Railroading on Prince Edward Island was characterized by:
- Only connection to the rest of the world was by ferry
- Seasonal traffic driven largely by potato traffic
- Traffic in a single direction drove up costs to provide rail service (CN argued) with loaded cars most often travelling in only one direction
While CN’s own fleet of eight hatch, overhead bunker, reefers could be relied on for a major component of the Island car fleet during harvest season, CN relied on a mixed bag of leased cars such as MDT and NRC, with a very small component of cars from other lessors such as REA or PFE. These leased cars were themselves approaching the end of their useful lives and the quality of these American cars left a lot to be desired by the farmers and were very far from popular. The farmers alleged that CN intentionally wasn’t meeting their needs by making cars hard to order and the ones they did supply were simply not adequate. They argued that the cars were smaller (they were) and their design exposed the crop to damage. These accusations started to surface in the mid-1950’s and would remain until the end of railroading in 1989.
Once harvesting season was “on” the need for cars peaked quickly. In the period leading up to a harvest CN would start ordering cars well in advance of need and the fleet would slowly make its way toward the Island. Since moving cars off and on to the Island was governed by the ferry boat CN had to be fairly strategic in how it readied itself for this demand.So what we see is really a two-stage, staging plan. When the fleet started to arrive CN had to stage the fleet to make it possible to get the cars to the Island, across the ferry quickly, so we’d see staging on the mainland. Once on the Island, CN was occupied in staging cars on every available siding to hold cars until they were ordered. Naturally, the inverse holds true when the cars are loaded. It’s also reasonable to assume that cars didn’t sit still long in any one location. I’m only looking at reefers supporting the potato harvest. As busy as this makes our railroad sound with hundreds of reefers in flux regular traffic was still flowing on and off the Island. This includes a large volume of tank cars in home heating and similar fuel service.
Cars could be stored in more traditional terminal yards associated with major centers, such as here in Charlottetown but the railway itself was arranged in a star schema based on four major junctions and these junctions really became the core of the staging practices. Each of these junctions was equipped with storage sidings to hold inbound and outbound cars. CN would try to keep these points well supplied with cars that could be drawn upon when a car was ordered for loading. In this way we see something of a cascading effect in the distribution of cars. In terms of operating a train would originate or terminate at a station beyond these yards. Most towns on the Island that were rail served had a team track (Public Siding). Excepting the many fuel and home heating depots scattered around the Island, these Public Sidings represent the typical siding on the Island. Traditional rail-served customers on dedicated sidings were not common. Several years ago I transcribed an inventory of all active siding trackage on the Island based on a CN document I have in my paper collection. Check out those posts, by subdivision, at the link below:
Though CN maintained a timetable of scheduled trains, much of the above traffic was handled on extras scheduled around regular services. This permitted some flexibility in terms of what could be serviced and when. These extras could and often were a daily occurrence as common as the scheduled trains. Regrettably, moving the bulk of this freight in extras permitted CN to ignore this traffic in its revenue statements making it all that much easier to complain about the operating costs on the railway.
A train traveling from Charlottetown to Murray Harbour might leave Charlottetown as only a light engine and caboose (van). Traveling east about ten miles it would arrive at Royalty Junction. Royalty was our second main junction and connected the mainline from Borden to Charlottetown with the branches that served eastern Prince Edward Island. Given it’s stature it was a major point to store and marshal cars for eastern destinations. On this hypothetical day’s train these sidings at Royalty Junction have refrigerator cars that:
- are empty and being loaded
- are empty and are staged for loading elsewhere on the line
- are loaded and need to be removed
Our train proceeds eastward and at each town either places new cars either for staging or for loading. It pulls loads. After a day’s work, it returns to its origin. In our example, before returning to Charlottetown, the train travels through Royalty. At Royalty, it will leave behind all cars not bound for a Charlottetown destination so most of our potato-laden reefers will be left here. No sense hauling them in both directions.
In the above example, I’ve only used one junction (Royalty). As our train was used to stage cars in the above example it could also be called to stage blocks of cars in these other junctions. For example, we might pull two dozen empty refrigerator cars from Royalty. At Mount Stewart we might leave a few reefers for points Mount Stewart to Souris on the Souris subdivision. Traveling still further east, we arrive at Lake Verde to join the Murray Harbour subdivision. From our remaining deck of cars we might add some to the yard at Lake Verde to top up that supply. From our original roster, we might only place a few at an actual industry for loading. Of course, if the storage tracks are adequately supplied our train might be tasked primarily with moving cars from these staging points to actual customers. In terms of operations, it’s more like a giant yard operation with a light engine crew moving strategically around the Island balancing staged cars. Further to the above options, a siding could be divided in half lengthwise where one end is used for storage and the other for customer use. It was not uncommon that the work at the siding was for the train crew to simply advance a car from the deck from the storage half to the customer half.
I feel like there’s a real story in this operation and some genuine potential for the model railway.
Where in New Brunswick and Maine potatoes were shipped from the farm to a “potato house” located trackside where they would be warehoused until ready to ship, our Island farmers loaded directly onto waiting rail cars at one of the many Public Sidings. It couldn’t be a more simple scene to recreate on a model railway requiring only the siding itself, a dirt parking lot, an old truck backed directly up the door of a waiting refrigerator car and the farmer and his helpers slinging bags of potatoes into that car. It instantly not only places the layout on the map but also introduces exactly what is going on here and the story we’re about to tell.
The primary driver for this equation is the potato harvest itself. A good year increased demand for cars and a bad year was reflected equally in car volumes. In terms of translating this to a model railway, we can allow the shear volume of cars on the railway echo that year. If our sidings are crammed full of cars we could be representing the early part of the harvest. During the mid-1970’s CN pushed a small fleet of former express reefers into this same potato service. A few of these were former Railway Express Agency cars that while remembered as being on the Island may have never actually hauled anything. What a great chance to incorporate cars without using them.
Beyond the literal elements, the scene should be designed to represent the mounting tension between the farmer, the Province, and the railway. The farmers had market for their crop and the railway couldn’t be relied upon to support them with cars. As I mentioned, those cars that eventually appeared were in such terrible condition. Farmers needed alternatives and as we progress through the 1970’s the Province was beginning to provide better roads and farmers were turning to their own trucks as a means of survival. In terms of portraying this, it’s an opportunity to create a model railway were the trains are the backdrop existing only to mark the contrast between the failed relationship and the way forward.
Finally, on such a small Island with such a small population the people who were the employees of the railroad weren’t outside the community where the people they served lived. We were all neighbours. It’s this connection that binds the scene together and the attributes we provide in the trucks on new roads and potatoes in old refrigerator cars illustrate change and a record of time.