Friday, April 10, 2020

Canada's Grain Fleet - Boxcars

Boxcars were the freight car of choice for grain transportation from the early 1900's until they were replaced by gravity-discharge aluminum and steel covered hoppers beginning in the 1970's. The covered hoppers were easier to load and unload. Boxcars required wooden or cardboard grain doors, to hold the cargo in while the car was being loaded via the door. By 1987, terminal car dumpers still existed for boxcar unloading, but these massive mechanisms were quickly aging, and costly to repair and operate. In Thunder Bay, 14 of 21 dumpers were over 25 years old, and 25% of them were predicted to be out of service by 1992.

Grain boxcar fleets declined through attrition, and it was the railways' intention after 1986 to use them only on branchlines unable to accommodate covered hoppers. Noodles and a leaf (top photo). From right, CN 426568 and 427992 at Portage la Prairie on June 3, 1986. Two years earlier, refurbished maple-leaf CN 428752 and 428762 with wheat sheaves, maple leaf 424774 and wet-noodle 427271-427058-425345 pose at Winnipeg’s CN Symington Yard as cars ascend the twin hump in background. June 7, 1984:
In 1981, the number of railway boxcars and government covered hoppers in dedicated grain service were at a break-even point, at about 13,000 each. The Grain Transportation Agency in that year predicted a decrease of 164 boxcars per month, due to attrition. In the GTA study, the actual attrition rate was closer to 200. CP had 4,545 grain boxcars in 1981, 2,972 in 1985, 1,260 in 1986, 672 in 1990, 363 in 1992 and only 209 in 1993. CN had 11,000 dedicated grain boxcars in its car fleet in 1965, 6,178 in 1981 and 3,660 in 1985 and 2,874 in 1986.

I observed CP 269331 with  the spartan lettering of an International of Maine-assigned car, spotted at the Meadows, Manitoba elevator on CP in 1984 (below). This well-travelled boxcar had nothing for the elevator agent to cooper (nail) the grain doors to, so he told me that he kicked it by in favour of four covered hoppers:


CP designated some boxcars in its 248350-267210 series, a wide swath of boxcars built between 1941 and 1953, for grain service as early as 1970. Wood lining in the cars was removed as they would no longer handle general merchandise, only grain. CP also funded the rebuilding of more 40-foot boxcars for general service, such as handling bagged flour. Used in grain service at the end of the boxcar era, these cars were numbered in the CP 17000-24000 series, and the 268000-269000 series. Some International of Maine cars ended up in this group! Also in the early-1970's, CP pruned its fleet of six-foot-door cars that were quickly becoming obsolete for most shippers. Over 3,600 cars were renumbered into the CP 108000-125610 (some sources indicate CP 115520-120692) for grain service.

Forty feet, sixty tons - when loaded, these annoyingly antiquated conveyances carried grain in 60-ton loads. Here, these slanted, scripted or multimarked boxcars were only light weight - empties. Amazing how shallowly the multimark, around since June, 1968, had penetrated the paint palette of the grain car pool! Westbound over the CN diamonds at West Tower in Portage la Prairie in September, 1985:
Major rehabilitation programs undertaken by the railways, and at the expense of the federal government and the railways, produced 2,000 cars in 1974, 3,000 in 1979 and 2,000 in 1980. The latter programs were only expected to extend each boxcar's service life by five years. In other words, these cars were just about worn out, and it was possible that there would be no useable grain boxcars left by 1985 if no action was taken.
A variety of CP grain boxes near Portage MPE Pool ‘A’ (above). Rusty and weathered slanted-lettering CP 118905 and refurbished CP 123669 hint at the breadth of paint schemes and years of weathering of the fleet, photographed at Portage in August, 1981. Refurbished CP Rail grain boxcar 123081 with script and stacked sisters returning west for their umpteenth loads on CP's Minnedosa Subdivision northwest of Portage on May 29, 1984:
It was not uncommon to seeing a boxcar train of loads heading east through Portage, with a leaky car door dropping grains of wheat along the right-of-way - all the way to Thunder Bay! On the light-rail CN Oakland Sub, north of Portage la Prairie, workaday CN 427443 with cut-down ladders and no roofwalk, has been coopered with steel banding and thick, cardboard grain doors by the MPE agent at Longburn in May, 1984:
Now called 'iconic' or even 'epic', back in 1985 it was just 'railroading' on the Prairies. The days of prairie branches served by aging power hauling equally aged boxcars were waning. Read more about some 1982 grain train boxcar consists here.

