Canadian railways

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Canadian railways tie Canada together through a large and well developed railway system that today primarily transports freight. The railways have great political and symbolic significance in uniting the far-flung provinces.

System in 21st century

There are two major privately owned transcontinental freight railway systems, the Canadian National and Canadian Pacific Railway. Nationwide passenger services are provided by the federal crown corporation VIA Rail. Commuter trains serve Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver. Smaller railways such as Ontario Northland and Algoma Central also run passenger trains to remote rural areas.

Canada has 49,422 km total trackage, of which only 129 km is electrified. Canada uses standard gauge track, except for small narrow gauge lines isolated from the main North American rail network used in mining or forestry, and the broad-gauge streetcar and subway lines of Toronto.


Philosophy of railroading

According to den Otter (1997), as products of the Enlightenment, Canadians believed in economic and moral progress, and shared the technological optimism of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Liberalism. Modernizers had upon a "mission" to "civilize" (or conquer) the wilderness for the expansion of British trade, commerce, and culture. The Canadian market itself was always much smaller than the nearby American market, which Canadians sought to exploit. They adopted American technology to escape British financial and military control. At the same time, because they rejected American democratic values and were content with Britain's elite social and political institutions, Canadians resisted incorporation into the U.S. and envisioned an independent transcontinental nation, one politically distinct and economically competitive with the United States, but never entirely independent from America's larger market opportunities. Unfortunately, metropolitan rivalries between Montreal, Halifax, and Saint John caused Canadians to build more railway lines per capita than any other industrializing nation, even though they had neither sufficient capital resources, nor freight and passenger traffic to make all of their schemes pay. Over time, internal competition for resources forced Canadians to demand centralization and state intervention to support their expansionist plans, a situation that pitted Canadian regions against each other as urban entrepreneurs sought closer ties with either Britain or the United States.

Creating lines

The first Canadian railway, the Champlain and Saint Lawrence Railroad, was opened in 1836 near Montreal. Heavy expansion of the rail system did came after the Guarantee Act of 1849 guaranteed bonds on all railways over 75 miles. This led to rapid expansion of railways; there was excessive growth as uneconomic lines were built since the government guaranteed profits. This proved disastrous for government finances, however, and the Canadas were all but bankrupted by the subsidies. The largest rail project of this period was also a disaster. The Grand Trunk Railway linking Montreal to Sarnia, Ontario, was finished in 1860, but was mired in debt. In exchange for bailing out the company the government escaped its guarantee on the railway bonds.

Canadian confederation in 1869 was made possible in part by the railways. The separate colonial governments had all but emptied their treasuries building railways, and a new and more stable method of financing them was required. It was also believed that union would allow for the needed construction of railways linking British North America. The Maritime colonies joined the Confederation in part because of promises to build the Intercolonial Railway. British Columbia was lured by the promise of a transcontinental railway.

The government had learnt its lesson and these railways were not funded by guarantees. Rather, the construction of the Intercolonial was fully controlled by the government under the skilled direction of Sir Sanford Fleming.

The railway to the Pacific, the Canadian Pacific, was financed by private funds and through massive land grants in the Canadian prairies, much of it of little value until the railway arrived, $25 million in cash and a guaranteed monopoly. The railway, an engineering marvel that was then the longest in the world, was completed in 1885 to great fanfare.

The booming Canadian economy after 1900 led to plans to build two new transcontinental railways. The Canadian Northern, a successful system covering the northern part of the prairies, and the Grand Trunk (through its Grand Trunk Pacific subsidiary) both launched ambitious plans to expand. The government at first encouraged the two to come to some arrangement and only have one new line, but in the end no agreement was made and the government supported the expansion of both lines. The federal government itself built the National Transcontinental, a line from Moncton, New Brunswick through Quebec City to Winnipeg, Manitoba, passing through the vast and uninhabited hinterland of the Canadian Shield.

This aggressive expansion proved disastrous when immigration and supplies of capital all but disappeared with the outbreak of the First World War. The Canadian Northern, Grand Trunk Pacific, and Grand Trunk were nationalized by the federal government, which absorbed the debt of over two billion dollars. All three railways, along with the Canadian Government Railways (formed by the Intercolonial, National Transcontinental, and several smaller lines) were then merged into the Canadian National Railways between 1918-1923.

20th century

The years after the First World War saw only moderate expansion of the rail network and the age of the great railways were over in Canada. The automobile and truck provided growing competition by the 1920s, and after 1945 most passenger service was lost to airlines. During the post-war period several large resource lines were opened in Quebec, Labrador, and British Columbia - several of which are not directly connected to the main North American network.

In 1978 the government created VIA Rail which took over all national passenger service in the country. In 1987 the National Transportation Act partially deregulated the railway industry in Canada and removed much of the red tape that railways experienced when attempting to abandon unprofitable lines, however the NTA is now viewed as more of a failure in that railways used the legislation merely as a first-resort after "demarketing" a line, rather than a last-resort after trying to find a short line buyer. In 1995 the federal government privatized CN and in 1996, the government corrected the NTA 1987 shortfalls with the Canadian Transportation Act which more fully deregulates the railway industry.


