Friday, January 15, 2021

CN Lasers, Five-Paks and Double-Stacks

CN expanded its burgeoning intermodal service, from piggyback and containers to five-paks and double-stacks, in the 1980's and 1990's. Double-stacking technology sought to keep operating costs low, in line with inter-city trucking, with an eye to eventual expansion of double-stack service coast to coast. Early dedicated Laser containers rode on Trailer Train flat cars on CN No 232, in an October 1990 photo by Pierre Fournier (top photo).

CN opened its Brampton Intermodal Terminal in 1982. A new overnight Montreal-Toronto piggyback Laser service comprised one train each way, CN train  Nos 235/236. A CN press release, reported in January, 1983: 
In 1983, CN advertised its new Laser service in newspaper ads and its own MOVIN magazine (as always, click for larger image):


In late 1984, CN re-geared 30 CN 9400's to 80 mph gearing for extension of the Montreal-Toronto Laser service to Chicago: 9401, 9402, 9404-05, 9407-13, 9415-16, 9420, 9422, 9430-34, 9437-39, 9441-43, 9445-48.

In September 1985 CN received 52 articulated five-paks from National Steel Car. Intended for Toronto-Chicago Laser trains through the St. Clair Tunnel, cars were on break-in runs between Montreal and Toronto for assessment. Car series CN 683200-683589 could handle ISO containers as well as an ACF trailer hitch, based on a Thrall Lo-Pac design. The cars had a tare weight of 175,000 pounds and an overall length of 240 feet. Interestingly, the cars were received with each well having a sequential car number. This was changed to match the industry standard of one car number and five lettered sub-units in 1995-96. My brother caught an eastbound with these cars at Kingston station in September, 1985:
Notice the variation in articulated trucks within, and drawbars connecting five-paks. 
(Three David J. Gagnon photos)
Some Laser observations at Kingston -  westbounds through around 1500, eastbounds around 1630, and another pair of trains crossing at Kingston around midnight:
  • September 10/85 1707 EB: 9402-9538 led about 10 five-paks such as CN 683281, 683303 and 683304, tailed by caboose 79644. 
  • September 24/85 1455 EB: 9593-9626 with 12 five-paks, mostly empties, sample cars CN 683280 and 683254, caboose 79346. (by L.C. Gagnon)
  • October 29/85 1612 WB: 9622-9518 was mostly empties, scooped by a westbound LRC climbing through 'drawbar hollow' at Mi 183 Kingston Sub (four photos below)
  • November 25/85 1523 WB: 9591-9436 hauling only five loads with caboose 79440 at Mi 182 Kingston Sub:
  • December 19/85 1437 WB: 9496-9516 only about 13 trailers, sample cars CN 683271, 683399, 683496, 683499 and caboose 79545 (by L.C. Gagnon).
Meanwhile, over at CP, double-stack container cars measuring 169 feet in length, carrying six 40-foot COFC leased from SP by Alberta government for a twelve-week evaluation. The government was studying the feasibility of an inland port/COFC system, according to CP Rail News, in September 1984.

In 1985-86, Montreal-Toronto service expanded to two trains each day each way, five days per week, adding a Chicago-Montreal 23-hour service once per day, CN train Nos 238/239. Originally, CN Laser train 239 departed Montreal at noon Monday-Friday, arriving Toronto 1930. Departing Toronto at 0030, Port Huron at 0515 arriving Chicago 1230.  Eastbound No 238 departed Chicago Monday-Saturday at 2100, Port Huron 0620, arriving Toronto 1125, departing Toronto Monday-Friday at 1330, arriving Montreal at 2100. Power was CN GP40-2L(W)'s between Montreal and Toronto, with GTW (ex-DT&I) GP40's also in use between Toronto and Chicago.  On-time performance would reach over 90% in 1986!

CN 9560 (on Moira River bridge, above) and 9566 (through the yard, below) leading Lasers westbound through Belleville in August, 1991. Three photos from online auction site.
At Cobourg, undated:


On September 28, 1986 CN No 207 had two five-paks on the head end, likely as a test. Rob Leachman photographed the train on the Salmon River bridge and reports that this was the only time he'd seen double-stacks on the National Transcontinental line from 1984-1990!

On November 28, 1987 CN tested a five-pak double-stack platform on CN train No 220 through western Canada, with a CN instrument car monitoring the movement pulled by two CN SD40's. At the time - CN had no plans to begin double-stack service!)

