All Aboard! Exploring the Newfoundland Railway

Technology

Technology & Engines

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The Diesel Engines

The first three diesel engines arrived in Argentia on the railway freighter Brigus in January 1953. The St. John's train shops serviced them and put them in operating order. At first, diesels were rarely used for express trains. Only after steam generator cars were obtained to heat the passenger cars and fire the stoves in the dining car were diesel engines employed. Between 1953 and 1956 the old steam locomotives were replaced by forty-one diesel locomotives specially constructed for the province's narrow-gauge rail system. A further twelve diesel locomotives were added to the system between 1958 and 1960. Canadian National was the first railway in the world to use standard-size forty-foot steel box cars mounted on narrow-gauge bogies. About one hundred freight cars were thus converted. 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.

The Advantage of Diesel Locomotives

Prior to this time there were no railcar 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 railcar ferry. Cargo could then be loaded in Newfoundland and not unloaded until it reached its 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 which was constructed in 1965 enabling standard-gauge cars to be moved to that location from the mainland. Once facilities to interchange standard-gauge and narrow-gauge trucks or bogies under freight cars were introduced, cargo to and from the mainland could be trans-shipped once rather than the previous double trans-shipment of train car-to-ship and ship-to-train car.

Dieselization of the Newfoundland railway proved to be an expensive enterprise. However, almost immediately the advantages of such a system were recognized and the savings became quickly evident. The diesel-electric locomotives were considerably more efficient than their steam-operated counterparts. They were not as labour-intensive to maintain as steam engines and were faster, more powerful, and easier to fuel than a steam engine. Running on diesel instead of coal or oil, they were also cheaper and easier to operate. They were more expensive to build, but they were sturdier, lasted longer, and caused less harm to the tracks.

Image of a Bogie or undercarriage for converting train cars for narrow-gauge.
A bogie is a strong metal frame that connects the wheels and axles of a train. Two bogies can support a train car. Standard-size forty foot steel box cars could be mounted onto narrow-gauge bogies. Fabian Kennedy Collection.
Unloading locomotives for the Newfoundland Railway.
The specially designed locomotive transport MV Christian Smith unloading diesel engines for the Newfoundland Railway, 1956. A.R. Penney Collection.
Photograph of a diesel locomotive in the train yard in St. John's in winter, 1956.
One of 47 1200 horsepower diesel locomotives purchased in 1956 to replace the aging steam engines. Clayton Cook Collection.
Railway yard in Port aux Basques.
Outer view of railway yard in Port aux Basques. Fred Chancey Collection.