THE RAIL THING
Train buff Stanley Stewart samples Canada’s transcontinental route
WHEN Canada’s first prime minister proposed a transcontinental railway to join eastern Canada with its new western provinces in the 1870s, the word that came most readily to people’s lips was insane.
The line would have to cross some of the most difficult terrain known: 1600km of unsurveyed forest and swamp, then another 1600 of empty prairie where you could ride for days without meeting anything more intelligent than a bison. Finally there was the small matter of the Rocky Mountains; that a pass had yet to be discovered was a trifling detail to the railway enthusiast. To its opponents the whole project was an act of recklessness.
It was a recklessness that made Canada possible. The Canadian Pacific Railway proved to be the steel wedding band that bound the provinces together, keeping them from tempting liaisons with the US. Its construction is the epic on which the country is founded, as resonant as the storming of the Bastille or the Long March. To see Canada by train is to take part in the national dream.
In Halifax I board the overnight train to Montreal for the first leg of the transcontinental journey. Along the platform, attendants wait at the door of each carriage, an honour guard for a great tradition. The train is a magnificent 1950s restoration, a stainless-steel bullet with art deco curves, patterned upholstery and frosted glass in the dining car. Like a solicitous butler, an attendant shows me to my compartment and brings me towels, linen and the dinner menu.
I put up my feet and watch fishing boats cresting Atlantic breakers. It is autumn, the brilliant sunlit autumn of Canada. The train veers inland through red and gold forests. At level crossings in small towns, queues of cars on Main Street wait for us to pass.
In Moncton, men strolling home from work look up at the sound of our train whistle, a plaintive note heralding journeys untaken and destinations unseen. Round cambered curves, between white farmhouses and scarlet hillsides, we are turning westward, towards the Pacific, almost 8000km away.
Night falls over New Brunswick and the attendants come through the carriage announcing dinner and turning down beds. I dine with a mysterious Spanish woman touring North American nightclubs. ‘‘ Romance,’’ she sighs over the Atlantic salmon. ‘‘ The clicking of the rails is the sound of romance.’’ Later, tucked up in bed, I think how splendid it is to be crossing continents from a sedentary position. This is adventure that can be savoured between the sheets.
Railways everywhere are under threat from unromantic bureaucrats and Canada is no exception. Recent years have seen the end of the Trans-Canada railway, in the sense that you can no longer board a train in Halifax and get off a week later in Vancouver. Now you must change in Montreal and Toronto. But while this may be a tragedy for the railway buff, it is no hardship for the visitor. Both are fascinating cities.
In the morning we are in Montreal in time for breakfast. Moored in the middle of the St Lawrence like a grand liner, Montreal bristles with Francophone glamour, almost too sophisticated for North America. Once the headquarters of the Canadian Pacific Railway, it stands at one end of the corridor, the busiest route on Canada’s railways that links it with its great rival, Toronto.
Relations between the two, familiar to anyone accustomed to the tensions between London and Paris, have their humour. Canada, a Montrealer jokes, should have been blessed with French culture, British politics and American know-how. Instead it got American culture, French politics and British know-how. Toronto, however, is no longer just the bastion of anglophone Canada. Today it is said to be the most multicultural city in the world with almost 100 ethnic groups, making for a daunting choice of restaurants.
At its heart stands the marbled and domed monument to the enterprise that bound the country together, Union Station, the cathedral of railway buildings, improbably modelled on the Roman baths of Caracalla. In the waiting room, where one might have expected Roman catamites, the passengers for The Canadian are assembling like characters in an Agatha Christie novel. Destinations echo beneath the vaulted ceiling: all aboard for Sioux Lookout, Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Jasper and Vancouver.
Beyond the last suburbs the train curls through some of the richest agricultural land in North America where the barns are shaped like lunch boxes and the houses like illustrations from Anne of Green Gables . Fat cows lounge in lush fields like milk executives.
Farther north, passing Lake Simcoe, the fields grow stony and the cows rakish. Autumn trees are invading the farmland in regiments of scarlet, gold and yellow.
