Friday, September 1, 2023

The History of VIA

There are many types of histories: corporate histories, social histories, even picture histories of a given subject. When it comes to VIA Rail Canada, there have been precious few books published that provide any sort of comprehensive history. I have endeavoured to do my part, and there are indeed political histories, early histories and picture histories of VIA. Tom Nelligan was the first in 1982, but it was many years before his coverage of VIA's first five years was followed ably by Christopher Greenlaw's 2007 book, which has best tied together the political and operational progressions of VIA's history. Between 2011 and 2017 I created my four books on VIA Rail, bracketing Morning Sun Books' 2013 picture history and the seminal People Moving People, ostensibly on-time for VIA's 40th, but true to the prototype, published in May, 2022. Like VIA, it was a little late arriving, but well worth the trip.
If you haven't been fortunate enough to populate your bookshelf with the above-listed volumes, or aren't a book reader, what can you do? Rely on Wikipedia? This post contains some of the dates and events in VIA's relatively short history. It is not necessarily a comprehensive history, and like any history of VIA it must mention the devastating cuts to VIA with regrettable regularity.  However, I'm pleased to say that many of these momentous events have been profiled in Trackside Treasure posts over the last 15 years of this blog's existence. Feel free to visit these links liberally and literally littered throughout this post! VIA's birthing in 1976 also marked the start of my railfanning years, and in many ways, my time trackside has been inextricably entwined with VIA's existence.

1976 - VIA IS BORN

On April 25, 1976, Canadian National reaffirmed its commitment to the rail passenger business by unveiling a striking new logo and colour scheme for its passenger trains. CN’s President and Chief Executive Officer Robert Bandeen said the developments represented a major attempt “to solve some of the many problems currently facing the rail passenger business in Canada.” Implementation of the colour scheme began with Canadian National Turbo trains painted a striking yellow, trimmed with dark blue accent markings and letters. The colours were to be applied to conventional equipment in reverse, with blue the predominant colour and yellow trim, as equipment came to CN repair shops for regular maintenance.
A model of a VIA-painted Turbo was featured on CN’s April 25, 1976 timetable. For the first time, the October 1976 timetable cover featured VIA, CN and CP Rail logos. Inside, VIA CN services were printed in blue, with VIA CP Rail services printed in red. 

At the first National Rail Passenger Conference, held in Regina, Saskatchewan on October 29-30, 1976, the speakers’ list included: Garth Campbell, CN Vice-President of Passenger Marketing, M.J. Munford, CP Rail Assistant General Manager of Passenger Services, and Alfred Michaud, Amtrak Vice-President of Passenger Marketing. 

On display at the conference was a VIA Rail display train, painted in the new blue & yellow colour scheme, behind CN FP9 6516. Baggage car 9630 contained displays. Coach 5525 had been refurbished at Transcona in May. Dayniter 5727 had been converted from an I-series sleeper at Transcona, with seven more such conversions planned for 1976. Essex had been refurbished at Transcona in June. Hamilton Club, diner 1361, lounge Entre Nous and sleeper-buffet lounge–observation Burrard completed the consist. 

In January 1977, the display train visited Halifax, Nova Scotia. There, the consist was: 6765-6617-15468-5525-9630-Essex-1361-Entre Nous-5727-Burrard.


Federal Minister of Transport Otto Lang announced the creation of VIA Rail Canada Inc., to take over the operation of rail passenger service during the second week of March, 1977. (The incorporation date of the VIA Rail Canada Act in Parliament was January 12, 1977). The corporation would be a subsidiary of Canadian National. Routes would gradually be taken over from CN and CP Rail, first in the Quebec City-Windsor Corridor, with other routes added later. VIA Rail Canada would take over marketing and research on new equipment, set schedules and establish a common fare structure. Most of the railways’ present passenger equipment would be taken over by VIA Rail, except for locomotives. When the corporation began purchasing its own equipment, it would own that equipment outright, including locomotives. In retrospect, VIA continued to use CN and CP passenger locomotives for years.
On the cover of VIA’s 1977 timetables, the VIA logo was most visible, with mention of CN and CP Rail appearing much smaller. The April, 1977 timetable text explained: “Exactly one year ago, CN introduced the new VIA logo and colour scheme to reaffirm its commitment to the rail passenger business. In October 1976, VIA became a symbol of closer co-operation between CN and CP Rail, when both companies presented their first joint passenger timetable. Just recently, the VIA designation took on added significance when the Canadian Government announced the creation of VIA Rail Canada Inc., a company which will gradually assume responsibility for the provision and management of passenger railway services presently operated by CN and CP Rail. VIA. The rail route to the future.”

The October 1977 timetable provided an update: “On June 1, VIA assumed responsibility for all rail passenger marketing. That is why CN and CP Rail advertising now appears over the VIA logo. Planning is also underway for the takeover of other management responsibilities for CN and CP passenger services on April 1, 1978.” On that date, VIA became an independent Crown corporation. Initially responsible for CN’s equipment, VIA also became responsible for CP equipment in October, 1978. VIA coordinated the operation of western transcontinental services – the Canadian and Super Continental – then restructured the eastern transcontinental services in October 1979.

1976-1981 BEGINNINGS

On January 12, 1977 the founding of a Crown corporation named VIA Rail Canada Inc. was announced, and CN and CP stopped advertising their passenger services separately. The new Crown corporation was considered to be “in business” on June 1, 1977. Passenger trains were operated by CN and CP, with federal subsidies to the two railways. VIA Rail inherited a varied stable of cars built between 1920 and 1968: 737 ex-CN cars in 38 different configurations, ex-CP Canadian cars plus smooth-side coaches and baggage cars (even some that were unserviceable), 86 RDC’s, 27 Turbos and 25 Tempo cars. The cost of the 952 passenger cars was $72 million. 

