CNR Trucking: Express and Freight Vehicles


Montreal, ca 1932  

Montreal, n.d.  

Bonaventure Station, Montreal, 1939  

Location unknown, 1942  

Moncton, New Brunswick, n.d.  

Bonaventure Station, Montreal, n.d.  

London, Ontario, 1954  

London, Ontario, 1954  

Toronto, 1952  

Toronto, 1952  

Montreal, n.d.  

Montreal, n.d.  

Bonaventure Station, Montreal, n.d.  

Bonaventure Station, Montreal, n.d.  

Montreal, n.d.  

Montreal, n.d.  

Montreal, n.d.  

Montreal, n.d.  

Montreal, n.d.  

Bonaventure Station, Montreal, 1942  

Toronto, 1952  

Bonaventure Station, Montreal, n.d.  

Moncton, New Brunswick, 1950  

Location unknown, ca 1959  

Location unknown, ca 1959  

A significant aspect of the Canadian National Railways story, particularly over the period from the absorption of the Grand Trunk Railway in 1923 to the end of steam operations in 1959, was the highway transport service the railway offered. Two branches of this transport service, operating as separate companies, extended the reach of freight transport beyond the immediate surroundings of the railway lines. Less-than-carload-lot (l.c.l.) shipments, handled chiefly by boxcars in freight and mixed trains, were gathered and distributed by the fleet of orange highway vehicles operating as Cartage Services. Small personal or business shipments carried by passenger trains were known as “express packages,” with pickup and delivery provided by the blue highway vehicles of the Express Department.
At Canadian National Railways terminals, branch line stations, and on the roads and highways throughout the country, the fleets of blue and orange vehicles established an increasing presence in the years following the Second World War. In this article, we will present a brief historical overview of the Cartage and Express Departments of the CNR over their most prosperous period from the early 1920s to the end of the 1950s, with a particular concentration on the immediate post–Second World War years.
Over the first three quarters of a century of their history in this country, railways held a predominant position in the movement of people and goods. A vast transportation and communications empire was established on the heels of railway tracks spiked over thousands of miles of main line and branch line. From the beginning, the movement of passengers assumed a priority for railways in terms of speed, superiority over other types of trains, and scheduling. The two principal types of revenue trains—passenger and freight—and a hybrid known as a “mixed train” generally reflected different levels of service for the transportation of goods.
Until the 1920s, the railways were not seriously challenged by any other mode of transportation for small shipments. Previously, from the 1800s onward, local freight contractors, first employing horses and drays, and later early motor vehicles, handled the task of picking up and delivering packages and shipments that the railway had moved from point A to point B (often through a series of connections and transfers among different rail carriers). But with the advent of the modern highway system in the 1950s, the CNR gradually began to develop a fleet of road vehicles to operate in conjunction with the movement of package freight or express on their train schedules.
The granting of highway operating licences is a complicated subject, but suffice it to say that for a number of years, the CNR did not hold authority to operate highway cartage services and thus the railway depended upon local contractors. In 1931, Canadian National Transportation Limited was granted its first charter for a trucking operation. Throughout the Great Depression and the Second World War, the CNR’s gradually expanding highway operations were for the most part confined to larger terminals such as Montreal and Toronto, and lightly frequented branch line territory or remote areas. Following the war, the CNR accelerated its acquisition of express and freight highway vehicles, amassing a greatly expanded fleet of vehicles for both local pickup and delivery, and for dedicated routes. Indeed, the company boasted that their highway vehicles with their “courteous drivers are becoming almost as familiar as the milk or bread wagon.”
The backbone of the CNR package freight business at that time, and for a few decades hence, was a network of railway branch lines and main lines, connecting with other common carriers. At major points, freight and express transfer platforms and terminals existed. The movement of merchandise by freight trains had been long established, and hundreds of freight sheds had been constructed wherever traffic had warranted them. At virtually every other location, small stations provided combination freight and passenger facilities.