In February 1989, the first double-stack trains were loaded at Vancouver wharf for Toronto with service on a weekly basis: 5-Paks of Neptune Orient Lines and OOCL import-export containers on CN. CP still opposed the use of COFC cars but arranged to lease 100 'spine cars' from CGTX and Alberta Intermodal Services. CP's reticence would last as long as 1991. Many tunnels in the mountains would need to be enlarged to handle full-height double-stacks. Container lines were dictating service levels - endeavouring to send entire shiploads of containers in a cross-continent land-bridge. New equipment in the early-90's were paving the way for domestic double-stack service.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., Conrail was planning two double-stack trains per week from New Jersey to Montreal, bypassing Halifax. The Port of Halifax was encouraging CN to start double-stack service to Halifax. This Guy Wicksall photo, posted to Facebook by Jered Slusser, shows Maersk five-pak MAEX 100053 on Conrail's Chicago mainline at Lyons, NY in April, 1990:
In spring, 1990 CN started two introductory double-stack services: Sea-Land train Tacoma to Brampton Intermodal Terminal via Buffalo/Fort Erie Conrail in 103 hours: Nos 252/253 and 254/255, possibly extending to Montreal.

CN ran a clearance test of the first double stack load (likely 9'6" vs. 8'6" CN Laser containers) out of Moncton over the Napadogan-Monk-Montmagny-Drummondville and St. Hyacinthe. The train hit one low hanging hydro line, knocking off one of the styrofoam test pieces positioned atop the containers. There was no spectacular light show, and the line didn't break. Kevin Day kindly shared the above account and photo of the test train across New Brunswick, on December 18, 1990:


In 1991, CN launched its first double-stack service for domestic freight. Montreal-Toronto double-stack service began on June 7. CN began double-stacking of import-export containers between Halifax and Toronto. CN was converting its domestic intermodal fleet from trailers to containers, even combining domestic and import-export containers in the same train. To this point, CN had invested $45 million in the double-stack container program, including providing necessary clearances in the Moncton-Montreal-Toronto corridor. CN at the time had 500 domestic containers in double-stack service and would convert the remainder of its intermodal fleet to containers by 1995. 

CN was building CN 677-series red-painted five-pack well cars at its Transcona shops in Winnipeg in 1990-91. Able to haul trainers or double-stacked containers, each unit can carry 500 tons of goods, compared to 350 tons on equivalent piggyback cars. Each unit cost $375,000. The first 40 cars built in 1990 were for use in Western Canada, and double-stacks were operating there in 1991. Fifty more were produced by June, 1991 at a project cost of $18.8 million dollars. CN added another 130 five-paks, with 50 built at Transcona Shops for trailers or double-stacked containers, and 80 built at Trenton Works in Trenton, NS to carry double-stacked containers of import-export traffic moving through the port of Halifax, with these cars entering service in mid-1992. The latter were in the series CN 640400-640479, in service until 2008, renumbered in 1995 from their original numbers CN 640000-640379.

Early double-stack observations at Kingston:
  • September 4/92: 2218 EB 9597-9541-9510 half of the train was double-stacked, sample cars CN 640157, 640256 and sequentially-numbered 640120-640124.
  • March 15/93: Montreal Turcot yard - lots of double-stacks i.e. MAERSK
  • April 8/93: 2222 EB CN 5317-2003-2029 half of the train double-stacked.
CN 640472 is on a stopped CN No 104 at Kingston in January, 2000:
CP began enlarging tunnels in the Rockies in June, 1991. There were 47 tunnels that needed heightening or lowering by up to 20 inches, as well as two snowsheds. In May, 1991 CP initiated up to 20 double-stack cars on its Montreal-Toronto intermodal trains, after two years of testing. With increased use of double-stack trains in 1992, in the next five years COFC traffic grew to 80% of intermodal with TOFC dropping to a 20% stake.

Also in 1992, CN introduced American President Lines and GN/FNM trinational container service between Canada, the U.S. and Mexico, as well as its first refrigerated container service between Vancouver and Eastern Canada. Container power units connected to the refrigerated boxes could operate for seven days without refuelling. In March, 1992 CN initiated once-per-week double-stack trains Nos 264/265 between Vancouver and Montreal on Mondays. In 1993, Kleysen and Maritime-Ontario entered joint intermodal service with CN between Vancouver, Montreal, Halifax and into the U.S.

CN Laser double-stacked containers ride Trailer-Train well cars like DTTX 25315 at Kingston's VIA station on April 24, 1993 (below). Led by 9673-9631-9546:

In 1994, the Sarnia-Port Huron tunnel was enlarged to accommodate double-stack trains. CN placed a $34 million order with National Steel Car for 52 articulated low-deck flatcars for use with TOFC and 40-foot containers on their new Toronto-Chicago Laser trains. The low decks allow cars to travel through the Sarnia-Port Huron tunnel. Delivery of the cars was expected in spring-summer 1995. Notice the variation in graphics on the containers - some LASER lettering was all upper-case!
Lasers at Dawn - CN train No 101 heads west at Mi 184 Kingston Sub behind 5665-5058 at 0708 on July 31, 1997 (above) with CN North America map logos. 

