Canadian Pacific Railway’s annual Holiday Train visits Toronto on one of its many stops in Canada and the U.S.

Canadian Pacific Railway’s annual Holiday Train visits Toronto on one of its many stops in Canada and the U.S.

Imagine two bands of steel, running side by side for thousands of kilometers—for 6,351 kilometers! And always unerringly parallel—a constant 1,435 millimeters apart—for every 6,351,000 meters of the distance. From Nova Scotia to British Columbia, the Canadian Pacific Railway is not just a remarkable accomplishment of planning, engineering, and manpower, it also served to bind together disparate parts of the new country. First it was the Maritime colonies of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia that agreed to join Confederation in 1867 provided a railway line would be built linking them to Quebec and Ontario. Then, based on the Canadian Government’s promise of a railway from Eastern Canada to the Pacific, across vast stretches of prairie and through formidable mountains, British Columbia agreed to join Confederation in 1871. This nation-building railway epic concluded with the “last” spike being driven into a Canadian Pacific Railway tie in Craigellachie, British Columbia, on November 7, 1885.

Though slower than Europe and the United States to build an extensive railway network, Canada has since become a world leader in many areas of rail technology.

The Real McCoy

To celebrate an early “Canadian” railway achievement, we have to look south to the U.S.A. One of the clandestine routes of what was known as the Underground Railroad—used by thousands of American slaves to gain freedom in Canada—was the path  George and Mildred McCoy took to escape slavery in Kentucky. They settled in the Upper Canada town of Colchester, on the north shore of Lake Erie. It was there, in 1844, that their son Elijah was born. As he was growing up, Elijah’s parents saw his strong interest in mechanics and they arranged for him at age 15 to apprentice in mechanical engineering in Scotland.

When he returned to his family, who by this time had moved to Michigan, Elijah couldn’t find work at the level of his certified mechanical engineer education. He therefore took a job as a fireman and oiler for the Michigan Central Railroad. This is where his keen mind saw that improvements could be made to the system that oiled axles. He invented and in 1872 patented a lubricating device that distributed oil evenly over the engine’s working parts so that trains ran more efficiently and economically for long periods and needed to stop less frequently for maintenance. One story goes that McCoy’s invention was so well regarded that it led to the well-known catchphrase ‘the real McCoy’, which has since denoted quality.

This pre-Confederation ex-pat must have been very inventive because history records that he held 57 U.S. patents for many different items and machines, including a portable folding ironing board and a lawn sprinkler. Elijah McCoy’s name also has been kept alive at Carleton University in Ottawa where the Engineering Society students run McCoy’s Study Lounge, named after the inventor.

Clear the Track!

To run reliably year round in northern climates, railway tracks need to be clear of deep snow. In a country like Canada with is long winters and great distances, clearing snow by hand was dangerous, slow, and labour intensive work. It was a Toronto dentist who, in 1869, designed the first rotary snowplough to be used in front of locomotives. Dr J.W. Elliott never built his invention due to lack of investors, but an Orangeville, Ontario, resident with the unusual name of Orange Jull did succeed in building working rotary snowplough prototypes, attracting investors, arranging local manufacturing, and having the ploughs successfully tested by the Canadian Pacific Railway. To this day, Dr Elliott’s basic rotary snowplough design still is used.

Blow the Whistle!

The train whistle is important for communicating the intentions of locomotive engineers in different situations. In the late 1940s, Robert Swanson’s Airchime Manufacturing Co. Ltd. of Langley, B.C., invented the first five- and six-note electrically powered air pressure horns for the diesel and electric locomotives that were starting to replace steam locomotives. His multi-toned horns produced a chord that was the same note as the single note made by steam-powered whistles of steam locomotives. The sound produced by compressed air in Swanson’s five- and six-chime horns was loud and attention-getting enough such that rail companies around North America adopted them.

You’ve likely heard the standard four-blast pattern of warning whistles sounded by locomotive engineers as trains approach public level grade crossings: two long blasts, followed by one short blast, and then another long blast. The only time a locomotive whistle can be sounded by someone other than the locomotive engineer is when a snowplough is running in front of a locomotive. When approaching a level grade crossing, the employee in charge of the snowplough sounds the horn with a seven blast pattern: two short and one long, immediately followed by the required four-blast level grade pattern described above.