  • The Dictionary of Canadian Biography(1966-2006), scholarly biographies of railway men who died by 1930
  • Andreae, Christopher. Lines of Country: An Atlas of Railway and Waterway History in Canada (1996)
  • Baskerville, Peter. "Hickson, Sir Joseph," Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online
  • Baskerville, Peter. "Americans in Britain’s backyard: the railway era in Upper Canada, 1850–1880," Business History Review 55 (1981): 314–36 in JSTOR
  • Biggar, Emerson Bristol. The Canadian Railway Problem (1917) complete text online
  • Brown, Ron. The Train Doesn't Stop Here Any More (1998) an illustrated history of railway stations in Canada
  • Bruce, Harry. The pig that flew: The battle to privatize Canadian National Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, (1997) ISBN 1-55054-609-0.
  • Cameron, Douglas. The people's railway: A history of Canadian National. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, (1992) ISBN 1-55054-062-9.
  • Carlos, Ann M. and Lewis, Frank D. "The Creative Financing of an Unprofitable Enterprise: the Grand Trunk Railway of Canada, 1853-1881." Explorations in Economic History 1995 32(3): 273-301. Issn: 0014-4983
  • Currie, A. W. The Grand Trunk Railway of Canada. University of Toronto Press, 1957. 556 pp, the standard history
  • Darling H. The Politics of Freight Rates McClelland and Stewart 1980
  • Due, J. F. The Intercity Electric Railway Industry in Canada University of Toronto Press 1966
  • Dunn, Samuel O. "The Failure of Government Ownership in Canada," The Journal of Political Economy, Vol. 24, No. 6 (Jun., 1916), pp. 547–571 in JSTOR
  • Eagle, J. A. The Canadian Pacific Railway and the Development of Western Canada, 1896-1914. McGill-Queen's University Press 1989
  • Fleming, R. B. The Railway King of Canada: Sir William Mackenzie, 1849-1923 University of British Columbia Press, 1991 online at Questia
  • Fournier, Leslie T. Railway Nationalization in Canada: The Problem of the Canadian National Railways (1937)
  • Fournier, Leslie T. "The Canadian National Railway versus the Canadian Pacific: A Comparative Study," The Journal of Political Economy Vol. 39, No. 3 (Jun., 1931), pp. 369–389 in JSTOR
  • Freeman, Kenneth D. et al. The Growth and Performance of the Canadian Transcontinental Railways 1956-1981 (1987)
  • Gibbon, John Murray. Steel of Empire: The Romantic History of the Canadian Pacific (1936)
  • Heaver, T.D. and James C. Nelson, "Railway Pricing Under Commercial Freedom: The Canadian Experiencem" Journal of Economic Literature Vol. 16, No. 3 (Sep., 1978), pp. 1061–1062 in JSTOR
  • Hertel; D. W. History of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees: Its Birth and Growth, 1887-1955. 1955 online edition from Questia
  • Hofsommer, Don L. Grand Trunk Corporation: Canadian National Railways in the United States, 1971-1992. 1995. 227 pp.
  • Jackman, W. T. "Appraisal of Government Ownership and Operation of Railways in Canada," Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science Vol. 201, (Jan., 1939), pp. 175–184 in JSTOR
  • Kaye, Lamb W. History of the Canadian Pacific Railway. (1977).
  • Leonard, Frank. A Thousand Blunders: The Grand Trunk Pacific Railway and Northern British Columbia University of British Columbia Press, 1996 online edition from Questia
  • Lewis, Frank D. and David R. Robinson. "The Timing of Railway Construction on the Canadian Prairies," The Canadian Journal of Economics Vol. 17, No. 2 (May, 1984), pp. 340–352 in JSTOR
  • McLean, Simon J. "Canadian Railways and the Bonding Question," The Journal of Political Economy Vol. 7, No. 4 (Sep., 1899), pp. 500–542 in JSTOR
  • McLean, S. J. "The Canadian Government and the Railway Problem ," The Economic Journal Vol. 12, No. 47 (Sep., 1902), pp. 403–415 in JSTOR
  • Middleton, William D. et al. eds. Encyclopedia of North American Railroads Indiana U.P. (2007)
  • den Otter, A.A. The Philosophy of Railways: The Transcontinental Railway Idea in British North America University of Toronto Press, 1997.
  • Regehr, Theodore D. "Hays, Charles M." Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online
  • Regehr, T. D. The Canadian Northern Railway: Pioneer Road of the Northern Prairies 1895-1918 Macmillan of Canada (1976)
  • Rountree, G. M. The Railway Worker: A Study of the Employment and Unemployment Problems of the Canadian Railways (1936)
  • Stevens, G. History of the Canadian National Railways Macmillan Company 1973
  • Underwood, Jay. Built for War: Canada's Intercolonial Railway, (2006) excerpt and text search
  • Weaver, R. Kent. The Politics of Industrial Change: Railway Policy in North America (1985) online edition from Questia
  • Wilgus, William J. The Railway Interrelations of the United States and Canada (1937)
  • Willson, Beckles. The Life of Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal 1915. online edition from Questia

Primary sources

  • Colmer, Joseph G. "Some Canadian Railway and Commercial Statistics," Journal of the Royal Statistical Society Vol. 51, No. 1 (Mar., 1888), pp. 74–112 in JSTOR
  • Fleming, Sandford. Report on the Intercolonial Railway Exploratory Survey (1865) 101 pp complete text online
  • Fleming, Sandford. Report on Surveys and Preliminary Operations on the Canadian Pacific Railway (1877) 431 pages; complete text online
  • Innis, Harold. A., and A. R. M. Lower; Select Documents in Canadian Economic History, 1783-1885 University of Toronto Press, 1933 online edition from Questia

External links

See also