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  CPR Chinook passenger service poster

Forth Junction Project
Passenger Rail Service
in Central Alberta

 
Forth Junction Project Vision Sharing Historical Perspective Ground Transportation
Heritage Preservation
Forth Junction
Heritage Society

 
Rise and Fall of Passenger Rail in
the Calgary-Edmonton Corridor


Regularly scheduled passenger trains served the area between Calgary and Edmonton on the Canadian Pacific line from 1891 to 1985.

When the transcontinental Canadian Pacific Railway reached Fort Calgary in 1883, the Calgary-Edmonton Trail gained significance as a major transportation corridor. At the time there were very few settlers between Fort Calgary and Fort Edmonton. But with the arrival of the railway in Calgary, a small community started to develop at the Red Deer River Crossing and a crude stagecoach service began carrying mail, goods and passengers north and south along the trail. The trip between the two forts took 4 to 5 days requiring several stopping houses along the way. The one way fare between Calgary and Edmonton was $25 (at the time, a good wage was $2 per day).

early passenger train on C & E RailwayAlmost immediately, there developed a demand for rail service. The Calgary & Edmonton Railway received its first charter in 1885 but nothing happened. A new charter was awarded in 1890 with the Red Deer River crossing determined in July of that year as a result of an agreement with Rev. Leonard Gaetz downstream from the Crossing settlement. The new railway was built from Calgary to the new townsite of Red Deer by the fall of 1890, a major feat in just 4 months. The first passenger train ran from south of Penhold to Calgary that fall prior to four bridges being built across the meandering Waskasoo Creek. The bridge over the river was constructed during the winter and the line was completed from Red Deer to Strathcona by July 1891. The CPR leased the line and took over operations in August 1891 with regular passenger service beginning in 1892. The travel time was 12 hours with a one-way fare of $10 between Calgary and Edmonton, marking the end of stagecoach service. However, there was no direct CPR link over the North Saskatchewan River from Strathcona to Edmonton.

Two of the builders of the Calgary and Edmonton Railway, William McKenzie and Donald Mann, started a new railway, the Canadian Northern, which reached Edmonton from Manitoba in 1902. To prevent takeover of the C&E Railway by the Canadian Northern, Canadian Pacific signed a 99 year lease with the C&E and later purchased the line as a subsidiary of the parent CPR.

The Canadian Northern subsequently planned to build a new direct Calgary-Edmonton line through Red Deer but plans were abandoned before the First World War.

passenger service in Calgary Edmonton corridor 1914A branch line from Lacombe to Alix opened in 1905 and it was extended to Stettler in 1906 with immediate regular passenger service between several communities along the line to Red Deer.

Also in 1906, a branch line was constructed between Wetaskiwin and Camrose, also providing connecting passenger service to Red Deer. The line was extended to Hardisty in 1907 and to Saskatoon in 1910 creating a direct link with Winnipeg. A new passenger service was created, called the Great West Express, between Winnipeg and Edmonton giving Canadian Pacific passengers a choice of transcontinental service either through Camrose and Saskatoon or south through Calgary.

Red Deer became the Canadian Pacific divisional point on the line in 1908 with several improvements to the railway facilities that included a new bridge across the river and a new grand station at the head of Ross Street completed in 1910. Meanwhile, the CPR Stettler line was extended to Castor in 1910 and Consort in 1914.

The Red Deer-based Alberta Central Railway, envisioned to become a major Western Canada line linking the west coast with Hudson Bay and Moose Jaw, started construction in 1910. It was leased to the CPR in 1911 and taken over by the CPR the following year as a CPR subsidiary when the company went bankrupt. The CPR finished construction work on the line reaching Rocky Mountain House in 1914 but Canadian Pacific did not have the same vision as the ACR. There was regular mixed passenger service three times a week in each direction between Red Deer and Rocky Mountain House until 1957. The line did have a major impact on the settlement and development west of Red Deer.

The Alberta Midland (a subsidiary of Canadian Northern) built a north-south line from Edmonton through Camrose, Stettler, Big Valley to Drumheller in 1911 and connected with Calgary in 1914. Big Valley was the divisional point until the railway was absorbed into the Canadian National Railways after the First World War.

The Canadian Northern Western Railway (another subsidiary of Canadian Northern) built a line west from Stettler to Sylvan Lake in 1911 with a spur to North Red Deer. It reached Rocky Mountain House in 1912 ahead of the Alberta Central and was extended to Nordegg in 1914. For many years, people had a choice of two parallel lines of passenger service, thrice-weekly on mixed trains, between Red Deer and Rocky Mountain House. Mixed passenger service was offered on CNWR thrice-weekly to Nordegg.

The Canadian Pacific High Level Bridge opened in 1913 connecting Strathcona with Edmonton and a new passenger station was constructed in downtown Edmonton. Strathcona remained the northern divisional point for the C&E Railway as well as the Wetaskiwin to Saskatoon line.

