Most of you know how hard it is sometimes to catch a train. Sometimes you’re running late, or the train’s early, or your watch stopped and you’re not really sure what time it is — any number of a dozen reasons why you’d be running your heart out trying to get there before you hear: "Stand clear of the doors, please."
Imagine trying to catch a train for two days. That’s what I did this weekend...
Okay, so I wasn’t trying to ride it, but keeping pace with it was something else, I’ll tell you.
I was following the CPR Empress, a Hudson H1b steam locomotive, number 2816, that was making its inaugural run from Vancouver to Calgary, it’s new home. CP had just spent two years and a rumoured CDN$2 million rebuilding the locomotive to be its corporate show piece. And its journey from the West Coast was to be every bit as much a publicity stunt as it was the real test of its abilities.
CP 2816 was originally built in 1930 by the Montreal Locomotive Works (at an original cost of $116,555). She ran regular service between Calgary and Thunder Bay (then Fort William) until the late 1930’s, when she was transferred to the Quebec City-Windsor corridor. There she enjoyed another 20 years of regular service until her last run on 26 May 1960. In December, 1963 she was sold to American interests, where she sat idle and neglected for 35 years.
2816 is a cousin to 2860, the Royal Hudson locomotive that runs out of North Vancouver. A predecessor, 2816 predates the streamlining efforts that began in the mid-to-late 1930’s. 2860, an H1e class engine, fell into the streamlining era, and lacks all the bumps, rivets and exposed tanks that 2816 bears.
It’s a big engine, too: 91 feet and 2 inches in length, 15 feet and 3 inches tall. That’s roughly the size of 6060 (a little shorter, but a little taller). 2816 weighs in 10,000 pounds more than 6060, and her driving wheels are 2″ taller. 6060 has more tractive effort than 2816, so technically she’s more powerful. But put them side-by-side, and you wouldn’t notice much difference in size...
In 1998, CP started to feel the pressure from a resurgence in steam power. They started to look for an ex-CP engine (as CP had none left in their fleet) to parade around the continent. They likely talked with BC Rail about acquiring the Royal Hudson, to which they were likely laughed away. The finally approached Steamtown National Historic Site in Scranton, Pennsylvania, the then-owners of CP 2816.
Having sat out in the elements for more years than she was active, 2816 was not in the best of shape. It took much time and effort to effect repairs where she could be run on a rail line at track speed, and another 19 days just to get the engine to North Vancouver. After a lengthy and detailed inspection, the boiler (the most important part of the locomotive) was deemed salvageable, and the arduous two-year restoration began.
2816 was almost entirely taken apart, piece by piece. The boiler was shipped down to Portland for rebuilding, the frame repaired, the pins and bearings replaced, the tenders rebuilt, new cover sheets were made, lines installed, and it was topped off with a new cab (the old one was apparently in terrible shape). By the time it was finished, the engine was, for all intents and purposes, new.
CP dubbed the locomotive "CPR Empress" and planned its triumphant return to operation on its main lines. It was mostly word-of-mouth — I didn’t hear about it until I started working on 6060. But with a little bit of digging, I got a hold of the rough schedule, and made sure that I’d be around when the train started coming through Alberta.
For me, that was Saturday afternoon. (I spent the morning running errands.) My start for the day was going to be in Field, British Columbia, about 20 kilometres inside the Alberta/BC border. This was one of the designated stops for the Empress, and the last stop before the Spiral Tunnels.
I arrived around 2:50pm MDT, about 40 minutes before 2816 was due to arrive. A few people already milled around, many of them CP employees, wearing orange safety vests. What I didn’t know (but soon learned) was that CP was expecting a lot of crowds, and had recruited people (mostly CP employees) to help out with safety along the tracks. There were, of course, the obligatory CP police, but they were grossly outnumbered by the amateurs.
Slowly, but surely, people began to show. By the time 3:30 rolled around, there had to be at least 100 people waiting for the train to arrive. But like with most modern railways, the Empress wasn’t holding to schedule, and didn’t arrive until nearly 4:00. Aside from the scorching sun, I didn’t mind too much.
