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At One Minute To Midnight It Begins

THE GREATEST CANADIAN TRAIN JOURNEY

by Tony Page

At one minute to midnight, 'The Canadian" stirs itself, lurches forward a little, then - barely perceptibly at first - begins to move ponderously out of Toronto's Union Station. Four nights, three days and 3045 miles later, God willing and the creek don't rise. I'll be aboard her as she trundles into Vancouver Main Street, a continent's breadth away.

The long, sinuous column of 14 coaches winds past the massive foot of the Canada Tower, whose flashing red navigation beacons blink like demented stoplights high above my head. I look out over the stainless steel snake in front of me. A monstrous metallic reptile, its ridged back gleams dully in the bluewhite beam of a trackside floodlamp. We gather speed. From my vantagepoint in the train's observation dome the fairy lights of the city's skyline recede rapidly into the encroaching night: the journey has begun.

My sleeping compartment is a miracle of efficient space utilage worthy of a Japanese house designer. The armchairs that were there a few minutes ago have mysteriously vanished and fully made up beds appeared in their place. As well as the art deco-like washing facilities there is even a separate lavatory. And as I am peering under the bed to discover where the armchairs have gone Mike, the cheery car attendant, knocks on my door to inquire whether I need anything. Suitably impressed by all this I retire to bed feeling a little guilty at the sybaritic comfort. So much for my self-image as a hard-bitten traveller.

The bed is comfortable and I sleep well, waking at sunrise. The compartment window steams up but clears as the sunlight warms the glass. Sudbury's gleaming silver water tower is like a giant metal spider, a Star Wars creation with the town's name emblazoned across it. As it looms over the stockyard, I have momentary visions of the predatory-looking structure suddenly leaping into life, pouncing with arachnidal ferocity on one of the crawling trains below and carrying it off to a nameless fate.

Taking advantage of the ten minute stop, I get out to stretch my legs. The clean, early morning sunlight rims everything with gold, and steam issues from the stationary train as from the smoking flanks of a racehorse after a heavy dawn gallop. The brilliant scarlet tunics of the car attendants contrast pleasingly with the bright blue and yellow carriages, each man stands on the platform by his respective door, ready to replace the portable yellow step one uses to climb up into the train when the guard gives the order to depart.

On the way to Chapleau a ten foot high "hot-box" detector beside the track flashes "0025" as we pass it and "The Canadian" grinds to a halt by some piles of rotting wooden sleepers. Donat Lavoie, the "Agent du Train", makes his inspection: the brake on axle 25 is binding and the wheel is glowing red hot. A decision is taken, the braking system on that section cut off and the train gets under way once more.

"In my day, we used to get all the men out and everyone eases himself on the axle to cool it down". The old man who spoke still had a large frame and the remnants of a powerful physique. "I was a fireman for CPR from 1921 to the winter of '25," he continued proudly. "In those days, things were different. Standing out in a 20 mile an hour wind filling her up with water when it was thirty below was no joke, I can tell you."

I say that I believe him and he nods approvingly. We are sitting in the observation lounger at the end of the train. Beyond the rear window the twin steel tracks ribbon out into the distance until a curve hides them from view. The old railwayman is still reminiscing, absently staring out of the window opposite, his eyes focussed on his memories.

"They called me the "Spare Boy" and the conductor was called 'Brains', he says. "Sometimes at night, jackrabbits would run along the tracks in front of the train in the glow of the headlamp; they were mesmerised by it, you see. Then you came to a bend and - bam! - they were gone. But when there wasn't a bend..." He shrugs.

In my railway guidebook Bill Coo claims a snowy owl usually sits on the telephone wires coming in to Cartier, so I dutifully make my way to the dome car to Spot him. These dome cars are a great invention, I was given a model CPR Skyliner for Christmas in 1954 and have wanted to ride in one ever since. Sitting up here looking out over the train the view is tremendous, rather like being in a B-52 cockpit. But Cartier comes and goes, and the promised snowy owl fails to make his appearance.

The track twists through the beautiful rock cuts of the Spanish River Valley, slender spruce and birch trees on either side. We are travelling quite slowly, perhaps 20-30 mph, but the centrifugal force is still very apparent. Sunlight filters softly through the dome roof, and overhead the sky is a flawless azure with squadrons of small white clouds flying slowly across it.

