Friday, April 24, 2020

Canada's Grain Fleet - Covered Hoppers

The boxcars that carried Canada's grain gave way to cylindrical grain cars - one of Canada's best-known contributions to the North American railcar network. Over 19,000 government covered hoppers, built by Hawker-Siddeley, National Steel Car and Marine Industries have been carrying Canadian grain on CN and CP rails since 1972. Their design was unpopular with US railroads, where 4650 cu ft cars prevailed. The 4,550 cubic-foot teardrop/cylindrical design without a flat roofline remained conspicuously Canadian. Cylindricals forever! Or so it seems as these iconic grain-handlers seem to head to the horizon (top photo) on CP at Burnside, Manitoba on June 5, 1986.

Early designs in covered hopper technology included CN and CP 3,000 cubic-foot slab side design. Also with a capacity of 3,000 cubic-feet were aluminum tank-hoppers, so-called due to their curved sides that ended at the eaves, capped by a flat or peaked roof. Canadian Pacific not only invested in 250 cars of this design in 1959, but also a 900-car order of steel 3,400 cubic-foot cars in 1964. A second order had central circular roof hatches, not on each side of a central roof walk as in the first order. CN, meanwhile, waited until 1965 for a Marine Industries 3,850 cubic-foot design, a true cylindrical covered hopper with a body that was cylindrical right to the roof hatches. CP also purchased such cars, and the design, with a 3,800 then 4,550 cubic-foot capacity, would be the Canadian standard for the next 20 years of production. CNWX 109720-109612-109736 are right-most three Coke can cars on CN 5200’s inbound train, taken from the Trans-Canada Highway overpass in Winnipeg on June 7, 1984.
Faced with an aging fleet of decades-old CN and CP steel boxcars, and even outside-braced wooden boxcars, the Canadian government began supplying cars for grain transportation in 1972. These were steel covered hoppers with standard characteristics: 4,550 cubic-foot capacity, 59-foot overall length, 47-foot, 11-inch interior length, four central trough roof hatches for loading, and four gravity discharge hoppers below. The design was inexpensive to fabricate and efficient for users due to the lack of interior bracing and quick gravity unloading to empty the car. Trough hatches did not require precise loading nor re-spotting at an elevator chute or spout, unlike boxcars and circular roof hatches. While Hamilton's National Steel Car led production, Hawker-Siddeley's Trenton, NS and Thunder Bay plants produced cylindrical grain cars as did Marine Industries in Sorel, QC. Government specifications did not encourage builder-to-builder variation, with only very subtle differences in end bracing and roof walk mounting for trackside spotters. Up to 1976, car body ends were vertical, then sloped inwards thereafter.


The Government of Canada's initial paint scheme was a mostly brown car (representing soil) with a 15-foot wide yellow band (representing wheat fields) with two large, stylized wheat sheaves. Each sheaf  measured 7'9" tall x 5'6" wide, with a stylized yellow  Canadian flag above the reporting marks and conspicuous, bilingual Government of Canada lettering at the opposite end of the car side.
CPWX 603751 (Blt 10/77) has been loaded at Westbourne, MB in May, 1984 (above). It wears the initial Government of Canada brown & yellow scheme as does CPWX 601073 (below) whose reporting marks were chosen for Model Power’s  HO-scale cylindrical (too short, friction-bearing, under-detailed but it’s all we had until Intermountain and other model manufacturers cottoned on to the Canadian market.) I spotted and photographed the prototype in motion at Portage la Prairie, MB on June 5, 1986:
The lightweight 4,100 cubic-foot CNWX covered hoppers had two 15-foot wide yellow bands at each end of the aluminum car body, with the same wheat sheaves, stylized Canadian flag and Government of Canada lettering in red. These cars rode on 70-ton trucks. As with the early tank-hoppers, aluminum construction fell out of favour due to the tendency of aluminum to corrode and experience metal fatigue at stress points and at seams. Those issues were some years away when my Dad photographed new CNWX silver and yellow aluminum covered hoppers eastbound with some of their first loads past a westbound led by CN 1074-1086, in the Portage yard on July 4, 1976. One of my favourite grain car photos ever, we were getting our first glimpses of Prairie railroading in the gloaming, on the second day of our first visit to relatives in Manitoba!
CNWX 108139 is a sample silver and yellow cylindrical grain car whose trough-hatch covers are visible from above on a westbound train of empties pulled by CN 9637-9503 at Portage on June 16, 1980:
Unlike the aluminum and yellow scheme, the brown and yellow scheme was applied to CNWX and CPWX cars. Billed to Winnipeg when returning from eastern Canada, CNWX empties were thence routed for loading across CN’s western lines.


