The Railway’s Most Iconic Car

21 October 2023

It’s been a while since we’ve published a blog. I’m delighted that we’re breaking a long silence with a first piece written by one of our up and comers, Luca Matyas. Luca is finishing up high school this year and splits his spare time between the Winnipeg Railway Museum and the Prairie Dog Central. He’ll tell you about his favourite artifact in our collection. Take it away Luca!

When most people think of a train, they still think of a caboose, the iconic “van” at the end of a string of cars. For over a century the caboose was the period at the end of the railway sentence. 

Our museum has three very different caboose types and my favourite is our Canadian National Pointe St Charles van, number 79553. Both Canadian Class One railways had iconic cabooses. Canadian Pacific with their Angus van and Canadian National with their Pointe St Charles van. 

Built at the Pointe St Charles shops in Montreal in the early 1970’s they were constructed on top of old 40 foot boxcar frames to save money. They were made of steel and were similar in appearance to the Hawker Siddeley vans that CN already owned. The Pointe St Charles vans were taller with a “wide vision” cupola to see around and over the larger freight cars of the time. This new style of caboose was adopted by nearly every railway and worked very well for crews to work behind longer and taller trains. 

The Pointe St Charles vans were small cabins on wheels, with a washroom, kitchenette, bunk beds and a desk at each end of the car. They were equipped with green and red marker lights, ditch lights and an air whistle. The vans were often used for shove movements down branch lines so the ditch lights and whistle were necessary for grade crossings. 

These vans were unique to CN, although some have found their way onto other railways such as the Alaska Railway, New Brunswick Southern, the Central Manitoba Railway (CEMR). Now Cando Rail, the Greater Winnipeg Water District Railway (GWWDR) and even some leasing companies have them for special use. 

You can still see a few of these vans out in the wild today. CN owns a few that they use for shove moves and maintenance of way trains. You can also see Cando Rail’s Pointe St Charles van used for the same things. By far the most interesting is the GWWDR’s van used for regular service on their weekly train to Shoal Lake. They’re one of very few railways that still use a van in regular service. 

As technology advanced, the need for a caboose diminished. Back in the 1980s the new “end of train device” (EOTD) was developed and took the job of the caboose crew. In 1988, the Canadian Transportation Commission gave permission to Canadian railways to remove cabooses from trains and use the new EOTD as a replacement. 

The EOTDs are amazing feats of engineering themselves. We have one attached to the rear of our Pointe St Charles van to show what replaced it, going from an entire car, to a small device with a blinking light.

Our Pointe St Charles van was built in February of 1972 and was donated to us by the Canadian National Railway in excellent condition. You can see for yourself how crews used the caboose, as the office and house of the train. 

It’s still one of my favourite pieces in the museum and I remember coming to the museum as a kid and going into the caboose. I remember walking through and wanting to ride up in the cupola to experience what countless railroaders did for over a century. I never saw a caboose in regular service because they were gone 18 years before I was born. Still, I am very lucky to have ridden in a few cabooses across North America and had a glimpse of what it’s like to ride one the most iconic railcars.