Rocky ride on the new great western
A luxury North American rail adventure begins today. Simon Calder got a preview of the coastal journey from Vancouver to Seattle
Simon Calder is Travel Editor at Large for The Independent, writing a weekly column, various articles and features as well as filming a weekly video diary. Every Sunday afternoon, Simon presents the UK's only radio travel phone-in programme called The LBC Travel Show with Simon Calder (97.3 FM). He is a regular guest on national TV, often seen on BBC Breakfast, Daybreak, ITV News and Sky News. He is often interviewed on BBC Radio, particularly for BBC Radio 4’s You & Yours programme and BBC Five Live.
Saturday 24 August 2013
Destination, Seattle; scenery, desolation. The views that unfold from the world's latest great tourist train ride, which begins today, reveal the bleakest, best and worst of the Pacific North West.
The two leading cities of north-western North America get connected for the first time by a luxury train. The Rocky Mountaineer has until now contented itself with threading through the most scenic swathes of western Canada, conveying tourists from its home base in Vancouver to mountain jewels such as Jasper and Banff. Today, the train ventures south of the border for the first time. The new Coastal Passage tour encompasses Jasper, Kamloops, Vancouver and Seattle. It's a smart move that taps into Seattle's wealthy market, a city that is home to both Microsoft and Amazon. And the venture also adds a fascinating dimension of grand coastal scenery and forlorn backwaters that only the railroad can reveal.
On the waterside at Bellingham, for example, the debris of decline drifts past the window as though all life has been crushed from the community. A forlorn foreground of derelict warehouses and factories shows the passing traveller how time can destroy ambition. Yet a few miles on, the line reveals the mountain-strewn islands of Puget Sound in all their glorious solitude. Framed between the Pacific sky and the steely ocean that reflects it, ancient rock is draped with evergreen forest.
In contrast to the poor souls driving between Vancouver and Seattle along Interstate 5, the mainly landlocked parallel freeway, you can enjoy the drama with a glass of British Columbia's finest wines. A three-day journey encompassing Seattle, Vancouver, Kamloops and Jasper or Banff will cost C$2,869 (£1,913) including meals and hotels. But last weekend I previewed the route, paying a mere $30 (£20) for the 157-mile run on the existing scheduled Cascades train, which shuttles twice a day between Vancouver and Seattle along the same tracks.
The luxury train has its own terminal in Vancouver, but US border rules mean the new link must run from the city's main station. The former grand entrance and exit to Vancouver is fading, but you can still make out the signs announcing it to be La Gare Centrale du Pacifique.
Pacific Central Station is the western terminus of the Canadian, North America's flagship train, which runs from here to Toronto. The ticket hall has murals of inspiring landscapes, while on the platform the Canadian's stainless steel carriages are waiting. They were built in 1955 and have weathered about as well as pop stars from that era. Most of the Rocky Mountaineer rolling stock is of a similar vintage, but more comfortably appointed.
All southbound trains to the US are kept in a separate pen enclosed by high fences. Travellers must queue for admission to America, just as they do upon arrival at New York JFK, and expect questioning from stern officials. But, at least compared with flying the same journey, the security process is easy. You can carry roughly your own bodyweight in baggage and take all the liquids you want on board – even the sort that contain alcohol. And America's national passenger railroad corporation, Amtrak, seems genuinely pleased to see you: "Thank you so much for including Amtrak in your travel plans, and welcome aboard."
The pre-departure briefing is surprisingly elaborate. It is the first time I have been given the instruction: "Remember to walk with a wide stance." Ever since, I have adopted the gait of a B-movie cowboy.
No sound in travel is more evocative than the haunting baritone whistle of a North American train. The mournful tone, together with a sigh of air brakes being released, announces to the world that a train is in motion, an adventure is getting under way.
The run south to Seattle begins ignominiously, passing the Greyhound bus station and a sad little encampment of homeless people on a patch of lineside wasteland. Next, at a junction called Spruce Control, the sight of two bright orange BNSF locomotives – a reminder that the train runs on tracks belonging to the Burlington Northern & Santa Fe railway. On its way through the suburbs, the railroad braids with the Trans-Canada Highway, twisting under and beside the road that binds the world's second-largest country. Just after the highway disappears off towards St John's in Newfoundland, nearly 5,000 road miles away, the line picks up the Fraser River. It heads – like the train – to the ocean, and happens to be the same muddy shade of coffee as served in the on-board bistro. Before the Pacific, a sharp left turn takes the Cascades clattering over Pattullo Bridge at little more than walking pace.
This is not a line for bullet trains. In the four hours, 25 minutes that it takes the Cascades to meander the 157 miles between the two cities, a Parisian gourmet could take a TGV to Lyon, enjoy a quick lunch and return to the French capital.
