A route of superlatives through B.C.’s heart

Posted by Malcolm Kenton
on Wednesday, October 9, 2019

[Part 2 of 2 - read Part 1 here]

After hitting a local microbrewery and getting a few solid hours of sleep in a quiet cabin just outside of Jasper, we were up early the next morning and back at the historic station by 6:15 AM, ready to board Rocky Mountaineer for my first time. From the moment we checked in with Rocky’s staff, we knew we were going to be in the lap of luxury. We were embarking on a three-day journey that included two hotel nights in cities along the way, and not only were motorcoach transfers provided between the hotels and the train, but our larger suitcases were ferried from one room to the next via truck. The ‘Rainforest to Gold Rush’ route is undeservedly underrated — whereas Rocky’s Vancouver-Banff trains over CP can be up to 25 cars long on the busiest dates, this route operates with just six cars (occasionally more as needed): one Silver Leaf coach, three Gold Leaf cars and two crew/storage cars, plus a power car, pulled by two ex-CN GP40-2L units built for freight service.

Lunch in the lower level of a Gold Leaf car on day 2 of Rocky Mountaineer's Rainforest to Gold Rush route, approaching the Upper Fraser River Canyon in central British Columbia. All photos by Malcolm Kenton.
We were fortunate enough to be seated in Gold Leaf class, the more luxurious of Rocky’s two all-inclusive classes of service. Silver Leaf passengers are seated in a single-level heritage coach (most of them ex-CN) with large windows and served food and drinks at their seats and have access to open Dutch door vestibules, while Gold Leaf travelers enjoy a bilevel car (custom-built by Colorado Railcar in the late 1990s and early 2000s) with fully adjustable seats with lumbar support and heat and full bar and snack service on the upper level and a full-service dining room plus an open rear platform on the lower level. All the fresh-prepared breakfasts, lunches, snacks and sweet treats were delectable — a touch above even the dining car on VIA’s Canadian.

All Rocky Mountaineer riders in both classes benefit from what I discovered to be one of the operator’s greatest assets: the camaraderie, attentiveness and knowledge of train hosts (two per car in Silver Leaf; four per car in Gold Leaf), who all seemed like family, both on and off the train. The hosts in our car got to know each traveler individually, kept us entertained with stories and games, and shared an immensity of information about the route’s geography, wildlife, natural and human history and culture.

A seven-car Rocky Mountaineer consist rounds one of many tight curves on the north shore of Seaton Lake, bound for Whistler mid-afternoon on Sept. 18.
The first day, Tuesday, was the longest on the train — 310 miles in 13 hours straight, stopping only once on a siding for freight traffic to clear, and a second time at CN’s Prince George South yard for a crew change — Rocky uses CN engineers on the former BC Rail line, but uses its own engineers, who are mostly CN and CP retirees, everywhere else it operates (except the now-defunct Vancouver-Seattle route, which used Amtrak crews). The route hugged the Fraser River almost the entire way; for all but the last 75 miles, we retraced the tracks we’d taken the previous day on the Skeena. The train generally kept a steady pace of 35 to 40 MPH, slowing down for photo opportunities (going “Kodak speed,” as the car hosts termed it), including when the engineer saw noteworthy wildlife that did not immediately flee from view. Over the course of the first two days, we had three black bear sightings and witnessed a herd of bighorn sheep, along with a plethora of birds, and the constructions of beavers were evident in many ponds and creeks.

The BC Rail line begins its long descent through the Upper Fraser River Canyon towards Lillooet, B.C., as seen from Rocky Mountaineer on Sept. 18.
After a night in the small logging and mining city of Quesnel (the northern terminus of the Pacific Great Eastern for four decades before it finally reached Prince George), which was quiet for some and lively for others, we reboarded the train at the city’s restored original BC Rail station at 7:30 Wednesday morning for a 12-hour ride over what are perhaps the most visually stunning and topographically challenging 297 miles of railroad in North America. This middle segment of the BC Rail line features five distinct bioregions, dramatic elevation changes, tight turns and multiple horseshoe curves, dozens of bridges and tunnels, rivers, lakes and mountains galore. My friend and I spend as much time on the open platform as we could stand, fingers on our cameras’ shutter buttons. We encountered only scant freight traffic along the BC Rail line — weather and equipment issues are more likely to cause delays on this stretch than congestion. We were lucky that our train was able to make its run within the allotted time, otherwise we may have had to be bussed over part of the route.

We had all of Wednesday evening and the morning and early afternoon Thursday to explore the resort town of Whistler, nestled in the coastal mountain range that’s a northern extension of the Cascades. We rejoined the train — which had pulled ahead to the next siding at Garibaldi to dwell overnight, then reversed back to the Rocky Mountaineer Whistler station, colocated with the Nita Lake Lodge in Whistler Creek — at 3:45 PM for the final four-hour, 110-mile run into North Vancouver. This section was in the thick of the northwest coastal rainforest, winding down grade through the Cheakamus Canyon and the city of Squamish and then tightly hugging Howe Sound and Burrard Inlet and slinking through the front and back yards of grand homes in tony West Vancouver before coming to a final stop at CN’s North Vancouver yard, where motor coaches met the train to transfer riders across the Lions Gate Bridge to downtown hotels. This all-around top-notch experience ranks among the top five train journeys I’ve taken in my life, up there with expeditions in Switzerland, Norway and Peru.

Rocky Mountaineer crosses a high bridge over the Cheakamus River between Whistler and Squamish, B.C. on Sept. 19, day 3 of the journey from Jasper to North Vancouver via BC Rail.
Rocky Mountaineer is a rare example of a rail passenger service that is commercially viable and profitable without government financial support while paying rates for access to host railroads’ tracks negotiated at arms’ length with Canadian National and Canadian Pacific. This is possible because Rocky successfully markets its tour packages to an international clientele of sufficient means, comprised mainly of Americans, Britons and Australians and commands premium prices for premium-level accommodation. 

For better or for worse, Rocky Mountaineer is the only passenger service over two significant and beautiful routes in western Canada. At least it is still possible for those with the means to travel these routes, but it would be ideal if Rocky existed alongside a publicly-supported passenger service making more en-route stops and operating more frequently on these routes — whether operated by VIA Rail Canada or another company — each catering to a different market segment.

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