THE RAIL THING

Train buff Stan­ley Ste­wart sam­ples Canada’s transcontinental route

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Canada & Alaska -

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

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