The brightest paint schemes adorning the cars belonged to the Canadian Wheat Board, Saskatchewan Grain Car Corporation and the province of Alberta. Having just arrived in Portage in August 1981, these new, colourful provincial grain cars (above) Saskatchewan’s SKNX 397003 (Blt 3/81) and Alberta’s ALNX 396068 (Blt 2/81) – certainly caught my eye. The ‘old boy’ is CNWX 106705 between them, built in December, 1976, with a Canadian Wheat Board car at left.

The Canadian Wheat Board (CWB) scheme was a brown body with one central wheat sheaf with 'The Canadian Wheat Board/ La Commission Canadienne du Ble" to its right. A 12" yellow stripe ran the length of the side sill, and CWB cars wore only CNWX reporting marks. Still on jointed rail, the Kingston Sub will soon be relaid with the welded rail visible in the foreground in March, 1980. This simpler, centred single wheat sheaf Canadian Wheat Board scheme debuted in 1979, and this car is about two months old on a winter grain train through Kingston:
Canadian Wheat Board CNWX 396774 was built in January, 1979. The small paper grain slip on the lower-left tackboard shows the car’s lading and destination. Heading out of Winnipeg, on June 7, 1984:
Assigned to CN or CP, as denoted by the letter 'N' or 'P' in their reporting marks on the provincial cars and Government of Canada cars, they stayed on their home rails for loading. The cars were apportioned to each railway based on the percentage of grain volume handled by each, at that time: 47.7% for CN and 52.3% CP. Interestingly, in 1990, 173 CPWX cars would become CNWX, as grain volume had shifted from CP to CN. The railways required a provincial judge to confirm these statistics and render a decision for the transfer!
The provincial cars were not restricted to Saskatchewan or Alberta, but roamed western Canada. In fact, during the 1986-87 crop year, Saskatchewan's covered hoppers were loaded in Saskatchewan only 52% of the time, loaded in Alberta 35% of the time and Manitoba 13%. The cars' round-trip time to port improved from 24.7 days in 1985-1986 to 20.5 days the following crop year.
Alberta Heritage Fund ALNX 396115, built six months previous, has been loaded at Portage Pool ‘B’ on August 26, 1981 (above). Spotted by my aunt and uncle, the first ALNX cars only a few days old and on their first trip west from NSC and they recorded this prorotype information for me:
The Province of Alberta's Capital Projects Division purchased 1,000 cars in 1980, purchased with funds from the Alberta Heritage Savings Trust Fund. Alberta's Heritage Fund logo comprised a stylized (some say swastika-like) HF with the map of Alberta blended with a gold (representing oil money) shadow. This attractive lettering was later subjugated by a huge 'Alberta' logo. Interestingly, as of August 2015, only one car retained this original scheme - that's out of all the blue cars in the ALNX and ALPX fleets - ALNX 396029!
The Saskatchewan Grain Car Corporation was incorporated under the Saskatchewan Grain Car Corporation Act on October 2, 1979. The cars' brown and orange paint scheme, complete with yellow pin-striping and golden wheat sheaf, is often referred to as the most attractive grain car scheme by rail enthusiasts! My uncle poses with months-old, second-of-the-order for CP lines SKPX 625001, loaded at Gladstone’s United Grain Growers elevator (above) on August 25, 1981.

The Alberta and Saskatchewan governments made sure their citizens, specifically farmers, knew that their tax dollars were being invested to improve grain transportation. Though not exactly as advertised,  newspaper photos were published to acquaint farmers with the cars they'd soon be seeing spotted for loading at their local elevator. The introduction of the Alberta and Saskatchewan cars tipped the balance in favour of covered hoppers in the Canadian dedicated grain fleet. Boxcar numbers continued to drop, while tonnage increased. These cars also continued the trend away from railway-owned cars to private owner cars, a trend which continues today. BN (USLX) 439763, SKNX 397444 and CNWX 108352 clank their way out of Symington yard on June 7, 1984:

Read more about some 1982 grain train covered hopper consists here.