Consists and operating practices in the Corridor were virtually unchanged from the CN days, with Turbos and Railiners still in regular operation. Most Corridor trains had a full baggage car, club car and coaches. I observed all-VIA consists for in May and June 1977. Club-lounge buffet cars were in regular operation, augmenting use of club-galley cars. The years 1977 to 1979 saw most of CN’s cars receiving VIA paint. In 1979-1980, most Corridor trains still included two to four CN-painted cars, but by 1981 most trains included only one. In 1978, 120 CN and 34 CP passenger units were transferred to VIA (the latter including 8558 which would become the only VIA-painted road switcher). CP retained its passenger Geeps and RS-10’s, and these were often used on VIA trains. 

January 1 saw the full operation of CN’s passenger trains by VIA, with CP’s following on October 29 of that year. Former CN Tempo cars, 3100-series and 4100-series passenger units, and F7’s 9150-9179 were also used in passenger service. By 1979, passenger ridership had risen 41% since 1977. The Turbos were suffering increasing unreliability, and in 1979 were pulled from service, replaced by short, one-unit conventional consists.

By 1981, the Turbos' demise loomed as the advent of the LRC was at hand. CN FP9’s and FPA4’s had their white CN nose logos painted out, and soon received VIA blue & yellow, with the initial diagonal yellow nose giving way to a vertical yellow nose. Some ex-CN units retained their CN colours until retirement. By 1980, all locomotive shop work was performed by CN’s Pointe St Charles shops, with CP shops no longer performing work for VIA.

In 1980, VIA previewed an experimental aluminum & yellow paint scheme on 6532, 5558 and 5590. October 1980 saw the introduction of on-board service managers, and VIA 1 service between Montreal and Toronto. By the end of 1980, 60% of VIA’s active fleet had been refurbished and upgraded to contemporary standards, including SGU’s and RDC’s. Ex-CP RDC’s 6123-6135, 6211-6215 were outshopped with new interiors and integrated into the VIA numbering system. Locomotives received common fuel and water connections, multiple-unit connections and were also renumbered.

VIA introduced its first new trains on June 1, 1981 with new Corridor service billed as “the first expansion of passenger services by VIA”. VIA 1 service was extended to all Rapido trains in the Corridor. VIA 8558 suffered a crankshaft failure and was retired in May 1981. Unfortunately, as VIA struggled to achieve its financial footing, its first series of service cuts were made in November, 1981. 

1981 - CUTS

On July 27, 1981, Federal Transport Minister Jean-Luc Pepin, using his power under National Transportation Act section 64(1), announced that the Canadian government and its Crown corporation VIA Rail Canada would be discontinuing 15 passenger services and reducing service on four others. In announcing the cuts to 20% of VIA’s system, Pepin’s justification was to reduce subsidies paid by the federal government to VIA to operate the trains. Otherwise, subsidies totalling more than $400 million in 1980 were expected to balloon to $500 million by 1984.

The cuts, to be authorized by order-in-council took effect November 15, 1981, except for some services allowed to continue operating into the summer of 1982. Pepin contended that the normal process, through the Canadian Transport Commission, would take a fiscally-unacceptable 2 to 4 years. He rejected public hearings – his mind was made up. Opposition leader Joe Clark termed the cuts “an act of the deepest cynicism and arrogance that can only aggravate regional disparity.”

Public reaction to the cuts was swift, strident, and full of shock and outrage especially in the Maritimes and Western Canada. Toronto’s Globe & Mail featured two articles on the cuts in the July 28, 1981 edition, while on the next page, a VIA advertisement trumpeted “Meet the Train of the Future”. It was the LRC.

VIA’s President Frank Roberts described the cuts as designed to generate maximum savings while minimizing inconvenience to the travelling public. Yet the cuts entailed a projected loss of service to 1.6 million passengers and loss of 1,600 VIA jobs. The Conservatives would hold a series of public hearings in cities across Canada: Vancouver, Kamloops, Winnipeg, Sherbrooke, Moncton and Halifax, chaired by former Transport minister Don Mazankowski.

Total discontinuance: 
  • Edmonton-Drumheller (CN) Railiners 694-695
  • Saskatoon-Prince Albert (CN) Railiners 680-683
  • Winnipeg-Armstrong and Capreol-Hornepayne (replaced by Capreol-Winnipeg train)
  • Montreal-Lachute-Ottawa (CP)
  • Montreal-Mont Laurier (CP)
  • Ste Foy-Hervey (CN) Railiners 627-628-630
  • Ste Foy-Chambord (CN) 138-139
  • Moncton-Edmundston (CN) Railiners 619-620
  • Montreal-Sherbrooke to be studied by Quebec government for inclusion in a possible commuter network. 
  • Toronto-Havelock, Toronto-Stouffville, Toronto-Barrie to be studied by the Ontario government for possible integration into the GO Transit network, though only Stouffville and the Toronto-Bradford section of the Toronto-Barrie route were taken over by GO Transit.

Reduced/downgraded service: 
  • Toronto-Capreol-Vancouver Super Continental (replaced by thrice-weekly Ottawa-Sudbury, Capreol-Winnipeg, Edmonton-Jasper and daily Winnipeg-Regina-Saskatoon and Saskatoon-Edmonton trains)
  • Jasper-Prince Rupert (daily summer service to become thrice-weekly all-year)
  • Montreal-Sherbrooke-Saint-John-Halifax. 

The following services to become thrice-weekly: 
  • Montreal-Senneterre
  • Senneterre-Cochrane
  • Montreal-Chicoutimi
  • Sudbury-White River (summer only)

The Conservatives’ report might have sent the Liberals back to the drawing-board, and some passenger rail advocates believed that the opportunity for reform was at hand. But the cuts proceeded as planned. Up to 200 cars were deemed surplus: Sceneramic domes, the Champlain trainset, many River, Falls and Cape-series cars, and the Turbos. Amazingly, other small car series remained, such as the ex-CN Lake series club lounge buffet cars. VIA’s system now had 2,800 miles with no service or reduced service, totalling 20% of its former network. The money saved was used to increase the size of the pending LRC order. Fortunately, the advent of the LRC, even with its inherent technical difficulties, was a bright light during the dark period of the 1981 cuts.

