You can still take the train through the Canadian Rockies, but not from Calgary any longer. There is still a lot of freight on the line but the only passenger service now runs three times a week from Edmonton. As well as this scheduled service operated by VIA (the Canadian equivalent of AMTRAK) the Rocky Mountaineer is a chartered train which runs along the Canadian Pacific Railway from Vancouver towards Calgary but terminates at Banff. Another train then takes the tourists back through Jasper on the Canadian National Railway, the connection being made by road.
The arrival of the CPR was a great boost to the prosperity of Calgary. The track laying was easy with the gentle gradients around the town and the gangs could place up to 100 yards of rail in less than 5 minutes. Building the railway through the mountains was much more arduous. The Last Spike was driven in on November 7, 1885.
The opening of the Edmonton and Calgary line in 1891 brought travellers from Eastern Canada to the northern town; by 1905 Edmonton had become the capital of the new Province of Alberta. The line from Edmonton to Vancouver was opened in 1915, and Edmonton became a major hub in the Canadian rail network.
One of the most notable features is the spiral tunnel on the CPR at Kicking Horse Pass. This takes the line across the Great Divide, from Alberta to British Columbia. Originally the railway ran up a very steep incline which was extremely difficult for railroad engines to negotiate. The ruling gradient on the CPR was set at 1‰, but for four miles up the Big Hill it was 4.4‰. This route is now used by the Cross Canada Highway. The spiral tunnels were opened in 1908.
My fiend Bill stayed in Calgary back in the 1980s when there was still a passenger rail service to Vancouver. He was travelling on to visit some friends on the West Coast and he went by train. Being a friendly character he persuaded the train driver to allow him to travel in the cab. The passage through the tunnels was a great experience for him, and he fondly remembers it to this day.
The nearest station to the summit of Kicking Horse Pass is Field. The settlement was entirely made up of railway workers to begin with, although now it is a tourist centre, catering for both summer and winter visitors. It was where the motive power required to assist trains over the Big Hill was kept. With the easing of the gradient by the excavation of the spiral tunnel this was no longer necessary, and the change from steam locomotives to diesel has further reduced Field’s importance. Nonetheless sidings remain there and when I was driven past there were many boxcars on the lines.
We did not see a train going through the Spiral Tunnels, but we did see a train ascending towards Kicking Horse Pass. This was a long train of potash wagons; it looked huge to us, but trains are much longer in North America than they are in Britain. We were told (by my nephew) that the train had originated in Saskatchewan, and was destined for the port at Vancouver.
The railway went within a quarter of a mile of my sister’s house in Calgary. While we were staying with her we often heard the trains passing and sounding their sirens, but we never saw one; maybe next time. I still have the faint hope that at some future date passenger traffic will return to the CPR mainline through Calgary, and to the branch from there to Edmonton; I can always wish!
THE BLOG FOR THE HISTORY OF RAILWAYS