The wonders of Canada by rail
For the CPR, pitching the arable virgin flatlands of Canada’s western interior to would-be settlers had been a reasonably straightforward task. The company faced a stiffer challenge in luring people to the wild and inhospitable Rockies, but rose to it with bold panache. ‘If we can’t export the scenery,’ declared the CPR’s bombastic general manager William Van Horne, ‘we’ll import the tourists.’ Banff was soon home to a busy and gigantic Scottish Baronialstyle hotel, Banff Springs, which today still looms over the little town like Hogwarts. ‘We had 3,500 guests at Christmas,’ says head concierge Tony Harvey, a kilt-wearing Jamaican, ‘pretty much half the population of Banff.’
These days Banff is best known as a winter-sports resort, but those pioneering, well-heeled tourists came only in the summer. ‘Some were American,’ says Tony, ‘and some were European, but for everyone it was an awful long way here, so they stayed the whole season – three or four months.’
Van Horne’s publicity made great play of the region’s ‘1,100 unclimbed peaks’, but the hotel’s photo archive suggests that most guests didn’t venture far from Banff Springs’ terraces, soaking up what Van Horne billed as ‘the million-dollar view’. It isn’t one you’d tire of easily – a wall-towall arena of rearing snowy granite, underscored by vibrant boreal forests threaded with minty-fresh glacial rivers.
Banff to Jasper: Drive for 180 miles northwest through the Icefields Parkway
The Rocky Mountaineer offers a sepia snapshot of the transcontinental railway’s glory days, but there is a surviving coast-tocoast passenger service, and to experience it means a four-hour drive northwest from Banff up Highway 93. It’s a diversion, but hardly a chore. The road is better known as the Icefields Parkway, a greatest-hits compendium of iconic west-Canadian vistas: mighty rivers, azure Lake Louise and Moraine Lake, towering rock cathedrals topped with wedding-cake glaciers, and a billion muscular pines. This is Banff National Park, Canada’s oldest, founded the same year the CPR was completed, the company realising that controlled tourism was the best hope of safeguarding virgin territory from forestry and other interests. The tirelessly spectacular morning drive through the national park offers an unexpected insight into a railroad legacy, before human settlement reappears in the form of Jasper – a former fur-trappers’ outpost that came of age in 1912, when the iron lines were laid through it.
If the CPR stands as the proud zenith of the railway age, the tracks of Jasper embody its manic nadir. There was no economic justification for a second transnational route, but that didn’t stop two companies laying down parallel lines along a more northerly passage into Vancouver from Quebec City a couple of decades after the CPR opened. What’s been described as ‘the most foolish trackage ever built’ swiftly ruined both operations, obliging the government to nationalise and rationalise them into the Canadian National Railway.
Jasper to Saskatoon: Hop aboard The Canadian for an overnight journey, 550 miles east
Jasper’s station has the comforting look of an oversized outer-London semi-detached house and stands in winningly weird contrast to Jasper’s backdrop of enormous bare mountains. The nostalgia is sharpened by the elegant old train waiting at the platform – a quarter-mile parade of streamlined stainless steel that will be my home for the night and 550 eastward miles to Saskatoon. The Canadian is a thrice-weekly cross-country sleeper service that has plied the northern Vancouver to Toronto route since 1955.