Manitoba had its own seldom-mentioned covered hoppers. In 1980, the provincial government chartered American lease hoppers, with a provincial coat-of-arms on red or green steel, welded to each side. It's rare to find a picture or discussion of these cars anywhere, although the Manitoba/Canada Buffalo boxcars for grain shipping to Churchill and Thunder Bay are better-known and more often-photographed. The Province of Manitoba leased covered hoppers for grain service in 1980.  In February 1979, Premier Sterling Lyon's provincial government did not join a federal-provincial grain car study.  Manitoba believed responsibility for providing grain cars lay with the federal government.  Instead, it budgeted $2 million for a 'one-year, one-shot' deal to lease 400 covered hoppers capable of moving 38 million bushels of grain.  In doing so, Manitoba believed box cars would be freed up for shipping grain via Churchill.

By leasing the cars, Manitoba succeeded in decreasing grain inventories.  Fifty percent of 1979's harvest was stored due to a shortage of cars.  By the end of 1980, inventories had been reduced to zero, turned to cash for Manitoba's farmers. While the other prairie provinces were each buying new cylindrical covered hoppers to contribute to the western grain car pool, Manitoba looked to car leasing companies such as North American Car, Pullman Leasing and United States Railcar Leasing to form a fleet for farmers' use.  Although the cars were a variety of manufacturers, capacities and reporting marks, they had one thing in common - the provincial armorial bearings (crest) surmounted by "Manitoba", on a steel plate with a green or red background, welded high in the centreline of the carbody. Though I was in Manitoba again in 1981 and 1982, I didn't see any of the Manitoba covered hoppers while trackside.

Read more about the Manitoba's leased cars I observed.

Though the fleet didn't last long, some of the cars apparently did.  The crests had been removed, but the crests' former location was clearly visible by the lighter paint. Weld marks denoted Manitoba cars years after the crests have been removed. I was fortunate to see two of five of the Evergreen Hatchery cars leased by Manitoba, namely USLX 5900 and 5904. Note: Evergreen Hatchery car on CN lines - green paint on the welded plate; Evergreen Hatchery car on CP lines - red paint on the welded plate. USLX 5904 had been unloaded in Thunder Bay at Saskatchewan Pool's Elevator 7A six days earlier.
Interestingly, some of the Manitoba-leased cars of the same number series that I observed soldier on, still in service today.  Read more in this post. As time marched on, the weld marks where the Manitoba crest was attached are still visible, although the rust marks have diminished somewhat.  PTLX 34494, lettered for NFO Grain, was photographed in 2009, with six characteristic rusted weld marks still visible. As recently as 2016, some of these leased cars are still in operation, with the rusted weld marks still evident, for those who know where to look and what the marks represent!

Read more about the unique articulated covered hopper CN 398000 - designed for service to Churchill.


Sometimes termed the Trudeau or Coke-can scheme, the red cars wore a dual yellow wheat sheaf scheme with black walkways and end ladders. Built in September of 1981, CNWX 101287 is on a 91-car train pulled by CN 4309-4277-4152 (above) as CN’s operator waits with orders on June 16, 1982. The word 'Canada' in white lettering, with 18-inch high Canadian flag emblem was centred on the car side. Data was yellow, reporting marks white. Built dates of some of these cars that I observed in 1984: CNWX 109222 blt 9-82, 109518 blt 11-82, 109664 blt 9-83, 109923 blt 10-83, CPWX 606947 blt 9-82, 607049 blt 8-83, 607168 blt 9-83 and 607257 blt 10-83. CPWX 607644 wears the red Government of Canada ‘Coke can’ scheme, coupled to a more senior CP script boxcar sub-lettered for the International of Maine Division at Westbourne, MB in May, 1984:
This Geep-led CN train included a sinuous string of brand new ‘Coke can’ covered hoppers. CNWX 111708 and candy apple-red confreres convoy westward for what might be their first grain loads at Portage on September 19, 1985:
CNWX  aluminum and yellow smaller-capacity 4,100 cubic-foot cars, intended for use on lightweight branchlines, made them early targets for scrapping. Gathered and stored between Mileages 174 and 179 of CN's surplus Kinghorn Sub, at least three special movements brought long 56-car to 113-car trains of the pioneer cars into Neebing Yard's track NO13. The cars were taken off their trucks, placed on their sides and cut up on site. Over 200 of 2,424-car fleet met this fate in Thunder Bay in March 2008 alone. The scrap value of the aluminum in each car was reportedly $10,000. By 2009, the entire fleet aluminum and yellow fleet was history.

