Malcolm Kenton reports on his recent trip on VIA Rail’s unique passenger service between Sudbury and White River, Ontario:
VIA Rail Canada’s Sudbury-White River train (formerly known as the Lake Superior), consisting of two (sometimes three) Budd-built Rail Diesel Cars (RDCs) that operate three days a week in each direction along a 301-mile section of Canadian Pacific’s transcontinental main line, is the only passenger train of its kind in North America for several reasons. It is currently the only regularly scheduled intercity passenger service using Budd RDCs (the only others being used as backups on two commuter lines, Tri-Met’s Westside Express in Oregon and Trinity Railway Express in Texas, and on a handful of excursion trains). It is the only intercity passenger train in Canada that uses Canadian Pacific trackage for a significant stretch (western Canada’s privately-run Rocky Mountaineer excepted). And it is one of three passenger train routes in northern Ontario that delivers people, supplies and equipment to points along the line that are not accessible by road (except for a few dirt logging roads) or air (except for a few wilderness lodge sites that have small landing strips for bush planes). I had the opportunity to travel aboard this service — whose parallel cannot be found on this side of the 49th Parallel — last week (June 18 & 19).
VIA refurbished all three of the RDCs within the past year, giving them new seats, electric outlets at each seat, restrooms, heating & air conditioning systems, and wheelchair accessibility features. One car has a large restroom whose doors slide open or closed and lock with the push of a button. A crew member on my trip referred to it as “the Cadillac bathroom.” Next to the engineer’s cab on each coach is an area that doubles as a baggage area and a crew break area, with refrigerator, sink and coffee maker. The highest passenger train speed limit on the route is 75 mph, reached for just a brief stretch between Sudbury and Cartier. Otherwise, it generally tops out at 60 — though on rare occasions where the train has had to run with just one RDC, it is limited to 45 mph — meaning the trip is usually completed just barely within the engineers’ legal limit of 12 consecutive hours of service, between which periods crews must be given at least eight consecutive hours of rest.
The vast majority of passengers on “the Budd cars” (as most locals refer to the train) — usually only a handful on each trip, though occasionally all 48 seats on both cars are occupied for a portion of the trip — are visiting remote cabins along the line to fish, hunt/trap, canoe or kayak, mountain bike, or otherwise enjoy the great outdoors. There are also year-round residents of the mid-route communities of Ramsey and Chapleau who use the train to visit family and friends and go to medical appointments in Sudbury (as there are no medical specialists in their hometowns). Passengers bring aboard an array of gear for wilderness expeditions — canoes, fishing gear, coolers, etc. — which is loaded into the baggage section of one of the RDCs (in the busy season, a third RDC car is added that is solely a baggage car, as was the case on my jaunt). And owners of cabins and retreats near the line use the train as a parcel service, having others buy groceries and supplies at one of the endpoints and drive them to the train, to be loaded into the baggage hold and unloaded at the stop nearest their outpost.