Taking the Royal Canadian Pacific train from Banff Springs to San Francisco. The Independent.
Few things make me want to be rich – really stinking rich – as much as travel does. When you get a hint of what is to be seen and the ways in which you can see it, it makes you greedy.
After an eight-day trip to Canada and the US, four of those days aboard the Royal Canadian Pacific Train, life was not the same back home. Had it not been for the attentions of a loving partner, I might have starved. I had become so used to being waited on hand and foot that I was unable to look after myself. Worse, I kept looking out of the windows, expecting heart-breaking scenery to whoosh by.
Although the usual Royal Canadian Pacific route is circular – from the stampede city of Calgary, through Banff, Golden, Fort Steele, Crowsnest Pass and back up to Calgary again – it can be chartered to go just about anywhere. I was on a special charter travelling from Banff to San Francisco, with almost no stops.
Our journey started inauspiciously with a day and a night in Banff in the western state of Alberta, one of the spookiest towns I have ever seen. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why Banff sent shivers down my spine until much later. It has a mostly transient population; nearly all its shops cater for tourists, and its buildings are only one or two storeys high. As such it has the look of being fake, a front for something else. The houses on the hill that lead to the equally scary Banff Springs Hotel should have been charming and homely: detached, with front porches and brooms by the front doors. Yet they weren’t. Some of them looked like the terrifying house at the end of The Blair Witch Project. I shivered in Banff, and not just because it was zero degrees.
The Banff Springs Hotel is annoyingly referred to by the locals as The Old Lady. I desperately wanted to introduce them to the concept of euthanasia but thought someone had beaten me to it when, on the first evening, the fire bell went off and we all had to be evacuated. Sadly, it was a false alarm and as I settled down for the night I was convinced that the devil would come knocking. The BSH is the Jocelyne Wildenstein of hotels. You can see it was once a beauty, but has been so fiddled with – annexes everywhere – that all life seems to have been sucked out of it.
I was glad to check out of Banff. The Royal Canadian Pacific was waiting at the station and I checked into my lovely cabin which had a double bed at right angles to the window and an en-suite shower room. There were 16 other passengers from all over the world (the train sleeps 22) plus a handful of crew. As we set off people started to introduce themselves to each other, which was pointless since names wouldn’t be remembered until day three.
Lots of chatting ensued over the breakfast table (scrambled eggs, bacon, potatoes). A local naturalist, Bruce, had joined the train at Banff and told us a little about the history and wildlife, while the Germans asked him to spell every other word 12 times. We headed towards Castle Mountain, the introduction to the main ranges of the Rockies. Then we rode through Morant’s Curve (Nicholas Morant was the RCP’s photographer for 50 years and got good pictures from this point) and past Lake Louise station, named after Queen Victoria’s daughter, after whom Alberta was also named (and she was the wife of the Governor-General of Canada). Then on to the Great Divide – and the highest point of the Canadian Pacific Railway at 5,325ft above sea level – where some rivers go east towards the Atlantic and others go west towards the Pacific.
Just past Hector we entered the spiral tunnels, built between 1907 and 1909 to reduce the very steep gradient that had been the Big Hill. Now double the length of track reduces the gradient even more. Once out of Cathedral Mountain we entered Yoho National Park. Yoho is a Cree Indian expression of awe – very apt.
Little did I know that this first day would bring the most breathtaking scenery I’ve ever seen. Luckily, I went to my room when Bruce baled out at Field (where the first Canadian Pacific Hotel was built to tend to the needs of the men who built the railway 120 years ago) and just sat on the bed looking out at the Rocky Mountains.
This was to be the highlight of the trip. We went for hours and hours without seeing a single sign of civilisation, which was so exciting because you felt as though you were on the edge of the world. There were no roads, no telegraph poles, no cute houses – just huge, eye-shining wilderness. Mountains and emerald lakes, woods where bears lay hibernating, rivers where beavers munched trees – and all of it laced with snow and ice, which lessened as we headed west. In the afternoon I saw two eagles – bald and golden – totally unbothered by the train. (A tip here if you do this trip: buy the Handbook of the Canadian Rockies by Ben Gadd.) I was completely happy and watched until every shred of sunlight had gone and there was nothing to see except blackness. And even then I pressed my nose right up to the glass in the hope of seeing something, some wolves’ eyes maybe.
We stopped at Cranbrook station for dinner and our night’s rest. Let me warn you about the food on this train. It is delicious but deadly: like going out to eat three times a day for four days, except you don’t go out. By the time we had reached San Francisco there was not a human alive on that train that had not put on weight. I had five pounds of excess baggage.
The train hardly stops, so there is very little scope for exercise, although Swiss-born Josef, one of three of the “front-of-house” crew (“I’m married to this train, it’s like a relationship”), did, at my instigation, assemble a running machine in the baggage wagon. After day three we were all in pain. That night I locked myself in my cabin to avoid dinner. Pierre, one of the chefs, came knocking for me. “Shall I save you some, then?” he pleaded as I insisted I was not hungry. After 24 hours of being aboard, some passengers started to complain that there wasn’t enough to do and there weren’t enough stops. It’s true that you have to give yourself up to the experience of looking out through the wide-screen TV windows, doing nothing but taking it all in while someone else brings you cocktails. Maybe some people need retail pit-stops.
On day three I made my way to the front of the train – the driver’s cab or “front end” as we railroaders call it. There I sat with the engineer, conductor and transport manager with walkie-talkie. (After crossing the US border there seemed to be rather more “crew” on board than was entirely necessary, but then this is a vintage train and I guess they wanted to sneak a look.) I watched through the tiny windows of the 1953 engine as rural folk diced with death and crossed the tracks not 20 feet in front of us. One slip and they would have been “fresh kill”; at 45mph it takes half a mile to stop the train. But then, those country dwellers are used to 10,000ft-long freight trains that take 10 minutes to pass, so perhaps they thought the chance was worth it.
The railroads are much loved by Canadians and Americans. As the RCP made its journey through more built-up areas, people came out to watch and wave at us. The trainspotters – or foamers as they’re known in the US – grew in numbers as we headed towards San Francisco.
The last morning we awoke in California to an unscheduled stop in an almond-tree orchard – our brake shoes needed replacing. We made it into San Francisco ahead of schedule that afternoon, and I started to resent civilisation as natural beauty yielded to metal and glass structures: beautiful in their way but at odds with the scenery of the past three days.
I left the train determined to be as rich as Bill Gates (who had chartered the train earlier that year – just he and a few mates) so I could hire the train again to do my bidding. There is much of Canada still to see.