Ontario Northland Railway

Ontario Northland Railway
Ontario Northland Railway

System map
The ONR owned tracks in blue with trackage rights in red.

ON switching in Hearst, ON.jpg
A pair of Ontario Northland diesels work in Hearst, in 2003.
Reporting mark ONT
Locale Northern Ontario
Dates of operation 1902–
Track gauge 4 ft 8 12 in (1,435 mm) (standard gauge)
Headquarters North Bay, Ontario, Canada

The Ontario Northland Railway (reporting mark ONT) is a Canadian railway operated by the Ontario Northland Transportation Commission, a provincial Crown agency of the government of Ontario.

Its north-south mainline is located entirely in Ontario, and has a southern terminus at North Bay, passing through Cochrane, and a northern terminus at Moosonee, several miles south of the shore of James Bay. An east-west secondary mainline connects Calstock (near Hearst) with Cochrane and a line extends from Swastika (south of Cochrane) into the neighbouring province of Quebec where it terminates at Rouyn-Noranda. The railway's branch from Swastika to Rouyn-Noranda, including 40 kilometres of track in Québec, are operated by a subsidiary, the Nipissing Central Railway.[1]

Originally built to develop the Lake Timiskaming and Lake Nipissing areas, this railway soon became a major factor in the economic growth of the province. After decades of hard construction through the Canadian Shield it reached James Bay in 1932. While blasting the route through the shield, geologists discovered vast deposits of valuable minerals such as gold, silver, copper and nickel. The railway also made it possible to exploit the vast timber resources of Northern Ontario. The importance of the ONR is witnessed by the vast increase in mineral exploration and exploitation, giving rise to the valuable mining stocks on the Toronto Stock Exchange and indirectly leading to Southern Ontario's economic boom during the 1970s.




The railway was incorporated as the Temiskaming and Northern Ontario Railway on March 17, 1902 by an act of the Ontario parliament, the Temiskaming and Northern Ontario Railway Act. The railway was to be a provincial Crown corporation overseen by the Temiskaming and Northern Ontario Railway Commission. Construction on the railway started in 1903, and the settlement of Redwater in the municipality of Temagami began as a small request stop when the railway reached the area of the Lower and Upper Redwater lakes. As it passed by Long Lake, near the 103 mile marker, the largest silver rush in Canada was sparked by workers looking for trees for railway ties. The town of Cobalt, Ontario grew out of the fortunes of silver taken from the grounds. By 1905, it reached New Liskeard in the Lake Timiskaming area. The railway reached Englehart in 1906, and Cochrane in 1909. In the next few years, several branch lines were built.

In 1921, construction on a line north to James Bay was started. In 1923, the new Conservative premier of Ontario, Howard Ferguson, halted further construction, stating that it would be unprofitable. For four years the terminus of the line remained at Fraserdale, near Abitibi Canyon, where the Abitibi Canyon Generating Station was being built on the Abitibi River. Between 1928 and 1930 the railway was extended north at a slow pace. The pace of construction was quickened in 1930 as a make-work project due to the depression. The extension to James Bay was opened on July 15, 1932. The terminus of the railway was at a point at the mouth of the Moose River near the old trading post of Revillon Frères. It was named Moosonee, from the Cree meaning "at the moose".

A name change for the railway was first proposed in 1942 by Arthur Cavanagh, who was chairman of the commission between 1940 and 1944. He noted that it would have the advantage of associating the railway with the province, not just with the District of Timiskaming. A name change would also avoid confusion with the Texas and New Orleans Railway, which had the same initials. The Ontario railway would often have boxcars misdirected in the United States, while receiving invoices that should have gone to Texas. The railway's name was changed to the Ontario Northland Railway on April 5, 1946, when a bill amending the Temiskaming and Northern Ontario Railway Act received assent.


Three new mines were opened in Northern Ontario in the 1950s and 1960s. Sherman Mine in Temagami was opened in 1955, Adams Mine in Kirkland Lake in 1963, and Kidd Creek Mine in Timmins in 1967. The Ontario Northland Railway built spurs to serve these mines.

In 1993, CN applied to abandon sections of its underused former National Transcontinental Railway mainline across northern Ontario (it had previously abandoned the portion of the line between Calstock and Nakina in 1988). The portion between Calstock and Cochrane was sold to ONR.

