Wednesday, May 10, 2023

Railway Reads: Trains of Newfoundland has heart and the goods

Over Christmas, I was able to do a little railway reading, which is not a common thing for me. I don’t read a lot of railway books and the ones I do are usually focused on the big picture and not necessarily the technical details. But a tip of the hat to Steve Boyko at for alerting me to the book, Trains of Newfoundland, by Kenneth Pieroway.

The book is not a definitive history of the Newfoundland Railway by any means, but it is a stunning time capsule of the rugged railway’s last half century of operations. Through a surprisingly diverse collection of colour images and well-informed captions, it tells you the railway’s story from its takeover by CN after the province’s entry into Confederation in 1949 to its disbanding in 1988, after the Trans-Canada highway made the railway largely obsolete in the eyes of decision-makers. I’m sure many people would argue this point, but that’s the impression I get in reading about CN/Terra Transport’s final days in 1988.

The first thing that surprised me about this book is how many different types of railway images the author has collected. I really appreciated the photos that paid as much attention to the surrounding scenery and details around the right-of-way. There are some poignant shots, like the image of a station agent in Hollyrood about to hand off train orders to a conductor on a passing train. You don’t see much of the train in the image, but the photo is quite powerful nonetheless. You will also see images of old cars that were converted to hunting cabins, trains peeking out from behind buildings, shots taken from vestibules on numerous mixed trains and shots of people on small town station platforms.

Of course, there are many shots of NF210 and NF110 locomotives, as well as a few G8s. All of CN’s paint schemes are represented in these images, from the original green and gold to the wet noodle to the sergeant stripes to the Terra Transport dueling arrows. There are even a few shots of the final few Mikado steam engines that were in use in the mid-1950s before being replaced by diesels. The book is broken up into subdivisions, which take you from St. John’s all the way to Port Aux Basques.

As I mentioned, this book will not give you a history of the railway, but the captions for each photo are impressive, as they impart a lot of information for those who might not know a lot about the railway. I will confess that I knew precious little about this railway, other than it was a narrow-gauge road that meandered through the province. After reading this book, I have a much better idea of the railway’s operations and its unique operating practices and features.

When you see the geography that this railway traversed, it gives you a great deal of respect for what the people who ran the trains had to do just to keep the wheels moving. I was shocked at the dips, grades and curves of this line, which are plainly obvious in many images. It’s not the typical right-of-way alignment you will see on the mainland. It's also rare to see train photographs where the grade of the railway is so obviously noticeable in the image. This is not your typical mainland railway book.

There are even a few vignettes in the book, one from the author in the introduction and one from a former CN employee. The book is all colour and very reasonably priced for a photo book of this quality. You can order through Flanker Press, which is based in St. John’s. The book is listed on Indigo, but it appears to be unavailable through this outlet at this time. Those looking for a more complete history of the railway should check out Pieroway’s other books about the railway. They aren't hard to find online.

If you are a railfan like me that is not looking for something comprehensive, this book will be a fascinating read and one that you will return to just to check out the many, many details in the images. It is a high quality and surprisingly detailed coffee table book, with a lot of heart. I have made my way through it twice already and I am still learning more about this unique operation. A pity I will never get to see it in person.

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