Can VIA Rail’s Canadian beat the clock on the busy Canadian National main line?

An eastbound Canadian National intermodal train passes through the Canadian during his long layoff in Hornepayne, Ontario on February 9, 2023. Bill Stephens

Have been driving VIA Rail’s for years Canadian was more about the experience than getting there on time. In fact, even more. Even your VIA flagship boarding pass indicates that you shouldn’t book same-day connections at your destination.

But things seem to be changing. As part of its effort to operate its freight closer to schedule, the host railroad Canadian National has the Canadian in recent months despite booming grain traffic. Arrivals in Vancouver and Toronto were on time or even early. Stations in between have seen yo-yo service: sometimes early, sometimes on Announced and sometimes late.

So if you get on the sleeper car Jägerhof in Vancouver last week you wonder how the February 6 version Canadian operates the busy CN mainline in winter.

The journey starts well: the 13-car train leaves Vancouver Pacific Central Station at 3 p.m. sharp. Then it’s off to the south.

Just 3,000 feet or so into the drive, a CN switch job is blocking the path of #2 at the CN junction. From the Skyline Dome you can watch two six-axle GEs rolling back and forth with a series of double stacks for a little over an hour. They eventually push themselves out and #2 starts moving at 4:11 p.m

A Canadian National Switch job is blocking VIA Rail’s route Canadian less than a mile from Pacific Central Station in Vancouver, British Columbia on February 6, 2023. Bill Stephens

Trains columnist Bill Stephens

Your Canadian pulls onto the Canadian Pacific tracks on mission at 6:30 a.m. – 1 hour, 42 minutes behind schedule – and sees nothing but green signals on the directional run zone through the Fraser River Canyon. The nearly full moon illuminates the landscape, and from the Laurentide Park Dome you will see snow-capped peaks giving way to dense forests that fall almost to the bottom of the rocky canyon. You’d rather continue to marvel at the rugged landscape and the railway that runs through it, but the bed is calling from Roomette #3.

Awakening to the rumble of passing cargo, you open one eye in the twilight and see a blurry empty center bar plane rolling west. #2 is somewhere in the Clearwater Subdivision of CN deep in the mountains of British Columbia and is now running 2½ hours late.

CN is busy today as a barrage of grain, intermodal, sulphur, coal and goods rolls towards Vancouver, Canada’s busiest port complex. East of Red Pass, BC, freight traffic is increasing as CN’s Albreda Subdivision now also transports freight to and from the Port of Prince Rupert, BC

A westbound grain train stops for them Canadian on Clemina siding on the Albreda Subdivision in British Columbia on February 7, 2023. Bill Stephens

It does, thanks to a combination of good disposition, long twin temples and ample padding on schedule Canadian can make up time. It departs the resort town of Jasper, Alberta, 26 minutes late. About 232 miles later he leaves Edmonton 3 minutes early.

The rest of the way across Prairie #2 remains within 45 minutes of the schedule. CN’s rail traffic managers in Edmonton have their hands full managing freight traffic on the 789.8 miles between Edmonton and Winnipeg, North America’s busiest single-track freight railroad.

East of Saskatoon, No. 2 proceeds with yellow signals until it becomes stuck behind two stack trains caught in a CN crew rotation backlog outside of the Melville, Saskatchewan division point. But after that, the rail traffic controller gives the Canadian some preferential treatment: it overtakes the 112 intermodal train between Vancouver and Toronto at the Oakner siding and 16 miles later mistakes the main line at Rivers for the 112’s counterpart, the 111.

A westbound Canadian National stacker train, with a former CREX ES44AC No. 2783 in charge, encounters the Canadian in Ontario on February 9, 2023. Bill Stephens

In lonely western Ontario on Thursday, the Canadian whips up its own blizzard of fresh snow as it rolls through the spruce and birch forest largely at track speed. It arrives at the Hornepayne service station 1 hour and 13 minutes early and then departs on time.

On Friday’s home stretch to Toronto, the Rail Controller makes the most of the Bala Subdivision and its preponderance of steam-era sidings. After overtaking a first-class intermodal train, meeting a manifest and holding the main line for a westbound stack train, the Canadian has the railroad to itself for the remaining 70 miles to Toronto Union Station.

In a view from the Skyline Dome, the Canadian overtakes a Canadian National intermodal train stopping at the siding in Medora, Ontario on February 10, 2023. Bill Stephens

The Canadian stops at the platform at 12.00, 2 hours, 49 minutes earlier than planned. A few years ago, an early arrival would have taken a miracle. But it’s becoming the norm as a liquid CN aims to keep everything moving, including the Canadian.

VIA Rails Canadian is approaching Toronto Union Station, where it will arrive on February 10, 2023, 2 hours and 49 minutes ahead of schedule. Bill Stephens

You can reach Bill Stephens at and keep following him LinkedIn and Twitter @bybillstephens

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *