The Caribou train, colloquially referred to as The Newfie Bullet, was a passenger train operated by Canadian National Railways (CNR) on the island of Newfoundland. The Dominion of Newfoundland became the 10th province of Canada when it entered Confederation in 1949, and CNR took over the Newfoundland Railway system.
The Caribou’s original purpose was to provide transportation for passengers and freight across the island of Newfoundland. Prior to its establishment, travel between communities was often difficult and irregular, with most people relying on boats or horse-drawn carriages. The Caribou was a game-changer, offering faster and more reliable transit options that allowed for increased mobility and economic growth.
The route of the Caribou ran from Port aux Basques on the west coast of the island to St. John’s on the east coast, with several stops along the way. The train route was approximately 548 miles long and took around 22 hours to complete. In addition to passenger travel, the Caribou also transported mail, food, and other essential goods.
What made the Caribou unique from other trains of its time was its narrow-gauge track. Unlike standard gauge tracks, which are 4 feet 8.5 inches wide, the Caribou used a narrower 3’6″ gauge. This allowed for tighter turns and steeper grades, making it better suited to the rugged terrain of Newfoundland. However, it also meant that the Caribou could not be connected to the wider North American rail network, limiting its potential for expansion and development.
Despite its limitations, the Caribou remained a vital transportation link for Newfoundland for many years. It continued to operate until July 1969, when it made its last run. The decline of the Newfoundland Railway system was due to several factors, including increased competition from road and air travel, declining levels of service, and financial struggles. Today, the Caribou is remembered as an important part of Newfoundland’s transportation history and a symbol of the island’s unique character and resilience.
The Caribou’s story begins with the Newfoundland Railway, a narrow-gauge railway network that spanned the island. When Newfoundland became the 10th province of Canada on March 31, 1949, the Canadian National Railways (CNR) took over the operations of the Newfoundland Railway. At that time, the premier cross-island passenger train was known as The Overland Limited. In 1950, CNR renamed this train the Caribou, maintaining approximately the same 23-hour schedule from St. John’s, the eastern terminus of the railway on Newfoundland, to the system’s western terminus at the ferry terminal in Port aux Basques.
The Caribou was more than just a mode of transportation; it was a lifeline that connected communities across the island. The journey from St. John’s to Port aux Basques covered a distance of 883 kilometres (549 miles), offering passengers a unique view of Newfoundland’s diverse landscapes. From the bustling city of St. John’s to the rugged beauty of Port aux Basques, the Caribou was a window into the heart of Newfoundland.
The train system in Newfoundland, including the Caribou train, had a significant impact on the lives of the average person in several ways:
- Connectivity and Accessibility:
- The train system connected remote and rural communities with larger towns and cities. This made it easier for people to travel for work, education, or other purposes. It also allowed for the transportation of goods and services, which was particularly important for communities that were otherwise difficult to reach.
- Economic Impact:
- The railway provided jobs for Newfoundlanders, both directly (for those working on the trains or in the stations) and indirectly (through increased commerce and tourism). The train system also facilitated trade by making transporting goods across the island and to the mainland easier.
- Cultural Exchange:
- By connecting different parts of the island, the train system facilitated cultural exchange and helped to foster a sense of shared identity among Newfoundlanders. It allowed for the spread of ideas, traditions, and news.
- Transition to Modern Transportation:
- The decline of the train system and the rise of bus and automobile travel marked a significant transition in Newfoundland’s transportation history. This shift profoundly impacted how people lived and travelled, leading to changes in everything from daily routines to settlement patterns.
- Impact on Lifestyle:
- The train schedule influenced the rhythm of life in many communities. The train’s arrival and departure could be significant events in the day, and people’s routines might be structured around the train timetable.
However, the advent of the Trans-Canada Highway in 1965 marked a turning point for the Caribou. The new highway allowed automobiles to travel between Port aux Basques and St. John’s in under 12 hours, significantly faster than the Caribou’s 23-hour schedule. As a result, CN withdrew the dedicated passenger trains in July 1969 and replaced them with a bus service marketed under the name “Road Cruiser.”
Despite the end of the Caribou’s operations, its legacy lives on. The CN Roadcruiser Bus service continued until March 29, 1996, when it was sold to DRL Coachlines of Triton, Newfoundland.
Today, the story of the Caribou serves as a reminder of Newfoundland’s rich railway history and the pivotal role the train played in connecting communities across the island.
The Caribou may no longer traverse the Newfoundland landscape, but its spirit lives on in the hearts of those who remember the “Newfie Bullet” and its journey through the history of Newfoundland.
In 1988, the railway line across Newfoundland closed, but a new chapter began. As railroads were decommissioned across North America, converted right-of-ways were being recognized as valuable public trails for outdoor activities. In Newfoundland, 883 kilometres of abandoned railbed now form the Newfoundland T’Railway Provincial Park, a multi-use, all-season recreational trail developed by the T’Railway Council with the government, municipalities, and Trans Canada Trail Foundation.
Upgrading and maintenance are ongoing, with culverts and bridges requiring expensive repairs. The T’Railway Council established a charity to support the costly upkeep of the extensive trail system and welcomes donations.