We were very excited turning up at Pacific Central station to catch our train to Jasper. This slightly tatty, semi-grand station is the departure point for the Via-Rail cross Canada trains. They are the last passenger service on the longest railway line in the New World. To go from the Pacific to the Atlantic requires a change in Toronto and a full 6 days, but the Vancouver-Toronto leg on its own takes the best part of 4 days of mountains and then a whole lot of prairie.
We had economy class tickets for the first 22 scheduled hours of that journey, the mountain route from the Pacific to the height of the Rockies at Jasper. Boarding is more like jumping on a regional airline then catching your average commuter train. Bags checked and scanned, called by class onto the platform. Once there we were greeted by a shiny rimmed steel train stretching off into the distance.
It took us the best part of 5 minutes to walk to cattle class, but even there we were ushered on by a super-friendly stewardess. The whole crew were from Winnipeg and proved to be approachable, welcoming and helpful. We were all stoked at the prospect of the journey, the kids spilled on to the train, ran up the carriage to find our seats and bounced around to the extent that a day’s ride seemed potentially on the long side…Once on board, the unavoidable recce up and down our part of the train showed off the full kitsch of 1950's green-blue decorated carriages, right down to a shiny green leather dining car which looked like it could welcome Elvis. A damn cool place to spend an epic journey.
BETWEEN THE WOODS AND THE WATER
Pulling off at 2pm, our progress through Vancouver was at a crawl though overgrown cuttings and the back end of industrial estates. The first real views were saved for crossing the wide, deep-brown Fraser River. The train then veered West with the river and headed towards the hinterland.
We were lucky, it was a clear day. While the kids settled down to their books and activities, I stared out the window for hours, as suburbia gave way to country, hills gave way to mountains and eventually to wilderness. We followed the Fraser river long into the afternoon, increasingly along narrow escarpments, with long drops down to the river below.
Occasionally the mountains would open up, giving room for a bit of agriculture and a small town, before closing again to steep river valleys and canyons. It was fascinating to watch the different colours of rivers as they converged and mixed. Emerald green or almost blue side streams would be devoured into swirly brown as they entered the Fraser.
All around were forests, cliffs and peaks. As we crossed the Fraser and headed beside the Thompson river, the land took on a more arid feel. Less trees, more exposed banks. Then back to thick forest again. I spent much of my time up in the bubble car – a curious half second story in one carriage that was mostly roofed with curved glass – taking in the views and chatting to others who were sharing the journey with us. I would take the kids up one or two at a time to share in the experience. Our little girl provided particular entertainment to a couple of nice retired guys who were taking the road just for the hell of it.
People had their different reasons for taking this long-slow road, but they all seemed keen to share and certainly had the time. I have always loved the mini life within a life that comes with being trapped with people on some lengthy form of transport. I must have had conversations with a dozen strangers, discussing everything from the winters of Saskatchewan to drug issues in Vancouver and the history of ice hockey. It was an interesting mix of tourists, pensioners, young backpackers, people crossing the country with limited funds and an odd awkward man who would stop, stare, try small talk and then slide off. Him aside it was great.
A curious thing about much of this cross-country rail, is that it is often split into two tracks. A result of heady hey-days of rail when different rail companies laid track side by side. To this day there is still competition between the successor companies, Canadian Pacific and Canadian National. The former was nation forming, part of a deal with British Columbia to bring it into the Federation. The second was the result of competition, bankruptcy and competition renewed. One track across the world’s second largest country is an immense concept and task. Two is nuts and a testimony to ambition and the hundreds of predominantly Chinese workers who died building it.
An offshoot of this quirk of history was that we often had great views across the river at the other track. This impressed both in terms of engineering scale – we could see mirroring bridges, cuttings and tunnels to those we were on – and sheer weight of traffic. We saw freight train, after freight train, after freight train, dragging massive metal shipping containers of raw materials and grain from the inards of Canada out to the coast and Asian markets. We started counting the carriages with the kids, but lost count well beyond 50. Some of these were far in excess of a mile long. One after another after another.
Being one of only two regular passenger trains to use the route that week, we were perhaps unsurprisingly a second class consideration, regularly being shunted into sidings while miles of freight clink-clanked past.
At times we would not move for hours. The really nice lady who manned the food cart told me that the extend of traffic would usually mean they were hours and often even a day late. It is quite a sight to see in action the level of trade, consumption and demand of the East, signaled by the huge numbers of containers that were marked with Chinese symbols. An irony of sorts that the railroad which so many Chinese workers would die for now feeds the demand of their ancestral home.
AWAKENING TO THE ROOF OF THE ROCKIES
It took a while to settle the kids to sleep on their slouched back economy chairs (Chris fell asleep first…), but eventually all settled while we sat for 2 hours or so in a pitch black siding. Moving forward I also finally fell asleep, rocked by the gentle motion of the train and calmed by the tranquil excitement that a long train journey allows.
We all awoke at first light. The train had made good progress North of Kamloops. The mountains had grown and the scenery was even more dramatic. Back to the bubble car for a great breakfast of pancakes dripping in maple syrup and past Mount Robson, the highest mountain in the Canadian Rockies. Real wilderness, vast forests climbing the slopes until they gave way to rock and, right at the top, cloud.
It was quite a surprise to come across a very small town trackside, before nature banished man and we pulled through an eerie landscape of mist, stunted trees and mountains. Snow increasingly dominated, supplemented by ice as we passed a series of frozen lakes, including the large Moose lake.
I find it hard to describe just how dramatic the mountain landscape was. Our train was 4 hours late and the better for it. Instead of arriving at 8am, we were given an extra morning staring out the window as we climbed through the high Rockies.
The only thing missing was some wildlife… Beyond a bald eagle that briefly glided past our window, we had seen little other than the odd horse since leaving the low-lands. As we pulled into Jasper that changed. I glimpsed a big black furry thing out the window. Shouting bear, Niko jumped across to the window and spotted another. A mother and cub black bear were foraging by the track. The trained moved on, but what a first taster of the inhabitants of Jasper National Park!
A day and night on a classic train done. Three days in one of the best national parks on earth awaited.