Railway Branch : When the Department of Railways and Canals was created in 1879, the Railway Branch of the Department of Public Works was transferred to the new department. The Railway Branch was responsible for the construction, operation and maintenance of government-owned railways, which in 1879 included the Intercolonial Railway, the Prince Edward Island Railway and a planned transcontinental railway to British Columbia. The branch was also responsible for the administration of federal government aid to railways, designed to encourage the development and construction of new lines. Government assistance took many forms and at various times included land grants, cash subsidies, loans, debentures and the guarantee of bonds or interest.
By 1879, steam railways had assumed a significant role in Canadian economic development and were expanding very rapidly. The plan to construct a railroad to the Pacific Coast in the early 1870s was only one factor affecting the decision to create a separate Department of Railways and Canals. Since 1850, close to 6,800 miles of track had been laid in Canada, seventy percent in the twelve years since Confederation.
During the lifetime of the Department of Railways and Canals, not one but three trans-continental railways were constructed, and thousands of miles of new lines were laid in all regions of Canada. Between 1900 and 1915 alone, railway mileage doubled from 17,657 to 34,882. This over extension of railway development immediately prior to World War I eventually led to the amalgamation of the Canadian Northern Railway, the Grand Trunk Railways and the Canadian Government Railways system to form Canadian National Railways (CNR). By the end of 1936, Canada had over 42,000 miles of railway track, most of which was operated by the CNR and the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR). The Dominion Government had granted 31,881,643 acres of land to steam railway companies as bonus grants or grants for rights of way, stations or townsites, and over 72,000,000 had been disbursed to railway companies. The Department of Railways and Canals, through its Railway Branch, was intimately associated with this great era of railway development in Canada from 1879 until 1936. RG43 General Inventory