We are embarking on the Canadian Shield, the Pre-Cambrian granite fastness of northern Ontario. This section was one of the most difficult stretches of railway to complete. There were rock barriers here that consumed three tonnes of dynamite a day for months. Between the granite and the endless lakes lie vast bogs that could, and did, swallow whole locomotives. I remember a Canadian prime minister who once remarked that people came to Canada to escape history, only to be overwhelmed by geography.
Back in the Pullman lounge, a champagne reception is under way. The waiter is pouring drinks and introducing people like an overactive cocktail hostess. We are a mixed bunch: a Japanese couple smiling and bowing and talking about property prices; an ancient Texan with a shoelace tie whose pappy had been a Confederate general in the Civil War; a pair of elderly newlyweds (septuagenarians who cannot keep their hands off one another); and a woman from Yorkshire who no one can understand. I stand in as translator.
The largest contingent is a party of elderly Americans discussing pensions and hip replacements. After a few drinks, they are on to triple bypasses and pacemakers.
The conductor arrives, a glamorous figure who seems to have stepped off a Mississippi riverboat. He has a shiny waistcoat, a watch chain and a handlebar moustache. The American matrons queue to bask in his suave charm while the train hurries on, shaking rain from its shoulders, and the day descends into blue mists.
In the morning, the prairies arrive in the course of a conversation. The trees disappear, and suddenly gravel roads are parting long horizons of wheat. The railway runs as straight as a ruled line beneath vast reaches of sky. When God made the world he took all the leftover space and dumped it here in the Canadian prairies.
I break my journey in Saskatoon, temporarily abandoning the train to pursue a childhood dream of riding the range. Saskatchewan is where people went when they were told: ‘‘ Go west, young man.’’ Once the railway was built, settlers arrived like locusts. In 1897, the population of the three prairie provinces was 25,000. Fourteen years later it was 1.1 million. The names of many prairie towns reflect a certain haste. There is an Elbow, an Eyebrow and a Moose Jaw. My favourites are Love, Congress and Climax. Eddying about the feet of grain elevators, the towns are plain and Presbyterian.
Near the town of Leader, just off the road to Success, is Leaning Tree Ranch, 400ha of paradise along the banks of the South Saskatchewan River. Over dinner my host talks darkly of bad guys: insurance companies, politicians and eastern bankers. Outside, coyotes howl beneath a frosty moon.
‘‘ We got every kind of horse,’’ he assures me in the morning. ‘‘ We got quiet horses for quiet riders, fast horses for fast riders, and for them folks that have never ridden we have horses that have never been rid.’’
He saddles me an intellectual horse. It is open to reason, he says, but you have to give it a strong argument.
Back on the train I wake the next morning to Alberta dusted with snow. The suburbs of Edmonton are oil refineries and cattle pens ringing a city of opulent skyscrapers, the Dallas of the north. Beyond the city, the prairies are beginning to pitch and roll like a heavy sea and the horizons are piled with clouds. When I look again, the clouds are mountains. The Rockies have arrived.
The Athabasca River leads us between mountain peaks to Jasper, where a lone elk is pacing up and down the platform like an impatient commuter. Beyond, the track hugs rock faces as we climb to Yellow Head Pass, named for a blond fur trapper of the early 19th century who was said to have hidden a fortune in furs in these mountains.
From the dome car we watch big-horned sheep migrating down slopes from their winter quarters and a family of moose wade in silver shallows in the valley bottom. The mountains crowd round us, their heads bumping the clouds. Beneath us, the green rivers are so clear I can see salmon kicking against the current.
In the morning we wake to Vancouver, the last creation of the railway. When the CPR chose its western terminus in 1884 there was nothing here but a timber mill and a tavern whose voluble landlord was known as Gassy Jack. By the turn of the century, the railway had brought more than 40,000 people.
Vancouver is still a boom town, with the latest arrivals coming in waves from Japan and Hong Kong. With any luck they will bring a measure of oriental reticence to a city that is irredeemably west coast. Everyone is tanned and earnest and keen to tell you about aromatherapy. The problem, I suspect, is the setting. No city in the world is as beautifully situated, where the Rockies sweep down to the Pacific. The inhabitants should not be blamed for reckless enthusiasm. Recklessness, after all, is what made the place.
A nice line in luxury: Approaching Montreal by rail on the first west-bound leg of one of the world’s great transcontinental journeys, almost 8000km across Canada