The Journey: A quick history of shipping grain to port by rail

From Prairie farm to ocean port, our rail lines still shock the imagination with their engineering and bravado

It’s a trip that is so formidable, it weakened the knees of generations of politicians, entrepreneurs and engineers alike. Everybody could tell the northern Great Plains would be an ideal place for growing cereal crops, and they knew too that the world would love to eat what we grow, but getting those crops to port from places like Bashaw, Alta., Wolsely, Sask., or Dugald, Man., would mean a long haul over hundreds of miles of prairie and then across a wall of mountains.

Then Canada got on with the job, creating the rail system that in turn created our country, and that keeps creating the West today. If it too rarely gets called one of the wonders of the world, that only shows how poorly we understand it.

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“It’s distance and volume,” explains Barry Prentice, professor of transportation at the University of Manitoba’s Asper School of Business. Trucks can’t do it, at least on the required scale. Nor is there a St. Lawrence system or a Mississippi in the heart of the West.

Instead, it’s got to be rail.

The secret of the railway’s efficiency is the steel wheel riding on a steel rail that is anchored into a deep roadbed that supports the mass of a fast-moving freight train. This wheel and rail combination allows the use of heavy, high-capacity cars that, in spite of their size, have low rolling friction.

It’s a technology that came of age in Victorian Europe, about the same time the first generation of farm families settled in Western Canada, when the sheer expanse of the new land demanded some kind of connection with the heartland to aid settlement and cultivation.

The solution was to build a railway from the resource-rich west to the mills and factories of the east. The stipulation was that it had to be a southern route, close to the border to encourage new settlers to build political and economic ties with Ottawa rather than the expansionist United States.

The first Canadian transcontinental railway was the Canadian Pacific, running its mainline across the Prairies from Winnipeg to Calgary and then over the mountains to Vancouver. The Canadian National followed, although it was actually an amalgamation of several existing railways cobbled together by the Canadian government into one transcontinental carrier.

The CN paralleled the CP west from Winnipeg but they crossed outside of Portage la Prairie where the CP headed for Regina while the CN swung north to Saskatoon. They met again in Kamloops, B.C., before heading down the Thompson Valley to the Fraser and on to Vancouver.

Six by rail, or 280 by truck

Over a century of development, railway technology would evolve from tiny steamers pulling a string of boxcars over light gauge rails to the high-power diesel locomotives hauling the 120-car-unit trains we see today.

Those fragile 80-pound rails also supercharged the whole grain handling system, starting with country elevators on sidings, a length of track for 25 to 100 cars, Prentice says. “One of the advantages of our system is that it doesn’t require much labour. We use a lot of electric motors and diesel to move things around.”

The first railways put grain in boxcars. The boxcar was suitable for its time because it carried merchandise west while hauling grain east, running loaded in both directions. As more and more towns were connected to each other by road, trucks gradually took over the lucrative merchandise haul. Incoming loads got lighter while outgoing loads of grain got heavier, so the railways responded with the covered hopper car, a dedicated car specialized for grain transport.

“A typical hopper car carries 92 tons of product, or the equivalent of 2.5 Super B trucks, so a full train of 112 cars is equivalent to 280 Super B truck loads,” explains Mark Hemmes of Quorum Corporation. “If that train is carried 1,000 miles to port it will have three or four crew sets, six to eight people altogether, while the 280 trucks will need 280 drivers.”

So a 112-car train vastly reduces the person hours required to haul that much grain over that much distance. In doing this, that freight train also delivers over three times the fuel efficiency with one-third of the greenhouse gas emissions, with all of this at less than half the cost of a trucking fleet with none of the potential highway congestion.

Once our hopper car is full, it’s spliced into a train, and a lash-up of two or more locomotives is coupled to the front.

How many locomotives?

The number of locomotives is based on the weight of the train and the gradient. “The rule of thumb is to have a horsepower to tonnage ratio of about .80 to .90,” Hemmes says. “For example, if you have 100 cars with 92 tons of grain each, by the time you’ve added the weight of the cars plus the locomotives you have a train weighing in at 11,000 tons. Two locomotives at 5,000 horsepower each gives you 10,000 horsepower and a ratio of 0.9 horsepower per ton of train.”