On one of my regular peripatetic explorations of the train I meet Sylvania - "It's like the light bulb," she says resignedly - the passenger service attendant for the front section. "The Canadian" is comprised of ordinary coaches, dayniters (with pullout footrests and blankets and pillows) and sleeping cars containing sections, roomettes and bedrooms. The accommodation gets classier as you go further back. And of course there's a snack bar, a dining car and a dome observation car containing a lounge and bar too.

"I hope you're going to write nice things about us," Sylvania says. How she found out I was a writer I don't know; it's just amazing the way news gets around this train. It really is like a village, gossips and all.

After a brief stop in White, which has the dubious distinction of having experienced the coldest temperature ever recorded in Canada: -72F (but fortunately warm today), we thunder on past the huge pyramids of Jogs at the Marathon pulp factory. The train weaves along the indented shoreline of Lake Superior, ducking through tunnels and scurrying past dangerous-looking cliffs with slide-detector fences hung over the tracks at ominously frequent intervals.

Next morning as we pass Kenora the molten sun rises slowly through the mist, transmuting the steel rails receding behind us into converging strips of gleaming gold. Soon we cross the border into Manitoba and the Prairies lie ahead. By nine o'clock the broad expanses of huge yellow cornfields stretch into the distance between lines of sheltering trees. Where the earth has been turned the loam is a deep, rich black and at regular intervals a clump of trees and a silver silo reflecting the sun reveal the location of a farmhouse.

After the halfway stop at Winnipeg, the vast, fenceless fields once more extend to the horizon with their precipitous covering of Manitoba Hard and Northern No.1 wheat. But most of the harvest is in now and in many places the stubble has been burnt off. Bales of hay like giant butter curls stand in parallel lines on a two-dimensional landscape where geometry is king, their Euclidean patterns constantly changing with the movement of the train. In the harsh afternoon sun the scene reminds me of the garden in "Last Year At Marienbad". The occasional dust-cloud billows out from behind a combined harvester, a lonely labourer on the land's broad expanse. The hot sun streams in through the train window, flaring in the double glass. And I feel drowsy.

By Broadview the fast-fading evening light turns the silvery metal elevator tower a warm, pale gold.  Silhouetted against the flat skyline a big articulated truck thunders eastwards on the TransCanada Highway beneath the setting sun. The horizon is a straight edge across my vision: above it, the sky's richly toned expanse seems limitless; below, all is dark.

There are no doubt many sights to see in Regina, Saskatchewan's capital, but the underpass opposite the railway station is not one of them. It must be around midnight now, and we seem to have been waiting here for ages. A couple of hours or so behind schedule, our brief ten minute stop has lengthened into what seems an eternity.

I meet a strikingly attractive girl with long, brown legs who tells me that she enjoys "just hanging out". Various colourful ideas immediately spring to my mind (after all, I have been on the train for two days and enforced confinement tends to stimulate the creative juices). But these evaporate with disappointing celerity when she explains this promising phrase is merely transatlantic vernacular for idly passing one's time in casual pursuits.

We stroll about the platform and Deborah's long brown legs are swiftly attacked by a guerilla band of marauding mosquitoes, to my aesthetic chagrin causing her rapidly to ensconce them in a protective layer of levis. But at least our conversation makes the wait while they change the locomotive more bearable.
Like a dusty mirage, the skyscrapers of Calgary appear hazily in the distance. The early morning sunlight occasionally flashes off a mirror-walled office block as "The Canadian" hurtles closer, and in no time Deborah and I are walking out of the station under the soaring Calgary Tower. A coach is parked right outside but has the no-nonsense announcement 'Wrong Bus" on its indicator, so we decide to explore on foot.

On our return, the station is awash with hordes of holidaymakers bound for British Columbia and the Rockies. With a certain air of smug superiority we old hands make our way past the baggage-laden short-haulers, strolling nonchalantly along to the platform with what we hope is the slightly world weary, blasť appearance of sophisticated, experienced travellers. My self-image is somewhat battered, however, when I cannot find my reassigned sleeping car and have to wander up and down searching for my roomette like a lost dog looking for his kennel.

