Turntables (and not the vinyl record kind!)

Article compiled by Jason Paul Sailer & Chris Doering.

In times past nearly every medium to large sized town had a rail yard and often located nearby or within it was a turntable and roundhouse. Their function was simple, to spin around steam locomotives as well as being a place to maintain and store them. These days few of these fascinating facilities are left although if one looks hard, remains can often be found, like those in Fort MacLeod and Big Valley Alberta and others. Steam locomotives, unlike diesels, need to be pointed forward when in operation, making these facilities necessary for the times.

This set up was compact (by railway standards) and worked well.

The turntable itself can be thought of as a bridge that can rotate on its axis allowing an engine to line up with any of the individual stalls (anywhere from one to several dozen depending on the facility). It rests on a center pivot, while the outer ends are supported by wheels riding on a perimeter track. Even with this three point arrangement, it was still important that a locomotive be accurately centered so that the turntable moved smoothly and easily. Power for turning was via an electric drive or an air powered motor supplied by either the boiler plant in the roundhouse, or by the actual locomotive itself (through its air lines). Some smaller turntables were moved by manpower.

In the roundhouse one could find machine shops, crew work and storage areas, and often a boiler plant to power everything. Each track would have an inspection pit, allowing access to the underside of the locomotive, and would be equipped with a big set of barn style doors for access (and ventilation).

This particular turntable was built in Ontario by the Dominion Bridge Company Limited, a large supplier of railway infrastructure pieces, as well as steel bridge components, steel holding tanks, and skyscraper framing. It was installed in the Canadian Pacific Railway’s Medicine Hat Alberta yards at the turn of the century and used up until the 1970s, when it was removed.

It was later sold to Pat Dwyer Construction, a contracting company who used it during the construction of the Oldman River dam in southwestern Alberta. It was used as a truck bridge! After the project it was relocated to their gravel pit near Lundbreck, Alberta where it was stored until 2000. The firm then donated it to the Galt Historic Railway Park where it’s been ever since. Kerner Heavy Hauling moved it to our Railway Park that fall.

Future plans call for the turntable to be installed in a properly built pit and restored to running condition. The railway track on site would loop around this complex and would tie into the turntable. A small roundhouse, to mimic a combination Galt narrow gauge and CPR standard gauge facility, would be built nearby to be used as interpretive and display space and as well as multi-use venue for community events.

If you’d like to know more about what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us at gcprs@telus.net.   Be sure to have the Blog title in the subject line.

All images and content are copyright Great Canadian Plains Railway Society / Galt Historic Railway Park and/or Jason Paul Sailer unless otherwise noted. Do not use without permission.


CPR Steam Locomotive on the turntable @ Medicine Hat – no date – Great Canadian Plains Railway Society Photo









CPR Locomotive #4037 with the roundhouse / turntable in the background – Medicine Hat, AB – March 1970 – Weston Langford photo









CPR GP9 #8531 being towed out of the pit after missing the turntable! – Medicine Hat, AB – September 1974 – A.W. Mooney photo










Our turntable being transported to the Oldman River Dam site in the mid 1980s – Pat Dwyer Construction photo







Our turntable being installed at the Oldman River Dam site in the mid 1980s – Pat Dwyer Construction photo







Our turntable being installed at the Oldman River Dam site in the mid 1980s – Pat Dwyer Construction photo







Our turntable being transported to the Galt Historic Railway Park by Kerner Heavy Hauling in September 2000 – Great Canadian Plains Railway Society Photo









Turntable stored at the Galt Historic Railway Park – June 2015 – Jason Paul Sailer photo









A turntable was essentially a bridge on a center pivot with wheel supports on each end – June 2015 – Jason Paul Sailer photo









A close-up of the end of the turntable with the guide wheel present – June 2015 – Jason Paul Sailer photo








Here is the air-operated motor that ran the turntable – June 2015 – Jason Paul Sailer photo









Another close-up of the underside of the turntable showing the guide wheel and the structural reinforcement bracing. Wood planking and a set of railway rails would be located above the reinforcement bracing for the locomotive to sit on – June 2015 – Jason Paul Sailer photo









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  1. Posted July 6, 2015 at 10:29 am by Chris Doering | Permalink

    So awesome to see all those photos showing it at various times in its history.

    • Posted July 6, 2015 at 10:32 am by Galt | Permalink

      Hello Chris; yes it is neat to see it over the years and to see it being ‘recycled’ as a truck bridge! Thanks for commentating!

  2. Posted July 6, 2015 at 10:29 pm by Braedan D | Permalink

    Great article! Turntables have always interested me, especially the ones still in use(or placed at the yard), for example the one at CN Walker Yard in Edmonton. They may seem like their dead, but the dedication we have put into them, they will always survive!

    • Posted July 7, 2015 at 10:04 am by Galt | Permalink

      Thanks for the comment Braedan!