The Grand Trunk Pacific built a north-south line through Camrose, Mirror, Delburne, and Three Hills in 1913 which was extended to Calgary in 1914. Mirror became the divisional point for the line.

Another line, the Lacombe and Blindman Valley Electric Railway (which was never electrified and later renamed the Lacombe and Northwestern Railway), was built by local businessmen and farmers from Lacombe to Bentley in 1917. It was extended to Rimbey in 1919 and eventually connected with Leduc in 1931. One of the earliest self-propelled passenger rail cars made by Baguley was used for a short time on the line but it had a tendency to derail on curves. The line was taken over by CPR in 1928. Passenger service was offered on mixed trains thrice weekly each way until 1960.

Due to extreme financial pressures from a recession and the war and perhaps over-building, Canadian Northern and Grand Trunk Pacific effectively went bankrupt and become part of the new government-controlled Canadian National Railways between 1919 and 1923. One of the consequences of rationalization was that divisional status was removed from Big Valley. Mirror became the dominant railway town on CN between Calgary and Edmonton.

last CN passenger train Red Deer 1955Canadian National built a bridge across the Red Deer River and a passenger station on the east side of downtown Red Deer in 1920 providing passenger service through Mirror to Edmonton or Calgary. With the river bridge being washed out in the spring floods a number of times, the railway abandoned the river crossing in 1941 but continued service to the city station grounds via a connection to the Canadian Pacific along the present site of the museum, downtown Safeway store and Red Deer Lodge.

By 1930 Canadian Pacific was running 3 Calgary-Edmonton corridor passenger trains through Red Deer per day in each direction, taking 6-7 hours between the two largest cities with integrated Red Deer feeders from Stettler, Rimbey and Rocky Mountain House lines. Virtually all rail lines in Central Alberta had passenger service. In fact, for most communities, the railway was the only way to efficiently get from place to place. The railway was also the social and communication hub of almost every established community.

Chinook poster CPRIn 1936, Canadian Pacific introduced "high speed rail" with 'The Chinook', a specially-designed inter-city light passenger train between Calgary and Edmonton, reducing travel time to 4-1/2 - 5-1/4 hours at speeds up to 90-100 mi/hr with up to 22 stops along the line.

From 1936 to 1955, four passenger trains a day ran the Calgary-Edmonton route including an overnight train, the 'Eskimo'/'Stampeder', a 'milk run', and the 'Chinook' using a 4-4-4 Jubilee F2a class locomotive no. 3001, one of only five of this class of locomotive ever built. However, during the war years (1940 to 1945), the Jubilee was replaced by much heavier locomotives to accommodate the large number of military personnel leaving for service or arriving for training. None of the Jubilee F2a class survived the scrap yard but two of 20 F1a class of Jubilees (similar but significantly different) survived, one in Quebec and one in Pennsylvania. F1a Jubilees were occasionally seen in Red Deer on their way to Edmonton where they ran the passenger line to Lloydminster.

Early diesel passenger locomotives were streamlined cab units referred to as F units, sometimes with the letter 'P' indicating it had a steam generator for heating passenger cars. The last overnight passenger train ran in 1960.

passenger service in Calgary Edmonton corridor 1954Passenger service and rail infrastructure within all 3 corridors had remained relatively stable for 40 years (1914-1954) and for Canadian Pacific, it had been over 60 years. But with increased competition from airlines, new roadways, the new affordability of personal vehicles and cheap fuel, the desire for rail passenger service started to decline.

The Brazeau Colleries at Nordegg closed in 1955 making CN passenger trains between Mirror and Rocky Mountain House unprofitable. As a result, both CN and CP cancelled all passenger service on the line including Red Deer. The CP connection in the city proved unsatisfactory so the terminal was relocated back to the north side of the river in 1960. Several other marginal rail lines all across Central Alberta and Western Canada lost passenger service in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Canadian Pacific cancelled the secondary east-west passenger service (the Great West Express) between Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Wetaskiwin and Edmonton in 1960. Passenger service from Coronation and Stettler to Lacombe and Red Deer ended in the early 1960s. With the opening of the Highway 2 expressway in 1961 and 1962, rail passenger service was further threatened.

Dayliners at InnisfailIn an attempt to maintain viable passenger service within the Calgary-Edmonton corridor, Canadian Pacific replaced 'the Chinook' Jubilee with a Budd 'Dayliner' in 1955 cutting the travel time from Calgary to Edmonton to 3-1/2 hours compared to the approximate five hour run of 'the Chinook'. Shortly thereafter, Dayliners replaced the other passenger trains.