1981-1984 WINTER WOES

In spring 1981, VIA considered a wholesale change from steam heat to electric heating. The low temperatures combined with the wind-chill factor created by a moving train, were often beyond the capacity of current steam generating equipment on trains. One possibility was to follow Amtrak’s example by converting steam-heated passenger trains to electric heating, with a cost for conversion of $200,000 per car. Electric power-generating units or new locomotives with generating equipment would also have to be purchased. 

In early 1983, VIA expressed interest in up to 200 double-deck cars for transcontinental service, with a possibility of 50 more for intercity runs. Hawker-Siddeley was counting heavily on receiving these orders. In 1984-85, VIA would test Amtrak Superliner equipment. The greater capacity of bilevel cars was seen by VIA management as one way to reduce payments to CN which were made on a per-car, per-mile basis, while at the same time increasing passenger revenue.

In co-operation with CP Rail, VIA had undertaken a $1 million project to overhaul CP’s Budd-built equipment by improving the steam-heating system, fitting pipes with new insulation, as well as checking and replacing steam control valves. A former CN steam generator was used on the rear end of the Canadian that winter in an attempt to improve heating in the most remote portion of the train.

The winter of 1983-1984 was a turning point for VIA. Severe winter weather combined with aging equipment led to a ripple effect of breakdowns, delays, cancellations, negative press coverage and passenger complaints. Most trains were delayed by over an hour, leading to a shortage of serviceable equipment for connecting trains. VIA trains requiring rescue by host railway freight engines was a perennial problem.

Unusual equipment such as paired GMD1’s operated on Montreal-Ottawa and Montreal-Quebec City trains. Elsewhere, semi-retired equipment was reactivated, and bustitutions were frequent. CN GP40 4013 powered an LRC consist in push mode, with the LRC locomotive leading generating heat and lights only. GM and MLW units had less than 70% availability, with LRC locomotives suffering eight times the number of defects of the older units. Two FP9’s departed Montreal on a connecting Amtrak train, reaching New Haven, Connecticut!

A Halifax-Montreal Ocean derailed, with 600 passengers delayed 12 hours by bustitutions. A Canadian was delayed 32 hours by a broken rail, with misery compounded by steam heat problems. Montreal-Chicoutimi and Montreal-Senneterre trains used cars from the Montreal commuter service. One Montreal-Chicoutimi train accommodated overflow passengers in a below-freezing baggage car.

As a result of VIA’s difficulties that awful winter, a report was commissioned and published by the Canadian Transport Commission in 1984: The Report of Inquiry into On Time Performance of VIA Rail. Five of the report’s key recommendations were: the purchase of new, high-horsepower locomotives, the purchase of new, electrically-heated cars, complete debugging of the LRC fleet, incentive payments to CN and CP for on-time performance, and enhanced release of OTP information to the public.

1982-1986 POTPOURRI

VIA’s next era was a transition era during which the Turbo, LRC and F-units were all in service on VIA trains, with the Turbos' last run being in October, 1982. CN Geeps, and LRC locomotives in combination with SGU’s hauled Corridor trains. As a result of the 1981 cuts, ex-Canadian cars were operated over CN’s Kingston Subdivision between Toronto and Montreal, as well as on Corridor trains. 
VIA’s cab units began to lose their red nose logos, as CN 'covered-wagon' fleet, and CP's E and F-units also underwent transition. The two distinctive E8’s inherited from CP were retired in mid-1982. By 1983, over 90% of the equipment VIA acquired from CN and CP had been refurbished and upgraded, and 15 F-units were rebuilt, including the reversing of its Skylines.  As the LRC’s entered service, train riders often rode the trains to deal with unexpected technical problems. Teething troubles with the LRC fleet, plus 30+ year-old equipment resulted in revisions to operating and maintenance procedures, including over 200 modifications to the LRC’s. LRC performance improved in the following winter. There was an increased focus on customer service training for VIA staff. 

The need for VIA to have its own maintenance centres with proper inspection pits and other indoor facilities was identified, resulting in less contract work from CN. Costs would be $100 million for the Toronto Maintenance Centre and $130 million for the Montreal Maintenance Centre. To further reduce costs, joint J-trains were operated in regular service between Edmonton-Jasper, reducing train crew costs and railway operating charges to VIA. 

June 1986 marked the 150th anniversary of passenger train in Canada. Concern was being expressed about the future of VIA’s Corridor and long-distance equipment fleets. VIA received the first 12 F40PH-2 locomotives in an acceptance ceremony at Toronto Union Station on December 15, 1986. The 6400’s operated in power consists with older units or SGU’s to provide heat to conventional cars in cold weather, or singly on LRC-equipped trains. Continuing problems with LRC equipment through 1986 meant ongoing retrofit programs, and modifications were made to 23 LRC club cars, with input from on-board service personnel. In April 1986, 50% of the LRC coach fleet was shopped. VIA leased CN 9411, 9412, 9416, 9420, 9423, 9425, 9430 and 9431 while LRC locomotives were under repair.


Federal Minister of Transport Don Mazankowski announced the restoration of service to several routes on January 15, 1985, to take effect June 1 of that year. The Atlantic Limited between Montreal and Halifax via Saint John, New Brunswick was restored. The Canadian between Montreal and Sudbury, Ontario via Ottawa also resumed, shaving 12 hours’ travel time off the then Montreal to Toronto route over CN’s Kingston Subdivision. The Super Continental between Winnipeg and Vancouver via Edmonton and Jasper, Alberta was also restored. Mazankowski announced a two-year experiment to resume Toronto-Havelock, Ontario service via Peterborough, as well as restoration of Montreal-Sherbrooke and Montreal-Mont Joli services in the province of Quebec. The collision-plagued Edmonton-Calgary Dayliner service would be suspended. 

