Shortline railways have always been with us. In the beginning most railways were short lines generally of local importance. Then came bigger railways such as the Intercolonial, Great Western and the Grand Trunk. Canadian Pacific changed all that when it set out to link Canada "From Sea to Sea". In addition to hundreds of miles of new construction the CPR and others acquired local or "shortline" railways to expand as well as to eliminate competition or to prevent a competitor from getting them.
Since the formation of Canadian National Railways 1919-1923 there has been only two major railways in all of Canada, Canadian National and Canadian Pacific. A number of what we now call regional railways also existed including new ones built into resource areas such as the Quebec, North Shore and Labrador. Circa 1950 there were about 35 railways in Canada, some of them owned or controlled by the C.N.R. or C.P.R. Thousand Islands was one of these. It was also one of the shortest railways in Canada.
Truly independent "short lines" also existed, some primarily for the owners needs such as Sydney & Louisburg which hauled coal to their owners steel mills but which also handled some other freight and passenger traffic. Roberval - Saguenay was built for and owned by Alcan to bring in raw supplies to its huge aluminium smelter and haul out finished product. Essex Terminal serves the industrial area of Windsor. In Northern Ontario tiny Mattagami owned by Abitibi to serve its large mill, it was one of the shortest common carrier railways in Canada. In addition, there were also a number of non-common carrier railways (above the 35) used only for their owners' own needs such as the Asbestos & Danville, (Johns-Manville asbestos mining); Dominion Timber & Minerals, Canadian Refractories, magnesite mining; Thurso & Nation Valley, Singer Manufacturing lumber operation. Thurlow Railway served a large cement plant outside Belleville.
Unique amongst all those railways was two of special status, the only ones owned by a municipality. The Greater Winnipeg Water District, a non-common carrier owned by the City of Winnipeg was built to service the City's water supply; and the Guelph Junction Railway, a common carrier built to provide competitive freight service to local industries. For more than a century it was invisible, having been operated by the CPR without any identification of its own unlike the neighbouring Grand River Railway in Galt, part of Canadian Pacific Electric Lines. GWWD continues its status unchanged however, GJR has changed to independent operation using a local contractor, Ontario Southland.
The modern era of shortlines in Canada began in November 1986 when the Central Western started up after some two years effort to take over CNR's 108 mile Stettler Subdivision between Drumheller and Camrose in Alberta. Grain was the sole reason to retain the line which had been approved for abandonment as of December 31, 1984. A typical prairie branchline it was laid with 60 pound rail! Tom Payne, a CPR locomotive engineer was the driving force behind this new shortline which required legislation by Alberta to create it.
Central Western expanded and grew to become RaiLink Canada Ltd. and spread to Ontario where Trans Ontario Railway took over the CPR main line between Smiths Falls and Sudbury via Chalk River and North Bay, operating it as the Ottawa Valley. While most of the original Central Western finally shutdown due to lack of traffic other lines prospered and RaiLink was eventually sold to Rail America a large operator shortlines in the United States.
Shortlines have lower costs including wages usually in a non-union situation. They "make-do" with what they can get by with including old used diesel locomotives at a fraction of the cost of new units. They are therefore primarily marginal operations that often struggle to survive and are at the mercy of their connecting Class 1 railway, only two of which exist in Canada, CN and CPR. In some cases they combine short line railway operation (owned or contracted) with contract switching inside industrial plants and doing contract track work to survive. Cando Contracting and Ontario Southland are two such examples.
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Contractors have also been around since the beginning in one way or another.
Construction work was carried out by railway contractors, big and small.
One of the last to have its own passenger equipment was the
Some other services were also provided by contractors including, handling coal (later diesel fuel) and sand at large roundhouses, (E.A.James handled coal at John Street and Lambton shops in Toronto for 21 cents per ton as of May 1956, while at West Toronto Power House, it was 63 cents); cleaning out livestock cars (Lauderdale Car Cleaners, in Toronto). R.F.Welch Ltd. was a contractor supplying food and housekeeping services for gangs and bunkhouses at various locations across Canada. After World War II Welch provided extra gang labourers, cook and camp staff, recruiting men mainly in Italy. Waldorf Transfer Co. was a small, local contractor in Hamilton, Ontario that provided baggage transfer between various stations. Specialized services such as weed spraying, Sperry (rail defect detection), Speno (rail grinding, ballast cleaning etc.) In more recent years, handling piggybacks and containers at intermodal yards, even switching cars in those yards. Overhauling locomotives, or just maintaining them. In some cases contractors also operate shortline railways such as CANDO Contracting and Ontario Southland.