Of the two means of shipping small lots—l.c.l. and express—the latter represented the more lucrative trade for the CNR. Throughout the 1950s, a vast expansion of railway express facilities took place. Many passenger stations were expanded to accommodate express offices, while at other locations brand new buildings were constructed. Throughout the CNR system, station agents received a ten percent commission on express shipments, ensuring a vigorous effort by these local representatives to attract and retain package freight business. Meanwhile, the fleet of highway vehicles expanded to meet the growing demand.
In addition to being granted its own permits, the CNR systematically absorbed the operating licences of small trucking firms, many of which had previously contracted for supplying the railway with express or cartage services. Dark blue express vehicles and bright orange freight vehicles were increasingly seen on the highways in the postwar years. In some cases they merely provided local pickup and delivery service. In other cases, they ranged farther afield, serving wider areas in co-operation with airline package freight carriers or in support of fast freight train movements. In still wider expansion of their services, they fully replaced branch line passenger and freight trains in the movement of package freight and express, while still calling at the established railway freight sheds, express depots, and combination stations.
The vehicles purchased by the CNR were suited to the territory and volume of business. A wide variety of road vehicles were operated by the railway over the years. In this article, we will present several typical examples that satisfied a variety of demands.
A most diverse and unusual array of merchandise was shipped by CNR express, and to a lesser extent its freight department. In addition to the usual assortment of business, household and commercial packages, perishables were commonly hauled by express refrigerator cars known as “reefers.” Fruit trains in the Niagara Peninsula and crates of salmon from Northern Ontario were common. Express reefers loaded with cut-up chickens, heading for grocery stores, travelled on overnight main line passenger trains. These trains were met by CNR express vehicles, and the goods landed on the receiving docks of grocery stores within hours. Fresh cut roses were hustled to major terminals to be placed on passenger trains or aircraft. Black bears, baby chicks, kangaroos and sheep were transported in the dark blue vehicles, all requiring special care in transportation, packaging and storing. Christmas time was always busy for express and freight shed staff, with extra workers and assistant agents hired to accommodate the traffic swell.
A typical day for a driver, or “motorman,” on a highway route (that is, one that had replaced or supplemented the services of local trains), began at a railway freight or express shed, which might have been a separate building or part of a passenger station. After loading his vehicle at the dock, with or without the help of an assistant or the station agent and freight hand trucks, and collecting all the necessary paperwork, the driver set out on his morning calls. Freight had been loaded to facilitate the easiest handling along the route. At each station en route, he made a regular call in both directions, and exchanged express or freight consignments and paperwork with the agent or shed staff. At the end of the route, he turned around and stopped at each station again on his way back to the terminal where he began his day. Along the way, he stayed in touch by telephone with his originating terminal, which relayed any new information about pickups to him. At the end of the return trip, freight from the vehicle was unloaded and sorted for loading onto passenger (in the case of express shipments) or freight trains (for l.c.l. shipments). A typical length of run for a round trip on a route might be about one hundred miles (160 kilometres), with about fifty calls in both directions of the journey, including station stops.
Depending on the volume of freight or express, the motorman could be in charge of anything from a 1½ tonne Divco delivery truck to a tractor trailer, but typically sat behind the wheel of a stake-type truck of 3- to 10-tonne capacity, with a tarpaulin over the truck body. Fargo (a Canadian product virtually identical to the American Dodge), Ford and International were typical models. Sometimes the run was overnight, as opposed to a conventional daylight assignment. In public timetables of the period, the CNR listed their express motor vehicle routes and schedules. In cases of unusually precious shipments (for example gold, bags of paper money, or prescription drugs), the local station agent grabbed the 38-calibre revolver from the safe and rode “shotgun” with the motorman!