Derailed by the Weather

Canada continues to be an innovator in railway equipment. Rails shorten as they contract in cold weather and of course they lengthen in warm weather. Lengthening can cause rails to become stressed as compression pressure builds. In rare cases, and usually due to a combination of reasons, the rails might eventually buckle, resulting in very expensive and often dangerous train derailments. Much of Canada’s extensive network of 49,422 kilometres of rail runs through remote locales. Being able to measure and detect track stress efficiently is very important so that remedial action can be taken before the tracks buckle. Manitoba’s IDERS Incorporated is an industry leader in rail stress detection. Among its sensing products, IDERS makes an innovative low maintenance wireless sensor that collects and transmits rail stress data to rail inspectors driving along the rails.

The Annual Holiday Train

The Canadian Pacific Railway Holiday Train is a unique Canadian holiday season tradition that each year brings smiles to local residents at dozens of rail stops in towns and cities across thousands of kilometers, from Montreal in the east to Port Coquitlam on the west coast. Not only is the Holiday Train impressively decorated in festive lights each year, but singers and musicians such as Jim Cuddy, Kira Isabella, Kelly Prescott, and Chic Gamine entertained at stops along the route this past November and December. In addition to bringing unique holiday cheer to its community stops, the Holiday Train also helps the local food banks. In 2015, generous spectators at the train’s stops donated more than $1.4 million and 135,000 kg of food. Canadian Pacific also shares the Holiday Train excitement with several northern states. On its American route last November and December, the train made more than two dozen stops across New York, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, and North Dakota.

What Time Do YOU Have?

Each community used to have its own local time based on an estimation of when the sun was overhead, which told them it was 12 noon. The result was that there were many hundreds of different local times across the country. This wasn’t a serious problem when limited transportation networks prevented people from travelling much outside of their communities.  But with the advent of the train to transport people and freight short and long distances, it became next to impossible to publish railway timetables if each stop had its own local time. Not only was coordinating train times very difficult, it also was very dangerous as trains running on different schedules often shared the same railway line.

The only way that practical timetables could be created for trains (and later for airplanes) was to create and adopt a uniform system of time-keeping around the world based on the Greenwich, England, meridian. This 24-hour International Standard Time zone system, which went into worldwide effect on January 1, 1885, was proposed by Sir Sandford Fleming, the Scottish-Canadian civil engineer who was the chief engineer and surveyor of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Given his involvement in establishing the system of worldwide 24-hour standard time, it is fitting that our collection has a pocket watch given by Sir Sandford to his son Hugh Fleming that features a 24-hour clock face.

As if a transcontinental railway and Standard Time weren’t already enough, Sir Sandford also designed the 1851 Three-Pence Beaver, our first postage stamp. And he didn’t limit himself to being involved in what we now call snail mail: he embraced the then modern electric telegraph communication system by successfully championing the Trans-Pacific telegraph cable, laid from British Columbia to Australia in 1902.

Sir Sandford’s inventive and innovative mind contributed a great deal to Canada’s spirit of innovation, and he is a member of the Canadian Science and Engineering Hall of Fame.

The Canada Science and Technology Museum Collection

The Canada Science and Technology Museum collection has many railway artifacts and archives ranging from locomotives to railway cars to uniforms to photographs and paintings.

Railway Collection Online:*

CN Images of Canada Gallery:

Picturing the Past, including the Mattingly Collection:

This topic, and others of this blog series, show that the spirit of innovation thrives in Canada. Each of us knows a story of a person, place, or innovation that has contributed to a Canadian breakthrough or invention. To mark Canada’s upcoming 150th birthday, we have created a digital storybook to capture your stories of Canadian innovation, from before or after Confederation, or even new innovations that are on the drawing board today. Canada’s history of innovation is worth celebrating. Please go to to contribute your story. And encourage your friends, family, and colleagues also to get involved.