Railway passenger service waxed and waned over the 1900s

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015. Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.

Over the years readers have often requested railway columns.

A gentleman from the north asked me about the decline of railways throughout the 20th century. He noted the decline in railways over much of the period, and wondered if the railways ever did take any measures to reverse that trend.

The branch lines through Wellington were victims of the same social and economic trends that claimed much of the North American railway network between the 1920s and the 1980s.

Canadian National Railways did mount a crusade, though ultimately an unsuccessful one, to meet the competition of the automobile and truck in the 1920s.

As a railway system, Canadian National began as something of a bloated elephant in 1917, when Robert Borden’s Conservative government took over the ailing Canadian Northern system and merged it with a number of lines already owned by the government.

Next was the nationalization of the Grand Trunk Railway, which became final in 1923. The Grand Trunk operated much of the branch line system in Wellington and southern Ontario.

As a whole, the system suffered from a heavy debt load, too much trackage, and insufficient revenue. Management in the first years had floundered somewhat, but all this changed with the appointment of Sir Henry Thornton as chairman in 1922.

Thornton was an American railroader with experience in the commuter business into New York City. He made his name revitalizing the world’s largest commuter network, into London, England, at the start of World War I, and with the military on transportation logistics during the war, work which earned him a knighthood in 1919. Then the call came from Canada.

Aware that the very existence of Canadian National was a divisive point in Canada, Thornton immediately made it clear that he would tolerate no political interference of any sort.

“I am nurse of a child which has been turned over to me for development,” he said. “It is not to be the sport of politicians or the football of politics.”

Many observers believed that between 10 and 20% of the system should be abandoned immediately. Thornton, with a strong aversion to cutbacks and downsizing, disagreed. He did acknowledge that Canada had too many railways for its population, but he viewed these lines as tools for economic development.

With a strong background in passenger traffic, it is not surprising that Thornton tried hard to increase ridership. Nationalization and organizational turmoil had destroyed employee morale and eroded public respect. Thornton worked on all these problems at once. He began using a slogan, “Courtesy and Service,” that was soon emblazoned on the railway’s rolling stock. It remained in use for decades after Thornton was gone.

A skilled hand with public relations, Thornton quickly gained respect and support from both the public and rank-and-file employees for rebuilding Canadian National.

A.W. Wright of the Mount Forest Confederate typified press opinion when he wrote that “Sir Henry has at least sound, business like ideas as to the management of our great national railway system, and the people and their representatives should back him in carrying them out.”

Not a man to shuffle papers, or to listen to underlings who would take pains to explain why a particular change could not be made, Thornton insisted on seeing the line for himself, and talking to employees at all levels.

One such trip brought him to Guelph and Wellington County in May 1923. There he met with municipal representatives, employees and the public, to ascertain the real need of residents. There were a number of suggestions, both frivolous and sound. Among them were improved service between Guelph and Brantford, and a noon train between Palmerston and Guelph. There was much public interest in the new self-powered passenger equipment, which ran on gasoline engines.

Thornton desired to make major improvements in service, including on the branch lines through Wellington County. His difficulties were immense. The Grand Trunk had made improvements to its facilities on these lines between 1900 and 1910, but few afterwards. Most of the company’s resources went to its Grant Trunk Pacific extension, which ultimately brought the company down.

Most of the stations in Wellington were over 50 years old, and had seen few improvements since they were built. Rolling stock was old too. Locomotives constructed in the 1880s were still in use, and many of the coaches were almost as old.

The Grand Trunk had regarded the line from Palmerston through Fergus and Elora and to Guelph as its main route in the area, with five other lines branching out from Palmerston. The Grand Trunk had operated two trains each way daily on these lines, but some were mixed trains, operating at a glacial pace.

Changes came quickly under Thornton’s regime. All mixed trains lost their freight cars, and became passenger trains exclusively.

Three trains had operated each way daily between Palmerston and Guelph, two of them in the morning. The earlier one became known as “The Flyer” in 1923 when it began flying past all stations between Palmerston and Guelph except Fergus and Elora.