Thanks to Kevin Day and Rob Leachman for assistance with this post.

Lots of links:
  • Scott Haskill Railpictures photo of westbound Laser at Montreal Street overpass approaching Kingston in September, 1985
  • John Reay video of SD70M demonstrator units on CN in the summer of 1993. A whole train of blue well cars at the 6:05 mark, many empty, perhaps CN express train No 204.
  • HO Scale Laser decals 1991+
  • HO Scale Laser decals 1993+
Running extra...

Watch for upcoming Trackside Treasure posts on CBC's The National Dream, the Confederation Train, the Discovery Train, pandemic model railroading, CN's new trains 516/517, and if I'm so moved, tracking information on CN 640471 from the pre-9/11 public tracing era.

Speaking of 9/11, not only is a World Trade Center-size mass casualty event taking place every day in the U.S. due to the pandemic, but now the impending Inauguration is resulting in a Green Zone being constructed in Washington, D.C.! In God We Trust, Everyone Else We Monitor. 

Pithy-Sayings-R-Us. Here's the prominent, probably pathological pithy epithet portrayed to all passing pedestrians and perambulating passengers on their peregrinations on Princess Street during our graduation from community college: 


Brian said...

An interesting article, Eric. Even though double stack container traffic is commonplace now, it’s interesting how the railways approached this new way of doing business in the 1980s and into the 1990s. I would imagine there was some reluctance toward double stacks because of the significant capital costs of the specialized equipment. If the double stack business model didn’t work, the railways would have spent a significant amount of money on equipment that would be no more useful than regular intermodal flatcars.

As you said, double stacks weren’t really operating in the west until around 1989. The railways were well on their way toward eliminating cabooses by then. So, I don’t really associate the two, unlike your observations from 1985. It just shows how much railroading was changing during the decade.

From the close-up pictures, it looks like Symington 70 ton trucks were used on the five-paks. Would you happen to know if that was in fact the case?

I’m quite sure that those Laser containers would never again look as white as they did in October 1990.

Eric said...

Thanks for your comment, Brian.

I'm no expert on trucks, so can't really comment on the five-pak trucks.

There was surely a lot of change around that late 80's-early 90's era. Let's not forget the considerable engineering and cost of adding walkways with railings to every trestle and bridge that would see cabooseless trains. Also, the powerful lure of true run-through cross-border commerce via Southwestern Ontario. Mix in the cost savings of stacking two containers over a mile of train. As usual, the Canadian railways cautiously followed their American prototypes - I remember seeing that cabooseless Conrail train in 1984 and I thought - OK, where's the rest of the train?

It truly is shocking to envisage Lasers trailed by cabooses. That actually happened.


chris mears said...

Neat to see those GP40's in mainline service, leading such cutting edge technology, and reflecting on how quickly that's changed. The double-stacks are the modern railway streamliner and the modern face of railroading. Gone completely (I believe) are any kind of container car that isn't some kind of well car. And those GP40's? Still around though now the workhorse of the local jobs and becoming a kind of continuity connecting one era of railroading to another. I couldn't help but look through your rosters and believe that I've photographed at least 9622 working here in Dartmouth.

Eric said...

I do miss the trailers in well cars or flat cars! The container revolution pushed them out, and railways wanted full flexibility to single- or double-stack containers on every train they could!

As the the 9400-9600's, as teenage railfans we used to argue about their exact model designation. We know they'd be around for awhile. Reports are that they may not have been the easiest to start a train with, but by the time a brace of them got going east from Belleville of west from Brockville, they were a-rollin' through Kingston! Easy to blur in our photos of the times during which they led.

Thanks for your comment, Chris.

Brian said...

Hi Eric,

I thought that I would provide some additional information relative to my original comments, in case anyone is interested.

After further investigation, it appears that the five-paks were equipped with Barber S2A trucks (70 ton), not Symington trucks as I had suggested earlier. The truck bolster ends match with the typical Barber profile.

Eric said...

Your diligence is forever preserved here in the Comments section, Brian.

I have no truck with your research, and I've learned something.

Thanks for your comment,

Robert Archer said...

Excellent article thanks for researching, writing and posting.

Eric said...

Thanks very much, Robert. I reserve the right to revise, and add more information as I find it. The beauty of blogging!