Flowing placidly along next to us, the waters of the Bow River are startlingly clear, like viridiscent liquid crystal. Now the mountains are on either side, and for eight miles the train skirts the layered limestone cliffs of Mount Rundle, towering 9940 feet to the south. There is little snow to be seen on the peaks at this time of year, and compared to Nepal the mountains are not large. But the overall setting, with the river, the trees and the Rockies rising up behind creates a uniquely beautiful landscape, familiar from a thousand photographs.  In a way, it is too perfect: even the sky is backdrop blue with puffy white clouds painted on it.

After passing Lake Wapta, sparkling emerald green to the north, an air of tense expectation settles over the train's passengers. Facing us is the descent of the Big Hill, once the steepest, and most dangerous, gradient on the North American continent and still fearsome today, in spite of the remarkable Spiral Tunnels that have to some degree tamed it.

Coming out of Kicking Horse Pass, I can look down the Yoho Valley to the right and see the two portals of the Lower Spiral Tunnel four miles by rail and 400 feet below. To the left is Field, ten miles away and 900 feet lower in altitude. Peering at the diagram in my guidebook I try to work out how the tunnels run. It all looks simple on paper but when we emerge from the Upper Spiral I discover that the Valley has vanished and the Big Hill is in the wrong place. I am just pondering this phenomenon when we plunge into the dark recesses of the Lower Tunnel.

Not to be fooled twice, I am ready with my camera at the opposite side of the car when the train rumbles out into the open air again. Unfortunately, and much to Deborah's amusement, my calculations have failed me and I have to dash across to the other door, nearly shattering my shin against the portable platform step in the process. Of such are the tribulations of travel writers.

For the first 34 miles out of Field the train makes a headlong descent, dropping 1489 feet, thundering over eleven bridges, through five tunnels and crossing the turbulent Kicking Horse River seven times. It's wild country, all right, with rocky canyons and dense pine forest covering the slopes, but after Golden the fertile Columbia Valley provides a brief change of scenery before we hit the barrier of the east slope of the Selkirks.

We grind slowly up the heavy gradient (freight trains sometimes need more than 14 locomotives to crest the grade), crossing numerous bridges over mountain streams rushing past far too far below for my liking. Tales of trains plunging down into gorges off collapsing trestles I read about in my guidebook do nothing to lessen my apprehension. At Stoney Creek we traverse the highest and most spectacular bridge on the CPR, a curved steel Victorian-style wonder, 484 feet long and 325 feet above the rocky bed of the creek below. I am so busy gazing into its depths I only just have time to grab a photograph after the train has rattled over in the fading light.

As this is the last night of my journey. I am suffused with a romantic nostalgia, and have decided to dress up for a sentimental dinner with Deborah. There is a certain quality about travelling by train that is undeniably romantic. Images from "Orient Express" and "Casablanca" have made me an incurable dreamer when it comes to making a long journey by rail. The transient nature of one's situation, the close confines of the train, the feeling of separation from the outside world, of being actors on a spotlit but ephemeral stage, all help to produce a hothouse intensity of experience far removed from the normal. Relationships form and dissipate continually, there is a constant input from the ever-changing scene beyond the window, but that same rate of change divides and insulates those inside from the external reality.

We sip ice-cold white wines at our linen-covered table as a crisply uniformed waiter serves us grilled trout and 'The Canadian" thunders alongside the Illecillewaet River towards Revelstoke. I suddenly notice that Deborah has the most amazing grey-green eyes that for some reason I have failed to remark earlier. As the meal continues the thought occurs to me that a TransCanada train journey is a perfect place for a romantic interlude and by the second brandy I am convinced of it.

Relaxing in the dome car, stars shining peaceably overhead as the train hurtles through the night, I contemplate the beneficence of life with the slightly drowsy but benign judgement of a man with a full belly and an attractive girl's head on his shoulder. Early tomorrow morning "The Canadian" will roll into Vancouver Main Street Station and my 3045-mile trip will be over. But tonight, well, tonight is still young...

The guidebook referred to numerous times in this feature is "Scenic Rail Guide To Western Canada" by Bill Coo, available at most VIA offices in Canada. I found it invaluable (as did the many people I travelled with who did not have one!). "The Canadian" also runs from Vancouver to Toronto and on to Montreal. Booking ahead is usually necessary for bedrooms and roomettes, especially in the summer months. For more information write to VIA Rail Canada Inc., 407 - 20 King Street West, Toronto, Ontario M5H 1C4 Canada or any VIA agent.

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