|Canadian Pacific Railway’s Crowsnest Route through the Crown of the Continent rewards rail fans with expansive mountain vistas, extraordinary engineering works, and some of the world’s heaviest trains hauled at speed by the most powerful locomotives ever made. And if chance (or good pre-trip research) is on your side, you might see an entire train of luxury private cars from the 1920s trailing a pair of purring, cat-faced diesel locomotives liveried in their original 1950’s grey, maroon, and gold.
The ultimate treat is the sight and sound of what must be the most beautiful operating steam locomotive on the planet, CPR’s exquisitely restored 2816, stepping as carefully as a mountain goat between the high cliffs of the Continental Divide and the deep waters of Crowsnest Lake. You can check the schedule for the Royal Canadian Pacific private car train at and watch for steam train excursions at www.cpr.ca
The Crowsnest Route was completed in 1897 through a low pass first “discovered” by Europeans only 24 years earlier. The ancient trading route of the Ktunaxa (Kootenay) First Nation was soon coveted by railway builders on both sides the border for its tall trees—good for making ties and trestles—and huge deposits of high-grade coal to fire locomotives with a maximum of heat and a minimum of troublesome ash. With the Great Northern already skirting the international boundary on its way from Minnesota to Seattle, Canada’s colonial government subsidized C.P.R.’s construction of its second mainline through the Rockies in a move to assert British imperial sovereignty above the 49th Parallel. In 1904, the Great Northern even punched across the border to rival Canadian Pacific’s dominion over the coalfields of British Columbia’s Elk Valley. (That Great Northern line was abandoned in the 1920s, but the fight was renewed in the 1970s when GNR tried but failed to revive its charter and compete in the hauling metallurgical coal to the Pacific Coast for shipment to Japan.)
Today, the Crowsnest Route thrives with long trains of coal hoppers on their way from the Elk Valley to an ocean terminal near Vancouver. The route also hosts overflows of container and mixed freight traffic from CPR’s more northerly main line through Banff National Park. The two lines join at Golden, B.C. from where the railway navigates Rogers’ Pass and the Spiral Tunnel on its way to the coast.
A Geo-Located Itinerary for Trainwatchers