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Canada Intercity Rail Maps

The slow decline of Canada’s passenger rail network

A new interactive map depicts Canada’s passenger rail networks in 1955 and in 1980

Rail diesel coaches (RDCs), introduced to Canada’s railways in the 1950s, were used on branch lines and in local service on busy mainlines through the 1980s. Today, they can only be found on VIA’s Sudbury-White River service, a remnant of the once-mighty CPR transcontinental network.

I recently completed a map of all Canadian passenger rail services that operated in 1955, from Whitehorse, Yukon, to St. John’s Newfoundland. As I wrote back in March, the decline in rail services in Canada can be attributed to a few factors: passenger train revenues were augmented by express cargo and mail, mixed trains, carrying both passengers and freight, were still justified in a time before trucks took over general industrial traffic. An incomplete highway network in northern Ontario, Newfoundland, and much of Western Canada also guaranteed healthy passenger demand in an era before jet travel became accessible to the masses.

The introduction of rail diesel coaches (RDCs), with their lower labour costs compared to conventional trains kept some branch lines going through the 1960s, but by the mid 1970s, neither Canadian National nor Canadian Pacific were interested in running passenger trains anymore; both were increasingly focused on bulk freight (grains, minerals, chemicals, finished automobiles) and intermodal container traffic.

VIA Rail took over most of CN and CP’s passenger trains in 1978, with direct government subsidies helping to fund its operations and capital expenses. By then, passenger train service was concentrated in the highly populated Quebec City-Windsor Corridor, but there were still three trains a day between Halifax and Moncton, two trains daily between Montreal and Atlantic Canada, between Winnipeg and Vancouver, and between Calgary and Edmonton. Scheduled bus connections, some even operated by VIA Rail, provided connections to places such as St. John’s, Fredericton, Charlottetown, and the Okanagan Valley.

Cuts imposed in 1981, 1990, and 2012 devastated the network. By 2019, there were only three trains a week in Atlantic Canada, two trains a week between Toronto and Vancouver. Even the Corridor saw cuts: there were five trains a day between Toronto, Kitchener, and Stratford, in 2019, there were just two. The only bright spots were an increase in the number of trains between Toronto and Ottawa and growing commuter rail networks in Toronto and Montreal.

A new map, linked to below, depicts the passenger network in 1955 and in 1980, just prior to the 1981 cuts. Routes operating between Canada and the United States are depicted (CN, CP, New York Central, Delaware & Hudson, Great Northern, Northern Pacific, and White Pass & Yukon in 1955, Amtrak and White Pass & Yukon in 1980). More information on each route is available by clicking on the lines.

Link to interactive map depicting 1955 and 1980 passenger rail services in Canada

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