I had the opportunity to experience the VIA Rail service between Sudbury and White River, Ontario recently. This isolated and remote passenger trip uses two or three Rail Diesel Cars (RDCs) to serve remote areas between the two end points. It’s a little bit of an oddball service, but it has persisted to this day.
I was there as a co-guide for Rail Travel Tours with Daryl Adair, as part of a combined rail and bus tour of northern / western Ontario. We visited Sudbury, Sault Ste Marie and Thunder Bay, and rode on the Agawa Canyon train.
The night before, we stayed at the Quality Inn (downtown) which was very close to the CP yard and within walking distance of the train station. I believe I was in room 307, which had a nice view of the yard.
We made our way to the station bright and early to await the RDCs. Daryl said they usually arrived at 0830. A local company, Diesel Electric, services the RDCs at their facility deeper in the yard.
While we waited, a pair of railfans showed up for the train. I knew they were railfans because they were listening to a scanner! It turned out that we knew each other through Instagram – @trainsintoronto and @ib_rail_photography.
They were also here to ride the RDCs! I liked that they were wearing the right hats for the railway we were going to be on.
A CPKC yard crew was sorting cars in the yard with CP 2259 while we waited. We were a little concerned that they were going to block the RDCs from getting to the station, but they got out of the way and the three-car train rolled up to the station on time.
The train consisted of VIA 6250, 6217, 6105. VIA 6250 is the baggage car and the crew set to loading it up while the passengers filed on board.
VIA 6105 would lead for the trip to White River, and that became our “private coach” for the trip. Beyond the fifty or so in our tour, there were less than twenty other passengers.
Believe it or not, this was the first time I’ve ever set foot in a Rail Diesel Car. Hopefully it won’t be my last!
We departed at 0905 and rolled through the Canadian Pacific Kansas City yard on our way out of Sudbury. We passed the Diesel Electric shops, and saw some of their equipment out in the open. That’s ex CN 5312 (SD40-2 (W)) formerly owned by Ontario Hydro, with an unknown switcher in the distance. The two passenger cars might be ex VIA 9667 (greenish baggage car) and ex CN 40108 (coach).
Note the characteristic “Sudbury stack” on the background.
Once we were settled in, I took the time to read the RDC safety information brochure in the seat back. It was almost like being on an airplane – except you could get up and walk around, and the scenery was much better.
One of the coolest things about riding in an RDC is that you can look out the front! The engineers ride in the “cab” at the end of the car, but there are windows so you can look out at the track ahead.
As a remote service, the RDC can and will stop anywhere along the tracks between Sudbury and White River. People getting off the train will tell the train manager and s/he will put it on their list of stops and inform the engineers. People waiting for the train can call ahead, or I believe they can still flag the train down.
When the train stops, one of the engineers will usually go help the train manager with the loading / unloading. Stay out of their way!
We had a brief stop at the Cartier train station at 10 AM. I stepped off to take a few photos.
North of Cartier
Just north of Cartier, we crossed highway 144. That was the last time we saw a road of any significance until we reached Chapleau.
We crossed a river at mile 24.56 (between Sheahan and Forks). Daryl Adair was giving advance warning of sights like these so we could all press our phones to the glass for photos.
We had a flag stop at “Forks”. They unloaded quite a bit of stuff – the usual tubbies of supplies, but also some larger things including what looked like a solar panel.
The views out the side windows were outstanding. There are lots of lakes along the way.
At Metagama, the former section house is still present – in the bushes.
Biscotasing, Ontario is a happening spot! It has a historic general store, mail boxes, a few camps like the Biscotasing Sportsman Lodge, and even a cemetery. Biscotasing was briefly a division point during the construction of the CPR, although Chapleau eventually became the permanent division point.
Biscotasing hosted several sawmills in the early to mid 20th century and most of the infrastructure in the community dates from that era.
Today you can fly in or take the “Budd car” into Biscotasing. You can see by the vehicles here that it is possible to drive here, although I would think a 4 wheel drive would be mandatory as it involves dozens of kilometres of back road driving.
On to Chapleau
The last station south of Chapleau is Devon, and we found a CP bunk train in the back tracks there. Two tracks of bunk cars were sitting there, and a few people waved at the Budd cars as we rolled on past.
Bunk trains are used to house maintenance crews when they are working away from a town. These are basically mobile homes on flat cars, as far as I can see. They look fairly comfortable from the outside, definitely an upgrade from the days of yore when ancient passenger cars would be used for maintenance crews. They even have Shaw satellite service!
Do not hump!
We were held at the north end of Devon siding for our first meet, with a southbound CP train.
It’s really quiet sitting in the siding in the Budd car. You can barely hear the noise of the diesel engine under the floor, there’s the gentle whoosh of the air conditioning, and the quiet murmur of passengers talking.
Then… WHOOSH! The passing train blasts the RDC with a wave of air, rocking it slightly, and then there’s the rumble of passing cars, just outside the window. If there’s another locomotive farther back in the train, you hear that too, the approaching bass rumble.
This train had some auto racks on the tail end. I pressed my phone to the glass to photograph the tail end and the engineer’s view of the track ahead. You can see the red lights are still on the dwarf signals to the right of the tracks. They soon changed to green and we were on our way into Chapleau.
Chapleau, Ontario is a large town in the middle of a very large wildlife preserve. Wikipedia says it has almost 2,000 residents and it serves as a base to explore the surrounding area.
From a railway perspective, Chapleau is a division point between the CP Nemegos subdivision and the CP White River subdivision. When we passed through, I saw that it even had a yard locomotive, CP 2234.
I see from satellite maps that there is a turntable at Chapleau but it wasn’t visible from the train.
We were running late by this point, so our station stop was brief. I ran over to take a quick shot of the local steam engine on display, CP 5433.
According to the town’s web site, CP 5433 was placed here in 1964 by laying temporary track and pushing the locomotive to its final resting place.
5433 is a Mikado class engine, with a 2-8-2 wheel arrangement, built by the Canadian Locomotive Company in 1943. Sister 5468 is at the Revelstoke Railway Museum.
The train manager was still on the ground, so there was time to grab one more quick shot of Chapleau before we continued on our way to White River.
Still to come – more views out the front of the train, details of the inside of the train, and more scenery!
Read on – Chapleau to White River on VIA Rail RDCs