Today these cars still carry Canada's golden grain harvest, albeit without the -WX suffixes in their reporting marks, having been returned to the control of CN and CP, and unceremoniously mixed with non-cylindrical IC and SOO covered hoppers of various designs on CN and CP, respectively. Frankly, once the cars started losing their -WX reporting marks, they were no longer unique to me. Several had their reporting marks changed, relettered for private elevator companies.

After the Canadian government raised questions about fleet upgrading and maintenance costs several times over the years, the government reached agreement with CN and CP in 2007 to transfer operation, refurbishment, and maintenance of the fleet to the two railways. Over the next seven years, thousands of the cars were retired, returned to their leaser, or sold to prairie shortlines that handled grain and other bulk commodities. This left roughly 3,100 of the former Wheat Board hoppers under CN and CP ownership; the railways overhauled these cars to extend their lifespan.

Passage of the Transportation Modernization Act in 2018 paved the way for CN and CP to explore the purchase of new cars. Shortly after its passage, CP announced it would receive 5,900 new hopper cars over four years to replace its aging fleet. CN followed suit in 2020 with an order for 1,500 new hoppers, followed by an order for 1,000 more in 2021. These cars, being built by National Steel Car and Trinity Rail, sealed the fate of the Wheat Board hoppers, as the new cars are lighter, smaller (3 feet shorter) and can hold 15% more grain.

A concise listing of Government of Canada, Alberta, Saskatchewan cars that roamed CN and CP lines, and Canadian Wheat Board cars that were solely on CN, including reporting marks, quantities, builders, built dates and as-delivered paint schemes:


Running extra...

Covidmercials. Many of the earliest ones were for automakers and car dealers. Then there were the restaurants urging take-out orders. Then stores offering curbside pickup. Then there are those that advertise services no longer available. These latter sadness-tinged, profit-sucking-sound ads inevitably start with what I call 'Sad piano music'. Slow, minor chords in a dream-like soundscape evoking sadness, despair, and melodic melancholy for money not being spent.

Covidrinking games. "Sad piano music!", I yell out. Then I drink. 'That world leader is an idiot!', then I drink. "Time for the provincial pandemic update!" just before I imbibe. This pandemic stuff is only as sobering as we let it be.

Covideo. Check out the latest non-operating layout tour of my Kingston's Hanley Spur HO layout. And if you think a non-operating video is not a layout video, well, neither is the sound-equipped light show of someone's favourite DCC unit slowly going through the entire sound effects menu before it even turns a wheel. An operating video will follow, don't despair, from this Covideographer!


Robert Archer said...

Excellent article on grain cars.
I will be re-reading it several times in the upcoming days.
Thanks for posting this.

Eric said...

Good to hear, Robert. Glad you are enjoying the article. I must admit that once the Government of Canada cars started using their -WX suffixes in their reporting marks, it just wasn't the same (that's me wallowing in nostalgia!).


Robert Archer said...

I don't know if this picture will open but it appears to be a Saskatchewan grain car.
I can't find a better picture of it but if they were delivered in 79 this car would have only been about 20 years old. I think I took that picture in 99.
The paint doesn't seem to have held up too well.
Did others fade badly?

Eric said...

Yes, they seemed to have faded. The overall brown didn't help! Neat ADM photos!

Brian said...

Another excellent article about moving grain by rail in western Canada, Eric. One can see the evolution of the Canadian hopper car fleet as it progressed from the slab sides to the 3440 cubic foot tank hoppers, to the 3850 cubic foot cylindrical car, and finally the 4550 cubic foot car. The 4550 cubic foot cylindrical hopper car is especially interesting to me.

