Threading through the Rockies is the world's greatest train track. York Membery boards the Canadian
Taking a train ride across North America has an enduring appeal, fuelled by countless Hollywood movies that have made such journeys seem the ultimate in rail travel. And the restoration of the gleaming, stainless- steel cars of the Canadian to their Fifties glory gives everyone the chance to make that dream trip - providing they've got deep enough pockets.

The undoubted highlight is crossing the towering Rockies. To save time (it takes three days to get from Toronto to Vancouver) and money, step aboard the train at Edmonton, Alberta, a couple of hundred miles east of the mountain range.

Earlier this year, I arrived at Edmonton station eager with anticipation. A BR-style loudspeaker (it was virtually inaudible) announced the arrival of the Canadian from Toronto, more than 2,000 miles east - the equivalent of going from London to Beirut. And at the platform there she was in all her glory, just like in a Hitchcock film.

At 8.55am precisely, the train pulled out of the station but, to my surprise, we started going backwards. It turned out that the rail network had sold off the land to the west of the station so we had to reverse several miles, before switching tracks and winding our way though a dreary industrial area. It was hardly an auspicious start to what's billed as the world's greatest rail journey.

An hour later we'd hit the rolling countryside to the west, a patchwork of lonely farms, scattered fields and woodland. Every few miles, as we approached a level crossing - few of which have barriers - the whistle would sound. Gradually, the prairie gave way to forest and we began our long climb. The train bridged an arm of Wabamun Lake - so calm it was named after the Cree word for mirror - and four hours after leaving Edmonton, I got my first glimpse of the Rockies' snow-capped peaks.

This great mountain range stretches more than 1,000 miles from north to south, reaching as far as the Yukon, and more than 100 miles from east to west. Once you've crossed the mighty Athabasca River, you're in Jasper National Park, the biggest of Canada's four Rocky Mountain parks. This wilderness is a haven for animals great and small, docile and deadly. Bighorn sheep and mountain goats patrol the peaks, black bear and moose wade the streams.

Wherever you look, the scenery is magnificent. One mountain, Roche Miette, is notable for its sheer 900ft limestone cliff face, while the emerald green Lac Beauvert gets its colour from the glacial silts in the waters. All this you see simply by looking out of the window, although there are also two dome cars with glass bubble viewing roofs. These, however, are usually packed with camera-wielding tourists.

At about 2pm we arrived in Jasper, an Alpine-style village in the north of the park. As soon as I got off the train I could taste the mountain air. The main street is dotted with restaurants and gift shops but it still has the wide-open feel of a frontier town.

An hour later, we set off again. Besides enjoying the scenery, you get to meet all sorts of people and I got chatting with some grungy teenagers on their first train trip, and a logger from the far north.

The train - which has anything between 13 and 23 carriages, depending on the season - is hauled by a 3,000 horsepower diesel-electric engine. The century-old railroad is open throughout the year, but with temperatures plunging to minus 30 in the winter, delays are understandable. The average speed is 40mph as the train hugs a rugged rock face on its climb to the Yellowhead Pass (which marks the border between Alberta and British Columbia), more than 3,000ft above sea level. Landslides and rock falls are a constant danger and the wire fences on the uphill side of the track set off a warning signal when avalanches begin.

After leaving Jasper, we skirted the shore of Yellowhead Lake, which has a stunning mountain backdrop, and the narrow Moose Lake, which lies beneath the steeply-wooded Selwyn Mountains. But for sheer spectacle nothing can compare with the lordly Mount Robson - at 13,000 ft the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies.

We watched the sun set on the mountains, while we threaded our way past rivers, lakes, woods and waterfalls. Late that evening we pulled into Kamloops, a town that grew from the Cariboo Gold Rush of 1862. By now it was dark and there was a steady drizzle - but the best of the scenery was behind us.

The following morning as we pulled into Vancouver train station, one of the grungy teenagers turned to me and gave his verdict on the journey. "It was totally cool," he said.

MAKING TRACKS TO THE ROCKIES

Getting there York Membery flew on a discounted Air India ticket to Toronto (available through agents such as Welcome Travel, 0171-439 0899) and took a domestic flight from there to Edmonton. You can fly direct from Heathrow to Edmonton on Air Canada and Canadian Airlines; Airline Network (01772 727272) has a fare of pounds 545 for travel on either airline in September.

A Coach Class (ie second class) ticket with Via Rail from Edmonton to Vancouver costs C$192 plus $13 tax, about pounds 100 in all. Fares drop after 15 October. A top-of-the-range Drawing Room ticket costs $1,900 plus tax, but these are usually booked months ahead.

Via Rail services can be booked in advance in the UK on 01733 335599.

Comments