I stood in one spot, where I could get a decent shot of the train as it appeared from behind the Trans Canada sweeping away to the west. When we finally heard the distant whistle and chugging (which carried very well through the valley), people started getting excited. A moment later, it burst from its hiding place, and raced along the riverbed.
Hopping over to the rails, I kneeled down next to the line to take a shot as it rounded the corner. One of the hired help asked me to move back from the rails for my own safety (a wise precaution) — I quickly explained I only wanted to get a distance shot down the rail as the train rounded the corner. Left to my own for a moment, I lined up my camera and prepared to shoot. Then a CP cop asked me to move back from the rails for my own safety. The urge to be terse was pushed aside by the urgency to get the picture. I quickly explained myself, and bent down to take the picture before there was any comment. A second later, shot in camera, I backed away from the rails for my own safety.
I’ve seen quite a few steam trains in the last few years. Some in decent condition, and some not. But I had never seen a locomotive in as good shape as 2816. The dull grey sheeting on the boiler glistened in the sunlight, the handrails glistened, the lights twinkled, and the running gear gleamed. There was no question about the quality of workmanship — every detail had been covered, every possible mentionable was mentioned. Even the slops of grease on the drawbars looked clean.
People crowded around almost as soon as the train came to a halt. At first, it was hard to tell who were the true fans, and who were the ones who happened to see a steam train from the highway and came out to take a look. Though after a short while, you could start to guess the avid people — they were the ones lining up for camera shots and positioning themselves away from the crowd.
The train stayed at Field for about 40 minutes, departing at 4:30pm MDT. The time to leave was signified by a blast from its powerful whistle. Having recently heard 6060’s whistle, I had the unique perspective of comparison. 6060’s whistle is more powerful — I not only had to plug my ears when next to it, but I could feel the vibration in my chest. 2816’s whistle is a more ... melodic, even though there is but one tone. And in that valley, did that whistle ever echo ... such a glorious sound has not been heard there for decades.
As the train began to pull away, many of us ran for our cars, and promptly began the race up the hill. My destination was a small tunnel about halfway up the side — a place I would later learn is called Cathedral (I have no idea why). Arriving, I found that I was not the only one. Luckily, it wasn’t crowded, and I managed to get a place where I could take a good picture. We could hear the train coming the whole way — both CP and CN engines bark loudly when on grades, even with the diesel engine assisting 2816. A moment later, we were rewarded with the engine powering through the 10-metre long tunnel.
No sooner had the engine gone through that I raced down the side of the hill, climbed into my car, and sped up the hill. My goal was to reach the view of the Spiral Tunnels before the train arrived. My poor car had to endure the strain of sudden stops, starts, quick acceleration, and speeding for two days. Darn good thing I got the oil changed that morning...
I parked on the shoulder of the highway, and sprinted across to the observation area. I could hear 2816 pounding away. I arrived not even a minute before she entered the Lower Tunnel. It was then I realized just how fast the train was running, and how hard it was to keep up. A moment later, she poked back out of the tunnel. A quick snap, and I was off like a shot to the overpass on the highway. I hoped to get a video shot of the train as it travelled up the grade. I passed a man who asked if the train was at the tunnel yet. He looked quite disappointed when I told him that it was already through the Lower Tunnel.
Fortunately, the distance from the Lower Tunnel to the bridge was far enough for me to run down, find a spot, and set up. Again, we were rewarded with a tremendous sight, as the engine continued it’s climb. The sound it produced was enough to produce a great rumble in my chest. It was wonderful.
Having passed, I again charged up the hill, crossed the highway, and got into my car. I sped off for my next stop, a small lake at the continental divide. There, too, I found a host of people waiting to get a view of the train, including a tour bus, which I can only assume was hired to chase the train.
Pulling off to the site, I raced down the side of the lake where I could get a shot across, without the sun’s glare interfering with the picture. As I waited for the train to catch up, I entered into a conversation with another fan, whom I learned was also a card-carrying member of the Rocky Mountain Rail Society. I had to wonder just how many of us there were roaming about.
Another run by, another picture, and I ran back to my car. Traffic was becoming a nightmare. The Trans Canada is only two lanes at that point, one in either direction. This makes for a bad traffic jam when 100 or so cars try to merge back on at the same time. Fortunately, many pulled off as they got just ahead of the train, so eventually I was able to get ahead of the train again.
