Text and Photography by George S. Pitarys
"No. 41, Engine 1802, on time with four cars, and they are 2709, 515, 123, and the Hearne Mentor." This phrase, with a variation in numbers, initiated the interdivisional line-up between the Canadian Pacific's Saint John and Quebec divisions at 8 p.m. every night for many years and referred to CP's Atlantic Limited passenger train between Montreal and St. John, New Brunswick.
Each and every night at 7:50 p.m., westbound No. 41 and eastbound No. 42 left their respective terminals, heading for a middle-of-the-night meet in Maine's wilderness.
This international route traces its history to 1888, when canadian Pacific completed the Atlantic Ocean & Montreal line. This shortest of the several lines between Montreal and the Atlantic port cities nearly bisected the state of Maine, which interposes itself between the provinces of New Brunswick and Quebec. The completion coincided with a wave of European immigration to Canada, and this traffic laid a solid foundation for the following 106 years of passenger service.
For much of its history, this service required two pair of trains, Nos.39 and 40 and Nos. 41 and 42. But by the mid-1950s, the same forces besetting travel by rail throughout the rest of North America reaped yet another victim, and the 39 & 40 pair were abolished. (In summer months, 42's schedule was advanced, and it ran as No. 40) The remaining pair of trains staggered on for a quarter-century before being absorbed by the Crown Corporation, VIA Rail Canada. And even government intervention couldn't completely kill the trains for another 15 years.
In 1948, CP bought the only three E-units sold outside the United States for use in international service (with Boston & Maine) on its Alouette joint train service to Boston. The Alouette ended its tenure in the early 1960s, and the Es saw a variety of service, including Quebec City and Ottawa trains. In 1966, the 1801 was wrecked, leaving only the 1800 and 1802. Late in 1969 or early 1970, CP's two remaining Es found a home on Nos. 41 and 42, where they would spend the majority of their remaining years.
A typical Atlantic Limited trainset included a baggage car, a Manor sleeping car, a skyline dome, and a coach. The sleeping cars had three sections, eight roomettes, one drawing room, and three double bedrooms. The skyline dome cars sported a lounge, coffee shop, 24-seat diner, and a 24-seat dome. The 100-series coaches had 60 seats. This consist remained unchanged through the 1970s and the changeover to VIA. Occasionally, if reservations warranted, an extra coach or sleeper would be added. Sometimes Budd Rail Diesel Cars, en route to and from the Dominion Atlantic Railway in Nova Scotia, were tacked onto the rear and could be utilized as extra coach space.
Christmas accounted for the only consistent consist variation. At the peak of the travel season, the consist would often swell to 10 cars and two locomotives, but this usually only lasted for a few days. School vacations from institutions such as the University of New Brunswick at Fredericton would often add a car or two as well.
The train's schedule was designed to accommodate business travelers rather than tourists. The overnight service allowed morning arrivals at either terminal but unfortunately denied passengers a daytime view of the beauty of western Maine's mountains. The morning arrival time also permitted a connection to western Canada, via the Canadian at Montreal, and to CP's ferry across the Bay of Fundy to Digby, Nova Scotia, at Saint John. (The ferry at Digby was met by Dominion Atlantic Railway ROC service for Halifax, Nova Scotia.)
The Atlantic Limited had scheduled stops at Montreal West; St Jean; Farnham; Sherbrooke; Megantic (for a crew change); Jackman, Maine (for United States Customs); Brownville Junction, Maine (for crew change and water); Mattawamkeag, Maine; Vanceboro, Maine (once again for customs); McAdam, New Brunswick (for crew change); Harvey; and Fredericton Junction. A bus at the latter stop connected the train to Frederikton, New Brunswick's capital. Numerous flag stops were included: two in Maine and rural eastern Quebec and more frequented stops near Montreal, where the shedule's timing provided an additional commuter type service for Montreal suburbanites.
Despite the train's advantages and attractions, one cold, hard fact remained-passengers were staying away in droves. Many nights after dropping off the commuters, the five-person crew and on board service personnel exceeded paying passengers. (It is worthy of note that frequent Atlantic Limited users were deadheading employees or pensioners traveling on a pass. Those pensioners often equaled or exceeded the train's revenue travelers.)
