From Model to Prototype

VIA E Sleeper

VIA “E” Sleeper at Spadina coach yard, c.1979

Many model railroaders are also railfans, and many of us are involved in historical societies, train museums, and the like. Dan and I are both board members of the Toronto Railway Historical Association and we played a key role in the preservation and restoration of Bombardier LRC locomotive #6917. You can watch the video of us starting up 6917 here and you can watch its first run here. (It should be painted this summer, by the way.)

LRC 6917

LRC 6917 gets some body work done.
Photo by Bob Merriam.

Getting involved in your local railroad museum is a great opportunity to understand and appreciate prototype trains. Once you’ve worked on restoring a real locomotive or piece of rolling stock, the details on models start to mean something. You learn that the difference between a D22 and a 26C brake system is not just “that lump goes there” but rather what each valve actually does and why they are different.

Rapido has taken a bigger leap in restoring real railroad equipment… We’ve bought a passenger car to restore ourselves. To understand why we’ve done something so incredibly absurd, I need to take you back to before I started Rapido.

VIA Cardboard Train

My first model VIA train…

I have been a modeller and railfan for most of my life, and my interest has primarily been VIA Rail Canada. I’m probably the world’s biggest VIA fan, but there are a lot of other VIA fans out there.

Being a VIA fan means that you are usually, by extension, a fan of Canadian National and Canadian Pacific. VIA was created by an Order in Council of the Canadian government in 1977 to take over most of Canada’s passenger train services from CN and CP. That means that all of VIA’s fleet – both locomotives and passenger cars – originally came from CN and CP. In the last 40 years VIA has acquired plenty of its own equipment. However, even today, the majority of VIA’s transcontinental fleet comprises the same Budd passenger cars that were introduced by CP on The Canadian in 1955.

Before Rapido came along, there were no 100% accurate models of VIA trains available in HO scale. As a VIA modeller, I recognized that it would take a very long time to build up my fleet of VIA trains. This is especially true as I was – and still am – planning to build a model of Spadina Yard in downtown Toronto where you could regularly see over a hundred passenger cars at any one time.

Spadina Coach Yard

Spadina Yard, November 1984
Photo courtesy Kaluza-Mueller Collection.

I was introduced to modelling VIA trains out of Rivarossi passenger cars, Atlas FP7s, and Model Power FA-1s through George Drury’s seminal article, “Modelling Canada’s VIA Trains,” in the May 1982 issue of Model Railroader. I read this article over and over, and then I was given a copy of Don Lewis’s essential book, Rail Canada Vol. 4, which contained drawings of most of VIA’s passenger cars.

I was kitbashing VIA cars by the time I was 13, and by age 14 I was scratchbuilding accurate underbody equipment. By age 28, I had a massive collection of six locomotives and nine passenger cars. I recognized that it would take me several lifetimes to assemble a reasonable VIA fleet. After complaining on online forums about the lack of accurate VIA models on the market, I started Rapido to solve that problem.

VIA model railroad

My early attempts at modelling VIA, with a kitbashed Atlas FP7
and heavily modified Rivarossi passenger cars.

Being an ardent railfan as well as a modeller, I was also bothered by the fact that there were very few VIA trains preserved in museums. Many cars from VIA’s past fleet had been saved, but they were in use by tourist railroads rather than preserved as VIA cars, their eventual fates unknown. Many have already been scrapped or completely modified so as to be unrecognizable.

Similarly, by the early 2000s there were no passenger cars restored to CN’s 1961 modern image – in fact, now in 2015 there is just one, a heavyweight business car at Exporail in Montreal. The few former VIA cars that have been restored for historical purposes are all wearing CN’s 1954 colour scheme.

I actually wrote an article about this for Branchline, the news magazine of the Bytown Railway Society. “To Preserve or Not to Preserve: The Fate of Late 20th Century Trains and Paint Schemes” was published in the April 2000 issue. In it I argued:

I have grown up with VIA Rail Canada, its trains and liveries. I am concerned that in twenty years from now—no, in ten years from now—the beautiful blue and yellow that graced the majority of passenger cars in this country for 15 years will be entirely forgotten, not to mention the striking black and grey which dominated for the 15 years before that. Instead, the memory of Canadian National lines’ passenger train history in Canada will be viewed through lenses coloured black, green and yellow.

Since then, exactly five pieces of VIA equipment have been preserved worldwide with the intention of restoring them in VIA colours: an FP9A, LRC, Park Car and E Sleeper at Exporail, and LRC 6917 belonging to the TRHA. Five pieces in 15 years is a simply abysmal record.

VIA 6309 Exporail VIA 6309 at Exporail in 2008. Photo by Dan Garcia.