I pulled off to the side, and jogged up a small dirt road to a place where I had seen a small iron bridge on my west earlier that afternoon. At the time, I had hoped it would be an ideal location for me to get a shot without dozens of people. Instead I got a few select diehards (which was fine with me) and CP’s film crew. It seemed I’d walked right into a staged event.
CP was going to make as big a hullabaloo about this as they could — including going so far as to hold up freight trains for most of the weekend. This was a staged event — CP was going to "meet" trains. At this particular point, there are two separate lines, one for the train exiting the Spiral Tunnels, and one for the train waiting to go in. (This is also why Field still has its rail yard.)
CP had a freight staged to run west while the Empress ran east. This was carefully staged — you could hear the whistles from either train as they prepared to cross paths. Several of the diehard fans couldn’t care less about the "weasel" (as they called it), and concentrated on the passing of 2816.
None of us, film crew included, were disappointed. (Well, at least by the run; several of the diehards were rather irritated at the film crew’s placement, which made taking pictures and video a little more difficult.) The trains passed, whistles and horns blowing, and continued on their merry way. With that, I brushed off the rest of the ticks that were trying to make a new home, and headed back to my car.
Chasing was now getting very difficult — traffic was murder. The train kept pulling ahead as others in front of me tried to pace the train and others were driving poorly. By the time I caught up, the train had already pulled into the Lake Louise station.
As this was the final stop for the day, the passengers (VIPs invited from the run from Revelstoke that morning) disembarked for the bus ride back home, but not before another look at the train. They even dragged out a set of steps so people could get a look into the engine’s cab.
As I stood off to the side, watching the throng of people mill around 2816 like a colony of enraged ants, I listened to conversations. One of them, occurring behind me, was about the engine’s conversion from coal to liquid fossil fuels. One of the people there was a local, who said the engine was converted to diesel. Not knowing any better, I poked my nose in to "correct" him, saying it wasn’t diesel, but Bunker C fuel oil.
I should note, for the record, that I was apparently wrong. Although the literature says otherwise, apparently CP did manage to convert the engine to burn diesel fuel. Anyone who knows steam engines knows that burning diesel fuel is great because it’s really hot. Unfortunately, that’s also the problem — it’s too hot. BC Rail used diesel on 3716, their spare locomotive for the Royal Hudson run. They managed to get it so hot that the firebox warped under the heat. It’s now in indefinite storage, as the cost to repair it is probably too prohibitive.
Interestingly enough, the man often credited with making the decision to burn diesel in 3716 was also the man responsible for restoring 2816, and was the man running the engine — Al Broadfoot. Among the RMRS folk, Broadfoot’s name is mentioned only with insults — he’s not a popular guy. I met the man, not knowing who he was, when I ascended the stairs. I suppose the smug indignation of mentioning the RMRS to him should have been a clue. He merely said: "Ah, Harry Home."
Mind you, I suppose he as reason to be smug — he restored 2816 to perfect running condition, which can (apparently) safely burn diesel. But if the RMRS had the budget, facilities and people that Broadfoot had, I can only imagine what condition 6060 could be raised to.
Anyway, back to the guy I corrected. He was talking to a tourist from Australia. We had a short chat (about 10 minutes) about steam power, and how Australia has quite a bit of it still in operation. (Something I didn’t know.) He was amazed to find that we didn’t have a lot left — I explained why, and even provided a bit of commentary for the video he was shooting.
I also managed to run into someone from work — Kelly, who is our Operations Manager for Creative Services. He was in Lake Louise with his wife and child. He introduced me to his wife as "the story teller".
Me tell stories? Never...
I started to leave Lake Louise, aiming to head home. But for some reason, I couldn’t help but turn into a short drive barely 500 metres from where I’d first parked. There, I found more rail fans, just waiting for the train to leave. There I met Graham and his girlfriend, Carrie. Graham was one of those rail fans that most people would refer as a "freak". For him, this was his life.
