Kamloops to Calgary

The taxi picked us up at 6.15 am as promised and whisked us to the station where the Rocky Mountaineer was waiting for us in the pale morning sunlight.

I like the traditional way of climbing up the steps into the railcar from track level instead of just stepping across from platform level. It feels more like a definite transition from ordinary life into a special experience.

During breakfast we zipped through Kamloops’ scattered outer residential and industrial areas, following the line of the North Thompson River.

As we headed further into the mountains, the air began to get noticeably cooler on the open-sided observation deck at the end of the railcar. The scenery became more rugged and the ice and snow was more prominent on the approaching peaks.

The small settlements along the shores of Shuswap Lake were very quiet. Near Salmon Arm all was calm and mysterious in the morning mist.

In Kicking Horse Pass

In Kicking Horse Pass

At Stoney Creek Bridge we edged along the trestle over the creek 100 metres below. The snow sheds in Kicking Horse Pass emphasised just how dangerous this place is in winter. Built against the wall of the mountain like sturdy lean-to garages over long sections of track, their purpose is to shed the snow and rock falls that are common in order to protect the traffic and help keep the track clear.

The Spiral Tunnels are a mind-boggling feat of engineering on this altogether remarkable journey.

They were built in 1909 to replace the crazy 4.5% gradient of the previous “temporary” Canadian Pacific line over Mount Stephen. The old route needed four extra locomotives get trains up that slope, and several emergency run-off spurs for those on the way down.

Now the tunnels form a figure-of-eight inside the mountain.

Following the Kicking Horse River after leaving the town of Field, the track goes under the highway, crosses the river and almost immediately enters the Lower Spiral Tunnel. Inside the mountain, the tunnel makes a long, slow, rising turn to the left.

After making a three quarter circle, the engine emerges from the first tunnel and crosses over the track by which it entered, now many feet below. Looking out of the right-hand window, you can see the approach track that you have just been on, plunging into the mountainside below you.

Still climbing, the train now enters the Upper Spiral Tunnel. This time it makes a climbing circle to the right. When it emerges, it crosses the approach track that is now below it on the left. Thus the train has made a figure-of-eight course inside the mountain.

When there is a very long passenger or goods train, people hope to see the engine emerge from one of the tunnels while its back-end is still sticking out of the entrance far below, while the length of the train is threaded back on itself inside the mountain.

As the track unwinds behind us, Janos brings us food which we eat at our seats. It’s presented like up-market airline food. Every now and then he speaks over the unobtrusive PA to explain the sights that are coming up with a bit of the background and history about the places we see. He is a good tour guide.

Part of our passenger kit is a tabloid size newspaper with descriptions of our route and its highlights. On the map of our route, each significant feature is marked with a number representing its distance in miles from each major reference point along the route. These are keyed to more detailed descriptions and stories in the newspaper and match the mileposts alongside the track. That means you always know where you are, what is coming up and what you are looking at when you get to it.

The train slows to a crawl past especially significant locations to give everyone time to have a good look. That is when passengers dart out to the observation deck at the back of the car to take photos and do the cooperative shuffle to allow everyone to get that special shot.

In this way we travel past ever more majestic mountains covered in ice and snow and bearing the dirty scars of occasional avalanches as we cross the Continental Divide.

It doesn’t seem long before we are travelling through the Banff National Park and later pulling into the town of Banff itself.

Many passengers “detrain” here.  Seventeen are left in our car to complete the journey into Calgary. On the way, Janos serves our last meal on board, a selection of appetisers or “appys” as both our old and new Canadian friends put it.

It’s still quite light at 9.20 pm as we pull into Calgary and it’s 1 deg. C outside. We nearly freeze simply crossing the road from the station to our hotel opposite. But the hotel is warm and our bags arrive as we are checking in.

After a light supper in the lobby bar we are ready for bed and sleep like logs as the temperature outside drops throughout the night.

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