A Legacy of Rail in Alberta


"... we are made one people by that road, that that iron link has bound us together in such a way that we stand superior to most of the shafts of ill-fortune."


Sir John A. Macdonald, referring to the Canadian Pacific Railway.

From a speech in June 1885, quoted by Pierre Berton in The Last Spike: The Great Railway, 1881 – 1885 (1971).

Rail is and always has been an integral part of the Canadian legacy. Its importance in the very foundation of Canadian confederation cannot be understated, as confederation in 1867 was only made possible by the expansion of the railway from the Atlantic to the Pacific. At the time, Canada consisted of only four provinces: Quebec, Ontario, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, the latter two maritime provinces only joining under the condition they would be linked to the rest of the country via rail. Indeed, it was with the same stipulations that British Columbia (along with other western provinces at that time), agreed to become a part of the new country in the years that followed. In truth, rail was the first uniting link between the provinces. 

At the forefront of preserving that link are

two major publicly traded transcontinental

railway systems: Canadian National and

Canadian Pacific, who were granted major

subsidies by the government to expand into

the West. These systems once offered both

freight and passenger transport services,

however with the rise in automobile and

airplane popularity in the 1950s, passenger

services were scaled back and in the 1960s

CN and CP considered abandoning

passenger services altogether. This forced

the Canadian government to take action, led

by their conviction that passenger trains

were too important to abandon. The result of

this action was the creation of VIA Rail

Canada in 1977, a service that was efficient,

fast and comfortable, and a service that

focuses on the preservation of passenger

rail in Canada. 

Outside of the VIA Rail services, however, only three Canadian cities have commuter train services that allow citizens from nearby cities or towns to commute to major centre, usually for work. These cities include:

  • the Montreal area (by Réseau de transport métropolitain),

  • the Toronto area (by Go Transit),

  • and the Vancouver area (by West Coast Express).  


There do exist some smaller railways that run passenger trains to remote rural areas, as well as the Rocky Mountaineer and Royal Canadian Pacific which provide luxury rail tours in the Canadian Rockies. However, the latter is intended primarily for tourism.

The Legacy of Passenger Service in the Edmonton - Calgary Corridor (1891 - 1985)

When the Canadian Pacific railway arrived in Calgary in 1883, land quickly opened up along the line for development and for a relatively economical way to move agricultural products. But there were still vast areas for potential settlement beyond the 10-20 mile range that the new railway served.


The Calgary and Edmonton Trail quickly gained major significance as the north-south stagecoach route between Calgary and Edmonton, carrying freight, passengers and mail. It wasn't long before the value of a railway joining Alberta's two major population centres became obvious.

Once construction of the line was completed in 1891, the Canadian Pacific Railway officially took over operations of the railway, named all the numbered stations along the route, took an active role in the design of structures along the route, built a telegraph line and started carrying the mail, taking it away from the stage coaches along the C & E Trail. Regular scheduled passenger service between the two major centres was in place by 1892, reducing the travel time from four days by stagecoach to 12 hours by train.

The CP Edmonton downtown station was closed to passengers in 1971 (and demolished in 1978), with Strathcona (south Edmonton) becoming the northern terminus of CPR corridor passenger rail service (with a shuttle to downtown), this effectively eroded the desire for travellers to use the train. Also grade crossing collisions and railway errors caused the public to question the safety of 'Dayliner' service, and poor integration with other transport modes and connectivity caused much frustration.


VIA Rail Canada Inc., (2018), https://www.viarail.ca/en/about-via-rail/our-company/our-history

Passenger Trains in America, (2018), https://traveler.sharemap.org/Passenger_trains_in_America

Wikipedia, (2018), "Rail Transport in Canada", https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rail_transport_in_Canada

Wikipedia, (2018), "Canadian Confederation", https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canadian_Confederation

Canadian Pacific Rail, (2018), https://www.cpr.ca/en/

YouTube, (2018), Canadian Pacific Railway, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oqRWQa0rIso

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