You are right that there was little variation in the cars built by the three builders. CN conducted extensive engineering work and published construction specifications for the 4550 cubic foot cars in 1970. The car builders followed CN’s specifications very closely. As you mention, there were some slight variations in end bracing and roof walk mounting details between the car builders. One other difference that is quite difficult to see is that the cars built by National Steel Car have what is referred to as an S-profile side sill. The Hawker-Siddeley and Marine Industries cars have a straight profile side sill. I’m not sure if all of the NSC cars had the S-profile side sills. However, cars built from 1978 onward certainly did.

The 2000 cars in the series CPWX 604302 through CPWX 606301 were painted in the brown and yellow Government of Canada paint scheme. However, these cars were in fact under a somewhat complex 25 year lease that was administered by the Canadian Wheat Board. At the expiration of the lease, the CWB bought these cars, with the exception of the cars in the series CPWX 605302 through 605551, which were returned to the lessor. These lease returned cars were subsequently leased elsewhere and had various reporting marks, including CTRW and NDYX.

The CWB hopper cars in the series CNWX 395000 to 396999 were upgraded to a 286,000 pound gross rail loading from their as built capacity of a 263,000 pound GRL. This upgrade occurred in 2009-10. The cars reporting marks were changed from CNWX to CN at that time, but the individual car numbers remained the same However, the CWB retained ownership of these cars.

Thanks again for the article Eric. I’m not sure if you have any further installments for this series. But, hopefully you will have some future posts about moving grain by rail on the prairies.

Eric said...

Thanks for this extensive and valuable information, Brian!

The fine details of the fleet are definitely a subject that could probably run 5 parts in a series! Also not listed in my car rosters are some small lots that were built by ones or tens.

The cars were so revolutionary during my trainwatching time out west. You can imagine how I almost fell over the first day I saw that train of multicoloured beauties slowly slinking past Portage station in 1981!

I have 'miles to go before I sleep', so although I don't have further posts planned, one never truly knows what's coming down the tracks on Trackside Treasure.


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

Awesomely informative! These cars are so iconic and it's amazing they're still pretty commonplace. Looking furiously for it, but somewhere I have a photo I took of CPX #608591 soon after it was built in early '86. By the numbers, I guess that means it was the very last rail car constructed by MIL before they closed down production. Assuming they made them numerically.

Eric said...

Very likely, Chris and Connie. I know there were some one-offs and I have a few more extensive rosters somewhere! Some were built as replacements etc. as small orders.

Indeed iconic and still commonplace though being replaced by other lease fleets and less interesting cars! They will live on in our memories and here on Tracksie Treasure, rest assured!

Thanks for your comment,

Neil said...

Neil For modelling purposes --What colour were the Bottoms of these hopper cars?

Eric said...

Hi Neil,

Generally, the hoppers and underframe matched the body colour. As you can also see, the Coke can cars had black, not the body colour of red. The Alberta cars were blue, matching the body, for example.

Thanks for your question,

Neil said...

Eric, Thanks for a great, in-depth article about these cars!

I am a former Manitoba prairie boy living in Aylmer, ON. My teaching career took me from Manitoba to Aylmer in 1988, so focusing on grain hoppers helped me stay connected to my roots.

I have 10 of these hoppers in S scale, - resin kits that were made by Kaslo Shops. I love the profile and colour variation of these rail cars!

I also have a friend who is in the process of assembling more of these kits. Hence the question about the paint colour of the bottoms of these cars.

Another question please. To what extent did these cars run into the U.S?


Eric said...

Glad to hear this post awakened some memories, Neil. I am an Ontario boy who felt very much at home visiting Manitoba.

I'd say it was only with CN and CP expanding their networks into the US that had these cylindrical hoppers travelling there. For years, it was Vancouver and Thunder Bay only. Some winter unit trains east to St Lawrence ports to top up elevators for the coming shipping season, and eventually Churchill as well.

Checking out US photo sites like and searching for some CNWX or ALPX car numbers, for example, might net photos taken by US photographers and give an idea of when this southerly movement began taking place.

Western farmers were so desperate for decent and modern cars to be built that I think they needed them for their own shipments to market, i.e. to Canadian ports.

I'd say that within the last 15 years, with the addition of IC cars to CN's grain fleet, and Soo Line cars, and others, to CP's fleet, that the remaining railway-owned 'WX' cars roam freely across North America.

Hope this helps,

Neil Froese said...

Thanks much, Eric.