The Steel Road
Three winters ago, I lived on Anarchist Mountain in Osoyoos. It was an odd, idle time for a Northwester, since snow was only on the ground for a month and the season didn’t linger past the end of January. There was no wood to chop.
But the oddest thing of all was the want of a sound that’s been such a regular part of my life that its absence jangled my nerves. Though there were plenty of trucks using their engine brakes disturbing my sleep with their loud gurgling growls, there were no train whistles bleating from the valley below. No rhythmic midnight clacking and rumbling to drag my dreams to the vanishing point.
Trains are in my blood. My grandfather was a CN conductor from the 1940s to the late ’70s. For my mom and aunt, the whistle was their signal to rally around the Smithers station to walk their dad and his suitcase home. My uncle Randy worked for BC Rail for 28 years. Historically, trains linked our province to the rest of Canada; anyone who remembers Grade 10 social studies knows that one of the stipulations of BC joining Confederation was the transcontinental Canadian Pacific Railway. In northwest BC, the passenger train as a vital mode of travel hung on longer than in other places in the country, since the roads remained rough and crude until the early 1960s.
As a people mover, VIA Rail tends to fill a role that is more of an anachronistic, dawdling novelty than a seriously considered option, but the Prince Rupert port expansion has revitalized the CN line. There are two more freight trains running daily through the Northwest than there were five years ago, mostly lugging coal, wheat, fuel and shipping containers. Trains can move a ton of freight nearly 800 kilometres on 3.7 litres of fuel. Recently, the line through New and South Hazelton has been undergoing maintenance and repairs. This brought an impressive rail-laying train to town—a string of rack cars carrying 250-metre-long sections of track. The weight of the steel caused each section to bend down to be fed through a sort of funnel and onto the ground to be spiked into place. The eternal eight-year-old in me thought, “Cool!”
Look at a train and you’ll observe that plain old boxcars are becoming rare. You’ll also notice that the different specialized cars make fine canvasses for graffiti sprayers, some who deserve the title of “artist” and others whose tags look like my signature immediately after I’ve received sharp blow to the head with a fish club. It must be gratifying for these spray-paint illustrators to know that they can decorate a wheat car with a cartoon frog king or tag a coal car with the handle “Shuffle” in Prince Rupert and have it viewed by bleary-eyed commuters in Chicago forty hours later. This mobile exhibition tours all the way south to New Orleans.
I don’t find occasion to take the train in Canada very often, but when I travel in Asia it’s my preferred way to go. It’s chaotic in India, modern in Vietnam, romantic in Thailand and sufficiently cockroach-infested in Java, to give you the heebie-jeebies for a week.
It’s that whistle. I’m not musically knowledgeable enough to discern whether it’s a note or a chord, but I’m certain it’s in a minor key. In that dissonant sound there’s an echo of the past, a familiar tone marking the present and a fanfare announcing the future. As the BC band Spirit of the West sings,
It’s not just a train; It’s saying goodbye, Saying hello To where we have been, Where we might go.