit bilevel coach consists west of Toronto.

Ex-CP stainless steel coaches, Steam Generator Units (SGU’s) and F-units were once again seen in Corridor service.  This was before Head End Power and during cold weather, so steam heat had to be supplied to conventional cars. VIA’s F40PH-2D’s did not have this capability, so SGU’s or F-units were also required. LRC cars began deadheading back towards Montreal via Toronto, as conventional equipment was deployed in the opposite direction.  VIA passengers transferred to buses or GO Transit bilevels received travel credits for 50% off ticket price from VIA. Shorter trains, caused by VIA scrambling to provide sufficient cars to protect schedules, meant that some passengers were turned away. Conventional train consists stayed coupled together for days once assembled.  VIA even considered borrowing equipment from Amtrak. Operational train-handling differences due to mixing of equipment types included braking and acceleration, plus slightly-reduced operating speeds.


A timeline of events shows the speed and scope of VIA’s response, and the effects on day-to-day Corridor operations once the LRC cars were removed from service for axle replacement.

After the March 16, 1992 derailment east of Belleville, VIA management made the decision to sideline the LRC car fleet at once. What would happen to VIA’s Corridor operations the next day? Here is a timeline of some of the key events of Operation Axle:

On March 17, the following trains were replaced by buses: all Montreal-Quebec trains, all but one Montreal-Ottawa train, and one Sarnia-Toronto train. One Montreal-Toronto train each way was cancelled, as was one Windsor-Toronto train. Trains set to operate with LRC equipment were deadheaded back to shops – Nos 70 and 72 from Windsor to Toronto, No 80 from Sarnia to Toronto, and Nos 41 and 30 from Ottawa to Montreal. Fortunately, the schedules of trains 70 and 72 were protected by conventional (blue & yellow) equipment already in Windsor. Trackside Treasure Malcolm Peakman was in Montreal for a meeting regarding the Bombardier takeover of Lavalin. He returned to Kingston on a delayed, blue & yellow consist with a cantankerous club car and eventually no lights!

VIA used 3500-series LRC coaches to protect the schedules of Nos 71 and 81 from Toronto. (The ten 3500-series cars had been refurbished for International service to the U.S., and therefore were not compatible with the rest of VIA’s LRC cars.) The 3500’s were also then deadheaded back to Toronto and removed from the joint Amtrak-VIA Toronto-Chicago service, with Amtrak providing both trainsets. Trackside Treasure reader and VIA hogger Terry Brennan was in Windsor that day, and reports that afterwards, on-board service personnel had to set up on a piece of plywood across a GO four-seater. Try making coffee on that!

A passenger extra operated from Montreal to Ottawa to cover No 41’s schedule. Toronto-Montreal Nos 66/67 operated on the schedule of Nos 166/167 later on the 17th. Of VIA Nos 44, 63, 65, 66 and 166 expected into Toronto in the usual three-hour timeframe, only No 166’s schedule was operated. VIA-1 enhanced service was suspended due to the unavailability of sufficient blue & yellow 650-series club galley cars.

On March 18, blue & yellow conventional cars began operating in the Corridor once again. VIA trains between Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto including Nos 46, 64 and 66 comprised 6400-series F40PH-2Ds or a 6300-series FP9ARM pulling conventional cars. VIA train No 71 was the first GO bilevel-equipped VIA train operated. Three GO trainsets were in use.

On March 19, a fourth GO bilevel trainset entered VIA service. These trainsets would be used to protect the schedules of VIA trains 72 or 74, 76, 78 and 80 eastward into Toronto and trains 71, 73, 75 and 87 westward from Toronto.

On March 22, VIA-1 service was re-established on Nos 166/167 using 650-series club galleys, followed by trains 60/61 the next day.

On April 5, Montreal-Quebec VIA No 26’s locomotive 6903 had its fuel tank pierced by an unknown object. Trailing SGU 15466 was damaged in the ensuing fire (though it returned to service three days later). Coaches 3242 and 5590 were uncoupled to permit access by fire crews. The train’s passengers were transferred to the Ocean, VIA No 14. The same day, a test train operated on CN’s Kingston Sub, with LRC cars 3360-3465-3462-3464 bracketed by LRC locomotives 6905 and 6907. The cars had instrumentation installed to measure output from shelled and unshelled wheels for comparison.

