Northern Alberta Railways

Northern Alberta Railways
Northern Alberta Railways
Reporting mark NAR
Locale Alberta, British Columbia
Dates of operation 1929–1981

Canadian National Railway and Canadian Pacific Railway (jointly)

hq_city=Edmonton, Alberta
Track gauge 4 ft 8 12 in (1,435 mm) (standard gauge)

Northern Alberta Railways (reporting mark NAR) was a Canadian railway which served northern Alberta and northeastern British Columbia. Jointly owned by both Canadian National Railway and Canadian Pacific Railway, NAR existed as a separate company from 1929 until 1981.


Predecessor railways

Railway construction in northern Alberta during the early 20th century was dominated by the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway and the Canadian Northern Railway, both of which were building westward from Edmonton, Alberta to the Yellowhead Pass of the Rocky Mountains.

Following the Dominion Land Survey grants to settlers, the Peace River region of northwestern Alberta was one of the few places left on the prairies with available agricultural land, however there was no railway connection.

Several lines were chartered to serve both the Peace River and Waterways regions of the province, beginning with the Athabaska Railway in 1907. It was to build northeast from Edmonton to Dunvegan, Alberta, then to Fort George, British Columbia.


The company was rechartered in 1911 under the ownership of J.D. McArthur as the Edmonton, Dunvegan and British Columbia Railway (ED&BC). Construction of the ED&BC started in 1912 heading toward Westlock, Alberta, reaching High Prairie in 1914, and Spirit River in 1915. Deciding not to proceed to Dunvegan, a branch was built south from Rycroft, Alberta to Grande Prairie, Alberta in 1916 (400 miles or 640 kilometres northwest from Edmonton).

In 1924 the line was extended to Wembley, A;lberta and it reached Hythe, Alberta in 1928. In 1930 the line was extended westward across the provincial boundary to its western terminus at Dawson Creek, British Columbia.


In 1909 a charter was granted to the Alberta and Great Waterways Railway (A&GW) to build from Edmonton to Waterways, Alberta on the Athabasca River. Construction faltered and a political scandal ensued, and the line was rechartered in 1913 under the ownership of J.D. McArthur. Construction of the AG&W began in 1914 from Carbondale, Alberta and reached Lac La Biche, Alberta in 1916. It reached Draper, Alberta in 1922 and its terminus at Waterways, Alberta in 1925.


In 1913 a charter was granted to the Central Canada Railway (CCR) under the ownership of J.D. McArthur to build from Winagami Junction, Alberta on the ED&BC to Peace River Crossing, Alberta in order to access barge traffic on the Peace River. Construction of the CCR began in 1914 and was completed in 1916.

The CCR was subsequently extended to Berwyn, Alberta in 1921, then to Whitelaw, Alberta in 1924, Fairview, Albeta in 1928 and Hines Creek, Alberta in 1930.


In 1926, the provincial government passed a statute authorizing the government to construct the Pembina Valley Railway from Busby, Alberta, where it connected to the ED&BC line, to Barrhead, Alberta.

Provincial ownership

In 1920, the lines owned by J.D. McArthur entered financial difficulties following the First World War. Coinciding with the problems faced by the McArthur lines (ED&BC, A&GW, and CCR), both the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway (GTPR) and Canadian Northern Railway (CNoR) had fallen victim to similar circumstances brought about by the financial strain of the conflict and falling traffic levels. The Dominion government had nationalized the GTPR and CNoR, along with other previously federally owned lines into the Canadian National Railways.

Following the federal example, and in an attempt to preserve rail service to northern and northwestern Alberta, the provincial government leased the ED&BC and CCR in 1920 for five years. In 1921 the government entered into a five year agreement with the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) to operate the ED&BC and CCR. That same year, the provincial government purchased the A&GW outright and chose to operate it separately.

CPR immediately raised freight rates on the ED&BC and CCR lines, charging "mountain prices", claiming that the cost of operating on grades into the Peace and Smoky River valleys of the northwestern prairie was as much as it cost to operate in the Rocky Mountains. Consequently Peace River farmers paid the highest freight charges on the Canadian prairies to reach the lakehead at Port Arthur and Fort William.

The provincial government purchased the ED&BC and CCR from McArthur in 1925, following the expiration of the five year lease. Dissatisfied with the CPR's operation of the ED&BC and CCR, the provincial government allowed the operating contract for the these railways to expire in 1926, with operations subsequently taken over by the new provincial Department of Railways and Telecommunications which was also tasked to operate the AG&W and the newly-built PVR.

In 1928, the provincial government began to solicit proposals from both the CPR and the Canadian National Railways (CNR) for purchasing the provincial railways. In 1924, CNR president Sir Henry Thornton visited the ED&BC line and in 1928, CPR president Edward Beatty did the same.