In the days of the boxcar, trains were pulled by steam locomotives, big external combustion engines that burned wood, coal or bunker C oil to make steam. This high-pressure steam was fed into a front-mounted cylinder that pushed a piston that then turned the large drive wheels.

The old steamers were magnificent beasts. They were immensely powerful but difficult to operate. Their energy efficiency was very low and they drank huge quantities of water, a scarce resource in many parts of the prairies. Beginning in the 1950s, North American railroads retooled for the more efficient diesels, and they’ve been running those ever since.

“Today locomotives are, in fact, diesel electric,” Hemmes says. “The diesel engine turns a generator and this powers traction motors that are part of the locomotive’s axle system. A typical locomotive has six axles and traction motors. A typical train will have two locomotives for every 100 cars and each locomotive will have between 4,000 and 6,000 horsepower.”

The locomotives are coupled to the front of the train, and O-ring-sealed air pipes are connected to the cars. The locomotive’s big air compressors start pumping air into the braking system, and once the reservoir tanks are up to pressure, the crew waits for a clear signal from the traffic control.

When the line is clear, the engineer notches up the throttle and the train sets off with a full load of grain headed west. If it’s a CP drag, it’s headed for Vancouver by way of Calgary. If it’s CN, then it’s going by way of Edmonton. Once over the B.C. border from Jasper it will head to Vancouver via Blue River to Kamloops, or it may take the north line from Red Pass Junction to Prince Rupert.

Over Yellowhead

The CPR has the older route, and the first surveyors in the region proposed to run the line through the Yellowhead Pass between Jasper and Mount Robson. It was the easiest route with workable grades but the government at the time was adamant that the railway should follow a south route. Today’s Trans Canada Highway parallels the CPR through some of the most spectacular scenery in Canada but, for the railway, this means a more difficult route with punishing grades over three formidable obstacles.

“When you have traffic moving through an area with a fixed capacity, like a section of track through the mountains, it’s a bottleneck that they call a pinch point on the railway,” Prentice says. “The railways are very conscious of this and they’re continuously working on relieving them, but it’s futile effort in some respects. As soon as you relieve one pinch point, the cars move freely to the next one and things get backed up there. You can improve the system gradually over time but it will never be perfect because you’re always running from one bottleneck to the next.”

If our grain train is running on the CPR, it stops in Calgary where one or more additional locomotives are spliced into the middle of the train in preparation for the two major pinch points along the way. One is the climb over the Kicking Horse Pass and the other is the brutal heavy haul over Rogers Pass between Golden and Revelstoke, B.C.

Our train leaves Calgary and follows the Bow River to Banff, where it starts a long climb through Lake Louise to the summit of the Kicking Horse Pass. Then it drops abruptly into the valley of the Kicking Horse River where the grades measure in at around 2.2 per cent, i.e. for every 100 feet our westbound train moves forward, it drops two feet.

“It was worse than that before,” Prentice laughs. “Before the Spiral Tunnels were built they had a grade that was 4.5 per cent or something and they had a few runaway trains.”

The original Big Hill was a treacherous stretch that required all the skill the running crews could muster to keep a descending train under control. To solve the problem, the CPR had to lengthen the line and, in doing that they managed to reduce the gradient from the ferocious 4.5 per cent to a stiff but manageable 2.2 per cent. To do this, they drilled the two Spiral Tunnels, among the great engineering wonders of the railway world, just east of the town of Field, B.C.

As our train enters the upper tunnel it begins a long left turn that takes it into the core of Cathedral Mountain. It continues the turn and follows a giant corkscrew path, still descending, until it pops out of the lower portal in a cloud of acrid brake-shoe smoke. At this point the engineer and conductor can actually look up and see the last of the train going the other way about 40 feet above them.

From there the train crosses the highway and does a right hand bend into the upper portal of the second tunnel drilled into Mount Ogden. From here the train rolls out of the tunnel, the diesels once again watching the last of the cars moving over top, and carries on through Field following the Kicking Horse River to Golden.

