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.

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.

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.

Each sleeper carriage is overseen by an attendant, and mine is Graham Gunhouse. ‘I guess they built these things to last,’ he says, showing me to my compartment. ‘I’ve been working on this train for 28 years and it never seems to look any older.’ A genuine love of rail transport seems compulsory for those who work on Canada’s trains, and Graham is no exception. ‘All my holidays are trainbased. I just don’t get bored of them. I guess they bring out the little boy in me.’ It certainly brings out mine, and he is soon gleefully playing with all the pockets, lockers and drawers in my overnight den.

For an hour out of Jasper, we rattle and sway past the Rockies’ imperious outposts. The distances between stops are prodigious and, because of that, the train halts almost anywhere on request. In the lakelands east of Winnipeg, it’s quite usual to see a lone adventurer hop from the luggage van and drag a kayak off into the wilderness.

Mile by verdant mile, the view settles into undulating forest and farmland, sunset adding an autumnal tint to the ever-flattening prairies. I survey it from the tremendous observation car, all sleekly sculpted acrylic glass and shiny metal, like it’s been made out of old Cadillacs. Nearby, a woman is discussing the journey ahead with her partner. ‘Five days watching Canada go by,’ she says. ‘It’s the only way to make sense of this huge country of ours.’

The clattering racket of progress proves a surprisingly effective lullaby and, nesting down in my little compartment, I drift towards sleep. Somewhere out there, Alberta gives way to Saskatchewan, and prairie to still more prairie. Peering out at the misty sunrise the following morning, it dimly registers that, by the time I get off at Saskatoon, 17 hours of locomotion will have moved us roughly three inches along the very large map of the Canadian rail network on the corridor wall outside.

Saskatoon to Kyle: Drive a hire car 125 miles deep into the prairies
The hypnotic enormity of the prairies soon exerts itself when driving south out of Saskatoon. This is a two-dimensional, dun-coloured world that’s more geometry than geography, an abstract arable flatness laid out in mile-by-two-mile oblongs. We’re deep into the virgin wheatlands, snappily pitched by the CPR to turn-of-the-century immigrants as ‘the last best west’.

By 1914, the railway had attracted some three million foreigners to these empty prairies: from the likes of Britain, Ireland, Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. These vacant grasslands had been transformed into Canada’s breadbasket, an eternity of farms and ranches that came to embody the new country’s heroic pioneering spirit.

The railways gave struggling American stockmen access to millions of cheap and unexploited acres, and the means of transporting their herds to it and from it, to markets as far away as Britain. By 1906, southern Saskatchewan had been almost entirely annexed by the huge cattle ranches that still define its culture.

It’s a challenge to find the ranch I’m looking for on these featureless, plumb-straight roads. When I stop at Kyle, I’m told by a petrol-station attendant to turn right at the bend. Which bend? ‘The only bend. It’s eight miles up the road.’ After that, and a further 15 miles spent trailing plumes of gravelly dust along a supine horizon, La Reata Ranch’s wooden cookshack wobbles up out of the heat-haze. On a parched, ochre day like this, southern Saskatchewan looks like prime cowboy country, missing only the cactuses.

La Reata was first settled by Harry White, an American of Scottish origin, in the very year that the CPR opened. Today, its horses, cattle and impressive acreage stand in the care of another adventurous new arrival, a German by the name of George Gaber, who came over in 1996 to live out his lifelong cowboy fantasies. ‘It’s simple,’ he says, with a grin as brilliant as the glittering Saskatchewan River that runs alongside La Reata. ‘I was just born to do this.’

Railways play little part in the La Reata story of today. But its first chapter, as George appreciates, began with the lines that run through the distant prairies above and below. ‘I guess if the railway hadn’t been here then, I wouldn’t be here now.’

I gaze at George’s Dutch and German holiday cowboys trotting slowly home from a day on the range, awed once more by the CPR’s all-encompassing legacy. Distant and out of sight it might be, but the greatest wonder of the railway age is most definitely not out of mind. How splendid to be back on board, to reel in the mighty balance of the prairies, then all the lakes and forests, another three days and half a huge nation still left to rattle steadily through. Every railway on Earth is a triumph of human ingenuity and determination, but none, in hard-won scale and significance, are more truly heroic than the miles of wood and iron that connect Canada’s distant shores.

The article 'The wonders of Canada by rail' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Traveller.