All aboard the Rocky Mountaineer: Vancouver to Kamloops

Published on 6 September 2011 in , , , ,

Boarding the Rocky Mountaineer

“All aboard!” chorus the Rocky Mountaineer staff loudly as the train hoots in sync in a slightly cheesy way. Passengers are invited to make their way to their seats. The Rocky Mountaineer is getting ready to depart.

Out on the platform at Rocky Mountaineer’s Vancouver station, the first noticeable thing is just how long our train is. It’s easily 20 odd carriages in length; a mixture of double deck carriages with domed roofs for those in the more expensive “Gold Leaf” and standard carriages for those like ourselves in the cheaper “Red Leaf”.

The length of the train seems strangely at odds with the number of passengers boarding – just three coaches are boarding. The Gold Leaf passengers don’t have as far to walk from the station building, but our Red Leaf carriage is closer to the locomotives with a number of coaches in between; a mixture of empty and crew coaches. As one of our two attendents tells us later with a smile on her face, we’re special as we’re the only Red Leaf coach on the train, and as we’re at the front, we get to see all the wildlife first.

Our distance from the station building means we also get to see more of the locked out workers too, standing on the other side of a chain link fence, holding placards proclaiming they want to work.

Whilst Red Leaf may be the cheaper of the two options, it’s certainly not basic. Our carriage may date from the 1950s but it’s been refurbished to a high, if a bit brown looking, standard and our seats are akin to first class in any UK train. They’re all arranged to face forward which makes it slightly disconcerting to find ourselves going backwards when the train does set off. We’re quickly reassured that we’ll be soon going in the right direction but the train needs to back out on to the railway line first.

The slight cheesiness of the “All Aboard!” is followed by a large line up of station porters and company management lined up on the platform waving at us, with one lucky employee waving the Rocky Mountaineer flag at us too. All this is followed by the Morning Toast – a non-alcoholic spritzer which we’re invited to raise to a hearty “cheers!” as the train’s reversing process ends, and we head off in the right direction. Worries that this cheese level might continue for the whole of the two day trip, thankfully prove unfounded.

Take an Alberta Break, proclaimed a tanker in a railway yard.

From Vancouver the train starts by taking us through a slow journey through the suburbs, passing slowly through a railyard – a reminder that in North America, freight is king on the railway. With so few passenger services (Canada’s best known Intercity service, The Canadian, runs just three trains a week) there’s little financial incentive to build new lines so that the passenger trains can go past the freight yards a bit faster.

As we amble on, our two attendants busy themselves serving the complimentary breakfast in the form of a croissant stuffed with turkey, ham and lettuce, yoghurt, granola and fruit. All the meals and non-alcoholic drinks on the train are complimentary and we’re proudly told that the average Rocky Mountaineer gains five pounds in weight during their trip, and I take a mental note and leave the sachet of mayonnaise to one side.

The length of our train is also explained – whilst our journey is pretty quiet, the return journey will be far busier when they fill up at Jasper in a few days time, and on the second day of that trip it will be swollen even more when a large tour party join for just one day.

Hell's Gate

As the train travels on the scenery gets more and more impressive as we follow the line alongside the Fraser River and past such landmarks as Hell’s Gate where the river gets impossibly narrow and boisterous; the water crashing over the rocks as a cable car hovers overhead. It’s a major landmark and the train dutifully slows down so we can all rush out to the vestibule and get our photographs.

We’ve spent most of our time on the north side of the river but at the Cisco crossing we swap over. There’s two lines along the Fraser, one on each side of the river. The Canadian Pacific was built first and thus got the best route, whilst the Canadian Northern (now part of the Canadian National railway) was built later and at the town of Siska the two lines cross and swap sides.

For much of the journey along the railway the two railways co-operate running eastbound trains down the CP line and westbound on the CN but eventually our train has to swap to the CN line for the rest of its journey to Kamloops and beyond.

Cisco Crossing

It’s not just rivers and railways that can be seen. Ospreys and eagles are also out there, and there’s even some mountain goats. But most of the time it’s the views. And when there’s no views there’s food. Morning snack. Lunch. Afternoon cheese and crackers. And plenty of drinks too. Another tea? Ginger ale? Maybe a beer?

Earlier in the day the train manager had popped by to say hello and let us know a little about our trip. We were told a little about how it operates and that it’s given priority by the line controllers but sometimes we may just have to stop and wait for a freight train. Much of the line is single tracked and the Rocky Mountaineer’s shorter size means it is faster to stop, and faster to restart.

For most of the day we’ve barely been held up by freight but as we approach Kamloops congestion on the line sees us stuck in a passing loop whilst we wait for freight trains to pass by in the other direction. One goes past, then another. Then a third. Still we’ve got a good view. Kamloops Lake is lovely.

Thompson River at Ashcroft

Over our journey the landscape’s changed. We’re now in a dry, arid part of the country where rainfall is rare. Sticking my head out of the vestibule window the air smells hot, burned to a cinder. The blue of the water contrasts with the dry brown of the soil.

Finally we’re free to arrive into Kamloops at its heritage railway station and we’re handed keys to our hotel room – we check you in and check you out again, we’re told. No worries. As we disembark a coach is waiting to whisk us to our nearby hotel and on the short journey the driver tells us that it never rains in Kamloops. Normally. It’s pretty heavy on our visit. He continues to tell us all the exciting things we can do in Kamloops, like look up our names in the phone book to see if we live there. And of course there’s where to find the restaurants and bars.

Later that evening we follow his other suggestion. to wander around and see Kamloops. As we explore its riverside location a steam train has taken the place of the Rocky Mountaineer at the station and we watch as people board for their evening journey. Later we end up at some slightly strange hippy cafe and then a brewpub. But we miss out on the real fun of Kamloops. Mainly as we can’t find a phone book.

Kamloops Welcomes You

Tomorrow it’s all aboard once more as we head on the Rocky Mountaineer to the town of Jasper