The P.E.I. Railway was started by the Island government in 1871, but the debt-riddled construction was taken over by the Dominion government in 1873 as part of the colony's entry into Confederation. The main line was complete by 1875, and the building of a branch line stretching from Souris to Tignish-- the two communities at located on opposite tips of our crescent-shaped Island-- was begun in 1872. By 1880, there were two trains running daily across the province, one eastbound and the other westbound. But the completion of these lines did not mark the end of railway-building on the Island, as changes to transportation systems made the process of tearing up rails and laying down new ones into a seemingly never-ending one. In 1885, the line was up and running between Emerald Junction and Cape Traverse, the port from which the steam ferries sailed out across the Northumberland Strait. But this route was abandoned soon after new ice-breaking ferries were introduced at Borden in 1917, as these boats were capable of taking on railway cars and transporting them to the mainland. Unfortunately, this development was not one which the original railway contractors had foreseen, and the Island paid dearly for the oversight.
The problem was that the P.E.I. Railway had been built with narrow gauge rails (3' 6") instead of the standard gauge (4' 8"), as the smaller rail system was cheaper and the Island was a self-contained line which-- at the time-- only had to be concerned with its own standards. But the cost-cutting measure ended up costing far more than it ever saved. If the Island wanted to take advantage of the new ferries, they would have to use cars which ran on the same standard gauge as the mainland. And if they wanted to get these cars to Borden, they would have to lay down a new set of 4' 8" rails on the Island. Between this narrow-gauge incompatibility, and the massive cost overruns of the original construction, the P.E.I. Railway did not quite live up to its advance billing as an economic boon.
Even so, the building of this railway system was a massive feat of engineering, which required the hard work and sweat of hundreds of Islanders. Five main components were used in the construction of the tracks themselves: rails, ties, spikes, ballasts, and subgrade. The rails consisted of the steel lengths bolted or welded together to form the running surface for the train. The subgrade was the solid ground used as a base, which was then covered by the ballast, the large amount of rock material that comprised the actual rail bed. Millions and millions of tons of mainland gravel had to be shipped across the Northumberland Strait to serve as the ballast, as Island sandstone was too fragile to fit the bill. The ties were almost always wood, but were also sometimes made of concrete. The rails were fastened to the tie with spikes, which provided the proper gauge and also helped distribute the stress properly on the ballast layer.
P.E.I.'s weak bedrock-- the red sandstone-- made maintaining the rail lines a constant battle, as the tracks were not resting upon the most solid of foundations. When the spring thaw arrived and the frost heaves left the ground, the tracks would become an Island-wide obstacle course of buckles and dips, which proved highly problematic for trains designed to travel over level surfaces. The process of fixing the tracks was every bit as intensive as the modern-day ritual of filling potholes on the roads, and just as continuous.
One important position with regard to railway maintenance was that of the track master, who made monthly inspections of the section-- riding on a hand-car or from the back of a train-- and would submit written reports on its condition. However, the day-to-day upkeep of the line fell to the track foreman and workers, who were the front-line people responsible for the safe passage of trains. The foreman would walk over his section every morning and inspect it closely, and he would take many tools and parts along with him, as missing bolts, loose nuts, and broken spikes had to be remedied immediately. Oftentimes, the unpredictable rail beds required quite a bit of improvisation and quick thinking on his part. Shims were placed under rails which had started to dip; his book of regulations stated that "in no case are Shims thicker than three inches to be used". This rule book also stated that, when an animal was fatally wounded by the train, he was to end its suffering and have it removed post haste.
When the trackman discovered these types of hazards, he would use a system of red, green, and white signals to alert train personnel and-- most importantly-- oncoming trains. Red meant danger ahead; green indicated caution, proceed slowly; and white meant that all was right, go on. The signals were made with flags in the daytime, and at night, with lanterns or even torpedoes. The rules explicitly barred track foremen from wearing red on the job, as even a glimpse of that color would set a train on high alert. In the winter, these trackmen waged a battle against the accumulation of snow on the rails, and advised the trackmaster continually about its depth, even on Sundays. Teams of snow shovellers were hired to clear the massive drifts, and tragically, these men were occasionally killed by unexpected trains. The engines could not see around their plows, and the snow cuttings were sometimes too high for the men to climb out on time.
As the years passed, the tracks were travelled less and less frequently on the Island, and on December 31, 1989, the last part of the railway was abandoned by CN Rail. Slowly but surely, the once-proud rail system began to be ripped up and sold for scrap. However, the extensive system of rail beds was built to last, and plans have been assembled to put it to good use. The abandoned rail lines are being converted into a section of the nation-wide Confederation Trail, a network of hiking, biking, and snowmobiling trails that-- when completed-- will stretch from coast to coast. Today, the former railway line between Kensington and Summerside not only promotes the health and well-being of the community, but also represents one part of an important project for knitting the country together, as the railway did for so long.