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Northern Alberta Railway Reporting mark: NAR

The dawn of the 20th century launched an unprecedented enthusiasm for railway development. Railways were viewed as an essential tool for opening up new areas of land and attracting development. Over time this was expected to lead to long-term benefits and economic growth.

Governments at all levels were willing to dig deep into their pockets to help finance rail building. It was no different in Alberta where the new provincial government was eager to develop the rich agricultural lands in the northeast region of the province.

The NAR in Busby, Alberta, 1960
Photo: Robert J. Sandusky

By the early 1920s the optimism had changed to despair. Overbuilding, over-financing, and reduced revenues during World War I had led to the collapse of the Canadian Northern Railway, the Grand Trunk Pacific and its parent company in Ontario, the Grand Trunk Railway. By 1923, the federal government had taken control and merged all the bankrupt railways into the Canadian National Railway (CN), a crown corporation that remained in government hands until 1995.

The railway difficulties in northwest Alberta mirrored the national problems to some degree. In response, the provincial government formed the Northern Alberta Railways (NAR) in 1929 to take control over a number of ailing railways in northwest Alberta.

The NAR was formed from four basic constituents, the Edmonton, Dunvegan and British Columbia Railway (ED&BC), the Alberta and Great Waterways Railway (A&GW), the Canada Central Railway (CCR) and the Pembina Valley Railway (PVR). All were or had at one time been part of a group of railways owned by J.D. McArthur, a respected railway contractor from Winnipeg, who ran into financial difficulty after the end of World War I.

The Edmonton, Dunvegan and British Columbia Railway (ED&BC) began as the Athabasca Railway in the early 1900s. Primarily a paper railway, it was plagued by poor planning. In 1911 it was re-chartered by McArthur, and by 1916 it stretched about 640 kilometres (400 miles) from Edmonton to Grande Prairie. It was later extended to Wembly in 1924, Hythe in 1928, eventually reaching its western terminus in Dawson Creek, BC, in 1930.

The Alberta and Great Waterways Railway (A&GW), first chartered in 1909, collapsed under a cloud of scandal in 1910. The charter was eventually picked up by McArthur in 1913. Construction began in 1914 and lasted until 1925, when the railway was finally completed.

The Central Canada Railway (CCR), also a McArthur project, was constructed over a two-year period from 1914-16. The government took over the line in 1920 after a forest fire the previous year left much of the land useless. In 1921 government then entered into an agreement with the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) to manage both the CCR and the ED&BC. This required additional investment from the government since it had also made a commitment to rehabilitate the line and encourage economic growth in the area.

The Pembina Valley Railway (PVR) was built by the provincial government, resulting from an Act of Parliament in 1926. The charter had originally been granted to McArthur in 1912 but the line wasn't built due to financial difficulties. The railway was completed in 1927 and connected with the ED&BC at Barrhead.

The government's involvement began in 1920 when it leased the ED&BC and CCR. In 1921 it purchased the A&GW which was operated as a separate entity. There were likely good reasons for this. Immediately after taking operational control of the ED&BC and CCR, the CPR's rates went through the roof. Peace River farmers were stuck with paying the highest rates in the prairies for the next five years until the contract expired in 1926.

In 1926, the government formed the Department of Railways and Telecommunications. This new department was responsible for operating the AG&W, the PVR and later the ED&BC and CCR, purchased from McArthur in 1925. However the government didn't want to be in the business of operating railways so it approached both the CPR and CN to solicit proposals for purchase.

To make the deal more attractive, the government obtained a charter in 1929 under the Northern Alberta Railways (NAR) and grouped the railways under one company. It was probably also a means of ensuring the railways would not be broken up and sold, and rates would remain fair and stable. The NAR was then jointly sold to CN and the CPR in equal portions to be operated as a joint subsidiary.

By the late 1930s, the railway was beginning to blossom. The NAR finally posted a profit in 1937. Things began to boom during the Second World War, as the NAR was the only railway to connect with the Alaska Highway in Dawson Creek BC. Increased traffic also came with the establishment of training bases in Peace River and Fort McMurray.

The completion of the Pacific Great Eastern Railway (later BC Rail) to Dawson Creek in 1958 took a lot of business away from the NAR and resulted in a number of cutbacks. On a brighter note, the exploitation of the Alberta oil industry, which began in the 1960s, led to significant investment and further expansion. Trucking services were added in 1965.

In 1981, CN purchased the CPR's share of the NAR to become the sole owner. The NAR was integrated into CN's vast network and disappeared forever. Over the last 30 years CN has continued to make changes and divestitures as needed.