GMD-1’s 1012-1067 handle 20 grain boxcars eastward into Portage at Eighth Street on September 18, 1985. These cars may have originated on CN’s Oakland Sub:


It was cheaper and easier for the railways to repair boxcars for use on lightweight branchlines, than to upgrade the branchline infrastructure - roadbed, ties and rails - to support heavier covered hopper cars. The federal government boxcars rehabilitation schemes undertaken in 1979 and continuing into 1980 included:
  • repairs to floors 
  • repairs to rusted areas of carbody
  • spot welding
  • door repairs
  • nailable door areas improved
  • car sides riveted to door posts (repairs visible on either side of door)
  • gussets used to reinforce lower dor tracks
  • yellow push plates added to doors to make opening and closing easier
  • spray painting of repaired areas
A yellow wheat sheaf - a smaller version of the government grain hopper scheme - was applied to the left of the door. Under it was a stencilled bilingual message, reading in part, "REPAIRED WITH FINANCIAL CONTRIBUTION FROM THE GOVERNMENT OF CANADA and in French: REPARATIONS EFFECTUEES AVEC L’AIDE FINANCIERE DU GOUVERNEMENT DU CANADA". Cars emerging from the rehabilitation scheme were formerly CN 520000-539009, renumbered CN 427800-428999. Rehabilitated CP cars were renumbered CP 122000-122999 and 123000-123999. CN did most of the  shop work at Transcona and in Regina, where half of the roundhouse was given over to the work.
Refurbished slanted-CPR 123541 shows its spray-painted areas of repair, wheat sheaf and stencilling, denoting its refurbishing in May, 1980 for grain service (above). Also photographed on June 7, 1984, CP 123692 has been patched, painted at CP Winnipeg Yard:
CP placed their wheat sheaf stencil on the boxcar sides slightly lower than CN did. CN boxcar 428919 (above - Blt 5/54) last outshopped in September, 1980. “Repaired with financial contribution from the Government of Canada”. The repair and repainting was more obvious on these cars due to the use of current CN paint on the weathered, chocolate brown sides of maple-leaf boxcars. Spotted on team track in front of Portage's CN station in August, 1981:
On May 24, 1980, transfer van CN 76555 awaits the passage of a freight train through Kingston including CN government-rehabilitated boxcar CN 428701. Note the somewhat rare yellow stencilling under the wheat sheaf on this car, as well as the yellow door-opening aid welded to the door:
The lower-right yellow stencilling denoted no roofwalks on the cars, though the cars retained high ladders and handbrake wheels. CN 428635 is a 10"0" height car, refurbished and received its yellow push plate, wheat sheaf logo and bilingual message beneath it in December 1979, at Portage June 3, 1986:
CP's grain boxcar fleet was reported for several years to the National Transportation Agency as a requirement of the Western Grain Transportation Act. The year 1986 marked a precipitous decline in the year-end-reported CP boxcar fleet size: 2,972 in 1985, 1,260 in 1986, 1,175 in 1987, 1,050 in 1988, slightly higher 1,095 in 1989, 672 in 1990, 444 in 1991, 363 in 1992 and 209 in 1993. Though CP's Colonsay Subdivision was being rehabilitated when I visited in 1986, none of these boxcars that were spotted at Penzance, SK for loading during rehabilitation wore the wheat sheaf rehabilitation logo:
A 1983 study by the Grain Transportation Authority estimated boxcar capacity and requirements to 1991. The results showed that within that timespan, there would be too few boxcars to service the port of Churchill and/or the lightweight branchlines. CN's boxcar shortfall was predicted to occur as early as 1985. While not posing an immediate problem, due to CN's practice of light-loading hopper cars on lightweight branchlines, something clearly had to change. The very epitome of the need for the coming change - rehabilitated CN boxcar single-car spotted at aged Federal, Searle and Pool-lettered elevators at Colfax, SK on an unseasonably and unreasonably cold September, 1985:
CP was also predicted to experience a boxcar shortfall as early as 1990. Even if all CN's boxcars were loaded for Churchill service, there would still not be enough cars. Use of CP's boxcar fleet could forestall the deficit until 1988. 
An old warrior, CN 420566’s CNR maple leaf logo is still visible (above). CN 427956 sports a Superior door and CNR maple leaf logo (below), both at Portage on June 3, 1986.


CN not only sent loaded boxcars of grain to Vancouver and Thunder Bay as CP did, it also sent cars mostly from northern prairie elevators to the Arctic grain-shipping port of Churchill. This line was a political football continually passed around between governments, shippers, and farmers. In 1986, while the future of the port was being debated, 339 "buffalo" boxcars with 8-foot doors were rehabilitated at CN's Transcona Shops in Winnipeg, drawn from 1956- and 1957-built cars from the CN 540760-545759 series, becoming CN 429000-429338. Transcona could complete six cars per day.

