Scaling Mount Edmonton

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Wednesday, December 6, 2017

How do I explain Edmonton and the effect it has on the Canadian? Edmonton stands at the center of Alberta’s booming energy economy and appears to generate a substantial amount of traffic for Canadian National. Although CN’s facilities in Edmonton are spread over miles and miles and appear enormous to me, the railroad always seems overwhelmed. In other words, getting there on any day, either way, is a female dog. Edmonton appears as an anti-magnetic force, pushing back against objects seeking to enter it. Follow along as I tell you about yesterday afternoon and evening.

To get to Edmonton from the east, you have to negotiate the 265-mile Wainwright Subdivision, which begins as flat Saskatchewan prairie and evolves into lovely Alberta hills. For VIA Rail No. 1 yesterday, every hill seemed to hide a train. A look at my notes, scribbled across a timetable page, gives you a sense of the train density. CN’s finest freights compete for track space, butting aside the less time-sensitive trains. And zipping among them, sometimes almost getting crushed, is our little Canadian.

We leave Biggar, Alta., milepost 0 of the Wainwright, at 2:15 p.m., 13 hours 15 minutes late. Somehow, all the way west, we have managed to almost match our running time. The first siding west of Biggar holds a manifest freight, and at the second we wait a dozen minutes for two-mile-long 196 from Prince Rupert to snake its way past (intermodal freights are all numbered in the 100 series).

West of Unity, Sask. (milepost 60), where we wait for an endless train of grain empties, we aren’t meeting trains so much as swimming among them. At Yonker (MP 85), the Canadian waits 17 minutes for 108 to pass. Soon we come upon a trail of yellow approach signals, meaning we are following something. The answer comes at Artland (MP 97), where we pull in to let 198 (another Prince Rupert container train) pass and then back out and run around 105, which sat in the siding ahead of us. Then comes Dunn, Alta., where No. 1 waits briefly for a manifest freight to clear.

Finally, at Heath (MP 128), reached at 4:30 p.m. Mountain Time, we wheeze to a halt. Ahead, at the former crew-change town of Wainwright (MP 140), is an impenetrable wall of trains. It looks like this: Eastbound 102 stands on the main line there. It’s waiting on two trains ahead of us, manifest 315 and flagship 101, to clear in the siding. But for that to happen, westbound 401 has to get out of the siding. However, 401 can’t move until 102 reaches Wainwright and stuffs itself in a back track.

For this whole sequence of events, which must begin with 102 finding a back track, to unwind and free us to leave Heath for Wainwright takes a while. At the 45-minute mark, train 105, which we had overtaken at Artland, catches up and stops behind our tail car, Kootenay Park, on the siding. At 5:40, 112 slams past with its double stacks and we get underway. Wainwright goes by my window at 6:09. We are now 16 hours instead of 13 behind schedule.

By then the first dinner seating has begun, and I am reliving all this as I sit beneath Kootenay Park’s dome sipping a Texas-sized martini made entirely of Canadian vodka and two olives—an atomic bomb of a cocktail. I had asked the Park car attendant, Karine Chevarie, for a cup of ice to make my own concoction in Room B. As I suspected, Karine takes this as an affront and says she could make the martini for me. I reply that Canadian martinis are to American martinis what a kitten is to a tiger. Thus challenged, Karine measures, shakes and pours what is definitely not a Canadian-sized, one-jigger martini that I can still taste the morning after. During the hour that I slowly consume my cocktail, we overtake both 315 and 101, which had preceded our train through Wainwright.

But we were talking about Edmonton, weren’t we? I thought after Wainwright that Edmonton would welcome No. 1, but the big city keeps throwing trains in our path – 108, 316, 116, 180, 118 and maybe others go by us in darkness. I join the second seating for dinner (rack of lamb, Sandhills Cabernet-Merlot) and sort of lose track of things. Stop and go, stop and go. We creep through the eastern suburbs, then past one and another yard, finally stopping at a wye switch in the northwest part of town to back into the spur containing VIA Rail’s little station. The time is 11:15 p.m. We are almost 17 hours late, and Fred needs to swallow two Advils and go to sleep. – Fred W. Frailey

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