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Intermodal Pioneer

By R.L.Kennedy

Canadian Pacific was an intermodal pioneer at a time when piggyback was all the rage. The 1950's saw railways everywhere in North America seeking to stem declining freight traffic that had been lost to trucks. To do this, they offered truck companies fast freight trains, often dedicated solely to handling only highway trailers on modified flat cars. It was officially designated as TOFC, for Trailer On Flat Car, but usually referred to as Piggyback or just "Pigs". The C.P.R. did this too, but decided to tackle it more directly. In addition to moving the trucking companies' trailers, they decided to get into trucking in a big way.

Lachine terminal in Montreal circa 1960. CP Corporate Archives

Piggyback service first began between Montreal and Toronto December 1, 1952.

Spanner Dec. 52.

The C.P.R.'s trucking operations had until this time been restricted mostly to cartage of L.C.L. (Less than Carload Lot), to and from its freight sheds, and a similar function for its subsidiary, Canadian Pacific Express, although CPE did have some highway routes, mostly to replace branchline trains.

Winnipeg July 1956 CP Corporate Archives

CP began getting into trucking in a larger way when it bought some small western truckers and formed them into CP Transport. Then in 1958 a major change took place when Canadian Pacific purchased 50% of Smith Transport, Canada's largest trucker. Smith also served New York and was the eighth largest in the U.S.A.

CP quickly decided the conventional end-ramp method of loading and unloading piggyback trailers, known as "circus loading", for the way circus trains were handled, was not efficient. They set out to find something better. They looked at Flexi-van, built by Strick Trailer, a subsidiary of Fruehauf (one of the biggest manufacturers of truck bodies and trailers.) Flexi-van was a COFC (Container On Flat Car) with two turntables on the flat car, that left the rubber tires and wheels behind to save weight and reduce wind drag. It was highly touted by New York Central, but CP wanted something else. Pennsylvania RR went at it another way. They got into rubber-tired devices that straddled the train and lifted the trailer off in random access. CP wanted something else.

Canadian Pacific turned to General Motors DIESEL for an answer. What could a locomotive builder offer? At this time with dieselization of Canada's railways nearing completion GMD was seeking other things to build to keep its London, Ontario plant busy. It did this by producing Steam Generator Units for the CNR, and mobile generating stations, but needed more projects. Enter CP and its quest for "something else" to answer the needs of handling truck traffic. They wanted to leave the wheels behind, cut down on weight, have random access when loading and unloading., and they wanted FAST loading and loading, no more than two minutes!

click to enlarge image

GMD took on the challenge, with CPR and Smith Transport joining in. Sam Smith provided a trailer with a de-mountable tandem wheel set. CPR committed to operating test trains, and GMD soon produced a truly unique freight car; the PORTAGER. Named for its task of "portaging" freight over land, as had been done by pioneering voyageur traders using canoes. Designated as T-40 (transporter of 40-foot trailers), it was a truly unique piece of rolling stock. A 30-ton capacity, 44-foot, four wheel, light-weight (13 ton) freight car capable of carrying a single 40' container. Swing hangers, featured on the EMD Blomberg locomotive truck, as well as many passenger cars, were utilized on two single axle wheel sets in place of standard four-wheel trucks. It was held together by a 16-inch pipe! (Later replaced by a cheaper 16-inch I beam). This wasn't the only unusual aspect of the Portager, there wasn't even a deck! Side loading eliminated the need to drive over the deck to reach other flat cars, so it was eliminated, along with its expense, and more importantly, tare (dead) weight. The first car was turned out in the spring of 1959.

Extensive testing began by the Research Department under Bob Barnstead, with a special one-car train on the nearby St.Mary's Subdivision. Modifications were carried out, eventually including replacement of the highway-type Bendix-Westinghouse airbrake with more conventional Westinghouse railroad-type airbrakes. By 1960 four cars, GMDX 401 to 404 were under test. Testing was undertaken on the Ste.Agathe Sub. in the Laurentian Mountains where the cars were subjected to grades and curves. Further testing took place in regular Montreal-Toronto piggyback service, where for the first time sustained high-speed (70 mph) operation was encountered. Testing also took place on the MacTier Sub. , the Havelock Sub. and even over the retarder hump at St.Luc!

Ten more production-built cars were used in regular Montreal-Toronto pig trains, five being used each way each night. But, it was all for naught. The CPR's Chief Mechanical officer Charlie Parker, flat out refused to have anything to do with four wheeled cars. This in spite of the fact that very extensive testing proved them safe and trouble-free. Even CPR's Tony Teoli (who went on to fame for the bathtub coal car he designed), pronounced them suitable. R.A.Emerson, Vice President, the executive who authorized the project simply would not overrule the decision.

New York Central was heavily committed to the Flexi-van system, and no other railway was interested in containers as regular piggyback was seen as being the best at the time. A promising product came to an abrupt end.

Eventually, piggyback was to be phased out in favour of containers, especially with the advent of marine containers and double stack operation. Containers were even to replace boxcars in many cases, including pool car operations.

At its peak, three trains a night were operating in each direction on the heavy Toronto-Montreal route. This was to change when the 401, a limited-access highway was opened. Smith put many of its trucks back on the highway, in spite of the fact it was now 100% owned by CP. While piggyback service continued, it became more and more difficult to compete with trucks, and generally only longer hauls prospered. Smith Transport and CP Express were finally merged and eventually went out of business as deregulation took its toll on LTL trucking.

GMD Portager test train put away for the night in the Here Yard at Lambton.

Close up view of unique wheelset and side skirt to hide construction features.
Note chalked "Here Yard" instruction to switchmen.

Close up of unique 16" pipe centre sill, in later versions replaced by 16 ft. I beam.

Three photographs: R.L.Kennedy

Other container flat cars

CP converted six heavyweight passenger cars into unique 83'2" container flat cars.

Initially, two cars with passenger series numbers 4000 (ex 4407 baggage & express) and 4001 (ex 4487 baggage and express), (later re-numbered 520000 and 520001 for freight service), complete with steam heat and communicating-air lines. These cars each carried four CP Express containers and were operated (one each) on the head-end of trains 22 and 21 between Toronto and Montreal.

Side transfer equipment in operation at John St. 1965

An additional 29 cars, 520025 to 520053 were converted from S and T series sleeping cars. Eight more were numbered 313000-313007, equipped with rails on the deck and used to transport TTC subway cars from Fort William to Toronto.

All of these were scrapped after a few years of use, being replaced by more conventional weight and slightly longer, flat cars.


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