Ever since he was a child, his parents took him train chasing. It got to the point where the engineers along the line knew Graham’s family. Graham’s mother wrote a book called "CP and the Selkirks". It ran in the family, and Graham showed no signs of slowing down. In fact, he’s in the process of converting Carrie to the life — and she’s not resisting too hard. She even showed me their little secret weapon — something called the "Canadian Trackside Guide".
Yeah, doesn’t sound like much, but to the diehard train chaser, it’s practically a bible. It lists the number of every locomotive owned by every railway in Canada, the mile markers of every railway sub in Canada, the locations of all the hotboxes, and all the radio frequencies you can listen to when chasing a train. Needless to say, Graham also has a scanner for listening to the radio chatter and hotbox reports.
(A "hotbox", for those of you who’ve never heard of one, is a sensor that alerts engineers of overheated axles. Hotboxes date back to when trains used solid bearings instead of roller bearings. The solid bearings relied solely on lubrication to keep the axle turning. If there wasn’t enough oil and grease, the axle would get too hot and could catch what little lubricant there was on fire. Before the demise of the caboose, conductors and linesmen would look for smoking hotboxes as a sign that something was wrong.)
I chatted with Graham and Carrie for about a half hour, before 2816 finally headed out for the night. It was going to rest in a siding about 10 miles away, called Eldon. As we turned to leave, Graham asked if I was going to come out early the next morning to see 2816 run Morant’s Curve. I did my best not to give him a blank stare.
My education continued as I was told about CP’s most famous photographer, Nicholas Morant. For over half a century, Morant was responsible for taking pictures of CP’s trains. Over the course of years, he found a location in Banff National Park that was ideal — a nice ‘S’ curve, mountains in the background, and the river flowing along side. He shot so many pictures there that it became known as "Morant’s Curve".
Graham was courteous enough to drive me out (I followed) to the location. He told me that he’d meet me the next morning there. But for all three of us, it was time to go home and get some sleep.
When the alarm went off the next morning at 5:00, I wasn’t sure if I was awake or dead. I managed to pull myself out of bed, dress, and leave without waking Chris from his place on the couch, Dreamcast controller still barely in his hand. A quick stop at the Esso / Tim Horton’s at the edge of town for a bit of gas and TimBits, and I was on my way west again.
The dawn was breaking as I entered the Rockies. The sky went from black to a deep navy blue, breaking into a dark pastel blue by the time I reached Lake Louise. A bare five minutes later, I was joining the crowd already forming at Morant’s Curve.
Graham never showed — in fact, I didn’t see him all day. However, I met still more people who had come from all over western North America to witness this trip. A few had been following 2816 since she left Vancouver on Wednesday. Many knew each other from previous encounters. I was part fly on the wall, part student, and all listener.
CP had a film crew there, too. In fact, CP was the one who had organized this run. According to the "official" schedule, the Empress was supposed to be in Banff by 9:00am. But CP wanted stills and video of the train at Morant’s curve. We were more than happy to tag along, even despite the near-freezing temperatures.
My poor TimBits froze. Although, admittedly, the chocolate ones are really tasty like that.
The run was supposed to take place at 8:00, but the train didn’t show up until nearly 8:45, and then promptly sat for another 25 minutes before moving behind trees so it could get enough speed to get a good run — we were only going to get one shot at this, so we had to make it good.
A few blasts of the whistle, and she began to charge forward to run the curve at about 25 mph. The plume of steam was like a massive cloud erupting from 2816’s stack as she rounded the corner. All you could hear were camera clicks as a hundred or so photographers did their best to get some kind of an award-winning picture. A couple minutes later, 2816 was racing towards Banff. We packed up our things, and continued the chase.
The Bow Valley Parkway between Lake Louise and Banff is a fun drive, but is no good when you’re trying to chase a train, especially if you’re trying to get in front of it. I took the Trans Canada, and easily cleared it by about 20 minutes. My goal was to perch myself on the bridge that overlooked the railway and shoot from there. But as I neared my destination, I noticed a lot of cars parked down under the bridge — I wasn’t the only one looking for this area. I found the road and joined others waiting for 2816 to come along.One such person was Jim, a Seattle rail fan who had picked up 2816 just east of Golden and had been chasing since Saturday. He had missed Morant’s Curve — he really didn’t want to know what he’d missed. He was getting increasingly annoyed with the position of the light. An hour earlier, the light had been fantastic, which seemed to be how long most of these people had been waiting. Now, the light was "fading".
