Prior to the 1830s, the main arteries for long distance transport in Canada were the rivers and lakes. It was therefore natural that the first railway in Canada was designed to connect two of these waterways, running from La Prairie on the St Lawrence River to St Jean sur Richelieu giving access to Lake Champlain. This represented part of an important trade route between Montreal and New York. The line, some 16 miles (25km) in length, opened in 1836.
This first line was constructed to a gauge of 5ft 6in (1676mm), using wooden rails with iron plates spiked to the top surface. These were replaced by iron rails in the 1850s, and the gauge was changed to standard (4ft 8½in, 1435mm) in the 1870s. Standard gauge was used for most public railways in Canada, although 3ft 6in (1067mm) gauge was used in Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island and there were a number of narrow gauge operations in remote areas serving the mining and logging industries.
The first transcontinental railway was the Canadian Pacific Railway opened in 1885. This was joined in 1912 by the Canadian Northern Railway (later part of Canadian National Railways).
Canadian National Railways came into being in 1918 when the government took over a number of ailing railway concerns. In the 1990s the concern was privatized as CN. It and Canadian Pacific remain the dominant operators in the Canadian rail freight sector, but both operators ceased passenger services in 1978, that function being taken over by the state owned VIA Rail Canada and (for commuter services) by various municipal undertakings.
The major freight companies also have operations in the United States of America, and their lines include a number of international connections. Several US freight companies operate into Canada, and a few international passenger services are operated by the US company Amtrak.
For details of railways in each of the provinces, click on the map or on the list.