Update for April 8, 2021: I have since added all passenger rail routes operating in the year 1955 in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland, and Manitoba, including trains to Western Canada from Minneapolis-St. Paul. I also indicate where passenger rail cars were exchanged from Toronto and Montreal via CN and CP to other railways for through passage to major US cities. I will eventually complete Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia, and Yukon Territory to the map and add notable station points.
Original post published March 25, 2021
Sadly, passenger rail has faced a long, slow decline in Canada. Though commuter and regional rail systems in the Toronto and Montreal metropolitan areas have expanded tremendously over the last fifty years, rail service in general has declined in frequency, reliability, and even in speed. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, just six trains a day in each direction operated direct between Canada’s two largest cities, the fastest of those trains taking 4 hours 48 minutes to go 539 kilometres to get from Toronto to Montreal.
Seventy years ago, 28 trains on a typical weekday called at CN’s Hamilton Station, departing for Toronto, Niagara Falls, London, Guelph, Barrie, and Simcoe, with another 12 trains calling at the TH&B station on Hunter Street. In 2019, just six GO trains departed Hamilton for Toronto each weekday, with no direct connections even to Niagara, London, or Guelph.
There are several causes for the decline in passenger rail. In 1955, which the map below depicts, passenger train revenues were augmented by express cargo and mail, with the mail contracts alone helping to subsidize many branch lines. Lightly-travelled branch lines were served by mixed trains, which carry both passengers and freight. In Northern Ontario and Quebec, many highways were still of poor quality or unfinished — Highway 17 along the Lake Superior coast was not complete until September 1960. Construction of Highway 401 was just getting underway in 1955. In addition, the airline industry was still new, and air travel was expensive.
Improved highways drew more passengers to coach buses, while the move to trucks for cargo and mail deliveries made many branch lines unprofitable. Larger jet aircraft made air travel cheaper and more convenient for long distances. The major railways concentrated their energies on modernizing their freight networks, with CN and CP building new freight classification and intermodal yards outside of central Toronto, while focusing on bulk freight and shipping containers.
Though CN made efforts to win passengers back in the 1960s and early 1970s with new fare structures and equipment like the Turbo train between Toronto and Montreal, the government of Canada stepped in and took over most intercity passenger rail services in 1977. Though VIA Rail Canada acquired new modern locomotives and rail cars for the Ontario-Quebec corridor services, cuts to government subsidies made in 1981, 1989-1990, and 2012 forced further service cutbacks. British Columbia and Ontario also cut passenger services on their own rural railways.
I mapped the year 1955 for several reasons. I have CN and CP schedules for those years in my collection, while I found contemporary Ontario Northland and New York Central schedules online. It was also the year both railways inaugurated new transcontinental trains: CP launched the Canadian, while CN launched the Super Continental, luxurious diesel-hauled trains with modern sleeping cars and lounges. There were six trains a day leaving Montreal and Toronto for Vancouver that year. In 2019, there were just two trains a week.
In 1955, there were still many branch passenger and mixed trains in Ontario and Quebec, most of which were gone by 1965. Mixed trains were notoriously slow, though, but in many cases, there was a faster parallel highway coach. 1955 was also the last year for CP’s electric trains between Kitchener and Lake Erie, with the London & Port Stanley and Montreal & Southern Counties railways ending passenger runs a year later.
For now, I just mapped passenger rail services directly serving Ontario and Quebec, including direct trains to neighbouring provinces and states. I used Paul Delamere’s amazing Ontario Railway Map Collection and Quebec Railway Map Collection, adapting his work to identify those routes used by passenger trains in 1955, then mapping them on my own server.
Eventually, I will create additional maps showing the passenger rail network in the 1970s, 1980s, and present day. I may also try to map those routes in other provinces and add those to the current map, below.
Please contact me if you have any suggestions, corrections, or other feedback.