The wonders of Canada by rail
The landscape slowly closes in. Flanks of rock hem in the increasingly excitable Fraser River, spectacularly so at the Hell’s Gate gorge, where the train obligingly slows to what the attendants call ‘Kodak speed’. Male passengers congregate on the open platforms at the end of each carriage, indulging their inner rail geek: the ding-ding-dings of the level-crossing bells, the clanks and shrieks of heavy-metal motion, the wind in the hair. Then the scenery lies down again, dustier now, sparsely vegetated with sagebrush.
Sadly, there are no sleeping facilities aboard the Rocky Mountaineer, but a jarring overnight intermission in the well-kept but soulless town of Kamloops, 275 miles down the line, does at least ensure that everyone is refreshed for the scenic splendour that streams in through our glass roof for all of the following day.
Kamloops to Banff: East for 310 miles on the Rocky Mountaineer
From breakfast on, the railway twists ever upwards into the Canadian Rockies, vaulting canyons and boring through snow-tipped mountains. Some of the lofty bridges we clatter across are supported by reassuring iron arcs, but others stand on little more than a lattice of glorified lolly sticks. We are entering a region that even the native First Nations tribes forsook, a ‘land of thunder’ where booming avalanches wreaked lethal devastation. It is impossible not to empathise with the men who blazed this lonely trail: some 600 Chinese navvies alone perished in explosions, avalanches and rockfalls. Even the surveyors who preceded them were regularly despatched by bears, thunderous rivers and scurvy. Yet the honours, as ever, were reserved for the top brass – almost every town and geographical feature in the region is named after a CPR director or one of the railway’s founding fathers (poor Sandford Fleming has had to make do with an eponymous egg dish on the Rocky Mountaineer’s breakfast menu).
No-one fancied lending their name to the navigational embarrassment that delivered the railway to its ceiling of 1,627 metres, the top of Kicking Horse Pass, and the watershed between Pacific and Atlantic. Pushed for time and strapped for cash, the engineers laid eight miles of track straight up Big Hill, at a gradient more than twice the safe maximum. Twenty-two years and several fatal accidents later, this incline was moderated by the Spiral Tunnels, a pair of ingenious corkscrews cut into the mountainside. Craning our necks to see the front of our train nose out of a tunnel as the back of it enters, down below we spot the Trans-Canada Highway, laid on top of the original Big Hill track bed. Opened in 1962, it efficiently killed off the CPR as a viable passenger service.
Everything suddenly seems larger in the broad mountain valley that opens out beyond the summit – the pine trees, the glassy bodies of water and the hefty peaks reflected in them. Even the wildlife is super-sized. Bighorn rams stare down from a high bluff, looking as haughty as any sheep ever will; mighty, presidential-grade bald eagles preen themselves in birch trees; and an osprey flaps away from its shambolic nest stuck atop one of the listing, redundant telegraph poles that line the track. The head of the pass is also the border with Alberta and, just before we cross it – and enter another time zone – British Columbia says farewell in a manner that pays tribute to its enduringly maverick character. A beaming trackside bystander hails us, waving from a lonely pasture, proudly and completely naked.
Since 1990, no regular passenger train has run all the way to Toronto on these historic tracks, and the Rocky Mountaineer only runs a small part of the way across Canada’s vast breadth. Some 530 miles east of Vancouver, we slow past the craggy, Tolkienesque bulk of Castle Mountain and come to rest in Banff. Some passengers will stay on for another 80 miles to the train’s termination point in Calgary but, for most of us, arriving in Banff signals the end of the Rocky Mountaineer line.