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!

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.

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).

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.

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. The advantages 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.

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.

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.   For more information on the Canadian National you might want to consider the book Canadian National Railway by author Tom Murray. The book gives an excellent general history of the railroad so if you are particularly looking for a starting point about learning more on the CN and its long history I would very much suggest starting with Mr. Murray's book. If you're interested in perhaps purchasing this book please visit the link below which will take you to ordering information through Amazon.com, the trusted online shopping network.

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