Weaving along a narrow ledge between
razor-sharp mountains and a gigantic, glittering lake, the tiny, two-car Kaoham Shuttle is arguably Canada’s
greatest hidden rail journey. And at just 10 Canadian dollars for a two-hour
return trip, it’s also a bargain – especially if you’re a fan of both spectacular
scenery and wildlife.
Founded in 1912, the Pacific Great Eastern
Railway (later renamed BC Rail) used to trundle passengers from North Vancouver
to the northern city of Prince George, linking dozens of backcountry communities
en route. But by 2002, its money-losing passenger services had all been canned
– except for a daily diesel “rail bus” between the tiny western Canada towns of
Lillooet and Seton Portage. When the transcontinental freight operator Canadian
National Railway acquired BC Rail’s operations in 2004, this lone passenger service
Today, the Kaoham Shuttle – a partnership
between Canadian National and the Seton Lake First Nation community – remains a
vital service in an area where backcountry roads are sometimes impassable, while
also luring travelling train spotters who can’t quite believe their luck.
I arrived at Lillooet Station after a 320km forest-and-mountain-filled
drive from Vancouver. Huge, pyramid-straight mountains dwarfed the gable-roofed
building, while a dozen empty train tracks striped the ground in front of us.
A skeletal tumbleweed rolled across the
platform just as the late-arriving train shimmied into view. Bell ringing, it screeched
to a halt in front of the platform, looking like a pair of attached steel sheds
After paying my fare, I slid onto a seat in
the first carriage, making sure I snagged a left-hand, lakeside spot.
At first glance, it’s clear this 30-passenger train
was purpose-built. The seats looked left over from an old transit bus, while
the granite-coloured floor tiles seemed to come from a hardware store clearance
sale. The driver sat in the front, right-hand corner, beside an engine hump that
was also used as a ledge for his paperwork, packed lunch and a bottle of
No-one would mistake this functional conveyance
for the luxury of the Orient Express. But as we rattled alongside a fast-moving
river and suddenly emerged wide-eyed on the shore of jade-green Seton Lake, the
scenery was no less magnificent.
Taking in the view
The mountains across Seton Lake were cloaked
with dense forest – a sharp contrast to the jagged, rust-coloured cliffs that
rose along the tracks, just inches from the windows. The rails twisted like
spaghetti strands ahead of us, threading a narrow route between the rocks and
Without any announcement, the driver slowed down
every few minutes; it was our cue to scan the scenery for wildlife. It wasn’t long
before we spotted eight bighorn sheep peering curiously at us from on high, followed
by a black bear and two cubs snuffling around a nearby tree.
After a quick stop at the red-roofed Shalalth
Station, we encountered the line’s only tunnel: a narrow, rough-hewn 1.2km cave
that looked like a mythical dragon’s grotto. On the other side was the
community of Seton Portage: a clutch of wooden houses centred on a derelict brown
church, it’s sharp, pinprick steeple rising above it all.
After dropping off the mail and chatting with a few of the locals who came for
a social visit, our driver shifted to the other end of the train and prepared
to head back down the line. I asked if I could sit on the nearby cooler that
served as a makeshift bench at the front of the train.
“Go ahead,” the driver, Eugene, said, smiling.
“It’s the best seat in the house – apart from mine.”
The return trundle was more relaxed, with passengers
comparing wildlife shots and watching the now-familiar diorama unfurling
alongside. Eugene explained that the day’s animal sightings were fairly routine.
Cougars pop up once or twice a year, he added, but falling rocks are more
There were no tumbling rocks the day I was
there, but as we rounded a corner, four young deer – two with furry antlers –
skittered away from the rails. A little later, the train screeched to a halt as
Eugene spotted a well-camouflaged, sandy-coloured mountain quail hopping over
the tracks, followed by 10 bouncing feather balls climbing over each other to
get across. Once they made it over safely, we continued on our way.
Clouds were rolling in as we inched back towards
Lillooet. But there was just enough time for a wildlife finale. Two adult
mountain goats – their white, shaggy coats half-moulted – stared intently at
the train from about 5m away; a pint-sized baby jumped around on the rocks
“You don’t normally see them this low – you
got lucky,” our driver said, hopping out to change the points on the rails
ahead. Lillooet Station was just a couple of minutes away, but I was already
planning my next ride.
Friday is the best day to board the Kaoham Shuttle, since
the train departs from Lillooet at 10:30 am (morning departures the rest of the
week are from less-accessible Seton Portage). Reserving ahead by phone is
recommended, especially in summer (250-259-8300).