To reintroduce online communities to restored services, a display train operated between Montreal and McAdam, New Brunswick with intermediate stops. The train ran May 22-24, 1985 comprising two locomotives, coach, Dayniter, diner and sleeper among other cars. A Montreal-Sudbury display train on May 17-18 also stopped at intermediate points, and a Toronto-Havelock display train of RDC1’s 6114-6123 operated June 2, 1985. A display train also operated between Edmonton and Vancouver on May 26.

1987-1990 NEW POWER

Delivery of VIA’s 6400’s continued in 1987, and an order was signed with GM for another 26 locomotives which arrived by 1989. I observed my first F40 in March, 1987. Electrical problems in April 1988 meant that LRC locomotives couldn’t run solo, instead requiring a ‘B’ unit or steam generator unit. Intensive inspections were given to the LRC locomotive fleet, and the fleet’s future did not look bright. It was possible to see cab units, LRC units, and F40’s operating together. F-units were bumped to conventional trains, with F40’s leading most LRC consists. Four FPA4’s were sold to the Napa Valley Wine Train in January 1988, with 10 ex-CP F’s sold for scrap to Sidbec the following month. VIA chose not to equip the FPA4’s with Reset Safety Controls, leading to their retirement on April 1, 1989. The F’s last stand was in 1990, except for the occasional 6300 sighting in the years following.

On-time performance system-wide was 72%. Experimentation with long-distance train length led to reductions that saved VIA $12 million. The Montreal Maintenance Centre opened in 1987, and maintenance centres in Halifax, Winnipeg, and Vancouver were under construction. A modernization program "Value for Money" included new locomotives, planning for the Head End Power car program, a First Class program, and additional marketing. The goal was to attract tourists, not just attract intercity passengers. An experimental new service was  proposed - Canadian Rockies by Daylight - a daylight-only two-day trip between Vancouver and Jasper on CN, and Vancouver and Banff/Calgary on CP. This latter lucrative lane would eventually become the domain of the high-end Rocky Mountaineer.

Plans for a $200 million upgrading of 155 stainless steel and 35 blue&yellow cars with Head End Power (HEP) were announced. This marked the first project of this magnitude for which VIA had done all the engineering work. The upgrading of blue & yellow cars was subsequently cancelled, due to deterioration. Cars waiting for their shop date for HEP conversion were in Corridor service. The first stainless steel car entered CN’s Montreal shops in November 1988 for modernization, and the cars began emerging in early 1990. In 1991, upgraded cars were often deadheaded west on Corridor trains. The first completely-refurbished stainless steel consist was released in May 1990, promptly embarking on a seven-city public relations tour. 

A further 100 modifications were made to the LRC fleet. VIA’s car fleet stood at 700 cars, including 9 types of sleeping cars. VIA was coming of age as an independent corporation: owning, maintaining and operating most of its equipment and stations. Unfortunately, this change included massive cuts to VIA service that took place January 15, 1990. 

1990 - CUTS

On January 15, 1990 a round of drastic service cuts was imposed on VIA Rail. Announced by Transport Minister Benoit Bouchard on October 4, 1989, these service reductions would reduce the number of routes from 38 to 20, the number of trains per week from 405 to 191, and annual train mileage from 12,310,000 to 6,048,000. VIA’s non-union workforce of 1,565 was reduced by 565, and the unionized workforce was to drop from 5,735 with a reduction of 2,102 jobs. VIA’s annual subsidy would be cut almost in half by fiscal 1992-93, to $350 million. The new VIA Rail network would retain the following as of January 15:
  • two eastern services Halifax-Montreal, with the Atlantic and Ocean each operating triweekly
  • a triweekly Montreal-Matapedia-Gaspe service, the Chaleur
  • a triweekly western service Montreal-Vancouver mostly on CN rails
  • 128 trains weekly in the Quebec City-Windsor corridor
  • twice daily service Toronto-Niagara Falls and Toronto-Sarnia, with one train on each route belonging to Amtrak
  • weekly Vancouver-Calgary Rocky Mountaineer
  • continued operation of eight remote services: Montreal-Jonquiere, Montreal-Senneterre, Senneterre-Cochrane, Sudbury-White River, Wabowden-Churchill, The Pas-Lynn Lane and Jasper-Prince Rupert, all triweekly except Wabowden-Churchill weekly.
Major cities losing through VIA service: Victoria, Calgary, Regina, Thunder Bay, Sudbury, North Bay, Peterborough, Trois-Rivieres.

All service eliminated on these route segments (host railway):
  • Windsor Junction-Yarmouth (CP), Truro-Port Hawkesbury-Sydney (CN)
  • Moncton-Edmunston (CN)
  • Quebec-Trois Rivieres-Montreal (CP)
  • Toronto-Havelock (CP),
  • Toronto-North Bay and Cochrane-Kapuskasing (joint CN/ONR service)
  • Ottawa-Sudbury (CP)
  • Parry Sound-Sudbury (CP)
  • White River-Thunder Bay-Winnipeg (CP)
  • Portage la Prairie-Regina-Calgary-Vancouver (CP)
  • Victoria-Courtenay (CP though reversed in July 1990) 
  • some bus services
Few CP Rail lines would still host VIA trains: 
  • Lennoxville-Saint John
  • Smiths Falls-Brockville
  • Sudbury-White River. 
Within three days of the last Canadian, CP began lifting track in Carleton Place, Ontario.