As with railway freight and passenger services in the steam era, express or freight vehicle runs were typically “daily except Sunday,” with Saturday being a light day, often only half as long in duration. With the advent of the forty-hour (or five-day) work week in the early 1950s, the six-days-per-week schedule was maintained through the use of a “swing shift.” This simply meant that a worker put in a six-day week for five weeks, and on the sixth week a relief or “swing man” was employed. In many cases, the railway stations that were called upon by the CNR vehicles were closed on the Saturday, but it was the responsibility of the agent/operator to make arrangements to meet the vehicle for its regular call. In some cases, the motorman let himself in, exchanged parcels, and left the paperwork in a box. In one known instance, arrangements were made for a driver to throw a few lumps of coal in the station stove, to maintain heat for crates of chicks awaiting pickup by local farmers!
In urban areas such as Toronto, Montreal, Hamilton, Moncton and Winnipeg, dozens of vehicles (both freight and express, but mostly the latter) served the neighbouring shippers. In larger cities, express highway vehicles, bypassing the customary local passenger trains, often picked up fast shipments from outlying communities to be loaded on overnight “time” freight or passenger trains (that is, trains
on a fixed schedule), or, increasingly through the 1950s, Trans-Canada Airlines flights (such vehicles working in co-operative service carried the heralds of both CN Express and TCA Express Services).
The motormen employed by Canadian National were well trained and rigorously put to the test day in, day out. Often they participated in local driving competitions, staged in congested areas rife with one-way streets, and usually won such contests. Not only were these men in charge of handling freight expediently and safely, they were also front line public relations staff for the railway during the steam era, when the CNR and other railways actively sought local business.
The CN Express vehicles were painted dark blue throughout the steam era. From their inception in 1931, a large gold “Canadian National Express” wafer-shaped herald, placed on a seven-degree tilt, adorned the side of the truck body, with a smaller matching herald on the doors of the cab. Below the wafer on the body were the words “Canadian National Express” in gold block lettering. Depending on the vehicle, “Canadian National Express” in gold lettering also appeared across the front of the truck body. Underneath the cab herald in gold lettering was a three or four digit vehicle number, preceded by the letter G. On 18 August 1953 the maple leaf shaped herald was introduced on company vehicles, replacing the wafer. From this time forward, all large lettering was red against either a gold maple leaf or rectangle, with the single word “Express” replacing the longer appellation under the herald. The vehicle number on the cab was maintained in gold. As previously mentioned, where co-operative services existed, the round TCA Express Services herald was painted alongside the CN Express herald on the dark blue vehicles, during both the CNR wafer and maple leaf eras.
The CN Cartage vehicles were painted orange, with a tilted “Canadian National” wafer-shaped herald on the body and cab, similar to the Express vehicles. The colour of the herald is not known, but it was likely gold lettering on either a red or green background. Underneath the wafer on the body were the words “Transportation Ltd.” or “Cartage Services,” depending on the vehicle. A vehicle number was emblazoned under the cab herald. As with the express vehicles, the maple leaf herald was introduced on the freight vehicles in August 1953, with the word “freight” in block lettering under both the body and cab heralds, replacing the former titles. The exact colour of the maple leaf is not known, but it was probably green. In addition to these standard markings, freight vehicles often carried CNR advertising in the form of colourful posters occupying the better part of the rearmost side panels of the truck body.
The canvas tarpaulins for both express and freight vehicles were lettered in black with a “Canadian National” wafer herald flanked by either the words “Express” and “Services” or the words “Cartage” and “Services” in block lettering. It is to be noted that these tarps were often interchanged between express and freight road service vehicles.
As evident in the photographs, there was a wide range of cab and body types for both the freight and express vehicles. Indeed, it would be hard to prove that the CNR did not operate a given vehicle.
Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, the North American railway network gradually gave up on l.c.l. shipments. As successive companies withdrew from service, the whole operation contracted further. However, the Express Department of the CNR was a thriving business during this time period, and the railway began considering the possibility of amalgamating its two highway transport branches in the early 1960s. Toward the end of that decade, however, l.c.l. shipment operations were finished North America-wide, and over the next twenty years, the former Cartage Services went through various name changes until it was dispensed with altogether. Meanwhile, aggressive highway competition and the abandonment of passenger trains eroded the network that the CN Express vehicles served, and that branch was sold in the 1990s.