By fading, Jim meant that the side of the rail cars would not be lit by the sun, and would not glow the way they should. But given the location, a wonderful bend in the rail, mountain behind, and not a could to be seen, it was still going to be a great run. Along with an older couple, we chatted about our experiences on rail when out of the corner of my ear, I heard a chug. All conversation fell dead as several people called out "she’s here!".
Not wasting any time, 2816 tore around the corner and towards Banff. We packed up, returned to our cars, and raced after the train. I arrived just in time to see the train roll over the crossing and into the station. After the traffic cleared, I parked and wandered around to take yet more pictures. (I took over 120 images in all, including video.)
The crowds were getting bigger. I could only imagine what Calgary would be like. I took a few pictures, and then decided I needed to get further down the line. I found a crossing on the eastern edge of town, where many of the rail fans I kept running into were waiting, including Jim. We both agreed that the picture of the day (to that point) was the one of the two Mounties at the front of the locomotive.
I had barely been there five minutes when the whistle started blowing — 2816 was coming. We stood ready, everyone silent (there were a number of video cameras), waiting for our quarry to pass. Then it was back to our cars, and off in hot pursuit.
I’m amazed that I didn’t see more radar traps on the Trans Canada — there had to have been at least a hundred of us, racing around the highways trying to keep pace with the engine. At some point, we all managed to pace 2816 — and I wasn’t even trying.
Although the next stop was in Canmore, I figured I’d get a better shot further down the line. I filed onto Highway 1A and raced towards Exshaw, where I hoped there would be a great picture across the water. But along the way, I found a pack of cars at the side of the road. By that time, I’d learned that it was always someone chasing the train. A few fans had found a small, isolated place to take pictures and record audio of the train. Jim appeared a few moments later, and we figured we’d get a better shot at this place than at Exshaw. (As it stands, we were right.)
Wait. Train. Click. Pack. Run. Drive.
Exshaw was packed with people, but none of the vantage points were any good. We raced through the town (at nearly double the speed limit) to the east, and Highway 1X (after I made a short, unfruitful stop at what I thought might be a good place) where the bridge overlooked the rail line.
Shortly after a freight train sneaked by, 2816 raced by on it’s way to Cochrane, it’s last stop before Calgary. It was quite the site to see all the people lined up on one side of the bridge suddenly race across to the other side to take a picture as the Empress disappeared off into the distance.
It was time to go back to Calgary. Cochrane wasn’t a great place to take pictures, and the CPR was almost inaccessible by road from Exshaw until Calgary. Besides, I was getting tired from all the chasing.
I arrived back home at about 2:00. 2816 wasn’t due to arrive in Calgary until 3:30, but already CP was setting the stage — their equipment was already out, including an SD40 Mac diesel locomotive to meet 2816. I rested for an hour before heading down.
The crowd built fast — by 3:30 there were a couple hundred onlookers. A short tweet in the distance let us know that 2816 was in the final stretch — the end was finally in sight. As she rolled into the west industrial yard, her chugging seemed almost laboured — like a long-distance runner who just finally crossed the finish line. But it was a happy labour — the job finally done.
Speeches. CP spokesman. Blah. CP CEO Robbie Robertson. Blah blah. Alberta Premier Ralph Klein. Blah blah blah, you stinkin’ jerk! Yeah, I’m a bit ticked. The speech was so unbelievably sanctimonious that it made me ill — he said how great it was to have an engine like this running the lines and I just about screamed at him how the Alberta government had let 6060 go because they thought steam was a white elephant. Well, I was ticked for a while, but maybe this was a sign that the government was willing to look at possibilities again — there could yet be hope, I guess.
It also didn’t hurt that I talked with another RMRS member, who proudly displayed his custom-made 6060 hat for all to see. He had been waiting for someone to mention it. He had been hoping it would be Al Broadfoot, but anyone would do.
Now we have a little support and competition, all rolled into one. Just so long as interest in steam stays strong, we should hopefully be able to hang onto our heritage, and teach the future how to chase its past.