Trains to be eliminated:
  • Halifax-Montreal 11, 12 (reduced to triweekly)
  • Halifax-Yarmouth 151, 152, 154
  • Halifax-Sydney 604, 605, 607, 608
  • Halifax-Port Hawkesbury 603, 606
  • Halifax-Moncton-Saint John 613, 614, 615, 619
  • Moncton-Montreal 14, 15 (reduced to triweekly)
  • Moncton-Campbellton 617, 618 (to be replaced by triweekly Ocean)
  • Moncton-Edmunston 625, 626, 628
  • Gaspe-Matapedia 16, 17 (reduced to triweekly)
  • Quebec-Mont Joli 631, 632
  • Moncton-Trois Rivieres-Quebec 159-164
  • Montreal-Drummondville-Quebec (reduced to three daily)
  • Montreal-Sherbrooke 629, 630 (reductions unknown, to be served by triweekly Atlantic)
  • Montreal-Ottawa (reductions unknown)
  • Ottawa-Toronto 44, 45
  • Montreal-Toronto 58, 59
  • Kingston-Toronto 651, 652
  • Toronto-Havelock 187, 189, 190, 191, 192
  • Toronto-Niagara Falls (reduced to twice daily including Amtrak joint train)
  • Toronto-Brantford-London (reduced to twice daily, details unknown)
  • Toronto-Kitchener-London (served only by through trains to Sarnia and Windsor)
  • Toronto-Sarnia (reduced to twice daily including Amtrak joint train)
  • Toronto-Windsor (reductions unknown)
  • Toronto-North Bay 120, 123, 124, 128, 129 (served by Ontario Northland)
  • Cochrane-Kapuskasing 128, 129
  • Montreal/Toronto-Vancouver 1, 2
  • Toronto-Sudbury 9, 10 (to be replaced by triweekly 3, 4 Toronto-Capreol)
  • Capreol-Sioux Lookout-Farlane-Winnipeg 7, 8, 106, 107, 108, 148, 149 (to be replaced by triweekly 3, 4)
  • Winnipeg-Vancouver 3, 4 (reduced to triweekly)
  • Victoria-Courtenay 198, 199
  • Moncton-Charlottetown
  • Senneterre-Val d’Or
  • Sudbury-Capreol buses

Predictably, a storm of outrage greeted these cuts, and train-offs would be held on the routes affected. Economists and the intercity bus industry applauded the decision, and former Transport Minister Jean Luc Pepin even praised Bouchard for his determination. The near-total exit of CP Rail from the VIA network resulted from VIA’s reliance on CN lines for its trains. Elimination of the overnight Cavalier meant the end of truly intercity overnight passenger travel in Canada.

In terms of operations, most of VIA’s first-generation diesels were likely to be retired, except for 15 remanufactured FP9’s. The fully-employed, relatively new F40PH-2’s would displace most LRC locomotives. Sleeping cars, diners, and most ex-CN blue & yellow cars would be considered surplus. RDC’s used chiefly on regional networks out of Halifax and Toronto faced increasing reliability difficulties. 

Reduced service meant unused assets, and VIA withdrew several car series including the Green, Bay and River series, 2500’s and 9300’s, and 20 Dayniters. Canac received 86 VIA locomotives for sale, plus 49 RDC’s, and 22 SGU’s, and six LRC locomotives were put into storage. VIA’s fleet after the cuts stood at 25 F-units, 5 RDC’s, 50 SGU’s and 493 passenger cars. Retired equipment was stored across the system, including Ottawa's Union station.

1991-1995 END OF STEAM

This era marked the end of most steam-heated trains. Three of five required HEP consists for the Canadian were in use by July 1991. After 10 years of service, LRC cars had racked up their first million miles and the fleet was renovated: 75 coaches and 25 VIA 1 cars concluding in 1993. An LRC car suffered an axle break near Belleville, Ontario on March 16, 1992, the fourth such break in just over a year due to metal fatigue. The LRC car fleet was immediately sidelined to undergo an $800,000 axle replacement program for the fleet, named Operation Axle.

As LRC cars slowly returned to service, shorter LRC trains meant fewer tickets for sale, and the use of buses, blue & yellow cars pulled from storage with SGU’s, and even GO Transit bilevels being substituted. By 1994, VIA’s fleet was pared down to 446 locomotives and cars. Most of the LRC locomotive fleet was stored by 1991, except for 6902, 6903, 6905, 6916, 6919, 6920 and 6921.

In 1995, an overhaul of the first upgraded long-distance stainless steel cars after five years in service was begun. Stainless steel cars were purchased for Corridor service, fully-modernized in a $58 million project to involve 33 cars. 

VIA eliminated conductor positions in an announcement made in March, 1997, combining conductors and engineers into a single craft: “locomotive engineer”. The contract between VIA and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers meant that 230 conductors and assistant conductors made their last runs on June 30, 1998.


Though the 1981 cuts, 1985 reinstatements and 1990 cuts affected multiple routes, there were many other routes affected during VIA’s lifetime. The following route discontinuances (except for one extension of service) are listed by date, route, (host railway), type of service and train numbers.

