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The Inter-War Years: Consolidation and Maturity

The First World War marked a major turning-point in Canadian history, even in terms of its railways and railway technology. As we have seen, the period prior to the War had witnessed a substantial increase in the size of the railway network, and an increase in traffic arising from a steady influx of immigrants into all parts of Canada—especially the West. Technically-speaking, both the size and capacity of passenger and freight trains had increased, resulting in a demand for newer, heavier engines. Railway lines continued to be upgraded to accommodate a greater density of traffic. Major civil engineering projects such as the CPR’s Connaught Tunnel in the Rockies, and the Canadian Government Railway’s Quebec Bridge, were indicative of the large investment made in improved lines of communication.

The war brought an end, however, to this highly-expansive phase in Canadian railway development. Thereafter, while the overall size of the Canadian railway system continued to grow, it never again achieved the phenomenal growth of earlier periods. Thus, between 1920 and 1969, railway mileage in Canada increased by only 12 per cent, or about 8,400 kilometres. This is in sharp contrast to the more-than 57,000 kilometres built in the fifty years prior to 1920.

The number of railway companies was reduced even before the War ended, as the Canadian Government nationalized the financially-troubled Canadian Northern and Grand Trunk Pacific Railways. These two railways had been built on borrowed money, and had been buoyed by pre-war optimism. The anticipated traffic never appeared in western Canada as immigration fell, however, and both were on the verge of bankruptcy when they were taken over the federal government. By 1923, even the venerable Grand Trunk Railway—Canada’s oldest railway system—was acquired by the Canadian government in a very contentious takeover. The GTR provided the last major component of the Canadian National Railways system, which was Canada’s largest railway company, as well as the Crown Corporation established in 1917 to co-ordinate the government’s newly-acquired railway properties.

CPR Locomotive No. 3100. Manufacturer: CPR Angus Shops, 1928. (CSTM 670005)
CPR No. 3100 in Service in Montreal, ca 1958 (Photo: CPR Archives)

For all of the restructuring that took place during this period, technical advances had an even greater impact on the character of Canadian railways. The introduction of a variety of technical components, such as the automatic stoker, permitted designers to increase the size of steam locomotives far beyond the limits of hand-fired models. By the mid-1920s, Canadian railways were operating locomotives that were among the most powerful in the world. Engines like CPR 3100 (670005) were larger, heavier and more powerful than their earlier counterparts, and employed innovative materials such as nickel steel, which increased strength but reduced overall weight.

CPR 1201 (CSTM 670007)
While a strong locomotive and railway car manufacturing industry developed in Canada in this period, the railway companies themselves continued to manufacture vehicles of every description for their own use. However, even this tradition was slowly coming to an end as labour and production costs rose. Thus, one of the more notable engines in the Museum’s collection, CPR 1201 (670007), built in 1944,
CPR 1201 under steam, heading eastbound at Stephen, British Columbia, July 1986. (CSTM)
was the last steam locomotive entirely constructed by the Canadian Pacific Railway at its Angus Shops in Montreal. Even so, railway shops across the country continued to be centres of employment and industrial activity as they maintained fleets of locomotives and cars. The Bertram wheel lathe (830643), acquired from a railway shop in Cape Breton, is a rare example of a piece of heavy equipment used to profile the driving wheels of steam locomotives.

(Fig.21) Locomotive Driving Wheel Lathe. Manufacturer: John Bertram & Sons, ca 1920 (CSTM 830643)

Larger locomotives were required to haul longer, heavier and faster freight and passenger trains. Following the First World War, steel rapidly replaced wood as the primary construction material of railway cars—particularly passenger cars. Passenger cars during this period were heavily constructed, in order to provide both comfort and safety for the passengers. Two exceptional cars representative of the heavyweight passenger-car era are cars 3 and 4 (671138 & 671137), produced by the Canadian Car & Foundry Co. of Montreal in 1927 for use by the Governors General of Canada. Both cars are over 25 metres in length, and weigh approximately 83,000 kilograms. Intended and used as travelling accommodations for Governors General and their entourages, these cars had fully-equipped living quarters, including bedrooms, a lounge, kitchens and a dining room. The cars continued in use until the 1960s, and were used by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (the Queen Mother) as their personal quarters during the Royal Tour of 1939, and in subsequent royal visits by Queen Elizabeth II.

Governors’ General Cars 3 & 4 on the Royal Train, 1939 (CSTM/CN Collection)
Interior view of sitting room looking towards dining room, Car 4 (CSTM 671137.si18.aa)

CNR Self-Propelled Car 15820, ca 1926 (CSTM/CN Collection 23604)
The 1920s were a period of considerable experimentation on Canadian railways. Even as steam locomotives were produced in greater numbers and sizes, engineers were experimenting with alternate forms of power. The true potential of diesel-electric technology was demonstrated in 1926, when a diesel-electric-powered CNR rail car, No. 15820 (CSTM/CN Collection 23604) travelled across Canada. The run across Canada, apart from setting speed records, also demonstrated the potential and reliability of diesel-electric power, and initiated a brief period during which the CNR was one of the world leaders in diesel-electric traction. Although the car itself was eventually scrapped, its original Beardmore diesel engine is now in the Museum’s collection (660172).

(Fig.25) Diesel Engine from CNR 15820. Manufacturer: Wm. Beardmore & Co., 1925 (CSTM 660172)

CNR Northern Type Locomotive No. 6400 on Exhibit in the Locomotive Hall, (CSTM 670001)
The Great Depression seriously curtailed many aspects of railway operation. Passenger and freight traffic declined and, for the first time, competition from automobiles and trucks had an effect upon the railways. Always adept at marketing their services, railway companies projected an image of modernity by introducing new passenger equipment. Streamlined engines like CNR 6400 (670001) and CPR 2858 (670006) were highly-modern engines introduced in the late 1930s. The CNR 6400—the only remaining example of this class of engine in Canada—was also exceptional, because its distinctive design was the result of a joint research project between the CNR and the National Research Council.

(Fig.27) CPR Royal Hudson Locomotive No. 2858 in Service, Montreal, ca 1954 (Photo CSTM)

Wind Tunnel Model of CNR 6400. Manufacturer: National Research Council, Ottawa, ca 1935 (CSTM 680547)
Designed with the use of wind-tunnel models (680547), the streamlining was not entirely cosmetic. It was intended to improve fuel efficiency, while also reducing wind resistance and increasing safety, by eliminating the problem of exhaust smoke obscuring the crew’s vision. While the streamlining did not achieve all of the goals established for the project, the resulting design was one of the most distinctive ever used for a Canadian steam locomotive.

Shay Locomotive No. 3, in Operation at CSTM, 2000. Manufacturer: Lima Locomotive Works, 1923. (CSTM 740755)
Railway technology was quite pervasive during this period. Apart from mainline railways such as the CPR and the CNR, it was used in both industrial applications and urban transit. The Museum’s Shay locomotive (740755) is one example of the hundreds of small locomotives applied to industrial work across the country. Its distinctive engine, designed and used for the forestry industry, has been restored to full operation by the Museum. CNR electric locomotive 6715 (951330) is one of a number of examples of electric railway traction devices introduced and used in urban and inter-urban travel during this period.

(Fig.30) CNR Electric Locomotive No. 6715. Manufacturer: Canadian General Electric, 1916 (CSTM 951330)