Railways often follow river courses because, in the mountains, one of the rivers will point to the summit of the pass. Once our grain train leaves Golden, it parts company with the Kicking Horse River and runs along the Beaver River into Rogers Pass. This is the Selkirk Range with spectacular Alp-like mountains marked by sharp peaks, steep slopes and deep valleys. The grades are steep, sitting around the 2.2 per cent mark, so again the going is slow.

Breathtaking Rogers Pass

The original line actually climbed to the summit and crossed over the top of the pass. Nowadays, beside the highway on the western side of the summit, a series of huge stone bridge piers still stand. These piers supported a series of S-curve bridges that the old steam locomotives blasted over in order to crest the pass.

One of the old piers now lies on its side, knocked over by the careening snow packs that fall from the peaks, mute testimony to one of Nature’s formidable forces.

Still Rogers Pass vexed the company. Those heavy grades required big power, and this was the territory of the Selkirk-type steam locomotives built by the CPR, the largest steamers operated in the British Empire, although the Americans had even bigger ones, giants such as the Big Boys that hauled trains for the Union Pacific and the Great Northern’s Yellowstones that roamed the passes to the south.

Until the ’80s, westbound trains would stop at the helper station in Beavermouth, where another lash-up of six diesels would set shoulder and help push the trains over Rogers Pass, but projected increases in traffic prompted the CPR to drill another tunnel under the pass. Now, heavy westbound trains take the lower route through the nine-mile MacDonald Tunnel and then roll downhill along the Illecillewaet River to Revelstoke. From there it’s on through the Eagle Pass in the Monashees to Kamloops, where our train meets both the Thompson River and the CN line.

Joining forces with CP

After Kamloops the CPR encounters its third major obstacle, one that it shares with the CN. Once again the railways follow the rivers, in this case the Thompson as it carves a deep channel through interior B.C. At Lytton, the Thompson flows into the Fraser, and the Fraser cuts its own deep gorge through the Coastal Range to Vancouver.

These precipitous trenches were the site of some of the most difficult railway construction in the world. Both lines cling to the sides. Sidings are few and far between.

Running trains in both directions faces tough limits, which has led to another of the wonders of the railway world, but this time, it’s a wonder of a different sort.

“The railways have entered into a co-production agreement,” Prentice says. “There’s no room to put in a double track in the Fraser Canyon so one railway takes all the eastbound trains and the other takes all the westbound trains, and then they move back onto their own tracks outside the canyon.”

At Napa, close to the town of Ashcroft, B.C., the two lines run side by side, and it’s here that they trade routes. All trains bound for Vancouver, whether they’re CN or CP, take to the CN line, while all eastbound trains come up the canyons on the CP before moving back onto their own tracks.

Our CP grain train moves through the crossover onto the CN mainline and runs the canyons on the CN side of the river past Hell’s Gate and Yale. It then rejoins the CP mainline in Mission City in the Fraser delta and moves on to the port elevator in Vancouver.

It’s here that the journey ends and the train is unloaded in much the same way that farm trucks unload at the inland elevator. The car’s lower doors open over a collecting hopper and the grain pours out.

Then do it again

The empty cars then head back east for another load, and the cycle starts all over again. The cycling time for an empty car arriving at an inland elevator to be filled, shipped and return empty again is about 14 days.

That car cycle time has been coming down, thanks to longer train lengths of 50 to 100 cars and the hook and haul idea, which means the cars don’t have to come into a classification yard like Symington in Winnipeg.

Even so, to put this haul into perspective, the distance from Minneapolis to ports in New Orleans is around 1,200 miles as compared to a 1,400-hundred-mile run from Winnipeg to Vancouver.

Don’t forget the mountains that our trains face, though, or all the other obstacles. Ice and snow on the tracks make moving difficult, and the cold compromises the O-ring seals on the air braking systems, forcing the railways to run shorter trains below -25 C.

Canada’s railways are vital for getting grain to customers all over the world but it’s not an easy job. Again, it’s all that land between the points where it’s grown and the points from which it’s shipped.

Says Prentice, “We’re a long distance from the water, and that’s the truth.”

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