  • April 1/77 - Dauphin-Winnipegosis MB (CN) passenger accommodation on Tuesday-only mixed 284-285
  • April 23/77 - Richmond-Charny QC (CN) Railiners 626-630
  • April 23/77 - Crooked River-Hudson Bay SK (CN) passenger accommodation on mixed 292-293
  • April 23/77 - Prince Albert-Melfort SK (CN) passenger accommodation on mixed 292-293
  • April 23/77 - Edmonton-Grand Centre AB (CN) Railiners 696-699
  • April 30/77 - Limoilou-Clermont QC (CN) Railiners 678-679
  • May 23/77 - Thunder Bay North ON-Warroad MN-Winnipeg MB (CN) Railiners 686-687
  • May 23/77 - Sudbury-Sault Ste Marie ON (CP) Dayliners 427-428
  • May 24/77 - Edmonton AB-North Battleford SK (CN) Railiners 690-691
  • December 18/77 - Sherbrooke-Coaticook QC (CN) Friday-only Railiner 
  • April 28/79 - Windsor-Truro NS (CP(DAR)) passenger accommodation on mixed M21-M22
  • April 28/79 - Senneterre-Rouyn-Noranda QC (CN) 178-179
  • October 27/79 - Hillsport-Manitouwadge ON (CN) passenger accommodation on mixed 269-270
  • October 27/79 - Edmunston NB-Charny QC (CN) Railiners 616-617
  • October 27/79 - Flin Flon-Osborne Lake MB (CN) passenger accommodation on mixed 280-281
  • April 26/80 - Warman-Humboldt-Reserve SK (CN) Railiners 688-689
  • April 26/81 - Hamilton ON-Buffalo NY (CP) Dayliners 181-184
  • October 12/81 - Ste Therese-Mont Laurier QC (CP) seasonal weekend Dayliners 165-167, 175-176
  • October 24/81 - Montreal-Lachute QC –Ottawa ON (CP) Dayliners 170-172
  • November 13/81 - Ste Foy-Chambord QC (CN) twice-weekly 138-139
  • October 31/82 - Sarnia ON-Port Huron MI (CN) joint Amtrak/VIA extension of Toronto-Sarnia train begins
  • September 6/85 - Edmonton-Calgary AB (CP) Dayliners 194-197
  • November 30/85 - Neebing-Sioux Lookout ON (CN) passenger accommodation on mixed 277-278
  • May 31/86 - Hearst-Nakina ON (CN) passenger accommodation on mixed 272-273
  • May 1/88 - Jonquiere-Chicoutimi QC (CN) 132-133, 138
  • August 25/96 - Cochrane ON-Taschereau QC (CN) one day per week extension of Montreal-Senneterre Abitibi
  • May 24/97 - Taschereau-Senneterre QC (CN) triweekly extension of Abitibi

1996-2000 TRANSITION

As VIA continued to refine its trains and services, a prototype Flexliner trainset was tested for three months in 1996. The VIA Preference frequent-traveller program was launched. Overnight Enterprise service was introduced between Montreal and Toronto, aimed at attracting business travellers. Stable funding led to VIA’s continued growth and stabilization. 

The first HEP2 stainless steel Corridor train of three US-acquired cars debuted on February 29, 1996, complete with thin blue & yellow striping above the windows. The last HEP2 car was delivered to VIA in March, and HEP cars were in use in remote services in Quebec and Manitoba. F40’s from these services were sent to Corridor service as seven FP9ARM locomotives were equipped with HEP. 

By 1997, VIA’s active fleet stood at 392 locomotives and cars. In 1998, Home Hardware-decorated 6429-5576-5581 and four stainless steel cars toured Canada as a display train. F40’s, HEP and LRC cars received an updated design with larger Canadian flags and the Canada logo in a politically-inspired initiative. 


By 2005, VIA ridership reached 4 million for the first time, and the fiftieth anniversary of the Canadian was celebrated. In 2009, the CN Kingston Subdivision project was announced, to triple-track five segments of track, add station and platform enhancements, at a cost of $300 million. VIA continued the use of J-trains to save on crew costs. 

In the later part of this era, major planning, tendering and contracts were let for the refurbishing of VIA’s F40, LRC and stainless steel long-distance fleets. VIA would continue using the equipment in use since the 1980’s and 1950’s respectively. In 2001, General Electric P42DC’s in the 900-series entered service, and all but one of VIA’s last F-units, the 6300’s, were retired. The last LRC locomotives were also retired, and coaches were LRC and HEP stainless-steel cars. F40’s could be seen in several commemorative or commercial paint schemes: Kool-Aid, Telus, Spiderman, Loto-Quebec and CBC. Many Corridor trains were 1 locomotive, 3-5 cars. 

The Nightstar cars were bilingually-named “Renaissance” or Ren for short, and were introduced in a six-city tour. These cars entered service in spring 2002, first on the overnight Enterprise then in wider Corridor service. The Enterprise would be terminated in 2005, and the last of the 64 Ren cars assembled in 2006. By 2010, refurbished F40’s emerged in the Renaissance scheme to lead trains systemwide

In January 2011, new station buildings proposed for some Corridor cities caused concern among citizens. Cobourg councillors were put off by the proposed station’s appearance. In February, the Cobourg Heritage Committee and mayor had the station listed as ‘unfinished business with VIA’. Cobourg construction was to begin in January 2012. Brockville citizens were displeased that the existing station was to be demolished. In April, a re-design of the Brockville station was requested. Eventually, VIA decided against a larger revamp and additional construction of a new Brockville station. A new Belleville station opened in March 2012. A new Smiths Falls station was opened in December 2012.

In March 2011, the first refurbished LRC coach, 3315 was released from the Moncton shop facilities of Industrial Rail Services (IRSI), in service on VIA train Nos 22/23 in April. In 2009, a $100 million contract had been awarded to IRSI to completely overhaul 98 LRC coaches, providing a more energy-efficient car with a more comfortable interior environment. Initially planned to begin delivery in May 2010, with the last car completed by December 2013, the project was dogged with delays. Although VIA had produced Business Class ‘prototype’ car 3451, 3315 was deemed the ‘true prototype’ (coach) car, and this prototype designation was the subject of subsequent legal wrangling. 

IRSI 6202 travelled from Moncton to Sudbury in late-March 2011 to fill in for wreck-damaged VIA 6250 in Sudbury-White River service. RDC-4 6251 (nee CP 9251) with one engine, one operating cab, a new self-contained auxiliary power unit, rebuilt brakes, new air compressor and batteries began testing in January 2012. In November 2012, 6250 was released. RDC-2 6217 headed for Sudbury-White River service in March 2013, having been rebuilt at IRSI. In May 2013, RDC-1 6105 was released from rebuild at IRSI. The Victoria-Courtenay, BC RDC service was curtailed due to track conditions in March, 2011 and has not returned.

Coors’ Silver Bullet Express party train operated as VIA No 3 from Edmonton to Vancouver in April, 2011 hosting 100 lucky purchasers of special winning cans of the brew. 


