All Aboard! Exploring the Newfoundland Railway

Railway / Coastal History

The World Wars

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World War I

As soon as the railway had been completed and was operating on a regular schedule it began losing money. In order to remain solvent, the Reids drastically cut operating expenses. The frequency of trans-island expresses was decreased, winter operation on the branch lines was curtailed, and maintenance reduced to a mere fraction of what was recommended. The Newfoundland Railway was beginning its steady decline, a decline that would last until World War II.

With the onset of World War I, Newfoundland enjoyed a brief period of prosperity. The sudden flood of men, ammunitions and materials hauled across the Island by trains helped stabilize the earlier devastating economic situation of the railway. The increased demand on the railway, however, did not help its decrepit situation. Unforeseen operational problems arose - the absence of the many train and boat employees who had volunteered for the armed forces put tremendous strain on the workers remaining, especially because of the increased wartime traffic. Insufficient maintenance meant rail-cars and engines frequently wore out and rail lines were in bad repair. The Great War brought business, yes, but it also brought galloping inflation, large wage increases and staggering losses to the balance sheets. The railway lost $340,000 in 1918 and twice that amount in 1919. By 1918, because of the extreme wartime conditions, most railway equipment needed replacement.

By 1920 the Reids were ready to give up. Due to war costs and the subsequent world recession, the Newfoundland government was already saddled with a national debt of such proportions that seventy percent of revenue went towards meeting the interest charges, but it reluctantly took over the railway operation. Losing money or not, the railway had become an essential service. Seventy-pound rail was ordered early in 1925, along with much-needed rolling stock. Between 1925 and 1929 an average of 400,000 ties were replaced, the main line completely re-railed and the dry dock rebuilt in concrete. A large new coastal ship was ordered and branch lines constructed. By 1929 the railway, which had reverted back to its original name "Newfoundland Railway," seemed on its way to recovery. However, depression hit the fledgling railway hard. Once again, maintenance lapsed; operation was curtailed. By 1933 a quarter of the total population was unemployed, and Newfoundland was declared bankrupt. In an unprecedented step, responsible government was suspended indefinitely in favour of a six-man commission of government appointed by the British crown. The railway was placed under the responsibility of the commissioner of public utilities. Equipment and rolling stock were in short supply and revenue was so low that the rails had to be taken from the Trepassey, Bay de Verde and Heart's Content branch lines. Although some improvement had been made to the roadbed and a few items of rolling stock and some equipment had been received between 1934 and 1939, there was not time enough in the few relatively good years for the railway to repair the damage that had been done during the leanest years of the Depression. It would take the catalyst of a second global conflict to revive the railway.

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Soldiers of the Newfoundland Regiment posing with train in Port aux Basques, 1915.
Soldiers of the Newfoundland Regiment at Port aux Basques (1915), waiting to go overseas. Trail of the Caribou.
The S.S. Lintrose at sea.
The war strained Newfoundland's transportation system. In 1915, a number of ships including the Lintrose were sold to the Russians for its war effort placing greater strain on remaining facilities. A.R. Penney Collection.
 U.S. soldier waiting for the next train, 1942.
A U.S. soldier is waiting for the next train in Come By Chance, 1942. CN Pensioners Association.