Canadian National Railway's Chapais Subdivision (1957-1994)

Once again, Alain Bernier graces us with his knowledge of northern Quebec railways, thank you! Take it away, Alain!

Franquet, QC to Chapais, QC – 1957-1994 

© Alain Bernier, 2020 

The towns of Chapais and Chibougamau are two small and isolated towns in northern Quebec.  As of 2016, the former was home to 1,499 inhabitants and the latter to 7,504 inhabitants. Their  economy is driven by mining and lumbering. Northern Quebec is rich in valuable minerals and  the towns of Chapais and Chibougamau both sit on a rich mineralized fault.

As early as 1857,  James Richardson of the Canada Geological Survey reported the presence of mineral resources  in the area around lake Opemiska, north of Chapais, and in the vicinity of the Paint Mountain,  near Chibougamau. Minor mining operations started as early as 1904 but it was only in the  1930’s that significant deposits were identified and started drawing prospectors, minors,  geologists and a whole array of colorful individuals to the area. Opemiska Mines started operating in 1954. The town of Chibougamau was established in 1952 and the town of Chapais  on November 16, 1955. The Chapais – Chibougamau area was one of the main copper and gold  mining camp in North America in the second half of the twentieth century. 

The Chapais – Chibougamau area is located some 145 miles from the Saguenay – Lac-St-Jean  region and some 250 miles from the Abitibi-Témiscamingue region; the two closest more  populated regions of the province of Quebec. In the 1920’s, plans were made to link the  Saguenay – Lac-St-Jean by rail to the Chapais – Chibougamau area but the project was  abandoned in 1943 following the bankruptcy of the company in charge.

Around 1949, the  Abitibi-Témiscamingue region turned its attention to the mining and lumbering potential of the  Chapais – Chibougamau area. The presence of the Horne custom copper smelter in Rouyn Noranda gave the Abitibi-Témiscamingue region an important advantage and the Canadian  National (CN) finally opted for the construction of a railway connecting Senneterre, QC to Chibougamau, QC. Senneterre is connected to Rouyn-Noranda via the CN Val-d’Or subdivision. 

In 1946, the Canadian National Railways (CNR) had decided to open access to land north of the  National Transcontinental Railway in the Senneterre, QC area. This decision was made after the  end of Second World War based on the perceived need for more arable land for the returning veterans and their brides and the need for timber for post-war redevelopment.

Construction  started at Barraute, QC, on the National Transcontinental Railway, in 1947. The 39-mile-long line was completed in 1948 to a point close to the Bell River; a terminus that became know as  Beattyville. 

Following the decision to build a railway to Chibougamau and after penetrating some 300 miles  of northern wilderness to find an alignment for the Senneterre to Chibougamau rail line, the CN  decided to extend the existing line from Beattyville. Work on the 161-mile railway started in  November 1954. The challenging construction over a sub-soil of clay, rock and muskeg was  completed to Chibougamau in March 1957, allowing a first train of ore to make the journey to  the Horne smelter in Rouyn-Noranda. From its junction with the National Transcontinental Railway at Barraute, QC the train would continue to Senneterre and then to Rouyn-Noranda via  the CN Val-d’Or subdivision.

The line opened on October 7, 1957 as the CN Chapais subdivision.  The official opening ceremony took place in Chibougamau on November 6, 1957. The CN  operated mixed trains combining passenger and freight service on the Chapais subdivision.

While work was undergoing on the Chapais subdivision, the CN was planning another rail  connection between Chibougamau and the Saguenay – Lac St-Jean region in order to reduce by  200 miles the distance between Chibougamau and deep-water ports on the St. Lawrence River.

The 133-mile-long section connecting Chapais and Chibougamau to St-Félicien, QC in the  Saguenay – Lac-St-Jean regioniwas completed on October 28, 1959. This section known as the CRAN subdivision would be a factor in the abandonment of the Chapais subdivisionii

Concentrated ore was the main commodity being transported by the CN from Chapais and  Chibougamau followed by lumber and by-products of lumber transformation such as wood chips  used to make paper. Between 1983 and 1986, an average of 11,500 carloads per year were  carried on the Chapais subdivision primarily destined to Senneterre or Rouyn-Norandaiii

However, from the end of the 1980’s, mining operations declined in the Chapais – Chibougamau  region. The Opemiska Mine was a major provider of copper and gold ore being transported  over the Chapais subdivision to the Horne smelter in Rouyn-Noranda. Its closure in 1991  resulted in a significant drop in the demand for rail transport and a loss of income for the CN.

As a result, the CN invested less for infrastructure maintenance; wagons and tracks deteriorated on  the Franquet – Chapais section, and train speed was reduced, driving remaining users to  trucking rather that rail shipmentiv

Actually, the CN had already made the decision to abandon the Franquet – Chapais section by  1986. Indeed, on September 10, 1986, the CN had unveiled a 5-year program commencing in  1986 to abandon lines throughout Canada in order to reduce operations cost. The section from  Franquet to Chapais was on the list.