My association with the Atlantic Limited began in December 1971, as an excited high schooler taking night photos of First 41 (to expedite the "new" container traffic, CP often ran No. 949 as a second section of No. 41, thus giving it first-class superiority) and riding to Greenville on the westbound and back to Brownville Junction on the eastbound.
A few years later, in 1977, I was fortunate enough to turn my avocation into my occupation. For the next few years, I rode the train as frequently as possible to the several outlying posts where I filled in as a spare operator. I shall never forget riding in the dome on clear, moon lit nights through freshly fallen snow. On most occasions I would have the dome entirely to myself: It was almost as though it were my private train. But this was a mixed feeling, for as much as I enjoyed the privacy, I knew that any train so lightly patronized simply could not continue-and yet it did.
The train provided some essential company service functions as well. First and foremost, it brought the weekly payroll from Montreal, and that, along with whatever company mail was on hand, was dropped by the baggageman at the appropriate station for distribution. In a time before fax machines became commonplace, all internal correspondence was handled by train. Confidential and "eyes only" material traveled under a value label and required signatures upon delivery. This mail was handled much as the postal service handles a registered letter.
Power balancing was another important service of the Atlantic Limited. At times, the number of locomotives exceeded the number of cars! If, for example, eastbound freights predominated, the excess power would be added to No. 41 at Saint John at night and be back in Montreal in the morning, saving at least a day.
By summer 1979, we were hearing rumors of VIA, which we interpreted as a Canadian version of Amtrak. It would take over the private passenger services of Canada's two major players, CP and Canadian National. And sure enough, later that year we began to see some of the F9s, which occasionally powered Nos. 41 and 42, in a new blue-and-yellow paint scheme lettered for VIA.
Finally, the word came down: Nos. 41 and 42 were history and would be replaced by diverting one of CN's two Halifax-Montreal trains at Moncton to Saint John. The last CP train left Brownville Junction, Maine, in the wee hours of October 28, 1979, in the charge of RS-10 No. 8568 and with a standard four-car consist. Gone were the shining stainless steel cars and E-units. Gone, too, was the dome with its splendid view.
The following night saw the arrival of the first diverted train. Canadian National had operated two round trips daily between Halifax and Montreal, the Ocean and the Scotian. The latter, renamed the Atlantic, was diverted at Moncton to Saint John and over the CP to Lennoxville, Quebec, where it once again took to CN rails for Montreal.
In some respects, the Atlantic was an improvement over the old Limited. The engine consist was at least as interesting-the train was always led by an FPA-4 and, as often as not, an A-B-A set of that model. About half the time, an Electro-Motive F7B was included. The FPA-4s were a bit tired. I can recall several occasions over the relatively short life of this train when failures required adding CP locomotives to make track speed. (I have seen both C-424s and RS1 8s added to the point of the train.) The VIA train operated with a minimum of nine cars, including a dining car and a cafe/lounge car.
Another significant change from CP days was the passenger load-the Atlantic was often at capacity. Many nights when selling tickets, I had to inform passengers that sleeping accommodations were sold out and only a limited amount of coach space remained. The holiday season, which had swelled the CP train, overwhelmed the VIA one. Train size jumped to as many as 18 cars, and (in 1980, at least) the train ran in two sections of 14 cars for a couple of nights, with one section making the traditional stops. Even so, the trains only ran about an hour apart.
Even while train size was burgeoning, constant rumors spread that the train would be taken off. The government, people whispered, no longer wanted to subsidize all the passenger trains, and it surely didn't want to be paying for one in a foreign country.
Sure enough, that unhappy event occurred late in 1981. Through service terminated and was replaced by ROC service between Moncton and Fredericton, New Brunswick, by way of Saint John. But even this paltry substitute proved short-lived.
The Canadian love affair with trains and the hard work of several concerned groups brought the service back to Maine and eastern Quebec in mid 1983. The new edition consisted of a "shoe box" F40 and stainless steel former CP passenger cars. Even the dome car was back, and the train resumed its through route to Halifax-and held it for 11 more years.
Finally, with CP's divestiture of its lines east of Sherbrooke and even more governmental budgetary restraint, the service died a relatively quiet death on December 15, 1994. This time, unfortunately, hope of resurrection is slim. More than a year has passed, and the route is still dead. That old Maine slogan "You can't get there from here" sadly rings true.