On April 7, VIA operated a special overnight movement of 20 LRC cars from its Toronto maintenance centre to Montreal.

By April 12, 80 of the LRC cars were in Montreal, though little if any re-axling had been completed.

On April 17, the first re-axled LRC trainset was placed back in service, with another set following two days later. These trainsets protected Montreal-Toronto afternoon limited-stop  trains 66/67 and evening express trains 166/167.

On May 1, the first re-axled LRC trainset operated into Ottawa. Once completed, re-axled trainsets were re-entering service to southwest Ontario, Quebec City and across the Corridor.

On May 3, I was trackside at Kingston to observe my last conventional-equipped Operation Axle-era train, VIA No 63. The next time I was trackside on May 12, it was back to LRC cars on Toronto-Ottawa No 46.

On June 2, the last of the re-axled LRC cars returned to service.


As a big believer in the value of train consist information, I have selected some consists from the Operation Axle era, many of which I observed at Kingston during that 1992 spring. Consists not only place a train in context with date, train and direction, they also give an clear picture of which locomotives and cars were operating together. I’ve included an example of each of the unusual consist types that substituted for the usual LRC cars:

Apr 9/92 Ott-Tor No 41: 6919-6310-5628-3253-5611 (LRC2-FP9ARM-B&Y)
Apr 10/92 Ott-Tor No 47: 6921-15448-3245-5522-5504 (LRC3-SGU-B&Y)
Mar 19/92 Ott-Tor No 49: 6308-3222-5447-5517 (FP9ARM-B&Y)
Mar 18/92 Nia Falls-Tor No 636: 6424-8115-8113 (F40-HEP1)
Apr 6/92 Tor-Mtl No 68 6428-6514-5569-3201-5531 (F40-FP9-B&Y)
Mar 20/92 Tor-Ott No 48: 6427-6312-3252-5437-5616-3032-5448 (F40-FP9ARM-B&Y)
Mar 17/92 Tor-Win No 71: 6422-3506-3503-3511 (F40-3500series)
Mar 17/92 Tor-Ott No 40: 6438-15472-5576-3219-5652 (F40-SGU-B&Y)
Apr 20/92 Ott-Tor No 47: 6419-15469-103-108-3240-5736 (F40-SGU-exCP-B&Y)
Mar 18/92 Tor-Mtl No 64: 6407-15468-5511-5654-3247-3242-3216-9624 (F40-SGU-B&Y-baggage)
Mar 30/92 Tor-Mtl No 64: 6422-15481-3212-109-100-3213-5531-9671 (F40-SGU-exCP-B&Y-baggage)
Apr 19/92 Tor-Win No 75: 6447-GO 2042-2023-2027-2022-908 (F40-GO bilevels-GO APCU)
Apr 19/92 Sar-Tor No 80: GO 902-2035-2026-2047-721 (GO APCU-GO bilevels-GO GP40)
Mar 21/92 Tor-Win No 75: GO 544-2250-2303-237 (GO F59-GO bilevels)


The following equipment has been compiled from observed consists during Operation Axle. Each car type is listed chronologically by first sighting, not numerically, to give a better idea of which cars entered service first during Operation Axle. Unless otherwise noted, all VIA cars are conventional, ex-CN blue & yellow cars.