VIA introduced a Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal dog-leg route made possible by siding and signal improvements between Brockville and Ottawa. Then in spring, 2012 VIA suspended Montreal-Gaspe operations for five months due to a deteriorating bridge structure on the route. After previously scaling the service back to only run to New Carlisle, the Chaleur was truncated to operate only as far as Matapedia in mid-2013, initially providing bus service for passengers travelling farther. The last runs of the Chaleur took place in late-September 2013. The final few runs did not rate a full set of equipment; operating a Chateau sleeper ahead of the Park car and designating the train as No 16 or 17 between Matapedia and Montreal. The very last run of No 17 took place on September 29.

In the summer of 2012, the first Accessible Renaissance cars, equipped with tie-down areas, positionable armrests and other amenities including accessible washrooms via an enlarged vestibule at the cars’ ‘B’ end, entered service, eventually comprising up to nine Ren coaches and three Ren sleepers. Also throughout 2012, the incomplete Prestige-class cars continued returning from Avalon Rail in Milwaukee, WI,  taken for completion in Charny QC.

The Grey Cup 100 Train Tour began on September 7 in Vancouver, heading to all eight Canadian Football League cities concluding on November 25. Specially-decorated 6445 led a train of CFL-wrapped cars: museum car 8615, reception car Kent, Grey Cup-carrying car CP 103 and Team car CP 104. While on CP lines, CP ES44AC 8711 led the VIA unit, added at Edmonton along with Skyline 8502 and Chateau Dollier (off at Winnipeg). CP 8711 came off at Portage la Prairie, where the special regained CN rails into Winnipeg. Also on the football theme, a Montreal Alouettes special operated as VIA No 669 on October 14. 

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, during the busy American Thanksgiving travel period in November, 2012 Amtrak leased ten VIA coaches: and two Park cars: Evangeline Park and Tweedsmuir Park. A set of Amtrak equipment was used to take travellers between Albany and New York City since the VIA cars would not clear tunnel approaches to New York’s Penn Station. The cars returned north in mid-December. Amtrak would normally borrow cars from commuter agencies at Thanksgiving, but due to hurricane flood damage was forced to look farther afield.

VIA 6403 was renumbered to 6459 on July 23, 2013. Featured on the new $10 Bank of Canada note, VIA’s Canadian is led by 6403. VIA elected to retire the number to avoid any possible negative future publicity. The new note was introduced in Vancouver on November 7, 2013 (November 7 being a notable date in Canadian railway history!) with stand-in 6415 temporarily renumbered as 6403 to have the ‘correct’ numbered unit at the unveiling ceremony.

Refurbished 6208, 6219 and 6251 were lifted by VIA No 15 at Moncton in October, 2013 along with partly-refurbished LRC cars 3310, 3320 and 3362, all heading to Montreal. Wandering RDC’s 6219-6251 then headed west on November 22 behind 912 and three LRC cars to Toronto, thence on the tail end of No 1 for testing on CN’s line to Prince Rupert!

In May, 2014 Rendez-Vous Canada, a major travel showcase held in Vancouver, featured upgraded Business Class car 3472 and Prestige Class cars Chateau Denonville and Laurentide Park. This was the first time an LRC car in VIA service had reached the West Coast. In August, the first revenue departure of a Prestige Class car took place with Laurentide Park on No 1 ex Toronto on August 23.

On October 18, 2014 a football special, operating as VIA No 665, took Montreal Alouettes fans to Toronto on October 18. VIA partnered with the Royal Canadian Legion in November, applying poppy logos to Business Class cars, making a sizeable donation to the Legion and making complimentary poppies available to customers. The poppies were applied to Business Class cars again in November 2015 and 2016. DJ and producer Skrillex chartered a VIA consist for his cross-Canada tour in July, 2015.
To celebrate Canada’s sesquicentennial, LRC coach 3356 was wrapped with a Canada 150 logo, oversize yellow VIA logo on a silver background and online station names in January, 2017. On February 9, 3350 and 3351 were observed similarly wrapped. Apparently many unrefurbished LRC cars with less than stellar paint schemes were being wrapped, like the fourth car, 3359. In February, 916 appeared in Corridor service with a large yellow VIA on its nose and online cities on its silver flanks (above, with short-lived black cab numbers). Also wrapped were 907 and 908, though with black pilots, trucks and cab numbers. Lounge car Glenfraser received the multi-coloured Canada 150 ‘leaves’ logo. VIA announced plans to wrap 22 locomotives and 19 cars.

Though any year of VIA's formation from 1976 onwards could be viewed as anniversariable, VIA chose 1978-2018 to mark its 40th anniversary with commemorative wraps, since 1967-2017 was used for CANADA 150. In mid-2019 VIA debuted its latest silvery wrapped iteration, the love the way/la voie qu'on aime campaign.

Concerns about the structural integrity of VIA's HEP fleet, first discovered during refurbishing of its diner fleet at Rail GD in 2018 led to intensive testing, but a somewhat favourable outcome, in what I've called the Buffer Car era.

The 2020 pandemic dealt a cruel blow to VIA's trains and furloughed many employees beginning in March. The tourist market was decimated, and VIA provided essential service only with strict public-health precautions. Many cars of the Canadian's HEP fleet deadheaded east for some much-needed shop time when intercity trains were cancelled and VIA's Corridor service drastically curtailed. Vancouver-Winnipeg service resumed in December, 2020 though full Toronto-Vancouver service waited until September, 2021 for resumption. The Montreal-Halifax Ocean returned in October, 2021.

The addition of the Siemens fleet, eventually to total 32 trainsets, began with the first trainset being delivered to the MMC on September 29, 2021. As of publication of this post, seven sets are now in VIA's fleet, each with one SC42 Charger locomotive, a cab car, two Business Class and two Economy coaches.

Pending at time of publication is VIA's HFR proposals. Initially HSR (High Speed Rail), the program has become High Frequency Rail and a separate corporate body formed by VIA for its development. It's difficult to foresee its eventual completion, with routes and property to be acquired.

