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The Quebec North Shore and Labrador Railway

February 25, 1999

 by Steven J. Brown

posted March 27, 1999

There are not many short lines in North America that operate their own regularly scheduled, year round,  passenger service.  The Quebec North Shore and Labrador Railway is one of the few that do.  The railroad was built by the Iron Ore Company of Canada to move iron ore from the remote Quebec and Labrador interior to the port at Sept Isle.  Passenger service is subsidized by the Government of Canada due to the remote nature of the communities along the line.  The train is mostly patronized by Aboriginal people that inhabit the area, miners and sportsmen.

Surveyed by air in the late 1940's, the railroad was built by what is said to be the largest peacetime airlift in history.  Construction took three years, being completed and opened for business in 1954.  The line runs from the St. Lawrence port at Sept Isle, Quebec, north though Labrador to the site of the now closed Schefferville, Quebec iron mine.  224 miles north of Sept Iles, at Ross Bay Junction, there is a branch line 37 miles to Labrador City where mining operations continue.

Iron ore trains are handled by QNS&L's fleet of 36 Dash-9, Dash-8, and SD40-2 locomotives.  There are five GP38's on the roster that are used for switching duties.  Ore trains can consist of over 250 cars with helpers cut in the middle.  During the warmer months, there can be ten or more trains per day.  In the winter frequency goes to three or four a day.  Although most of the railroads tonnage consists of iron ore (20 million tons in 1996), miscellaneous freight (0.8 million tons in 1996) is also carried.  This includes cars and trucks for use in Schefferville which has no roads to the outside world.

While most people frown on visiting northern climates during the winter, I find it one of the best times to visit.  The snow and cold bring an entirely different atmosphere than the warmer times of year.  The snow covered wilderness is breathtaking.  It is interesting to see how people cope and enjoy life in the harsh climate.  Prices are usually cheaper and there are few, if any, tourists.

The Sept Iles Depot

The QNS&L runs year round with a reduced schedule during the winter.  On Tuesday, a train leaves Sept Iles in the evening arriving Labrador City in the wee hours of Wednesday morning.  The train returns to Sept Iles at Noon that day.  Thursday, a train leaves Sept Iles a nine a.m. for Schefferville, returning the next day.  Another train runs round trip between Labrador City and Ross Bay Junction connecting with the Schefferville train.  June through August, there is an additional train between Sept Iles and Labrador City on Monday, returning on Tuesday.

Six Budd Rail Diesel Cars (RDC) were purchased from VIA Rail in 1994 for passenger service. Vending area Four all coach seating RDC-1's and two combination baggage/coach RDC-2's.  Two RDC-1's have been equipped with vending machines for food service.  An ex-Wabash dome car is on the property and is added  behind the RDC consist for tour groups in the summer months.

My visit to the QNS&L was quick, riding only one way from Sept Iles to Schefferville on Thursday, February 25, 1999.  I was warned by friends who had previously ridden the train that the trip can be unpleasant.  The train has a tendency to attract a rough crowd and RDC equipment is no more conducive to an all day trip than a small Boeing 737 is for a long transcontinental flight.   I was advised to request no-smoking seating, even if I smoked, for the air can be unbreathable.  On the contrary, I found the ride to border on pleasant.

I arrived at the QNS&L depot, on the east edge of Sept Iles, nearly two hours before the train's Depot parking lot nine a.m. departure.  The depot is housed in the corner of a large warehouse near the QNS&L yards and docks.  A five car train waited on the other side of a tall, barb-wired, chain-link fence.  This early, the parking lot was vacant and there was no one around.   This would change almost instantly a short time later as the parking lot filled and a crowd started to gather.  They brought huge amounts of baggage with them as would be expected for a train that provided the only access to the remote north.  Today, being close to the end of the Canadian spring break, there were many families traveling home.  I was told that the usual winter consist is only three RDC's, two extra being added to handle the additional traffic.  The orderly loading of passengers was supervised by three security guards, assigned to ride with the train.

As the train begins its journey north, we pass the QNS&L locomotive shops and yards.  Some of the former passenger equipment is still on hand as is plenty of old heavyweight passenger cars that have been converted to maintenance of way duty.  The yard is separated into inbound and outbound tracks and we pass several empty trains waiting in the outbound yard.

Sept Iles outbound yard

Civilization instantly disappears as the train begins its long climb into the mountainous interior.  By the time the train reaches milepost 20, we have already passed through a 2200 foot tunnel, a high bridge and twisted on a narrow shelf high above the Moise River.  The mountainous scenery continues for the next 100 miles, climaxing between milepost 60 and 75 with a high climb above the Wacouno River.  The tracks left by snowmobiles are a frequent site.  We take the siding once for a loaded southbound ore train.  At Mai, the train is delayed for a hour while a broken rail is repaired.  The stop gave me the opportunity to get off and photograph a southbound ore train waiting for its crew to return from lunch.  At the Labrador border, the line reaches the railroad’s peak elevation of 2,066 feet.

Continuing north the hills are smaller and the rivers are replaced by a large number of lakes.  We are starting to make frequent stops in the wilderness.  Groups of people detrain with their  mountains of supplies.  The train is repeatedly met by snowmobiles hauling trailers.  It is getting dark when we arrive at Ross Bay Junction at milepost 224.  We pull in next to the waiting train from Labrador City.  This train consists of a SD40, an ex-Southern stainless steel coach, and a converted box car with an electric generator.  A few items are passed between trains, one passenger makes the transfer, and we are northbound again.  It is possible to see the terrain for a little while longer as we pass through the frozen muskeg with its stunted trees and frozen lakes.  We continue to make stops seemingly in the middle of nowhere.  Snowmobile headlights mysteriously appear through the trees in the dark as the train's passengers are met.

More than half of the passengers have detrained by the time the train pulls into the Schefferville depot.  It is after nine p.m. and there is a flurry of activity as the remaining passengers collect their baggage and find their rides into town.  It is a long wait for a taxi, as the town’s two cabs shuttle riders into town.  With a population around 3500, Schefferville has only one overpriced motel.

Schefferville's Motel

I had a quick dinner in the motels restaurant which fortunately is open late.  I also learned the hard way that "veal" in French translates to liver….yuk!  The following morning, I caught a flight to Montreal connecting in Sept Isle.  Surprisingly, the Schefferville airport is much closer to town than the railroad station.

Outskirts of Schefferville, near the airport

Those wishing to ride the QNS&L should make their reservations and buy their tickets from:

Agence de voyages Vacances Inter inc.
451, avenue Arnaud
Sept-Îles (Québec) G4R 3B3
Telephone (418) 962-9411
Fax (418) 962-6918

Ticket are not available at the Sept Iles depot.

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