Northern Alberta Railways

In 1928 the provincial government grouped the ED&BC, CCR, AG&W, and PVR under the collective name Northern Alberta Railways (NAR), which received a federal charter on March 1929. The NAR was subsequently sold to both the CNR and CPR in equal portions with both companies agreeing to maintain the NAR as a joint subsidiary. At that time, the NAR was the third-largest railway in Canada. In 1937 the NAR began to show a profit for the first time.

In summer 1942, following the entry of the United States into the Second World War, the Alaska Highway civil defence project resulted in tremendous growth for the NAR, as the system was the only railway to service Alaska Highway mile 0 at Dawson Creek, British Columbia.

NAR also saw increased traffic from defence spending in both the Peace River and Fort McMurray regions as Royal Canadian Air Force training bases for the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan were established.

In 1958 the Pacific Great Eastern Railway (PGE), owned by the province of British Columbia, built east to Dawson Creek and then north to Fort St. John. Traffic from Dawson Creek which used to run on NAR now mostly ran on PGE.

NAR completely dieselized its locomotive fleet by October 1960, these were GP 9. 201 - 208 (208 was hit in 1972 and renumbered 211), GMD-1 301 - 304, and SD 38-2 401 - 404.

Beginning in the 1960s, Alberta's nascent oil and gas industry began to have an impact on the NAR as traffic began to increase on both the Dawson Creek and Fort McMurray branches. In 1964, the federal government built the Great Slave Railway north from the NAR at Grimshaw, Alberta to Hay River, Northwest Territories to carry passengers and cargo which could then be transferred to barges and continue down the Mackenzie River.

In 1966, the passenger train to Waterways was replaced by Budd Rail Diesel Cars, but the experiment was unsuccessful, and it was replaced in 1967 by a mixed train. On June 1, 1974, the passenger train to Dawson Creek was discontinued.

During the 1970s, significant investments also began in the Fort McMurray region as the Athabasca Oil Sands deposits began to be exploited.

Canadian National Railway

In 1981, CN (name/acronym change after 1960) bought out CPR's share in the NAR system and incorporated these lines into the CN network, allowing CN to operate unhindered north from Edmonton to Hay River, Northwest Territories and west to Dawson Creek, British Columbia. NAR disappeared as a corporate entity with the departure of CPR from the joint ownership. NAR shops and Dunvegan Yards in Edmonton were demolished and the new Dunvegan Woods housing development was built on the site.

In 1996, CN identified parts of its former NAR trackage for divestiture, either through sale or abandonment. Several lines were subsequently sold to shortline operators.

  • Swan Landing, Aberta (near Jasper) to Grande Prairie, Alberta (the former Alberta Resources Railway) and west to Hythe, Alberta (west of Grande Prairie on the NAR) was operated by Alberta Railnet (ARN), which was owned by North American Railnet, and later renamed to the Savage Alberta Railway (SAR). On December 1, 2006, CN announced that it had purchased Savage Alberta Railway for $25 million and that it had begun operating the railway the same day.[1] CN had also maintained ownership of the portion between Hythe, Alberta and Dawson Creek, British Columbia where it connects to former BC Rail trackage. The trackage between Hythe and Dawson Creek fell into disuse in 1998, but CN agreed to re-open it as a condition of purchasing BC Rail.
  • Edmonton to Boyle (south of Fort McMurray) was purchased in 1997 by the Lakeland and Waterways Railway (LWR), a subsidiary of Canadian shortline holding company RailLink. RailLink was subsequently purchased by RailAmerica.
  • Boyle, Alberta to Fort McMurray, Alberta is now operated by Athabasca Northern Railway and is owned by shortline operator Cando Contracting.[2]
  • CN maintains ownership of former NAR trackage between Edmonton and Smith, Albeta.
  • North and west of Smith, Alberta, the former NAR to Peace River, Aberta and Grimshaw, Alberta as well as all of the ex-Great Slave Railway north from Grimshaw, Alberta to Hay River, Northwest Territories was purchased in 1998 by the Mackenzie Northern Railway (MKNR), a subsidiary of Canadian shortline holding company RailLink. RailLink was subsequently purchased by RailAmerica.
  • On January 19, 2006, CN announced the purchase from RailAmerica Inc. of the Mackenzie Northern Railway, the Lakeland & Waterways Railway, and the Central Western Railway (jointly known as RLGN/CWRL).


  1. ^ CN news release
  2. ^ Cando
  • Schneider, Ena (1989). Ribbons of Steel:The Story of the Northern Alberta Railways. Calgary: Detselig Enterprises. ISBN 0920490972. OCLC 21519451. 

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