Another series of 1600 "buffalo" cars, from the same feedstock series, CN 445000-446615 followed in 1987-88. The cost of $17,000 per car was equally split between the federal and Manitoba governments, so the cars were painted with the Manitoba and Canada logos.  The cars were to be unloaded at Thunder Bay or Churchill, stencilled thus: "THIS CAR NOT TO BE INTERCHANGED - FOR CHURCHILL AND THUNDER BAY GRAIN SERVICE ONLY". Primarily filling the Churchill elevator in spring and summer, the buffalo boxcars would travel to Thunder Bay with grain in winter, once Churchill shut down in late October.
Newly-refurbished Buffalo boxcar CN 429004 was westbound through Portage la Prairie on June 3, 1986 (above). CN 429035 is another Buffalo boxcar (below) on the same train. Note eight-foot doors and new paint, even on trucks. Another key feature is the Churchill and Thunder Bay-only stencilling beneath the CN logo.
In 1986, CN was unable to move 590,000 tonnes through the port with its own fleet, and had to borrow boxcars from CP Rail, as had been foreseen. As late as 1994, CN was suspected of causing artificial shortages of Churchill-dedicated cars by squirrelling them away on isolated sidings, a contention that was publicly challenged in print by newspaper advertisements from the Hudson Bay Route Association! Average yearly shipments through the port from 1984 to 1994 were 379,000 tonnes, with a high of 621,000 tonnes in 1983. A dismal low of 50,000 tonnes was shipped through the port in 1988. The final train of buffalo boxcars departed Canora, SK for Thunder Bay on December 5, 1996. By 1997, covered hoppers would finally be allowed to deliver shipments over the Churchill line. Long-held CN conventional wisdom that covered hopper harmonic oscillation on CN's Herchmer Subdivision trackage would lead to derailments was disproved during testing in 1995-96.
Watching Portage switcher CP S-3 6569 switching grain boxcars at the United Grain Growers elevator at Eighth Street in 1984 (above), I knew the journey to a distant terminal, likely Thunder Bay, would soon begin. Direct grain shipments to the U.S., and a shift in grain markets from Europe to Asia, were already signaling the decline of grain export from the Lakehead. In 1983, a record 17.7 million tonnes were shipped from the port, compared to less than a third of that amount, less than a decade-and-a-half later. By 1995, CP's remaining boxcars only operated on Manitoba's Russell Subdivision and a few lines in Saskatchewan: the Dunelm, Shamrock and Neudorf Subdivisions.  Their last year of operation was 1996. That summer, CP boxcars loaded at Gretna MB, and Simmie, McMahon and Esterhazy SK were sent east to Thunder Bay, returning waybilled to Winnipeg for scrapping. The final CP subdivisions restricted to boxcar loading were officially abandoned on July 31, 1996. 
And that’ll do! Trainman directs engineer’s shove back via radio. These covered hoppers brought into Portage, likely lifted farther east on the Rivers Sub, are being coupled to the grain boxcars from the west on September 18, 1985. Note the depressed truck springs on both…loaded! The other half of Canada's grain fleet comprised covered hoppers - read more in an upcoming post.

This post is a long-overdue updating of my original 2009-2010 posts on CN and CP grain boxcars and cylindrical covered hoppers - larger, reformatted images and additional information. Since these long-ago posts are frequently linked-to on online forums, I'll allow them to live in their long-ago early-Trackside Treasure format, but this two-part series will hopefully present an updated and upgraded account of Canada's grain fleet!

Check out Marc Simpson's excellent post on modelling the CN boxcar fleet.

Running extra...

Wishing Trackside Treasure readers a Happy Easter. Hoping you have time to reflect on sacrifice and reward, on suffering and rebirth, on times past and times to come. When this time of pandemic is over, we will be a changed people and our world tinged by what we're experiencing now. Through it all, the Trackside Treasure community is all in this together. Stay tuned for more posts that are unceasing and unstoppable. And huge props to Al Gore for getting us ready!


Brian said...

An excellent article about the end of shipping grain by boxcar on the prairies Eric. Boxcars were essentially gone by the time I got involved in the grain trade.

Your comments about the Port of Churchill bring some thoughts to mind. The utilization of Churchill, or the lack thereof depending on your perspective, has always been a contentious issue amongst western Canadian farmers. Churchill’s season runs from late July until sometime in October. Vessel insurance rates escalate as the risk of ice increases, which reduces the appeal of using the port into October. Using an ice class vessel increases the cost of shipping relative to using a non-ice class vessel. The depth of draft at the port limits the size of vessel that can call the port to handymax or smaller vessels. The port’s rail unloading and vessel loading capacities also work to limit the volume of grain that can be handled by the terminal during its short season. All of these factors, combined with the fact that the predominant volume of grain exports have shifted from the east coast to the west coast explain why Churchill’s handled volumes are rather small and variable year to year.

I look forward to reading your second post.

Eric said...

Thanks for that valuable additional information and your comment, Brian.

