Railnews Review 2023: CP 2816 Brings Main Line Steam Back to Canada

Morning in Medicine Hat: Canadian Pacific 2816 simmers in the Medicine Hat, Alberta, yard on October 19, 2023, ahead of a fast run over the CPKC main line. The return of 4-6-4 2816 to main line in 2023 foretells even bigger things to come in the New Year. Photo by Justin Franz. 

Railnews Review 2023: CP 2816 Brings Main Line Steam Back to Canada

By Justin Franz

This week, the editors of Railfan & Railroad Magazine are looking at some of the biggest stories in railroading in 2023. Be sure to check Railfan.com every weekday all year long for all your (free) railroad news and if you like what you see, consider subscribing

Steam railroading is alive and thriving in the 2020s. One need only look at the last 12 months to find plenty of proof. In February, steam returned to the narrow gauge East Broad Top. A hundred or so miles east, Reading 4-8-4 2102 stunned crowds with another season of Iron Horse Rambles excursions on the Reading & Northern. In Virginia, fan-favorite Norfolk & Western 4-8-4 611 established a new residency on the Buckingham Branch Railroad. Nickel Plate Road 2-8-4 765 continued to star in the ever-expanding Indiana Rail Experience. And out west, Santa Fe 4-8-4 2926 made its public debut after a decades-long rebuild

Yet perhaps the most important story in steam railroading in 2023 was also one of the quietest — appropriate considering its nation of origin, known for being a bit modest and understated. But when a Class I railroad revives its long-dormant steam program and brings main line steam back to a country that hasn’t seen it in more than a decade, that’s a big deal. So there’s no denying the return of Canadian Pacific 4-6-4 2816 was the biggest steam preservation story in 2023. 

Built in 1930, the 2816 was one of 65 H1 Hudsons built by Montreal Locomotive Works, primarily for passenger service. In 1939, semi-streamlined Hudson 2850 led the royal train carrying King George VI and Queen Elizabeth across Canada. The King was so impressed with the locomotive’s performance that he allowed the CP to designate the later-built 4-6-4s as “Royal Hudsons,” the only locomotives outside the United Kingdom ever given such status. The CP’s Hudsons were, as railroad historian and author Omer Lavallée once wrote, “destined to be a superior breed of locomotive.”

On August 4, Canadian Pacific 4-6-4 2816 stormed north out of Lethbridge, Alberta, on CPKC Railway’s Aldersyde Subdivision. Photo by Justin Franz.

At the end of the steam era, five CP Hudsons were preserved but 2816 was the only non-streamlined specimen saved. The locomotive was purchased by preservationist F. Nelson Blount and put on display at Steamtown U.S.A. Eventually, the locomotive was moved to Scranton, Pa., and became the property of the National Park Service. In 1998, CP reacquired the locomotive and sent it west to North Vancouver, B.C., for restoration. In 2001, the locomotive was pressed back in service and would spend the next decade touring the CP system as a rolling ambassador for the Class I. In 2012, not long after E. Hunter Harrison was appointed CEO (a railroader known for running frills-free operations), the locomotive was put into storage in Calgary. 

Then in 2020, eight years after it was stored, the locomotive made a surprise appearance under steam in CP’s Ogden Yard. The reason later became clear: In an era of social distancing due to the pandemic, CP wanted to do something extra special for its “Virtual” Holiday Train concert and decided to fire up 2816 for the occasion. At the time, a CP spokesperson said the railroad had “no plans” to run the engine on the main line. But the seed of its return was planted inside the C-suite in Calgary. Nine months later, CP CEO Keith Creel said in an interview that if his planned merger with Kansas City Southern was approved by federal regulators, locomotive 2816 would be restored to service for a celebratory run to Mexico City. With marching orders in hand, CP’s steam crew was reassembled and quietly went to work on a full overhaul of the locomotive. In June 2023, the crew put the finishing touches on the restoration and fired it up for the first time since 2020. 

Throughout the summer and fall, the locomotive made a series of test runs around Alberta, on what was now called “CPKC,” cumulating in a four-day trip in October that went from Calgary to Edmonton and back before running on the original CP main line to Medicine Hat. For the 93-year-old Hudson, it was a homecoming, allowing it to run on the very line it was built for.

The trips were not just significant for CPKC but also steam railroading in general north of the 49th parallel: It marked the first time in more than a decade that a main line steam locomotive ran in Canada. And hopes are high that 2816 won’t be alone in carrying that torch as the Rocky Mountain Rail Society continues to restore Canadian National 4-8-2 6060.

The 2816’s test runs also provided the railroad’s steam team a chance to test various systems, including the newly installed Positive Train Control technology. While other steam locomotives have the U.S.-mandated safety technology — most notably Union Pacific 4-8-8-4 “Big Boy” 4014 and Santa Fe 4-8-4s 2926 and 3751 — the system aboard 2816 allows the locomotive to operate on PTC territory without a diesel helper.

After the October run, the locomotive was put away for the winter but the steam crew is still busy making preparations for next year’s ambitious trip to Mexico City. The “Final Spike Steam Tour” is set to depart Calgary in April. It is sure to be one of the steam events of the decade. 

This article was posted on: December 28, 2023