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For anyone whose usual experience of rail travel involves robotic PA-system apologies and cattle-class strap-hanging, the Rocky Mountaineer’s departure from Vancouver is almost overwhelming. Kilted pipers stand on the platform, blaring out a God-speed fanfare, as 22 enormous gold and blue carriages gleam in the early-morning sun, fronted by a trio of leviathan locomotives. A steward welcomes you with a ceremonial cocktail, then, with a stirring blast of that iconic North American railroad horn, the mighty convoy creaks into life.

It’s an appropriately portentous send-off for my journey on an epic transcontinental railway – one of the greatest achievements of the steam age – to explore how these steel tracks created Canada as we know it. Completed in 1885, the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) was, and remains, much more than an engineering wonder: it defined a fledgling nation, uniting its far-flung extremities and stitching a ribbon of human settlement through the vast frontier wildernesses that separated them.

When the US bought Alaska from the Russians in 1867, Canada found itself surrounded, and the railway was proposed as an urgent hands-off statement. ‘I fear if Englishmen do not go there, Yankees will,’ said John A Macdonald – Canada’s first prime minister and father of the CPR – of his country’s vast, unpeopled west.

The railway’s eventual route across the west was determined by strategy, sticking close to the US border, regardless of geographical obstacles. The Rockies were tackled head-on rather than skirted around, which meant that it ended up costing more than four times the US$7 million the Americans had paid for Alaska. At more than 2,700 miles, the CPR would become by some margin the longest railway on Earth – so huge that the line’s chief engineer, Sir Sandford Fleming, invented time zones to standardise daylight between its distant extremes. Incredibly, the entire enterprise was completed in five years.

Vancouver to Kamloops: Eastbound on the Rocky Mountaineer for 275 miles
Before the CPR arrived, Vancouver was called Gastown – a hard-drinking frontier outpost populated by fur trappers and lumberjacks in the largely uncharted colony of British Columbia. Today, it is a famously laid-back city that girdles a comely, Sydney-pattern harbour. Its cosmopolitan feel is a direct legacy of the Canadian Pacific – not just a railway spanning the world’s second-largest country, but a bridge across the globe. Vancouver’s thriving Chinatown was first settled by the thousands of Oriental navvies who came to build the railway and never went home. And, a century on, the city’s mercantile wealth – noisily apparent in the docks and marshalling yards that the Rocky Mountaineer trundles past on its way out of town – remains contingent on the railway. In the days ahead, our train will pass a succession of monstrous eastbound freight services, groaning with raw materials: Albertan oil and yellow sulphur, British Columbian coal and lumber, but mostly grain from the prairies.

Passenger traffic is rare on the CPR these days, so rare that farmers and even trackmaintenance workers wave and cheer like the Railway Children as we pass. The Rocky Mountaineer’s appeal is neither haste nor economy – you can fly across Canada in a fraction of the time (Vancouver to Toronto is a four-day trip by rail) and for a fraction of the money. This journey is about paying tribute to the stunning achievement of the 15,000 men who built this line, and to the stunning scenery they conquered in doing so, experienced through the train’s panoramic glass roofs and its open vestibules. It’s a supremely luxurious reminder of an age when train travel was a glamorous adventure.

Meals are taken in the lower deck of the two-tier carriages, a symphony of linen and, on this occasion, local smoked salmon. ‘Working on a train means getting on with each other,’ says attendant Ann Alindada, encapsulating the challenge of serving haute cuisine in close, unsteady confinement. Sous chef Travis Catfish, crammed in a swaying galley with four colleagues, compares his task to ‘cooking on a surfboard’. The rewards, though, are obvious. ‘This still excites me so much,’ says Ann, gesturing at the natural world of wood and water sliding by.

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