VIA Ex-CP stainless steel coaches – 100, 109, 103, 108.
VIA Ex-CP stainless steel HEP1 coaches – 8113, 8115, 8124.
VIA 650-series club galleys: Mount Royal Club, Empire Club, Club Richelieu, University Club, Saint James’s Club, Club St Denis.
VIA café-coach-lounge: 3032.
VIA snack bar coach: 3213, 3253, 3219, 3222, 3208, 3218, 3252, 3204, 3237, 3201, 3244, 3203, 3220, 3216, 3242, 3247, 3246, 3212, 3202, 3224, 3215, 3240, 3252, 3245.
VIA 5400-series coach: 5449, 5447, 5444, 5440, 5446, 5448, 5458, 5439, 5466, 5487, 5488, 5464.
VIA 5500-series coach: 5576, 5517, 5582, 5584, 5529, 5561, 5560, 5569, 5578, 5537, 5564, 5511, 5522, 5532, 5581, 5558, 5506, 5531, 5504.
VIA 5600-series coach: 5628-5652-5618-5623-5616-5654-5646-5603-5611-5642.
VIA Dayniter: 5736.
VIA baggage car: 9624, 9654, 9671, 9628.
VIA steam generator units: 15455, 15472, 15454, 15470, 15448, 15478, 15481, 15452, 15468, 15473, 15415, 15458, 15460, 15483, 15459, 15469, 15418, 15461, 15420.
VIA FP9: 6506, 6514. These hold-out FP9’s had been in use on VIA’s Ocean and Atlantic from 1990 to 1992, and were among the last of VIA’s unrebuilt cab units in active service. In fact, 6514 was part of the locomotive consist of the Ocean that derailed on CN’s Mont Joli Sub, on March 26, 1992.
VIA FP9ARM: 6307, 6308, 6309, 6310, 6311 and perhaps other 6300’s.
GO 2xxx bilevel coaches
GO 2xx bilevel cab car


For the rail enthusiast, evidence can still be found of this important though short-lived era of VIA Rail’s history. Check the date of quirky VIA consist photos you might encounter – were they taken in the spring months of 1992?  These may not have been taken during the kaleidoscopic early VIA years as they might first appear.  They may in fact have been taken during Operation Axle.  It’s a little remarked-upon blip on VIA’s timeline, when tragedy was averted, innovation and safety were paramount, and those of us who were trackside were rewarded with operations of unimagined variety.

This is a major Trackside Treasure series. Too much information to fit in one post. Coming up next: I'll publish photos of Op Axle trains, and consist mockups in the final post in the series!


Anonymous said...

Hello Eric,

Thank you, this was an very informative post.
I am a long time reader of your blog and should more often send a message to wish you well and thank you for your efforts.

All the best, Steve Roberts

Eric said...

Thanks very much for your kind comments and it's great to hear from you, Steve.

Probably Trackside Treasure's longest post ever. Wordy! It takes up about 4 pages in the most recent BRS Branchline! Fun to research this topic!

I've got a ton of posts to come, so you'll have lots more to keep reading!

Unknown said...

Great posts - I was the original LRC Superivory and Production Planner at TMC 1980-89. I was on the design team for the LRC back in 1979. The inboard brake uint alway presented an issue. Having worked on the GO bilevels and CN Tempo as well I always wondered why why did have 'scrub shoes' mounted on the LRC wheels to prevent shells. The banking dynamic was a factor for defects we saw in the wheel bearing rubber 'chevrons'. We also noted wheel size mismatch coming out of Montreal and failure to use the bearing housing shims to keep housings operating flat. We also changed the locomotive thread taper profile, noting spread rails and odd flange wear. We had many bearing temp sensor failures - once I was riding the train from Ottawa with a cut-out bearing sensor requiring me to get under the car with w temp-stick to ensure wheel bearings weren't running hot. We got home fine. I left in 1989.. so Proud of the fleet.

Eric said...

Thanks for that additional information re: your VIA experience, U.

The LRC's continued constant use by VIA is a testament to the longevity of that design as well as the abilities of VIA's shop forces to keep the fleet in use, while always hoping that government will someday get replacements onto the rails!


Unknown said...

Eric, We need a new High-speed strategy.. I moved to Niagra Region and would enjoy a Niagara, Guelph, London - Windsor speed route - Connect tech center beyond GTA and help US folks get across to Michigan . Jim Charboneau.

Eric said...

Agreed, Jim. We will wait a long time for the final VIA HSR route, perhaps network. It will be very expensive and I can't help but think it will serve large populations in Toronto and Montreal. If any other cities' citizens benefit from it, that may be a miracle! Rail links to the US and service in SW Ontario could definitely be improved. VIA continues to survive on a shoestring, and the continued use of LRC cars, decades later, proves that!

Thanks for your comment,