A program of demarketing started on September 26, 1986.  Directives were issued for the Chapais subdivision, whereby efforts to attract traffic were to be  discouraged, existing traffic was to be offloaded to the intermodal service and all maintenance on the line was to be stopped. CN effectively closed the Franquet – Chapais section to traffic in June 1987v and re-routed any traffic to Rouyn-Noranda via a 450-mile detour using the CRAN  subdivisionvi

A few months earlier, on March 20, 1987, the CN had applied for authorization to abandon the  Franquet – Chapais section. On January 31, 1990, after public hearings, the Canadian  Transportation Agency concluded that the CN had illegally closed the Franquet – Chapais section  and had not demonstrated that the line could not be viable, denied the authorization to close  the line, and ordered the CN to reopen the line to traffic effective July 31, 1990vii.

In April 1990,  the Quebec Department of Transport identified the railway between Franquet, QC and  Chibougamau, QC as being part of the core network of railway lines for the province of  Quebecviii

In accordance with the National Transportation Act, the Canadian Transportation Agency was  dutybound to review the situation of the rail line within three years of its decision. Despite the  opposition of the local communities, of mining companies, of several stakeholders in the Abitibi Témiscamingue region, and the opposition of the Government of Quebec, the Agency concluded  on July 12, 1993, that the section of the Chapais subdivision between Franquet, QC and Chapais,  QC was uneconomic and that there was no reasonable probability that it would become economic in a foreseeable future.

However, the planned opening of the Langlois Mine in  Grevet, QC led the Agency to conclude that reasonable probability existed that the 6-mile  section between Franquet and Grevet would become economic in a near futureix. On the same  day, the Agency ordered the CN to continue the operation on the Franquet – Grevet section of the Chapais subdivision and allowed the CN to abandon the section between Grevet and  Chapaisx.  

CN removed the track between Grevet and Chapais in 1994. However, it has kept ownership of the land. The Franquet – Grevet section remains in operation today. However, the Langlois Mine in Grevet closed in 2019. In its Three-Year Rail Network Plan of  July 4, 2019, the CN listed the Chapais subdivision from Barraute to Franquet and Grevet, and  the Matagami subdivision from Franquet to Matagami, QC, on the list of lines to discontinuexi

In recent years, the Quebec Rail (QC Rail) project brought a new perspective that may revive the abandoned section of the Chapais subdivision. QC Rail is part of a project that would reduce by  six days the transit time for freight between Winnipeg and Europe while reducing congestion on  the railways in the southern parts of Ontario and Quebec.

QC Rail would build a 230-mile-long  railway linking Dolbeau-Mistassini in the Saguenay – Lake St-Jean region to the deep-water all season port of Baie-Comeau, QC in the Quebec North Shore region. The authorities of the  Chapais – Chibougamau region are putting forward that reopening the Chapais subdivision  would further reduce the transit time to Baie-Comeau by one day compared to the current route under studiesxii.

Photo 1: Aerial view of the CN railway to Chapais, 1957 
Source: Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec, Fonds du Canadien National

Photo 2: CN freight train loading ore concentrate at the mine in Chapais, 1976 Source: Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec, Fonds du ministère des Communications 

Photo 3: CN train loaded with ore concentrate in Chapais, 1976. Source: Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec, Fonds du ministère des Communications

Photo 4: Abandoned railway bridge at Miquelon, QC, 2011 
Source: Photo Frédérick Durandxiii 
Photo 5: Schedule of the 3-days a week Mixed Train Service between Senneterre, QC and  Chapais, QC on the Chapais subdivision, 1961 
Source: Canadian National archives 
The train left Senneterre early morning to Miquelon, QC (Table 106). It would leave Miquelon  the following morning to Chapais and Chibougamau (Table 107). 

i Girard, Réjean, Histoire de la Jamésie : Survol du développement des villes jamésiennes, Mouvement  Jeunesse Baie-James, 2012, page 17 ( Railway Archeology, “Railways of Northern Québec (Part 3): The National Transcontinental Railway  Branch Line Company (CN)”, in Rail and Transit, February 1995, p. 11 

iii Canadian Transportation Agency, Decision No. 45-R-1990, January 31, 1990 (https://otc 

iv Ville de Chapais, Mémoire sur le transport ferroviaire présenté au ministère des Transports du Québec,  15 octobre 2019 ( v Canadian Transportation Agency, Decision No. 45-R-1990, January 31, 1990 (Cited above)  vi Douglas N. W. Smith, Rail Canada Decisions, in Canadian Rail, No. 415, March-April 1990, page 65  (  

vii Canadian Transportation Agency, Decision No. 45-R-1990, January 31, 1990 (Cited above) viii Ministère des Transports du Québec, Pour un réseau ferroviaire de base au Québec, Ministère des  Transports, Service du transport ferroviaire, avril 1990, page 29  


ix Canadian Transportation Agency, Decision No. 445-R-1993, July 12, 1993 (https://otc  

x Canadian Transportation Agency, Order No. 1993-R-211, July 12, 1993 (https://otc  

xi Canadian National, CN Three-Year Rail Network Plan – Canadian Network, Revised July 4, 2019 (file:///C:/Users/chifi/Downloads/three-year-plan-en.pdf)  

xii Ville de Chapais, Mémoire sur le transport ferroviaire présenté au ministère des Transports du Québec,  15 octobre 2019 (Cited above) 

xiii Voyage (insolite) dans le nord du Québec ( insolite-dans-le-nord-du-quebec.html)


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