Mainline Freight in Nova Scotia – David Othen

Since 1972, when we first came to Nova Scotia there have been vast changes in freight operations throughout the region.


In 1972, CN operated a network of branch lines that extended from Yarmouth to Sydney most of which were serviced several times a week. On the main line between Moncton and Halifax many  trains stopped in Truro yards and were often marshaled before continuing on. A few trains ran on regular schedules such as the oil train between Truro and Dartmouth but most ran as and when needed.

CN has gradually abandoned all of its branch lines and only operates from Moncton to Halifax and Dartmouth. It has sold its line from Truro to Sydney to the Cape Breton & Central Nova Scotia Railway (CBNS). It has also increased the length and reduced the number of freight trains. Trains can be as long as 13,000 feet (over 2 miles) and sometimes may operate in distributed power mode with one or more of the locomotives remotely-controlled in the middle of the train.

In 2012 there is only one daily freight (train # 120) into Halifax and it originates in Toronto with stops in Montreal, Quebec and Moncton and runs at approximately the same time everyday arriving at Rockingham yards between 8 and 11 am.  A second daily freight train (#408 formerly #308) runs from Moncton to Truro (where it drops off traffic for the CBNS) and then continues to Dartmouth arriving between 2 and 5 am.
The locomotives (usually three or four large locomotives each of over 4000hp) from train #120 are serviced at the Fairview shops and return with train #121 about 6 to 9 pm. The locomotives from train #408 (usually two or three large units) return about 6 to 8 am with train # 407 from Dartmouth to Truro & Moncton.

There is also a train (#511 formerly #701) that carries up to 74 cars of gypsum from the huge mine at Milford to the ship-loading facility at Wrights Cove Dartmouth where the cars are switched, by a remote controlled GM switcher but formerly by a Hunslet 0-6-0 diesel (see Industrial and Shortlines in Nova Scotia). This train can run twice a day seven days a week using two large locomotives but currently the economic downturn has reduced service to one train per day five days per week.

A pair of switching locomotives (usually GP38-2s, GP38-2Ws or less often GP9Rs and occasionally GP40-2s or even higher horsepower locomotives) are based at Rockingham yards and go to the Halifax Ocean Terminals and out as far as Milford if needed. Another pair are based at Dartmouth yards and go to Autoport, Imperoyal, Burnside and Windsor Junction. One or two are also located at Truro and serve the local area.

For more information on the line between Halifax and Moncton see our DVD “CN & VIA going West” and on the branch line from Halifax to Bridgewater see our book “Halifax & Southwestern Railway – Halifax to Bridgewater – the final 25 years“.

Alco/MLW diesels predominated until the late 1980s and early 1990s in mainline freight haulage in Atlantic Canada – originally RS-18s (see branchline operations) but then C-630Ms, M-636s, C-424s, M-420s and later HR-616s were used. Slowly these units were replaced by GM locomotives and by the winter of 1997/8 most of the Alco/MLW units had been retired. 

CN first used SD40/-2s and some  GP40-2s but then a mixture of units including   SD40-3s (either CN, KCS or GCFX), SD50Fs, SD60Fs, SD70Is and SD75Is  and occasionally GE Dash 8 and Dash 9 units were introduced. Newly released units from Alsthom and GM used to appear in Halifax on proving runs. Now GM SD70M-2s and GE ES44DCs have joined the SD70  & 75Is and the Dash 9s and most other units are disappearing.

The Cape Breton & Central Nova Scotia Railway has scrapped its former CN Alcos. Initially they were replaced by ex -BN GP50s. The four axle units were not popular and so they were replaced by HATX SD45-2s. These too have been scrapped and now SD40-2s have been leased from Helm as well as GP15s and GP38s from LLPX. More information can also be found on our web page on Shortlines in Nova Scotia in the section on the CBNS. For more photos and a preview of our book click here.

Alco/MLW Units

Two CN RS-18s 3712 3656 and a leased C&O GP9 6060 arrive at Halifax Intermodal Terminals with a container train from Montreal in June 1975.

CN C-630M 2015 & M-636 2328 haul train #701 with about 50 loaded gypsum cars from the mine at Milford to the dock at Dartmouth, NS on 27 October 1987. By February 2000, 80 car trains were usually hauled by 2 SD75Is or occasionally Dash 9s or ES44DCs.

At 2:30 pm on 25 January 1981 CN M-636 2324 with C-630Ms 2029 & 2003 are near the end of their journey to Halifax from Moncton with 99 cars on train #306 at Windsor Junction.

In this CN C-630M/M-636 combination the M-636 2322 is leading 2042 on a westbound container train (single stack) just west of Windsor Junction in late March 1979.

CN occasionally used C-424s on fast freights but 10 units went to Mexico in 1978 and others were retired in the early 1980s. Here C-424 3223 and M-420s 2505 & 2528 head a container train out of Halifax past Fairview shops on the evening of 24 June 1974.

M-420 2550 & M-636 2334 haul a long train of empty grain cars up the Bedford hill at 13:05 on 7 February 1980.

HR-616 2100 M-636 2317 and an unidentified C-630M begin their journey with a container train from Halifax Ocean Terminals on a July 1982 evening. The HR-616 is a full carbody unit with the Draper Taper and was MLW/Bombardier’s final main-line locomotive design. Only 20 were built, all in 1982 for CN, and all were retired after a very short life.