This is actually stuff that keeps me awake at night. Most of our museums in Canada don’t have the funds to restore the equipment they have on hand, let alone the equipment that is available for purchase. And those that have a passenger car restoration schedule are, with the exception of Exporail, all committed to restoring their equipment to its 1950s appearance. That means that almost nothing has changed in 15 years. I felt we had to do something about this.

So I have put my money where my mouth is, and Rapido has purchased the ex-VIA, ex-CN “E” series sleeping car, Edmundston. It was built in 1954 for CN as #1115, one of 52 cars in the E series. These cars were named after cities and towns in Canada with names beginning with E, and they each had four sections, eight duplex roomettes, and four double bedrooms. In Canada we refer to them as 4-8-4 sleepers: sleeping cars are classified from cheapest to most expensive accommodation rather than where the rooms are located in the car. (It always bugs me when E Sleepers are referred to as 8-4-4, especially as that is even more wrong because the sections are at the front. Are you listening, guys on the Passenger Car List?)

Rapido EdmundstonWelcoming our new baby! 

Edmundston was repainted into CN’s “wet noodle” scheme in the 1960s. It was transferred to VIA in 1978, by then already wearing the new blue and yellow VIA colour scheme. It remained in service with VIA until 1996 and was then sold to BAR. In 2003 it was sold to the Blue Ridge Scenic Railroad in Blue Ridge, Georgia, as part of a “package deal.” It’s been stored at Blue Ridge ever since.

I have never believed much in fate, but I have only travelled on two E-series sleepers in my life. My first trip on an E sleeper was in February 1995 when I rode from Montreal to Senneterre and back. And which car was my sleeper? Edmundston, of course. If that isn’t fate, I don’t know what is.

Sleeping Car

My roomette (#8) in Edmundston, February 1995
Yes, I still sleep with that teddy bear.

If you think your hobby of model railroading is expensive, try owning a real passenger car! We went into this eyes wide open, but I’ve still been shocked at how the costs just keep on growing. New wheels, new journal boxes, new brake valves, new brake shoes – and this car hasn’t moved an inch yet! When we get it up to Canada we have to start working on the body, add in the Head End Power, new toilets, toilet retention tanks, etc. The list goes on, and most guys who buy old passenger cars give up by this point – that’s why you see so many cars on the market that were gutted by their owners and then offered for sale, unfinished.

Passenger Car Wheels

Our new wheels, courtesy of Ontario Northland.
It’s a lot easier to swap wheels on a model train than a real one!

DU-111G Brake Valve

Who knew brake valves could be so exciting?
This is our new DU-111G relay valve delivered this week from VIA Rail Canada.
You don’t want to know how much this little box cost!

Is it worth it? You bet. The E Sleeper was the most common CN or VIA sleeper in the 20th century. Edmundston will be the only E Sleeper in revenue service in the world, and it is an opportunity for us to share the rich history of CN and VIA passenger services from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s with railfans who remember it fondly or perhaps are too young to have experienced that modern heyday of passenger train travel in Canada. This is their chance to experience it.

I’m writing like you will be able to ride in Edmundston and there’s a reason for that! We’re not just saving this car. We’re upgrading it to enter service on the Credit Valley Explorer tourist train in Orangeville, Ontario. You will be able to ride in Edmundston, either as part of the regular tour train or in a special Rapido excursion.

We are restoring Edmundston’s interior to how it looked in VIA service. Admittedly, that is pretty easy to do as it still looks like that… Our plan at the moment is to paint it in VIA’s (and Rapido’s) blue and yellow colour scheme. However, after Exporail restores its E Sleeper, Eureka, and restores it in VIA colours we may consider painting Edmundston in CN’s black and grey scheme.

Edmundston Sleeper

The sections in Edmundston, February 1995. Beauty, eh?

I recognize that, even in revenue service, Edmundston will never recover all of the costs we are putting into it to save it, move it to Canada, restore it and maintain it. But it doesn’t matter. We’ve worked very hard at Rapido for the last 11 years to build this company and make it a success. As long as we are able to, we will make it a priority to put some of our resources into the preservation of the real passenger equipment that inspired me to start the company in the first place.

We may just keep Edmundston and that will be enough to keep us busy and our bank account drained. If things go smoothly, we might be able to add another car or two to our collection. And down the road, we hope to get Edmundston Amtrak and VIA certified. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to step back in time and ride in a VIA/CN E Sleeper overnight again? I think this car has the potential to be something very special. And I hope my enthusiasm has rubbed off a bit on you. There are still more cars out there that need saving…

VIA Edmundston SleeperAn extremely back-lit Edmundston at Senneterre, Quebec, in February 1995.

Rapido Edmundston


Edmundston in June 2015. We’ve given it a “dip job” coat of paint to prepare it to move north. It will be be painted again – in VIA colours this time – once it arrives in Canada and has its initial body work done.
Photo courtesy Charlie Pults.