In December 2000, the Ontario government announced that it would be privatising the railway. CN submitted a bid in March 2002, and in October the government gave them exclusive rights to negotiate a purchase of the railway. However, the deal fell through on July 2, 2003, over the government's insistence on job guarantees, and the railway remains in public hands. On February 25, 2005, CN and ONR signed a routing agreement in which ONR would transport CN's freight traffic that travels between Noranda and either Hearst or North Bay.

On April 14, 2010, there has been news of an Ontario Northland takeover of the controversial Ottawa Valley rail tracks. However, this development is highly unlikely due to a lack of funds. This purchase may be very improbable.

Passenger trains

Ontario Northland Passenger Service[2]
Head station
Straight track
Straight track
Flag stop only
Straight track
Right side head station of cross-platform interchange Left side end station of cross-platform interchange
Cochrane BSicon BUS.svg
Straight track
Station on track
Porquis Junction
Station on track
Station on track
Station on track
Station on track
New Liskeard
Station on track
Station on track
Straight track
Station on track
North Bay
Straight track
Station on track
South River
Station on track
Station on track
Station on track
Station on track
Straight track
End station

ONR operates the following passenger services:

In June 2007 the Polar Bear Express was expanded from a seasonal excursion service to a year-round passenger train, replacing the Little Bear mixed freight/passenger train which had operated 3 days/week. The new train does carry some equipment not commonly found on passenger trains including chain cars (flat cars) for passenger vehicles and boxcars.

Passenger trains operate over a single track route and the Northlander sometimes arrives late [source?] at either Toronto or Cochrane as a result of freight train congestion. Southbound passengers on the Northlander are recommended to have a time buffer for any transfers to other trains at Union Station.

Freight services

Connections with other railway systems are made as follows:

Locomotives and rolling stock

The railway currently owns around 25 diesel locomotives, and roughly 700 items of rolling stock. One of its more unusual pieces of rolling stock is a canoe car, which is in service in the summer, as part of the Polar Bear Express passenger train. The car can hold up to eighteen canoes. Canoeists can put their canoes on this car as part of their baggage although canoes are often stowed in boxcars. It is the only known train car specifically designed for transporting canoes and kayaks.[citation needed]

In 1977, the railway purchased four RAm/DE train sets retired from the Trans Europ Express by the Dutch and Swiss railways, for use on its Northlander train. However, the experiment was not entirely successful. The locomotives were scrapped in 1984, although the passenger cars survived until the early nineties.

Many passenger cars used on ONR trains today are former single level GO Transit cars that were extensively refurbished after being used for commuter service around Toronto.

In 2004, Ontario Northland purchased ten passenger cars including dome cars from BC Rail and has used some of them on the Polar Bear Express service between Cochrane and Moosonee.

Montreal Locomotive Works
  • MLW RS-10
  • MLW RS-2
  • MLW RS-3
  • MLW S-4
  • MLW S-2
  • American Locomotive Company (ALCO) RS-2
  • Hawker Siddeley Canada corrugated coach
  • PM-class coach
  • Budd dome coach
  • Budd lounge car
  • Budd lunch counter car
  • Werkspoor locomotive for TEE Trainset (No longer on roster, have been shipped back to builder) One set exists still but belongs to the city of North Bay. Parked at the old CP station off Oak Street.


  • North Bay Yard - located on the west side of the ONR Head Office and stores most of the ONR's cars
contracted by GO Transit to overhaul some bi-level cars[3]
  • Cochrane Yard - locate next to Cochrane station
  • Temagami Work Shed - locate north of the Temagami Station (1907) to handle freight
  • Moosonee Yard - small yard to store box/rail cars and diesel locomotives
Ontario Northland building in North Bay

See also


  • Barnes, Michael (2005). RIDE THE POLAR BEAR EXPRESS-Visiting Moosonee and Moose Factory. Renfrew, Ontario: General Store Publishing House. ISBN 1-896182-48-8. 
  • Tucker, Albert (1978). Steam Into Wilderness. Fitzhenry & Whiteside Limited, Don Mills, Ontario. ISBN 0-88902-444-8. 
  • Surtees, Robert (1992). The Northern Connection: Ontario Northland Since 1902. Captus Press, Toronto. ISBN 0-921801-83-1. 
  • Smith, Douglas N. W. (2004). A Century of Travel On The Ontario Northland Railway. Smith, Douglas N. W.. ISBN 0-9730521-1-2. 
  • Brown, Ron (2008). The Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore. Dundurn Group. ISBN 978-1550027945. 
  • http://www.cn.ca/news/newsreleases/2005/en_News20050225.shtml. Retrieved March 25, 2005.

External links

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