Corporation created by the Canadian government in 1918 to run an extensive nationalized railway system. At its height, the Canadian National network incorporated some 200 smaller railways. Its transcontinental line, linking several east-coast cities with Vancouver and Prince Rupert, British Columbia, rivalled the earlier, more southerly route built by the private Canadian Pacific Railway in 1885. In December 1999, Canadian National Railway agreed to a merger with Burlington Northern to create North American Railways, expected to become North America's largest railway system, with 50,000 mi/80,000 km of track stretching across the USA and the more populous parts of Canada.
The Canadian National Railway came into being when the government acquired the stock of several companies that had run into financial difficulties in attempting to complete an alternative transcontinental route to the Canadian Pacific. These two large corporations entered into a fierce rivalry, even duplicating routes until an act of parliament in 1933 forced them to cooperate. Privatized in 1995, CN now has, in addition to its railway holdings, interests in hotels, freight services, ferries, and telecommunications.
The companies that combined to form the Canadian National network included some of the country's most historic railways. One of the smallest was the Champlain & St Lawrence, Canada's first railway, which had begun services on its 23-km/14-mi line between Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu and La Prairie, southeast of Montréal, in July 1836. At the other end of the spectrum was the vast network of the Grand Trunk Railway. Established in the 1850s, the Grand Trunk had expanded rapidly by building or taking over lines from the Québec City area to Montréal (where it built the Victoria Bridge), west to Ontario, south to Portland, Maine, and east to the Maritimes. Throughout the 19th century, it had continued to absorb smaller lines. Until an 1882 merger, its main competitor had been the Great Western Railway (1845); both systems offered an alternate route through southern Ontario for US railways that wished to extend their services to Detroit and Chicago. Other companies absorbed into CN were the Canadian Northern, which in 1915 had completed a line from Manitoba (connecting east with Lake Superior at what is now Thunder Bay) to Edmonton, Alberta, then through the Yellowhead Pass and down the Fraser River to Vancouver, British Columbia. Meanwhile, the Grand Trunk Pacific, a western subsidiary of the Grand Trunk, had built a line across the prairies parallel to the Canadian Northern and through Yellowhead Pass, then northwest to Prince Rupert. In the east, the Grand Trunk itself, operating with government backing as the National Transcontinental Railway, had driven a line from Moncton, New Brunswick, via Québec City (where the Québec Bridge was completed in 1905–17 despite two disastrous collapses) and across the Canadian Shield in Québec and Ontario, to Winnipeg. The partly redundant system thus created was taken over by CN in 1919–23. Many of the routes operated by CN run into the USA; these include routes into Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Minnesota, as well as tracks of the Vermont Central and spurs in Maine. In Canada, it serves the Maritimes and north and central areas of Québec, Ontario, and the Prairie Provinces, as well as the southwestern Northwest Territories and many parts of British Columbia. All of CN's (and Canadian Pacific's) passenger services were taken over by the crown corporation VIA Rail Canada in 1978.