All Aboard! Exploring the Newfoundland Railway

Railway / Coastal History

Newfoundland Railway

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Canadian National Takes Over

As of April 1, 1949, when Newfoundland became Canada's 10th province, the Newfoundland Railway with its seven hundred and five miles of three-foot-six inch gauge track, badly maintained and in need of massive overhaul, became the newest addition to the Canadian National Railway. Rolling stock consisted of forty-six aging steam locomotives, three diesel locomotives, ninety-eight wooden passenger cars, one thousand and four freight cars and one hundred and fifty-four units of work equipment. Also included were the dry dock in St. John's harbour and a fleet of fourteen ships, most of them dating back to the Reid days.

After studying its new property, the C.N.R. began a series of changes designed to completely integrate the Newfoundland Railway into the modern rail system of Canada.

The first change was to immediately raise the starvation wage of the Newfoundland Railway's four thousand one hundred employees by 30 percent to meet national standards. During those early days more money per mile was spent on the railway in Newfoundland than in any other part of Canada. In the first fifteen years of Confederation, Canadian National pumped $80,000,000 into Newfoundland. Traffic increased from 900,000 tons of freight in 1949 to 1,500,000 tons in 1960 and 200,000 tons in 1967.

Mindful of the days when the trans-island express was buried in snow for days at a time, Canadian National began a three-year program to raise the level of the track bed an average of four feet. From now on the track across the Gaff Topsails, a particularly treacherous stretch in winter, would be above the level of most of the winter snow drifts. Bulldozers, snow plows and work crews were at the ready and the tracks were usually cleared in a few hours.

The Newfoundland Railway had grades as steep as two and a half percent and curves as sharp as fourteen degrees; these were steeper and sharper than anything found in the Rocky Mountains and certainly unsafe for standard-gauge operation. To change these conditions would have been prohibitively expensive and would involve the relocation of virtually the entire track. The Canadian National Railway instead decided to keep the narrow-gauge but improve it as much as possible. The worst curves and grades were eliminated, but the railway still remained steep and twisty. The track remained narrow, but it was now well-balanced and no longer rusty. The engines, coaches and freight cars were as small as before, but now they were well-maintained and freshly painted.

Locomotive 593 now at display in Corner Brook.
The locomotive 593 was ordered from Baldwin Locomotive Works in Philadelphia and arrived in St. John's in 1921 for the sum of $36,870.00. Its original duties as a passenger express engine ended in 1939 with the railway's upgrading to larger rails and rolling stock. Now it is part of the collection of the Newfoundland Railway Society, Corner Brook.Wayne Greenland Collection.
Corner Brook Station, 1950s.
Corner Brook Train station, 1950s. Fabian Kennedy Collection.