The Canadian National Railway, The People's Railway
The Canadian National Railway shares many similarities to the Consolidated Rail Corporation set up
by the US government in the mid-1970s. For most of its existence the
CN was under the control of the Canadian government and is actually a
culmination of several smaller Canadian systems stretching across the
country, which were in disrepair and financial
ruin during the early 20th century prompting CN’s creation. In 1995 CN
was sold by the government and for the first time ever became a
privately held company. Today, after purchasing a number of US
railroads the system stretches as far south as New Orleans along with reaching both Canadian coasts. It is a leading Class I railroad with profit margins that rival the best of the US roads.
An eastbound freight led by C44-9W #2572 passes the historic Grand Trunk Western depot in Battle Creek, Michigan on April 19, 2004.
The Canadian National Railway is a relatively new creation, as the
Canadian government until 1918 did not piece it together. The earliest
systems to make up the CN date back to 1852, in way of the Grand Trunk
Railway. However, the Canadian Pacific Railway was operating its
transcontinental line a full 33 years before the CN came into existence,
having completed it in 1885! For purposes of keeping this article
brief we will only briefly highlight the railroads, which made up the
backbone of the CN system. The first of these systems (and largest)
was the Canadian Northern Railway (CNoR), which was chartered in 1892,
in large part to compete with the CP.
Through numerous takeovers and much construction the CNoR eventually also reached across Canada. Another system that made a large part of the CN was the Grand Trunk Railway, which itself was comprised of several smaller systems like the Great Western Railway, Hamilton & Northern Railway and the Champlain & St. Lawrence Railway. Other railroads that would make up the network included the Intercolonial Railway, Prince Edward Island Railway and Halifax & South Western Railway. In total the CN system was made up of some 214 different railroads! For additional historical information on the CN please click here to visit the Canadian National Railways Historical Association's website.
CN GP9 #4209 and a long parade of other power works a freight past the station in London, Ontario on September 17, 1989. Note the CN headquarters in the background.
What brought about the railroad's creation was quite similar to the
situation plaguing the New England railroads of the 1960s and 1970s,
which ultimately led to Conrail’s creation; too many rail lines and not
enough profitable traffic. To make matters worse, many of these
railroads were built of light or shoddy construction and the physical
plant simply could not hold up to the riggers of both the heavy tonnage
moving over it and the unforgiving Canadian climate. And so, beginning
in 1917 the Canadian government began the process of consolidating these
lines ultimately creating the Canadian National Railway (or CNR) in 1918.
After nationalization the new CNR system and its first president, Henry
W. Thornton, worked hard to make a profitable railroad out of the
dilapidated systems that made up the railroad (that totaled nearly
22,000 miles of trackage, of which included the US railroads Central
Vermont Railway; Duluth, Winnipeg & Pacific Railway; and the Grand
Trunk Western Railroad). It should be noted that while the CN
was predominately in the railroad business one of its stipulations upon
its creation was to offer numerous other amenities such as telegraph and hotel service. Improvements, which could be found on the new CNR system,
included standardizing structures, improving the physical plant,
purchasing new locomotives and straightening routes to greatly improve
transit times. The CNwas also a pioneer in the
development of many industry improvements.
For instance it debuted the
first diesel-electric locomotive in North America in 1928, developed by
CNR chief of motive power C.E. Brooks. The boxcab locomotive was a
multi-unit design, #9000, with each unit producing 1,300 hp and could be
mu’ed or operated independently. The CNR also studied the advantages
of streamlining. Interestingly, the railroad found greater benefit for
the design in improving crew visibility by a steam locomotive’s smoke
exhaust over its aesthetic appeal. The CNR was also well known for
producing specialized freight equipment and did not hesitate to test and
build new car types which may
more efficiently move freight. Lastly, the railroad pioneered the use
of ditch lights in the 1950s and the now standard “safety cab” design.
CN GP38-2 #5500 and GTW SD38 #5912 pause at Battle Creek, Michigan along the Grand Trunk's main line as they wait for a clear signal with their manifest freight during June of 1977.
With the CNR one of the two largest Canadian railroads it probably goes
without saying that the railroad fielded a large passenger train fleet.
For us Americans its best remembered trains were probably names like
the Maple Leaf, International Limited, Montrealer, Washingtonian and Ambassador.
However, these were only its intercity trains, which served US cities.
To Canadians the railroad’s best remembered trains were probably the Super Continental and Continental Limited,
which operated across the entire country connecting Montreal and
Toronto with Vancouver. It should be noted for railfans and those
interested in rail history the
CNR operated much second-hand equipment from US roads, most famous of
which was probably the Milwaukee Road’s famous Super Domes and Skytops
(which were no longer needed after the railroad gave up its Olympian Hiawatha
passenger train in 1961). The CNR also operated numerous commuter
operations, which were electrified. These systems, using boxcab
electric locomotives (or “motors”), mostly served Toronto and Montreal
but they also stretched as far south as Port Huron, Michigan.
C44-9W #2672 and a quartet of other power lead a freight through Oshawa Yard in Oshawa, Ontario on March 16, 2005. On the bridge in the background can be seen a Canadian Pacific freight.
The Canadian National Railway faced increasing competition and
falling profits just like its US counterparts after the dizzying
traffic volumes of World War II, although being nationalized it was
forced to hold on to most of its lines, no matter how small or
insignificant, as late as the early 1990s. In 1960 the railroad had
completed dieselization and a year later its beautiful Maple Leaf logo
and pale green, black and yellow livery was shed for a modernized logo
(dubbed the “wet noodle”, with the railroad dropping the “R” and was now
known only as the “CN”) and orange, black and white paint scheme (a logo and livery it holds to this day). In the late 1970s CN sold off most of its non-railroad holdings and
due to it’s stagnate financial condition the Canadian government finally
disposed of the railroad in 1995 making it a private system.
Notable Passenger Trains
Ambassador: Montreal - Boston
Caribou: St. John's - Port aux Basques
Continental Limited: Montreal/Toronto - Vancouver
Gull: Boston - Portland, Maine - Saint John, New Brunswick - Halifax
Inter-City Limited: Montreal - Toronto - Detroit/Chicago
International Limited: Montreal - Toronto - Chicago
Maple Leaf: Toronto - Philadelphia/New York City
Montrealer: Montreal - New York City - Washington, D.C.
Northland: Toronto - North Bay/Timmins/Kapuskasing, Ontario
Ocean Limited: Montreal - Halifax
Scotian: Montreal - Halifax
Super Continental: Montreal/Toronto - Vancouver
Washingtonian: Montreal - New York City - Washington, D.C.
CN C44-9W #2577 is lead power on the Norfolk Southern's main line to Buffalo, New York as the train passes through Sunbury, Pennsylvania on May 27, 2006.
of this setup were many. First, it was able to shed its VIA CN
commuter operation established in 1976, which was taken over by the
government and renamed VIA Rail Canada. The railroad was also able to
shed thousands of miles of redundant and light density branch lines.
Soon after its privatization CN purchased the Illinois Central Railroad
in 1998 giving it direct access into the heart of the US reaching New
Orleans. Then, in late 2007 it announced its intention to purchase the
Elgin, Joliet & Eastern Railway as a bypass around congested
Chicago. Today, the CN is one of the top North American Class I systems
earning healthy profits in a
revitalized industry. Whether its name will remain in the next round of
mega-mergers is unknown but what is certain is that the railroad will
at least be a major player when they do occur. To visit Canadian National's official website please click here.