2100 is seen again at Dartmouth on 5 February 1998. By now the horns on this and many other CN locomotives have been moved away from the cab roof because they made the cab too noisy.

GM Locomotives

In the 1970s GM units were unusual in the Halifax area but occasionally a GP35, GP40, GP40-2W or GP38-2s would be pressed into service but SD40s were rare. On 24 June 1974 GP38-2 5547 and GP40-2W 9443 are at Fairview shops, Halifax.

On 7 June 1980 SD40s 5038 & 5042 with GP40 4014 GP40 arrive in Rockingham yards, Halifax, with a container train at 18:35.

SD40-2W 5298, M-636 2332 & SD40-2W 5296 cross the Tantramar Marshes near Fort Beausejour with an eastbound container train at 14:30 on 16 August 1985.

In the late 1980s GM units and then GE units became more common. Here we see three units at Dartmouth on 28 April 1995. CN 5369 is an SD40-2 which was previously operated by Union Pacific. Behind it is leased LMS GE C40-8 727 and CN Alco/MLW RSC14 1750.

CN6000 is a SD40u (rebuilt by AMF and now referred to as an SD40-3) also coincidentally with leased LMS 727. They are bringing a snow delayed train #106 into Rockingham yards (Halifax) on 15 February 1996.

After turning on the turntable, SD50 5405 is being added to the power for an outgoing freight at Fairview shops on 4 April 1999.

SD50 5444 and a sister haul loaded gypsum  train # 701 as it approaches Windsor Junction on  20 February 2003.

SD60 5555 is the third unit behind  Dash 8 2447 and Ontario Northland SD40-2 1730 as it leaves Rockingham yards en route for the Halifax Ocean terminals on 20 September 2002. The Fairview Cove (Ceres) container terminal is in the background.

SD70I 5619, Dash9-44CW 2625 & SD75I 5752 prepare to leave Rockingham yards with train #121 on the evening of 22 August 2006.

SD75Is 5784 & 5796 have just left Rockingham yards and are passing Prince’s Lodge with a westbound container train on 6 July 2001.

SD70M-2s 8818 & 8834 assemble their train at Halifax Ocean Terminals on 4 January 2008 while a third SD70M-2 8817 leads rebuilt VIA 6400 and unrebuilt 6405 and train # 15 out of Halifax station. Unlike the 8000 series of SD70M-2s these units were built with distributed power controls – hence the red lights beside the number boards.

GE Units

Dash 8-40CMs 2410 & 2407 are westbound at Rockingham with a container train from Halifax Ocean Terminals. There are about to pick up more containers from the Fairview Cove Container terminal before collecting the train orders and leaving for Montreal & Toronto in May 1990. The Dash 8 units were first delivered to Atlantic Canada but were not liked, perhaps because of the new desk control stands, and were later moved to Western Canada. However, despite this, several of the leased LMS GE units operated in Atlantic Canada as seen in earlier pictures. Since 1997 LMS units (now CN/IC) are rarely seen in Halifax. Occasionally since the takeover of BC Rail their Dash 8 locomotives which were an add-on to the CN order have brought freight trains into Halifax.

CN train #148 approaches Windsor Junction on 23 March 2007 with Dash 9-44CW 2516, SD70I 5611 and UP SD40-2 3620.

DPU equipped ES44DCs 2220, 2247 & 2239 lead train #148 at Sandy Cove West on 22 October 2007. Note the two red lights to the edge of the nose which indicate that the locomotive is equipped for Distributed Power Operation.

ES44DC 2281 is operating in distributed power mode near the middle of train #120 as it enters Rockingham yards on 14 January 2010 lead by SD70M-2s 8872 & 8873.

Leased Locomotives

CN has leased many locomotives from leasing firms including LMS, GCFX, MPI, GATX Leasing and Helm Leasing and from other railroads (some on horsepower hour pay back). In addition units from other CN lines including GT, DWP and IC have worked through to Halifax and Dartmouth.


In 1972 CP operated the Dominion Atlantic Railway (DAR) from an interchange with CN at Windsor Junction to Yarmouth. There was also a branch from Windsor to Truro. The DAR also had running rights on CN to Halifax. The track was mainly light rail with a fine sand-like ballast and so only GM RS1200RS locomotives were used.

Freight trains were hauled by two or three locomotives which were meticulously maintained at the shops in Kentville. Until 1979 when the mixed train from Truro to Windsor was cancelled most freight was interchanged with CN at Truro. Later freight was collected from Halifax or Rockingham and then service was cut back to Windsor Junction.

In the early 1990s the lines from Yarmouth to New Minas and from Mantua to Truro were abandoned.

In 1994 all the DAR trackage was sold to the Windsor & Hantsport Railway Company (WHRC) but they have gradually stopped service to New Minas and to Windsor Junction . In 2010 what was probably the last train ran between Mantua and Hantsport and all operations shut down.

For more information see our books Dominion Atlantic Railway – the final 25 years  and Windsor & Hantsport Railway 1994 – 2010, our DVDs on the Windsor & Hantsport Railway and our webpage on Shortlines in Nova Scotia.

Three RS1200RS 8139, 8134 & 8137 are hauling this freight train alongside the Cornwallis River as it approaches Kentville in May 1977.

Back to David Othen’s Canadian Train Photographs

Material on this page is copyright 1997-2012 by Pat and David Othen. Reproduced here with permission of David’s widow Pat.

Leave a Comment