All Aboard! Exploring the Newfoundland Railway

Railway Workers

Making It Work

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A Trainman's Life - Enter the Railway Employee Union

Until 1919 a trainman could be obliged to work twenty-four hours straight, or more. A freight train departing the capital at 1:00 A.M. might work its crew until 11:30 P.M. This was considered to be one day's work. A passenger train could depart St. John's at 5:00 P.M. and arrive in Port aux Basques at 11:00 P.M. the next day. The crew would have been on duty for thirty hours without a rest period. This was considered two days' work. The unwritten law was that a crew must take its train all the way to the terminus. If there were washouts, accidents or snow blockages the crew could be on duty for many days without a break. When the trainmen's union was formed in 1919, it won the right to a rest period after twelve hours of duty. Crews were ordinarily scheduled for a nine-hour day. After more than 20 nine-hour days in the course of a month, a trainman was entitled to overtime pay.

From 1934 onward, Railway clerks, machinists, car-men, and sectionmen formed unions and Railway employees were made eligible for pensions.

After Canadian National took over the railway in 1949, eight-hour shifts became the norm. Overtime was earned for hours over that amount.

1948 Salary Scales for the Newfoundland Railway

Position Per Month Per Hour


Locomotive engineer $180.16 $0.86 Locomotive fireman $141.68 $0.68 Passenger conductor $213.00 $1.02 Freight conductor $168.00 $0.80 Freight brakeman $148.00 $0.71 Passenger brakeman $153.00 $0.74 Porter $153.00 $0.74 Expressman $163.00 $0.78 Station agent $163.21 $0.78 Clerk $150.00   Mechanic (1st class)   $0.99 Locomotive and car repairman   $0.85 Helper   $0.79 Assistant   $0.58 Stationary oiler fireman   $0.64 Section labourer   $0.625

Comparable pay scales on the Canadian National Railway were between thirty and fifty percent higher.

In 1920, a year after Bishop Falls became the headquarters for the Western Division of the railway, there were 2,000 people on the annual $700,000 payroll of the Reid Newfoundland Company. During the construction phase it employed up to five percent of the island's work force. Building and operating the Newfoundland railway proved to be a tremendous task. Operating trains and coastal boats through difficult terrain and waters, under often severe weather conditions always presented a challenge to the people working for the Newfoundland railroad. The railroad operated for more than a hundred years, attesting to the deep dedication and hard work of the men operating it.

The Anglo-Newfoundland Development Company operated a large pulp and paper mill on the Exploits River, establishing the town of Grand Falls. Other forest industry towns along the line included Deer Lake, Howley, Badger, Bishop's Falls, Glenwood, Benton and Terra Nova. They contributed significantly to the employment rate of Newfoundland. The pulp and paper mill in Corner Brook was built in the 1920s and became an important employer on the west coast of the island.

Railway Employees' Welfare Association (REWA)

Formed in 1927 by employees of the Newfoundland Railway, the REWA provided disability insurance, sick benefits, widows' benefits, a savings and provident fund, and housing developments in St. John's and Bishop's Falls. Railway Employees' working conditions improved because of the generous benefits programs the REWA established.

Train with labourers posing at back, Harry's Brook, 1920s.
Railway workers at Harry's Brook, 1920s. A.R. Penney Collection.
Railway workers posing with steam engine, early 1920s,
Reid Newfoundland Company employees, early 1920s. A.R. Penney Collection.
Whitbourne car shop crew, c. 1900.
Whitbourne car shop and roundhouse crew, c. 1900. A.R. Penney Collection.
Portrait of Board of Directors of the Railway Employees Welfare Association, 1931.
Board of Directors of the Railway Employees Welfare Association, 1931. CN Pensioners Association.
Two Railway Employee Union pins with symbols.
Railway Employee Union pins. Railway Coastal Museum.