Canadian Geographic
Left navigation image
Tracking rail


Canadian inventions and innovations have repeatedly reshaped the rail industry for more than a century.

Sir Sandford Fleming’s invention of the time zone is perhaps the most striking example of Canadian rail innovation. In 1879, Fleming proposed sectioning the Earth into zones divided by meridians and assigned hourly deviations from Greenwich Mean Time. Railways began using Fleming’s “time zones” in the 1880s to standardize schedules. And, in 1884, Universal Standard Time was adopted at an international conference in Washington, D.C. (Among many accomplishments, Fleming also designed Canada’s first postage stamp and planned the Canadian Pacific Railway’s route across Canada.)

Other early Canadian rail inventions include the sleeper car (Samuel Sharp, 1857), the rotary snowplow (J. E. Elliott, 1869), the automatic railway crossing gate (Fred W. Watson, 1881) and the railway car brake (George B. Dorey, 1913).

But few innovations have changed the world so profoundly as the 1955 development of the fully intermodal container goods system.

The idea of boxes on boats predates railways; some of the earliest carried coal on English canals. Likewise, the idea of transporting truck trailers atop flatbed rail cars — what railroaders call “piggybacking” — predates the Second World War. (In 1952, the Canadian Pacific Railway became the first major North American railway to introduce piggyback service.)

But it was not until the tiny White Pass & Yukon Route (WP&YR) railway began carrying containerized goods between Vancouver and Whitehorse, Y.T., in 1955 that the first truly intermodal container system — one that transfers goods containers between customized trucks, railway cars and ships — was born.

The Montréal-built Clifford J. Rodgers was the world’s first purpose-built container ship. The WP&YR vessel carried 600 containers on its first sailing from North Vancouver, B.C., to Skagway, Alaska, in November 1955. In Skagway, the containers were loaded onto purpose-built railway cars for the 178-kilometre trip to Whitehorse, where they were transferred to trucks for final delivery.

Several more intermodal systems were introduced in the years that followed. The WP&YR operated its “Container Route” for decades but ultimately wound up removing the equipment after its containers proved incompatible with the 12-metre-long ISO goods containers that became the global standard in the late 1960s.

Today, more than 90 percent of the world’s non-bulk cargo is transported in containers carried by ship, rail and truck. These big steel boxes have reshaped Canada almost as profoundly as has the Canadian Pacific Railway itself, flooding markets with low-cost consumer goods from Asia, filling cities and towns with cut-rate department stores, such as Walmart, and felling parts of the Canadian manufacturing sector in the process.


This piece features a 3-D animated diagram that explains how the Vehicle and Cargo Inspection System works.


On the next page:


Go now!  Go now!
Quiz :

What percentage of Canada's freight does Canadian Pacific transport?