Reading through weekly issues of the Western Producer, there were always articles on the utilization of Churchill! Clearly, the selection of Churchill and construction of the rail line to the port were from an era when England, and Europe, were the big market. I suppose the same was true to some extent of the Lakehead. Many terminal elevators were eventually idled there, and loss of jobs and business were a huge issue in Thunder Bay.

My brother has posted some excellent information on Churchill on his blog, Rolly Martin Country. Here's a sample:


Canadian Train Geek said...

So many wheat sheaves! This is fantastic. I never saw grain boxcars in action myself so it's great to see them here.

It's too bad that they weren't preserved in any great number. Are any preserved at all? Even here in Winnipeg we have a 50' steel boxcar sitting in the Zoo pretending to be a Buffalo boxcar.

Eric said...

Nearly 40 photos between this and the covered hopper post, Steve, so prepare for more sheaves!

My understanding is that by the time the elevator preservation movement got moving, those grain boxcars were gone and few were available or the railways didn't want to look to hard to find any. I believe Inglis even has a 50-footer.

Thanks for your comment,

Brian said...

I agree with your thoughts Eric. Trade patterns change over time. Europe went from importing Canadian grain to being a competitor in export markets. Numerous Asian countries became important markets for Canadian grain. These volumes would move through the west coast. Under these circumstances, inventory turns and operational efficiency became even more important for Thunder Bay terminal elevators. If I remember correctly, some of the Thunder Bay elevators had 20 or fewer car spots and would have required a lot of switching, which slows operations and adds to operating costs. I suspect loadout rates at those terminals were similarly sized. This would become even more important as the high-throughput elevators on the prairies went from shipping single cars, to 25 car blocks, to 50 car blocks, and then to 100 car and larger blocks. The use of direct rail to Montreal or Quebec City would bypass Thunder Bay altogether, further impacting the Lakehead’s handle.

To Steve’s point, I don’t know for certain, but I would seriously doubt if many (any?) of the grain boxcars were preserved. Nobody would have thought to keep an example of what was then seen as worn out old railway equipment.

I’ll have to take a look at Rolly Martin’s blog.

Eric said...

Rolly Martin Country is hosted by my older brother Dave. Lots of good content there, Brian!

TWForeman said...

What a great well-researched post. I had no idea they were still shipping grain in box cars so far into the 90s.


Eric said...

Thanks very much, Tim!

Though I'm not much for be-all-and-end-all devinitive documentary posts, but I had so many memorable opportunities to watch these steel breadboxes rolling by that it was time for a re-boot.


Jeffrey said...

Very interesting post, Eric! You can't beat a 40' boxcar. I had never heard of the Buffalo cars, so some new information there.

Thank you!

Eric said...

Yes, the buffalo boxcars were the last-ditch effort for grain boxcar shipping in Canada.

Thanks for your comment, Jeffrey.

Anonymous said...

Thank you very much for this post, it was very informative! I'll have to look through my photo archives to see what I might have. I know that I took some pictures of Buffalo boxcars in Wabowden MB, and it would have been in autumn of 1995 or 1996 - little did I know it would be the waning days!

Does the Winnipeg Railway Museum have a Buffalo car? It seems like something they would have wanted to preserve.

Wes Cromwell
Winnipeg MB

Eric said...

Great to have you aboard, Wes. Thanks for your comment and would be nice to see your photos of the Buffalo boxcars. I believe the car in Winnipeg might be a composite wood/steel CN boxcar.

It seems that the Buffalo boxcars were cut up fairly quickly! I don't know OTOH if any have been preserved.

Stay tuned for covered hoppers!

Off the Beaten Path - with Chris & Connie said...

Awesome piece! There's a Buffalo Boxcar sitting at the coal mine museum in Nordegg AB. We'll be going into to look at it soon - I believe it still carries the Buffalo logo but is due to be redone to represent a typical coal boxcar.

Eric said...

Ah yes, CN 445787. By all means, explore and share, Chris and Connie! Several of the Buffalo boxcars were put into company service by deleting the first digit, therefore becoming CN 45xxx. It's a long way from its normal grain-hauling country, so one wonders if it will ever reach 'home rails' in Manitoba or Saskatchewan again!

Thanks very much for your kind comments!

JasonPaulSailer said...

Great post-Eric! I enjoyed the original boxcar post, so this one was just as great! I will be using it as a reference when I start work on my modest grain boxcar collection.

On a side note, there are a few grain boxcars in Alberta. Not many but a few sitting on the sidetracks.

Eric said...

Thanks, Jason! New! Improved! Boxier!
Glad to hear there are a few remnants out your way!
Thanks for your comment,

Marc Simpson said...

There is still (or at least was in late 2018) a former Buffalo boxcar in use on the Hudson Bay Railway running out of The Pas. HBRY 446574 has had the logos painted out but still has the original rebuilt road number. At least one is still earning its keep.

Marc Simpson

Eric said...

Thanks for that additional information, Marc!