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Since we were about to embark on a Canadian rail journey, a visit to the Drake Street Roundhouse, in Yaletown, Vancouver, was almost inevitable. Yaletown used to be a huge railway complex, and was where the trains to Vancouver used to terminate. But all that remains nowadays is the Roundhouse. This is a really ingenious arrangement, consisting of a railway turntable, with tracks radiating from it like spokes on a wheel.
The locomotive could be turned on the turntable to a selected track, then driven along it to its shed, at the end of the track. I don’t know of any similar arrangement in the UK, but it would seem to have worked better than shunting locos around in a standard shed, to get at the one you wanted.
Of course, the railway is long gone, and the engine sheds long converted to shops, galleries and such - except for one
This houses locomotive No. 374, which drew the first passenger carrying train into Vancouver from the east. The trans-continental railway had been completed two years earlier, but previously, only freight trains had made the run.
(I once heard, incidentally, that no railway containing the name "Pacific" ever came within sight of that ocean. That’s certainly true in the case of the Canadian Pacific; Vancouver Island tends to get in the way)
Anyway, on 23rd May 1887, No. 374 rolled into Vancouver with several dignitaries aboard, including the prime minister, Alexander Mackenzie. But, the first person off the train was a 21-year-old Welshman named Jonathan Rogers … who is said to have thought the fanfares were for him! He went on to become one of Vancouver’s leading developers, so the fanfares may well have been appropriate - well, eventually.
Another passenger was the prime minister’s wife Jane. She couldn’t decide on which side of the carriage to sit, so they tied a chair to the cow-catcher on the front of the engine, and strapped her into it! Which is not as precarious as it sounds, for the top of the cow-catcher does cover a substantial area. And in subsequent years, quite a few visiting royal personages chose to travel this way.
There was no riding on the cow-catcher when we rode the Rocky Mountaineer up to Banff; there was no need to. The views out of the huge windows could be enjoyed from the comfortable seat of your carriage. I don't think we’ve ever had such VIP treatment on any form of service anywhere. From the moment the coach came to pick us up at the hotel, the level of care we received from the Rocky Mountaineer people was almost embarrassing.
We were met at the station with orange juice and coffee, and led on board the train by a piper in Highlands dress. Breakfast was quickly served at our seats with an efficiency the airlines might do well to look at, as was a delicious lunch later.
We were riding in the "Silver Leaf" class. That’s one step down from "Gold Leaf", which is a double-decker carriage with a dining room downstairs. In Silver Leaf, your meals are brought to you in your seat - but there is a substantial fold-down table there. Both these classes have wraparound windows, which give an excellent view. "Red Leaf" passengers have to make do with an ordinary, flat window. But, even that’s bigger than the ones in a "normal" train. And, there’s an open ‘viewing platform’ at the end of each carriage.
I did wonder if the "Gold Leaf" passengers ever missed out on anything when they went downstairs for their meals?
In any case, most of the time the hosts gave an informative commentary. We saw eagles, ospreys and mountain sheep. No bears yet, but we aren't quite in bear country. In fact, the best part of the ride will be when we get into the Rockies tomorrow.
We stayed the night in Kamloops, because there aren't any sleepers on the train; it's thought there’s too much to see that would be missed it was moving while passengers slept. Kamloops is a pleasant town, but rather ordinary and slightly disappointing; the name, which simply means "two rivers" suggested somewhere with a more "frontier" atmosphere.
We stayed at the Thompson Hotel, where our luggage, which we last saw in Vancouver, appeared in our room. The following morning, it disappeared again, to reappear later in the day in our hotel room in Banff; just one example of the Rocky Mountaineer people ‘going the extra mile’ for their guests.
We took a walk down the street in search of a sandwich, and later, I wandered down to the railway station to see if I could get some pictures of the Rocky Mountaineer’s loco. But the train wasn’t there! Maybe they’d taken it elsewhere, for cleaning and servicing, or maybe I’d just gone to the wrong place? I did, though, take one or two pictures; the record of our travels just wouldn’t be complete without them. And, I did like that mural of the old train.
As we pulled out of Kamloops on day two, we climbed into the high country, into even more spectacular scenery. We passed lakes and snow-capped mountains, as we climbed ever higher, watching all the time for wildlife. All we saw, though, was an occasional eagle and the odd Rocky Mountain Bighorn sheep. But, I do realise that it doesn't appear on demand. Some folk expect it to stand by the trackside and wave!
A spectacular feat of engineering is - or should that be are? - the Spiral Tunnels. It’s a rare privilege to ride through these, for the Rocky Mountaineer is the only passenger train to do so, otherwise the line is confined to freight.
Climbing loops aren’t all that rare; there’s even one in Britain, on the narrow-gauge Ffestiniog Railway. But, this one’s in a tunnel, which I believe is unique? And, it’s possible for the driver of a super-long freight train leaving the tunnel to look up (or down) and see the rear end of his train entering.
Another delicious meal was prepared by Ana (she’s the one in the middle above, if you hadn’t guessed!) and served by Adriane and Falon, who also commentated on what was to be seen.