Newfoundland railway and marine transportation, a great debate in the 1950s

Posted on October 29, 2021 | BY ALEXANDER CHAFE | 0 Comments

The first Newfoundland railway train travelled across the island in 1898. With no island-wide road network at the time, the railway was a vital connector.

A sea voyage between Port aux Basques, N.L. and Cape Breton, N.S, an area known as the Cabot Strait, bridged the gap between land and sea.


A steam train from of the Newfoundland Railway (Photo credit: Harry Cuff Publications)


Trade Inefficiencies

In 1949, when N.L. joined Confederation, rail and sea were the main means of transit. Trade and travel barriers between Newfoundland and the rest of Canada were removed after Confederation, so demand grew steadily in the 1950s. Following the Terms of Union, managing Newfoundland’s railway and marine services became a responsibility of Canadian National Railways (CN), a federal body.

The link between railway and marine transit was not seamless. In fact, transporting railway cargo via the Cabot Strait was a complicated process. Goods had to be unloaded from a railway car onto a ferry, and then loaded back onto a railcar at the destination port. Today, fully-loaded transport trucks simply drive on and off a ship.

Noted in a 1953 edition of the Newfoundland Journal of Commerce, the Newfoundland Board of Trade lobbied to the federal government for a ferry capable of carrying railway cars. They argued that it would help fully integrate the province with Canadian trade and improve the efficiency of an unnecessarily complex and expensive process. However, the government argued that there would be improvements in the speed of loading and unloading railway cars after commissioning a ferry that could carry freight and vehicles, so a vessel capable of carrying railway cars was not needed.


Patrick Morris and Frederick Carter, two ferries capable of carrying railcars (Photo credit: Canada Science and Technology Museum)


Improvements in Transportation Services

It seems that the Newfoundland Board of Trade eventually won the battle. Over the years, CN made many changes to the fleet of N.L. marine vessels to meet the demands of travel and trade customers. In 1955, the first ferry capable of loading tourists and vehicles onboard was commissioned, the Canadian-made William Carson. Railcar ferries Patrick Morris and Frederick Carter were acquired in 1965 and 1968, both capable of carrying railway cars onboard.


A commercial vehicle exiting a Marine Atlantic ferry (Photo credit: Marine Atlantic)


End of Newfoundland Railway

By 1977, with the completion of the Trans-Canada Highway, the end of passenger railway services and the expansion of roads across the province, transportation across Newfoundland was changing drastically. Commercial vehicles were being used instead of the railway and ferries could carry tractor trailers across Cabot Strait. In 1976, 28,000 trailers crossed Cabot Strait, compared to 2,000 in 1971.


The last Newfoundland railway freight service occurred in June, 1988.


Marine Atlantic traffic numbers for fiscal years 2019-20 and 2020-21, showing the effects of the pandemic on passenger traffic (Source: Marine Atlantic)


Transporting Freight Today

Today, private companies like Oceanex handle many freight services in Newfoundland. However, Marine Atlantic still maintains the Cabot Strait route. Recent trailer counts for the 2020-21 season were 89,723.

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