The first settlers of the Province, the Acadians, had all settled on the coast or along the rivers of the Province. These waterways provided the only practical means of transporting materials to and from the settlements. Following the expulsion of the Acadians in 1755, the next waves of settlers also settled in the same areas for the same reasons. The most important of these groups was the Loyalists who arrived after the American Revolutionary War of 1775. These settlers mostly settled along the St. John River. This made Saint John the defacto center of commercial activity for the Province. Most goods imported or exported from the Province passed through the port of Saint John. With the dawn of the Industrial Revolution economies began to change. The age of steam allowed manufacturers to produce more goods, faster and cheaper, which allowed for more export competition. At the same time the first steam powered ships and trains offered the hope of faster more reliable transportation. The United States quickly began focusing on building trains as it expanded west. Indeed western expansion would not have been possible without trains. New Brunswick began to notice the potential of railways, even as the Province began to build more and more wooden ships to transport more goods to the United States and Great Britain.
The first Railway in the Province the St. Andrews and Quebec Railway was started in 1847 and completed in 1862. The line went from the prosperous shipping port of St. Andrews through a mostly unpopulated area of the Province and terminated near Woodstock. Readers may ask why this line was built north to nowhere when trade patterns of the day ran east to west with the United States. The answer is simple New Brunswick at the time was a colony of Great Britain and England was not interested in funding a railway to the United States. Great Britain was looking to try and unite the Canadian Colonies so that they could become more self sufficient. A Railway would not only aide in this goal but there was also a strong economic reason for building the line north towards Quebec. The St. Lawrence River froze each winter meaning that no goods could be shipped from Central Canada during four months of the year. However, the ports of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia were ice free during the winter, a railway to one of those ports would allow for year round transportation of goods from Central Canada. This would not only strengthen the economic ties between the colonies, but might also provide an efficient way to move military troops to protect Canadian sovereignty. Remember Britain and the United States had last fought a war against one another in 1812. The St. Andrews and Quebec Railway was built for just this purpose but it was never completed into Quebec. The most obvious route for such a railway was from Saint John, up along the St. John River, passing through the prosperous communities along the river. The line would then continue westward into the northern part of New Brunswick and into Quebec. However, the line was never completed because it crossed over lands claimed by both Britain and the United States. Finally in 1847, after the border dispute was settled by the Ashburton Treaty in 1842, construction began on the rail line. However, the opening of a rail link from Montreal to Portland Maine in 1853 permitted manufacturers in Central Canada to ship goods year round, and so the line to St. Andrews was no longer needed.
By this time it was well known that the route of the future Intercolonial line would follow the "Major Robinson Route" through Northeastern New Brunswick. Entrepreneurs were now looking to build railways east and west. The prospective railways would be built west to tap into markets in the United States, free trade agreements with the United States were still in effect, and east to tap into the future Intercolonial line. The first of these lines, built to link with the future Intercolonial line, was the European and North American line from Saint John to Shediac built in 1860. This line together with a line to the United States was also touted as a way to shorten Trans Atlantic travel time. Ships from England could unload passengers and freight in Halifax which would then move by rail to the rest of Canada and the United States. Construction of the Intercolonial line was a corner stone of Canadian Confederation in 1867. The American Civil War of 1861-65 strengthened the calls for the Intercolonial line to be built as far away from the United States border as possible. That plus political pressure to have the line built through Eastern Quebec ensured that the Intercolonial, opened in 1876, was built along the "Robinson Route". Prior to this the European and North American line commonly known as the Western Extension had been completed in 1871. This line provided the first rail connection that New Brunswick manufacturers could use to send goods to Central Canada and the United States. However, the end of free trade agreements with the United States, plus high export duties placed on Canadian goods in 1878 by the National Policy, caused financial hardships for the line. At the same time the Intercolonial line was not much use to most manufacturers in the Province because the line was too inaccessible for most of them.
Although New Brunswick had lagged behind the rest of Canada and the United States in railway construction, once the Intercolonial line to Central Canada and the European & North American to Maine were opened, railway development in the Province took off. Political pressure and government subsidies such as the "Lobster Act" of 1864, prompted the construction of many branch lines during the next decades. It was hoped that building these lines would promote economic growth and trade along the rail lines. However, high tariffs on exports to the United States limited trade with markets in the United States and markets in Central Canada were not forthcoming. Most successful railways reinforce and develop already existing trade, not develop markets from nothing. Indeed as the decades went by it can be argued that the railways opened up New Brunswick to goods produced in Central Canada. It is hard to say why strong industrial bases were not developed along most branch lines in the Province. Perhaps it was because of a lack of capital, government regulation, or lack of leadership. That is not to say that all the branch lines were unsuccessful. The lines to Plaster Rock and Hillsborough helped develop the industries of those areas, and certainly Alexander Gibson made a lot of money moving his timber goods along his two railways.
When Canadian Pacific Railways and Canadian National Railways took control of these branch lines they could not eliminate the money losing lines because of political pressure. Also without the branch lines how could Canadian Pacific and Canadian National feed traffic into their main lines. Changes in transportation policies and the development of the trucking industry spelled the end of the branch lines in the 1960's and 1970's. As the highway systems in the Province were developed, manufacturers found it more economical to ship their goods by truck. This allowed Canadian National and Canadian Pacific to start abandoning branch lines at this time. Today only the Intercolonial, National Transcontinental, and European and North American lines are still in operation. Sadly New Brunswick seems to be lagging behind the rest of the world once again. The New Brunswick transportation system is almost exclusively focused on trucks and cars in an era where people are looking to trains as a more environmentally friendly and more cost effective form of transportation.