Every few weeks when I’m cycling, a major train pops up on the horizon with dinging bell, 1 or 2 red locomotive engines, pulling a serpentine string of cargo train loads and tanks. The train is either the Canadian National Railway or the Canadian Pacific Railway.
Like any cyclist, I just hope the frickin’ train is far away and won’t block all traffic at the railroad crossing that I’m about to scoot over by bike.
Yet as a Canadian and cyclist who has lived in southern part of Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta, I would miss that iconic serpentine train, its far-off whistle, that winds through my Canadian consciousness and history. After all, the building of the national railroads kickstarted our national economy in the mid 1800’s. Indeed, the railways served to unite Canadians across thousands of kilometers over our vast terrain during 19th -20th centuries.
Even in 21st century, large regions of Canada remain disconnected unless you want to drive hundreds, thousands of kms. Or deal with our increasingly diminished cross-country bus service or spend money on plane fare. Like I said in an earlier blog post, Canada is 8,000 km. from west and east coast.
Allow me to show how our railways capture our attention to stop briefly (even if 10 min. feels like eternity) or how different Canadian regions enshrine its
romance and history. There are enough museums across Canada devoted to Canadian railway history or a piece of it. And most of it is not about the machinery –more stories on politicians, locals, rise and fall of passenger rail travel.
Toronto –National Trains Poke Through
There are some older railroad overpasses that pass through midtown Toronto where cyclists roll up and down underneath on streets. Most notably, is by Toronto’s lakefront, where there’s a knot of railway shunting yards. While a lot of this track is now for inter-city commuter trains, Toronto’s economic vitality and transportation hub in 19th – 20th century, started in this area for ship and rail, before cars.
By Fort York, near CN Tower (the tower was built by the other competing rail company, Canadian National Railway), is a railway museum that integrates a defunct railcar turntable track.
Another historic signal of the Canadian Pacific Railway, is a huge rail tie art sculpture by Front St. It depicts 2 Chinese-Canadian railroad workers in the 1800’s. No matter that really they did the dangerous dynamite and building work in British Columbian mountains, over 4,000 kms. west of Toronto.
Alberta – Rail Jumpstarts Prairie Development
By comparison, Calgary’s development in western Canada, was later than Toronto. Building the Canadian Pacific Railroad in Calgary, coincided shortly after the police, Northwest Mounted Police (now RCMP) planted their Forts for law enforcement across the province.
CPR is still a constant reminder to locals living and working nearby with trains running daily through downtown Calgary: Its rail shunting yard noise and whenever I bike through Calgary’s parks system. Thankfully, the CPR has decided to stop its long train lines from blocking major bike pathway- rail crossings in Nose Hill Park.
Brush with Disaster- Near Train Collapse During 2013 Flood
As locals, we like to lull ourselves the train line is just another backdrop of local infrastructure chugging through our consciousness. But a real disaster will shake anyone up.
Just after Calgary’s major 2013 river flood disaster when 100,00 people were evacuated, a cargo train nearly collapsed into the swollen Elbow River from the rail trestle bridge.
In Lethbridge, 150 km. south of Calgary, there is still an active rail line on top of the world’s highest freestanding iron black trestle bridge. The rail bridge straddles the natural dips of prairie grassy coulees. This iron trestle bridge is a tourist attraction since such structures are rare in Canada, even in North America. We wandered into the grassy parkland, in the dying summer heat of 30 degrees C at sunset. Quite stunning.
British Columbia- Piercing Mountains to Pacific Gateway
From the Alberta provincial border, the national railroads ram westward, through foreboding mountain ranges and semi-desert wild terrain. Here at night you may hear, the train whistle and the train booming through the mountains. In Revelstoke, a picturesque mountain-ski town of under 6,000 people, there is a long-time railway museum.
Railway Hires Mountaineering Guides For Tourism
Just 150 km. east of Revelstoke, the mountain town of Golden in British Columbia has huge railway shunting yards seen while hiking at the edge of town. Golden’s local museum highlights the contributions of the Swiss
mountain guides who were contracted from Switzerland in the 1800’s by the Canadian Pacific Railway, to market the natural beauty of Canadian mountain wilderness and forests to tourists. They led wilderness hiking and for the brave,mountaineering trips. In fact, the CPR even built living quarters for the guides and their families, an tiny enclave outside of town, dubbed “Alpine Village”. Apparently the families lived isolated lives in barebone conditions.
All along the railway in British Columbia, are small towns with a piece of its history. There are some engineering feats — The Spiral Rail Tunnels in Yoho National Park by Kicking Horse Pass. Yes, you heard me in a pristine national mountain wilderness park of bears, cougars and deer, the railway is saluted for building this marvel.
Spiral Rail Tunnels – Yoho National Park, BC
To preserve the mountain wilderness, but also ensure train could climb mountain grades and descend without danger, switches and rail tracks were built running through mountain passes near Field and over Kicking Horse River, Alberta by the British Columbia border. In effect, the engineer at front locomotive nose of the train can nearly see the train’s own tail at different grades in a spiral figure-8. This railway track was modelled after tunnels built in Switzerland and located right near the Trans-Canada highway, another national cross-country transportation route by car or bike. http://www.pc.gc.ca/eng/pn-np/bc/yoho/natcul/spirale-spiral.aspx
Railway Land Pricing Greed Over Community Gardens
While Vancouver doesn’t have an active national rail line with freight running through its downtown like Calgary, Vancouverites are reminded of CPR’s presence –through torn-up locals’ community gardens. For over a decade
there was a benign tolerance by the Canadian Pacific Railway to allow Vancouverites to build various community gardens along its rail line property. Now, the Arbutus Corridor, where once cycling advocates thought of also a possible bike path, there is now a court case fight between CPR and City of Vancouver over price tag and sale of land.
The Goliath, CPR has forcibly torn up the community gardens in the past 12 months while David, the City of Vancouver has stood resolutely that CPR’s threats to reactivate trains, was just veiled greed to sell rail property at very high price to the City.
Update: As of Mar. 7, 2016, City of Vancouver announced signed deal for $55 million dollars to buy the Arbutus CP rail corridor that currently runs through several residential neighbourhoods with the torn up community gardens last year. CP Rail had original asked for $400 million. Brief videoclip on start of their public outreach and plans to convert abandoned rail corridor into bike-pedestrian path from downtown Vancouver (False Creek) south to Fraser River.
Railway History Includes Luxe Hotels and CPR Asia-Pacific Steamships
I have barely skimmed over the cultural-historic and political drama of Canadian railways from trains boring through mountain faces to battered community gardens. Nor have I mentioned much about the magnificent legacy of some luxury railway hotels to lure elite 19th century tourists or the steamships that CPR ran between Asia and Canada.
But for now, just let me sleep during
my stay in the mountains, lulled by a train whistle and train clattering faraway. It’s like Canadian call in the far, dark wilderness over history, memory and time.
Chong, J. Outdoor Art Work as a Thread to National History Across Canada: Monuments to the Chinese-Canadian Railway Workers. In Cycle Write Blog, Nov. 4, 2010.