29 June 2009

The Confederation Trail - Prince Edward Island

In 1871 The Province of PEI began building the railway system which, though no one knew it then, would very soon compel the Island to lose its independence. The costs of the ambitious project quickly spiralled out of control. At one point there was apparently one railway station for every 2.5 miles of track. Construction contractors were paid by the mile which may explain the railway's meandering path.

A mere two years later, in 1873, with crippling debts, PEI joined the Canadian Federation. As part of the deal, Federal Government took over the railway project completely - land and finances. The Railway's growth was rapid and colourful. The Island was soon covered from tip to tip with main and branch lines. In the golden age of steam the track was upgraded from narrow gauge to full gauge to accommodate locomotives arriving on the Ice-Breaker Ferry from Nova Scotia and control of the railways was vested in the nationalised Canadian National Railway (CN).

In the 1950s and 1960s Provincial Government began paving the major highways to cater for the ever growing popularity of the automobile. As a result, passenger use of the railway declined sharply and the final passenger service ran in 1968. After that freight wagons were still hauled but the rising use of trucks on the roads began to steal that business in the 1970s. The end of the line was in sight, quite literally.

CN abandoned the PEI railway in 1989 and the last operational rail cars and locomotives were taken off Prince Edward Island by sea. Salvage crews worked throughout the early 1990s removing tracks, cross-ties, and other railway facilities.

In 1994, before the routes became completely overgrown with disuse, the Island Government purchased back the entire right of way from CN and began creating the Confederation Trail. Today over 75% of the former railway network on the island can be enjoyed as recreational trails by walkers and cyclists.

Yesterday I rode from our home on the outskirts of Charlottetown along a thirteen mile section of the trail and back, stopping to take these photographs. One puncture but that was quickly repaired and couldn't spoil the ride.


Little M said...

I remember the sound of the trains passing just a few dozen yards from our apartment on Belmont Street. It was strange to see them go but the trails have been put to much better use these days!

C.J.Duffy said...

A lovely piece this which has huge appeal to me as I still yearn for the days when Great Britain had a network of railway lines that threaded across the small kngdom.
Not sure of my facts here but I would have thought railways are vital for a country the size of Canada but not so sure that you would need such a proliferation of them on PEI!

Perfect Virgo said...

M - I find it hard to imagine trains on the island. The "level crossings" needed to take the lines through Charlottetown these days would bring traffic to a complete standstill.

Much as it would be nice to hear pistons pumping and see plumes of steam I think I enjoy running and cycling on the trails more.

CJ - I wondered if this glimpse into a life gone by might interest you. You're quite right, the need for a full rail network on PEI was never there. A Trans-Canada train ride would be really exciting and is certainly on our agenda for one day.

Nowadays there is an 8 mile toll bridge connecting the Island to mainland New Brunswick carrying a steady stream of cars and trucks.