All Aboard! Exploring the Newfoundland Railway

Railway / Coastal History

Newfoundland Railway

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From Steam to Diesel

Between 1953 and 1956 the old steam locomotives were replaced by forty-one diesel locomotives specially constructed for narrow-gauge rails. A further twelve diesels were delivered between 1958 and 1960. Altogether, 1,400 pieces of rolling stock were added to the system including livestock, gondola and refrigeration cars. The Canadian National Railway was the first railway in the world to use standard-size forty-foot steel boxcars on narrow-gauge undercarriages. About one hundred standard size freight cars were so employed. The advantage of using them was that they could carry one-third more cargo than narrow-gauge cars.

To enable the railway to handle heavier and faster trains, CN started to replace the seventy-pound rail on the main line with more durable track weighing eighty-five pounds a linear yard. To handle the increased demands placed upon the new system, new marshalling yards were established in Corner Brook, Bishop's Falls and Port aux Basques. Existing facilities were expanded by the addition of diesel shops, repair depots, storage sheds, stations, steel bridges and culverts. Untreated softwood ties with a lifespan of five years were replaced by 2,480,000 new ties treated to last twenty-five years. Crushed stone ballast in the amount of 1,600,000 cubic yards was used to replace the previous inferior mixture of clay and gravel. The fleet of coastal boats was augmented by seven new ships, including container carriers and railway ferries.

An average passenger train in the 1960s consisted of two diesel locomotives and about a dozen cars - a few more on summer weekends. Each sleeping car was marked with the name of a Newfoundland community: Fogo, Gander, Humber, Lewisporte, etc. The coaches were numbered.

Prior to this time there were no railway ferries operating to Newfoundland. A cargo outward bound from St. John's might be loaded on the railway at St. John's, transported to Port aux Basques, unloaded, loaded aboard a vessel, transhipped at the North Sydney terminal, and then loaded on to a Mainland train. This inefficient and expensive undertaking was replaced with the introduction of a railway ferry. Cargo could then be loaded in Newfoundland and not unloaded until they reached their destination anywhere in North America. Associated with the railcar ferry was the only standard-gauge operation in Newfoundland, a single switching engine on a short stretch of track in the Port aux Basques terminal.

In order to handle the increasing flow of automobiles, the Canadian National Railway brought into service the world's only narrow-gauge bi-level automobile carriers. Twenty of these cars, each equipped to carry six automobiles, were manufactured in the railway shops in St. John's.

In 1973 CNR established a separate unit for its ferry and marine services (which became CN Marine in 1976 and Marine Atlantic in 1986). With the expansion of the Province's highways, coastal boat services were provided only to the south coast and Labrador. In the 1990s the south coast service was replaced by a system of provincially-run ferries.

Service car at Whitbourne station, 1981.
Service car at Whitbourne train station, September 1981. Fabian Kennedy Collection.
 Canadian National railway ferry.
Canadian National railway ferry. This mode of transport allowed for cargo to be loaded in Newfoundland and not unloaded until they reached their destination anywhere in North America. Fabian Kennedy Collection.
M.V. William Carson plowing through ice.
M.V. William Carsonin ice. She was lost off the Labrador coast in June 1971. Provincial Archives, The Rooms.