Book Review: Self-Propelled Cars of the CNR

I recently read the book “Self-Propelled Cars of the CNR: Endurance, Economy and speed” by Anthony Clegg. This book says it is “an illustrated history of the vehicles that helped to keep railway passenger service alive”.


Passenger service used to be a large part of railways’ business. They went to great lengths to provide extensive passenger service over their lines, and competed with each other to attract passengers. However, as the automobile became more and more common, people left the rails in droves and passenger service became a money-loser for railroads. Railways are always looking for ways to be more efficient and self-propelled rail cars were one way to lower the costs of passenger service.

Self-propelled cars were considered back in the earliest days of railroading, from steam-powered coaches through gas, gas-electric and oil-electric cars and even battery-powered electric cars. One gas-electric car, #15820, made a famous run from Montreal to Vancouver in November 1925, 2917.5 miles over almost 72 hours, with its engine running non-stop and only pausing for fueling and crew changes, proving the resilience of the technology.

SRS 144, formerly a self propelled passenger car

Gas-electric cars ruled the rails until after WW II, when the more efficient diesel engine replaced the gasoline engine. The CNR’s “D-1” was rebuilt as a diesel-electric car from gas-electric CN 15834. A few years later in 1954, the CNR bought a Budd Rail Diesel Car (RDC), “D-100”, designated RDC-3 (combined passenger and express car) and put it in service in New Brunswick between Fredericton and Newcastle.

CN 1501 at Lorette siding, 2016
CN 1501 at Lorette siding, 2016

The RDCs ruled the rails under the CNR, and later under VIA Rail, until the devastating funding cuts of January 15, 1990 led to the retirement of almost all of VIA’s RDCs. Today RDCs only run on VIA between Sudbury and White River, Ontario. CN still has one RDC, CN 1501, which has been equipped as a rail inspection car.

The Book

“Self Propelled Cars of the CNR” is an exhaustively detailed look at the history of self propelled rail cars on the Canadian National Railways. It starts with the very first cars operated on the CNR, steam cars, battery cars, and gasoline cars, and proceeds through the history of these cars through to the VIA Rail days.

At numerous points in the book, the author provided tables providing even more detail. For example, exhibit A listed the assignments of 14 units in the early part of 1923, showing how they were used literally across the country: British Columbia, Ontario, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island. One massive chart, exhibit F, shows a Gantt chart of every (?) self-propelled car on the CNR and the dates of operation from 1920 through 1960. It’s impressive.

This book is also full of photographs of self-propelled cars, with detailed captions, taken by the author, from his collection, from well-known collections such as the James A. Brown collection or the Al Paterson collection, and from other sources. Most photographs are in black and white, with 32 pages of colour photographs in the middle. The photos are well chosen and feature detailed captions. There are detailed drawings of selected cars as well.

The Verdict

I think this book belongs on the bookshelf of any fan of Canadian railways, and especially fans of the CNR. I borrowed it from the library but I am going to keep my eye open for my own copy.

It feels like the author really went out of his way to include every last bit of detail that he could find on these cars. It is definitely an authoritative work on self-propelled cars.

You can buy it on Amazon or maybe find it in a used book store or in your local library.

Just One More Thing

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