The average speed of 35mph makes it all the better for enjoying the views. When the train meets the Pacific, the ride becomes one of those rare, dreamy journeys where almost every fresh vista revealed by each twist in the track seems better than the last. The horizon is serrated by the southernmost flourish of Vancouver Island, in the shape of the isles that dangle from it like feathers. The foreground is populated with herons feeding on tidal flats. The serene setting made the next announcement all the more unwelcome.
"At this time we're about 15 minutes out from the border. Everyone please return to your seats. No one is allowed to walk about or use their cellphone while the inspection takes place." The last time I heard that sort of instruction was crossing between East and West Germany in the 1980s (OK, not the bit about cellphones).
The backdrop wafting past the windows continues to entertain. White Rock is the last town in Canada, and a pretty beachside resort. The train trundles gently enough between the shore and the prom to allow passengers to read the slogan above the door of the Surfside Grill: "Free Sunsets".
Just south of White Rock pier is the 500-ton granite boulder for which the town is named. And shortly beyond that: "Have your passports out, open to the photo page."
The train shuddered to a halt alongside the freeway border crossing and a big Border Patrol 4x4 drew up. Three Field Operations Officers boarded through the train, checking customs declarations and asking questions of some of the passengers. We all passed, because 10 minutes later the train was allowed to proceed into American territory.
Interstate 5 raced back inland, with dreary views of strip malls and fast-food freeway operations. On the railroad, the hinterland was much more intriguing: backyards and cattle-farming boondocks.
Half a mile ago, the location was a pleasant beachside suburb of Vancouver in the far south‑west of Canada. Now, you are at the north‑westernmost extreme of the contiguous United States – and trackside life takes on an end-of-the-line air. This is particularly true at the Cascades' first station, Bellingham. It is the southern terminus of the Alaska Marine Highway, the small ferries that provide the lifeline for coastal communities in the largest state. Yachts are in the background, while in the foreground rotting brick silos stand waiting for demolition.
Aboard the well-appointed Cascades, you feel insulated from the raw realities of the world. Everyone has a wide leather seat, lots of legroom, mains power and free Wi-Fi.
Patience is the first requirement of anyone aboard an American passenger train. We "self-loading cargo" take second place to proper freight trains. And with much of the journey on a single-track line, any kind of disruption quickly reverberates.
Back in the great outdoors, the San Juan Islands elbow their way into the picture, tantalisingly close and enticing: imagine a colony of Greek isles exported to the Pacific North West and you get most of the picture. To complete it, more herons fly by.
Over its entire length, the line barely lifts more than a few feet above sea level, which means it must hug the shore tightly to keep on the contour. From the middle you can see often both ends of the train.
Most of the action is on the right-hand side of the train. But south of Mount Vernon, the people on the left get their treat when the foothills of the Cascade Mountains – the mighty coastal range that bestows its name on the train – crumble almost to the ocean.
At Everett, the line crosses the broad mouth of the Snohomish River and loops around the coast to head back north, temporarily. Civilisation begins to intrude more significantly. A mile inland, Boeing is making people carriers of a different order of magnitude, in the shape of the big jets that helped to decimate the railroads of the US and Canada.
By the time the Cascades has penetrated Seattle's northern suburbs, it has slowed to a crawl – partly because it shares a waterfront corridor with busy roads and daydreaming tourists. Journey's end, happily, is a triumph. King Street Station was a fortunate survivor of the desecration of railroad glories. The station stood abandoned for three decades, but at the start of the century it was resuscitated by enlightened state legislators, who saw it as a base camp for building the railroads anew. Last Saturday, the station was busy with travellers heading north to Vancouver and south to Portland; today, it will be even livelier.
You step down from the train into a palatial station hall that could be a fragment of Versailles, all stucco and gilt. A chandelier suffuses light into the corners, while early 20th-century lettering barks instructions such as "Family & Men" above a washroom. Families, men and indeed women should make tracks for one of the great unsung rail trips.
The iron road built North America, but for the past half-century passenger trains in the US and Canada have been heading for oblivion. This new Great Western Railway is a signal that a new age of the train may be with us.
Seattle and Vancouver are served non-stop from Heathrow by British Airways (0844 393 0787; ba.com); Vancouver is also served by Air Canada (0871 220 1111; aircanada.com), Virgin Atlantic (0844 874 7747; virgin-atlantic.com) and Air Transat – sold in the UK through Canadian Affair (0843 255 9807; canadianaffair.com).
Rocky Mountaineer (00 800 0606 7372; rockymountaineer.com) offers a range of luxury rail trips – a three-day journey encompassing Seattle, Vancouver, Kamloops and Jasper or Banff costs C$2,869 (£1,913) including meals and hotels.
The budget alternative between Seattle and Vancouver is the twice-daily Cascades train. The lowest one-way fare if you book in advance through Amtrak.com is $30 (£20); the highest is $72 (£48).
See Mark Smith's rail website: seat61.com
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