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Russell Isbrandt's
Canadian Rockies
Circle Trip Report

Recently, my wife and I took a Canadian circle trip from Calgary to Vancouver to Prince George to Jasper to Banff and back to Calgary using the Rocky Mountaineer Gold Leaf service dome, BC Rail's Caribou Prospector Budd RDC train, Via Rail's Skeena and Brewster Transportation down the Ice Fields Highway and return to the Calgary airport.

There is hope for passenger train fans. There is money to be made by private companies in the rail passenger business. Rocky Mountaineer just took delivery of two more Ultradome cars with two more of the $3.5 million cars on order. They hope ultimately to go daily during the summer in another 2-3 years. Our power was two GP-40-2s rebuilt by GEC - Alstom this March. The train was 14 cars into Kamloops and 22 out of Kamloops with the Jasper section. Of those there was one power car, 2 crew cars and 5 deadheading single level cars including a party car with dance floor and conference car. Unfortunately the shops are out of sight at Kamloops so I couldn't see what other rolling stock they have.

The service and food was unbelievable! This was gourmet food where the chefs make the dishes pretty was well as good. Because the dining section of the car can accommodate only 36 of the 72 upstairs passengers, dining is in two sittings. The Calgary passengers get fed shortly after departure so they finished and upstairs by the time the Banff passengers are boarded. Next morning the Banff passengers are fed first so they serve a "pre-breakfast" of juice, coffee or tea and rolls to the Calagary passengers. The first day the Calgary passengers are fed lunch first so they get the second sitting the second day. Not to worry, they serve a "pre-lunch" of cheese/crackers and beverage. Since arrival in Kamloops is around 630pm, drinks and cookies are served late afternoon to keep your blood sugar up. On the run into Vancouver, only a few miles out the chefs are introduced and they served an orange juice / soda mix and chocolates. The car crew of 2 servers, 2 hostesses, 2 chefs and a service manager gave us a pen and "Thank You" card signed by each of them!

The arrival at Vancouver is painfully slow with a tedious run through CN's Thorndale yard to pick up a BNSF pilot. The train is then wyed before entering the station and then doubled over before disembarking passengers are permitted to detrain. The Rocky Mountaineer Vancouver personnel help in hailing cabs and stay until every passenger seeking a cab has been transferred.

I rode the open platform through a good part of the Bow River Valley between Canmore, Banff and Lake Louise, but short of the Spiral Tunnels. Passage through the Spiral Tunnels was the only part where they shagged you off the open platform. I resumed riding out there through the Kicking Horse Canyon. I also rode out there west of Rogers Pass, into and out of Kamloops, along the Thomson and Fraser River Canyons.

BC Rail's Caribou Prospector's route will give the scenery of the Canadian Rockies a run for the money. Almost immediately out of North Vancouver you ride on a ledge blasted out of granite overlooking the Georgia Strait with its deep blue waters and snow capped peaks in the background. North of Squamish the route takes you along the deep and narrow Chekamus River Canyon. The trains stop at the famous Whistler resort town. This is a destination for some of the Gray Line tours out of Vancouver. The route runs at the edge of Anderson Lake and Seton Lake with steep slopes culminating in snow capped peaks on the opposite shores. North of Lillooet the route runs at the edge of the Fraser River Canyon reaching a point 2000ft above the riverbed below and almost straight down. This is the only train I've ever been on that had air-sickness bags in the seat back pockets! There is a very good reason all trains are preceded by a high-rail truck inspecting the track and looking for rock-slides. North of Kelly Lake the route levels out somewhat on the Caribou plain until Williams Lake. Between Williams Lake and Quesnel the Fraser has cut still another canyon. It was along here we saw not one or two deer, but herds of deer grazing.

The food on BC Rail's Caribou Prospector was unfairly maligned on A- A. While it was no Rocky Mountaineer, the micro-waved food was far from inedible. I had French toast for breakfast, chicken stir fry for lunch and a small pan fried sirloin steak in barbeque sauce with roasted potatoes, mixed vegetables, roll, slaw and a delicious lemon bar for supper. The two lady attendants were very attentive, almost too much so. They didn't understand that when I was shooting video they were supposed to pass me by. (I'm going to invent a cap with a neon sign on top which flashs "SILENCE PLEASE RECORDING". As a result, some of the video has them trying to get a response out of me with regards to beverage or meal preference.

This was the only railroad where the conductor ran a radio test to make sure I had the right frequency! This guy was great! Had all kinds of stories about how the various stations got their names and about working tv movie production trains including the one where they blew up BC23 a Budd car. I was invited to ride the cab at the wye at Lillooet,but couldn't since I was continuing on.

Apparently the Budd car days may still be numbered. Apparently no one knows what will be done to replace them. Given the very light loading north of Lillooet, about 12 - 15 to Williams Lake, only 7 into Prince George, one has to wonder if this service will be discontinued at least off season.

Now this route can be done in a single level glass roofed car, a sawed off version of the Rocky Mountaineer domes. BC Rail has begun a deluxe excursion train called the Whistler North Wind. It offers the same kinds of amenities offered on the Rocky Mountaineer with overnights at Whistler and Exeter also known as 100 Mile House. For some strange reason the southbound version terminates at Whistler. These trains depart North Vancouver Sundays through September and Prince George Wednesdays. I wonder if this is a preview of the future of BC Rail's passenger service.

At this time of year Via does not offer Totem class service on the Skeena. Everyone gets to ride the Park car, in this case the Glacier Park. The train consisted of one CP stainless steel coach and the Glacier Park pulled by an F40. The crew consisted of engineer, assistant, coach attendant "conductor" and snack bar attendant. The "assistant" engineer apparently did most of the switch throwing since the train was moved through the switches while there was someone at the switch stand. That someone was not the uniformed "conductor". Aside from 25 kindergartners and their 5 adult chaperones, there were enough dome seats for all passengers. The kids were given the dome from Prince George to Willow River, the first stop.

Aside from 25 kindergartners and their 5 adult chaperones, there were enough dome seats for all passengers. The kids were given the dome from Prince George to Willow River, the first stop.

I got to video the ride up to Mt. Robson, though we only got to see the bottom half. I was quite surprised at how quiet the dome rode. When there is no background conversation, only the air conditioning "whoosh" can be heard. Although it was only one car ahead, the roaring FP-40 powering the HEP could barely be heard. At this distance on the Portland section of Amtrak #27, the FP-40 could be heard along with the traction motor whine, from the Sightseer car.

As I was just about to complete a shot of an ice covered lake near Yellowhead Pass, I caught a glimpse of a pair of running lights of an approaching train and lo and behold it was the westbound Canadian in all it's 26 car 5 dome glory!

Bottom line: In 2001 under very special circumstances, the passenger train as an entertainment vehicle can generate handsome profits, justifying capital investment. The downside, fares are astronomical and out of reach for a large portion of the population.

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