This shaved more than 20 minutes off the schedule, but raised protests from residents of Moorefield, Drayton and Alma. Between Guelph and Toronto the train stopped only at Georgetown and Brampton. The evening return run offered a similar schedule, which put Fergus almost exactly two hours from Union Station in Toronto, the fastest time ever offered by far. The “Flyer” carried a buffet-parlour car between Owen Sound and Toronto. At Palmerston, coaches from Southampton and Kincardine were coupled on to it, saving passengers the nuisance of changing trains.

A fourth southbound run was added to the schedule at the beginning of 1923, before Thornton had seen the local service personally. This operated on a similar basis to the morning “Flyer,” with limited stops.

The Grand Trunk had experimented with gas powered self-propelled cars in its last years as an independent company. They offered the promise of much reduced operating costs on runs with modest patronage. One of them had taken a few trial runs in 1921 out of Palmerston. The first regular deployment in the area, though, was between Hamilton and Guelph by way of Galt and Hespeler. A gas powered car, known as a “motor train” in the Canadian National lexicon, added two more round trips daily, doubling the service on the route. It was not the direct Guelph-Brantford connection that many wanted, but the connections were very good between these two cities with the additional runs.

Another of these motor trains operated seven round trips daily between Elmira and Kitchener, where it connected with the mainline trains.

More of these motor trains, one an articulated two-car unit, entered service in the fall of 1925, replaced one of the regular trains between Guelph and Palmerston and on to Southampton.

Just before Christmas of 1925, the Hamilton-Guelph motor train began running north to Elora and Fergus in early afternoon, rather than lay over in Guelph for two hours. Sir Henry liked to add these runs, using otherwise idle equipment, provided they paid their out-of-pocket costs.

The mid-day service to Elora and Guelph did not attract much business, and it vanished from the schedule after little more than a year.

By 1927 the gas powered motor cars operated both daily round trips between Palmerston and Southampton, and one of the daily round trips between Palmerston and Kincardine, and one between Palmerston and Durham, through Mount Forest.

Despite the improved schedules and a new (and surprising to some) emphasis on courtesy, Sir Henry sought to find savings in the vast Canadian National network. Locally, one of these was the removal of the agent at Goldstone Station in 1928.

There were loud protests from some residents in the area. Peel council howled because the township had subsidized the line to the tune of $40,000 when it was built, on the promise of a station.

Nevertheless, permission was granted for the closure in May 1928, on the condition that CN maintain a caretaker agent to look after freight shipments. CN closed a number of its downtown express offices at the same time, handling all express at the stations.

In the summer of 1928, the motor cars became a victim of their own success. Increased patronage on the Palmerston-Kincardine line created a capacity problem. Regular trains replaced them for the summer on this route.

The summer of 1928 also saw major work on the Palmerston-Guelph line, the first since this trackage had been rebuilt in 1908-09. Heavier rails replaced the older ones, and deeper ballast provided a more solid base. Freight cars were increasing in capacity and weight, and the railway wished to introduce heavier and faster passenger locomotives.

Following the Christmas rush in 1928, Canadian National eliminated one of the two evening trains from Palmerston to Guelph. The new passenger locomotives brought in at that time could handle larger trains than previously. It was also the first of the major service cutbacks after six years of improvements. The train to go was the fast one with limited stops.

Depression conditions in 1931 forced major cuts. Revenues fell drastically, while costs did not. CN reduced service on the Palmerston-Guelph line to two trains each way daily. Mixed freight and passenger trains replaced half the passenger trains on the branches out of Palmerston. The buffet-parlour car and the “Flyer” that carried it disappeared from the schedule.

Cuts were even more severe elsewhere: four of the seven Guelph-to-Toronto runs ended, and Guelph-Hamilton service dropped to a single inconvenient round trip. All the motor trains went elsewhere. The convenient Elmira-Kitchener service was taken over by a Lishman bus.

The biggest cut of all was Sir Henry himself. He resigned in 1932, plagued by bad health and hounded by his political enemies.

Thornton’s emphasis on passenger services, though modest in its application on the lines through Wellington, nonetheless raised ridership to the highest levels ever seen on these lines in 1928 and 1929, despite inroads by the motor car and buses.

The cuts came when depression conditions slashed patronage by almost half. But the service improvements of the 1920s showed that the railways could attract more riders if they took measures to do so.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on Jan. 21, 2000.


Stephen Thorning - 1949-2015