VIA's route map continues to be simply skeletal, with Vancouver Island and Gaspe service shorn and unshown on this VIA webpage map:

Well, I trust you've enjoyed this retrospective ride filled with trials and triVIA, down through the decades of VIA's eclectic eras. From its inception until today, its mandate remains unstable, variably VIAble due to political whim. As rail enthusiasts, we have benefitted from seeing its evolving blue&yellow, grey&yellow, green&grey and grey, yellow and red paint equipment creak, trundle, clank, roll and even whiz by! What an amazing VIAriety we've seen.

Running extra...

When it came to illustrating this post, I began thinking, "What would be the one image (place, view or equipment) that would symbolize VIA's story?" I put the question out to the social media sphere, and up popped a plethora of potential photographic possibilities:
  • Hinton, burnt-out LRC or Turbo coach. (Old equipment and govt never takes it seriously until something goes wrong) ***
  • The Canadian splitting in Sudbury, one part going to Montreal and the other part going to Toronto.
  • Park car in the mountains.
  • Metaphor answer: Burnt out Turbo on the Kingston Sub.
  • The “I’m upset that nothing ever gets attention outside the corridor” answer: An F40PH making a station stop in Fallowfield with the gorgeous sunsets that happen there. Real answer: The Canadian poking its head out of Union Station in Toronto.
  • This is going to mean different things to different people. Being a Maritimer, I'd go with the Atlantic or Ocean.
  • Turbo!!!
  • An LRC pulled consist in some farm field between Toronto and Montreal.
  • An LRC-led Executive. Yeah, it’s the corridor, but the LRC’s are a definitive VIA identity…everything else is just repainted.
  • Final run Of #3, Nov 1981 railfans to Portage La Prairie.
  • A train leaving Central Station in Montreal.
  • Definitely the Canadian starting from Union Station in Toronto.
  • FPA-4 and heavyweight. Anywhere.
  • The drumhead of the last Canadian before the Mulroney cuts.
  • The Canadian or Super Continental in the early days, with a mix of CN, CP, and VIA liveries.
  • A big axe (!)
  • Empty tracks
  • A big pair of scissors
  • Something on Morant's curve.
  • F40PH-2D Brand new leading, the Canadian from then until today the most iconic engine and train that's the history of VIA in one picture.
  • The Canadian, over Stoney Creek Bridge.
  • Grabbing a 'Train Order' Hoop at 60 per 
  • Technology designed and built for Via Rail. They kept up Canada's fastest train schedule for almost 20 years. Almost all of the coaches are still in service after 40 years. The Alcan, Dofasco, MLW joint venture, LRC.
*** I like this one for many reasons.

Running extra...
VIAphile Matt Soknacki has been tracking an all-wrap VIA consist for the last little while. He was waiting to see an all-wrapped consist in person. The keystone of such a consist is one-of-a-kind wrapped Business Class car 3476 with its grey, not green band. Last Friday, Matt reported the all-wrap four-car LRC consist was eastbound on VIA No 46. Then, on Thursday, August 30 it was being hauled by VIA 909 when Matt caught it coming east from Toronto as VIA No 68. 

So on Friday, August 31, I expected it to be the consist for VIA No 61 (not! at Mi 179 CN Kingston Sub - above) or 67. At 1615, the latter train, led by wrapped VIA 907, had the consist. Here's my Youtube video. VIA 907 is wearing the 'love the way/la voie qu'on aime' wrap, and each car has 'the future is on board/l'avenir est a bord" and/or '40 years/ans' wraps ( at Mi 180 CN Kingston Sub - below). Looks good! I wanted to be close enough to get the car numbers, as well as trying to capture the entire consist. Traffic obliged with minimal photo-bombing by vehicles on Bath Road!

I have to thank Matt for his enthusiasm and getting me trackside. He has sent me lots of eastbound heads-ups and today I was able to send Matt a westbound heads-up and hope he'll have good luck!
Is this Trackside Treasure's longest post ever?  A post on history, making history? I don't know how many scrolls the average post takes to get through, but this is a scroll-a-thon. Also, perhaps one of the least-illustrated with photos, but I do my best not to show any photo twice anywhere on this blog. And judging by the labels each post has attached to it, VIA Rail is a strong second place behind CN's Kingston Sub. Again, showing the inextricable interweaving of CN, VIA and my years trackside being a central thread throughout Trackside Treasure's train tapestry time travel!


Bill Staiger said...

This is awesome. You must have spent days and days putting all the information into perspective. I don't believe that you missed anything. Your followers should really appreciate and enjoy this.

I consider this your masterpiece that I truly believe is outstanding! You did not leave any stones unturned. It is so thorough that it is a lot to absorb.

Thanks for your ongoing and devoted efforts. You are truly appreciated.

Eric said...

Thanks, Bill. While I tried to include some of the major events and dates, there's really no limit to the amount of detail we can get into 'down in the weeds'. Kept it high-level and macro.

I appreciate your kind comments,

JasonPaulSailer said...

Awesome writeup Eric! Very informative, brings back some great (and not-so-great) memories of the VIA trains.

Michael said...

An excellent executive summary of a long, complicated history. I've watched Via's story unfold in two very different places in my life. I watched it from the point of view of a kid who only briefly saw Via trains in Sarnia or on the rare occasions where my family embarked on a trip in the early morning hours when the morning train headed east from the fringes of Via's system in the corridor.

Now, as a longtime Ottawa resident, I am able to watch its story unfold in one of its major hubs, albeit in an area with a strange railway history and surprising ignorance to the importance of heavy rail transportation.

Via's story will no doubt take more twists and turns, given the whims of its political masters, but the fact that it continues on at all is a feat in and of itself.

Eric said...

It's great to hear how this history resonated with you, Michael. Indeed, we all hope for VIA's continued VIAbility!

Thanks for your comment,