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1988: The End of the Line

The end of an era
Government announces complete closure of railway service in Newfoundland

It was the morning of June 20, 1988. A public meeting was held in the Radisson Plaza Hotel in St. John’s. Premier Brian Peckford and International Trade Minister John Crosbie were there to give short speeches. Can you guess the occasion?

That’s right – the official announcement of complete railway abandonment in Newfoundland. For most, it was merely the confirmation of a long-expected reality : its beginnings go back a long way, and the signs of its coming were detectable (by some) for years leading up to it.

Some would say the fate of the railway was determined as early as Prime Minister Sir William Whiteway’s choice to build a narrow-gauge railway in 1880. The rest of North America was using standard-gauge track, where the rails were placed 56½ inches apart. Newfoundland’s narrow gauge of 42 inches complicated the transportation of freight from Canada to Newfoundland. In fact, a large shop was built in Port aux Basques to replace the standard-gauge trucks on the bottom of every freight car coming into Newfoundland with narrow-gauge ones.

Others point to Confederation in 1949, when the railway passed into the hands of Canadian National. Some would say that Canadian National, as a Canada-wide company, didn’t understand the true importance of the railway and thus found it too easy to abandon.

Still others point to the completion of the Trans-Canada Highway, which made automobile travel and truck-based shipping very economical and convenient options. As people bought cars (which they did by the thousands) and as companies started shipping freight by truck, traffic on the railway declined and its losses increased.

Avondale Train Station
Avondale Railway Station after abandonment
Image courtesy of Ron Brown

A recent photo of the Avondale Station after restoration

In any case, the reasons given by the federal and provincial governments in 1988 were purely economic. From the federal perspective, the railway was losing money, and losing more and more every year. A representative of Canadian National stated that CN could no longer afford to cover the losses the railway in Newfoundland was sustaining. From the province’s perspective, it was a great chance to get out of the railway business – the federal government was promising $800 million for highway improvements.

Dismantling began as soon as the last regular train ran September 30, 1988. By 1990 all was gone, having been auctioned off, sold, or scrapped. All that remained were some railway buildings, the right-of-way, and a couple of spots where the railway ties were left in the ground.
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