Budd Dayliners (called Railiners by CN) also ran on the Canadian National lines between Calgary and Edmonton starting in 1956. One ran on the former Grand Trunk Pacific line through Three Hills, Delburne, Mirror and Camrose and another ran on the former Canadian Northern line from Drumheller through Big Valley and Stettler to Camrose where the two were combined for the rest of the trip to Edmonton. Travel time between the two major cities was 4-1/2 hours.

passenger service Calgary Edmonton corridor 1978The CP Dayliners reached a peak of three trains a day in each direction in 1969 carrying almost 80,000 passengers that year. The following year, the number of trains was reduced to one in each direction per day resulting in only 31,400 passengers that year and only 23,400 passengers in 1971. At the order of the federal Railway Transport Committee, the frequency was increased to two trains per day in 1972. The CP Edmonton downtown station was closed to passengers in 1971 (and demolished in 1978), with Strathcona (south Edmonton) becoming the northern terminus of CPR corridor passenger rail service (with a shuttle to downtown), further eroding the desire for travellers to use the train. Canadian Pacific corridor service was reviewed in 1976 and 1979 by the Railway Transport Committee after public hearings in response to continued CP requests to cancel passenger operations. Meanwhile, the government-owned VIA Rail took over all CP and CN passenger service in 1978.

The federal Committee ordered improved service in 1981 citing the corridor had the best potential for rail passenger service outside of the Quebec City-Windsor corridor. Ridership increased to 53,000 in 1982, the highest since 1969. One-way fare was $27.
However, grade crossing collisions and railway errors caused the public to question the safety of Dayliner service. And poor integration with other transport modes and connectivity caused much frustration.

In the early 1980s, Via Rail tested a new style of passenger train in the corridor called the LRC (Light-Rapid-Comfortable) that was proposed for the Calgary-Edmonton run but ended up only being used in Eastern Canada.

The Canadian National 'Railiner' between Calgary and Drumheller was discontinued in 1971 but ran between Drumheller and Edmonton until 1981. The CN Calgary-Edmonton 'Railiner' through Three Hills and Mirror was cancelled in the 1970s.

The Dayliners continued on the CP Calgary-Edmonton corridor until September 6, 1985 when the service was cancelled due to financial losses and at-grade collisions after 94 years of continuous rail passenger service. By the time the service ended, stops along the line were only at Didsbury, Olds, Innisfail, Red Deer and Wetaskiwin.

The Red Deer CPR railyards were relocated from downtown to the west side of city in 1991. The downtown station was closed but has been preserved.

Periodically, special excursion trains, sometimes using vintage steam locomotives and passenger cars, run through the corridor as well as the transcontinentals if the main lines through the mountains are blocked.

rail excursions between Stettler and Big ValleyA private short line, the Central Western Railway, purchased the CN Stettler subdivision in 1986 and started steam train excursions along the line. A portion of the line was sold to Alberta Prairie Rail Steam Excursions between Stettler and Big Valley.

In the 1980s, the concept of a high-speed rail line between Alberta's two largest cities with a stop in Red Deer was proposed. The idea keeps getting resurrected and shelved but there is currently growing momentum to secure the right-of-way for such a service. As currently proposed, the high speed train would take 84 minutes from Calgary city centre to Edmonton city centre, run hourly during the day and cost around $65 one way. The Red Deer terminal has not been determined but would likely be west of the city somewhere between the Red Deer Regional Airport and Highway 11.

The Van Horne Institute released a study in 2004 suggesting that high speed rail was viable in the Calgary-Edmonton corridor. The Alberta government commissioned a study on high speed rail in 2006 which was completed in February 2008 and released to the public in July 2009. The Province also purchased property for possible future high speed terminals in Calgary and Edmonton in 2007. Recently the Province undertook another study on future transportation needs that could include high-speed passenger rail.
 

 

Trails, Transit, Trains
Trails and Trains Overview
Trains and Transit Overview

Milestones 1910-13
Calgary Edmonton Trail
Transit in Central Alberta
Red Deer Transit

Jubilee 3001 Chinook
Locomotives Central Alberta
Rise and Fall of Passenger Rail
 

The Railways of Central Alberta
Calgary & Edmonton Railway
C & E Railway at Red Deer
Alberta Central Railway
Canadian Northern Railway
Canadian Northern Western RR
Canadian National Railway in RD
Grand Trunk Pacific Central Alberta
Lacombe & Blindman Valley RR
Timetable Excerpts
 
Railway Stations of the Region
C & ER Combination Stations
Portable Stations
Red Deer CPR 1910 Station
Role of Railway Stations
Red Deer's 4 Stations
CPR Stations in Central Alberta
CNR Stations in Central Alberta
Multiple Station Communities
Station Plans

 
Bridges, Structures, Heritage
Rail Structures of Region
Central Alberta Rail Bridges

Mintlaw Trestle
Alberta's Railway Bridges
Western Canada Rail Bridges



 

 

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