All Aboard! Exploring the Newfoundland Railway


Narrow - Gauge Rails

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Introducing Innovations

Newfoundland became the 10th province of Canada on March 31, 1949, and the Newfoundland Railway's assets, including its 906-mile rail network across the Island, were transferred to the control of the federal Crown Corporation Canadian National Railway (CNR, CN post-1960). CN became a major presence in Newfoundland's early years as a province, controlling the railway, dry dock, many ferries and coastal boats, and the telegraph system.

CN made major capital improvements to the former Newfoundland Railway, upgrading the main line, bridges, and rolling stock, and replacing all steam locomotives with diesel units. In 1965, some standard-gauge track was constructed at Port aux Basques to enable standard-gauge cars to be moved to that location from the mainland. Once facilities to interchange standard-gauge and narrow-gauge trucks or bogies on 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. New railcar-capable ferries were employed; mainland standard-gauge railcars were ferried to Newfoundland, where their standard-gauge bogies were replaced with narrow-gauge bogies in Port aux Basques. The Frederick Carter entered service in 1968 and handled standard-gauge cars to and from Port aux Basques.

This concept was not confined to specialized equipment. Cars of other railways were also re-trucked in this manner, and as a result Canadian Pacific cars, for example, could be found travelling on the narrow-gauge rails.

1969 brought the discontinuation of the main line passenger service, and its replacement by a motor bus service on the more-or-less parallel-running Trans-Canada Highway. However, freight operations continued until, in September 1988, Canadian National abandoned railway operation in Newfoundland entirely.


One of the problems with the narrow-gauge railway was that it lacked room to grow. Its cheaper construction was engineered only for the initial traffic demands and did not take into account future growth of passenger and freight traffic. While a standard-gauge railway could have been more easily upgraded to handle heavier, faster traffic, the Newfoundland narrow-gauge railway proved expensive and impractical to improve. Speeds and loads hauled could not increase significantly, so traffic was limited. Because of the reduced stability of narrower gauge, these trains were not able to run at nearly the same high speed as those networks with broader gauges.

The government, however, rejected the proposed standard-gauge line, though most suited to the extremes of the Newfoundland winter, in favour of a bid for the construction of a cheaper but less suitable narrow-gauge line by the New York Blackman Company. The selection of the narrow-gauge of 3'6" or 42" for this system was also preferred, since it was "British metric". (Newfoundland was then still separate politically from Canada.) The cost of construction of the Railway had been excessive for the small population of Newfoundland with its limited resources, even though all possible measures in the interest of economy had been used. The decision in favour of the narrow-gauge line, though more economical in the short-term, proved to be problematic throughout the entire life of the railway system.

The reduced construction costs for narrow-gauge rail systems - due to less materials, smaller cars, smaller bridges, etc. - as well as the ability to navigate tighter curves, could not compensate for the obvious disadvantages once Newfoundland's exports and imports grew. Narrow-gauge railways cannot interchange equipment such as freight and passengers freely with standard-gauge railways they link with, unless they exchange bogies. This meant that the narrow-gauge line had a built-in cost of transhipping people and freight to the mainline railway system.

Railway yard St. John's, c. 1904.
The Railway yard in the west end of St. John's. The new train station is in the background, c. 1904. A.R. Penney Collection.
Steam engine moving on tracks at Gaff Topsail, ca. 1898.
Baldwin- built 2-6-0 locomotive heads a four car passenger train at Summit Gaff Topsail, ca. 1898. The work on the track was not finished at the time, as the tents of the construction workers indicate on the side of the tracks. A.R. Penney Collection.
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. Standard-size forty foot steel box cars could be mounted onto narrow-gauge bogies. Fabian Kennedy Collection.
Preserved tracks along the Avondale train station. 2008.
Avondale Train Station with stretch of preserved narrow-gauge tracks, 2008. Ute Simon.
Train car on narrow-gauge tracks outside the Railway Coastal Museum.
Note the difference between the narrow-gauge tracks and the width of the rail car. Wayne Greenland Collection.