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Canada’s Steel Spine Welds Trains to Grain : Railroad: The idea of a coast-to-coast rail link is older than Canada, but it began to take shape just after nationhood in 1867. Soon it became the single most important thread in the fabric of its identity.

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Bill Bell, the locomotive engineer on the Canadian Pacific Extra 3091 train out of Regina, Saskatchewan, is whistling “Moon River.” This shows he’s feeling cranky.

“Always whistle ‘Moon River,’ ” he told me once. “Calms you right down.”

He has good reason to need calming. Right out of the yard, as the train started southeast down the branch line known as the Tyvan Subdivision, his second engine overheated, rang the alarm bell for five minutes, then expired for the day.

“I hate using one unit,” he said. “No pizazz.” Then his brakeman nearly jammed a switch. Now, pulling loaded grain cars, he has the throttle all the way to position eight, but though the engine roars and sways, we can barely manage 21 miles an hour. “Now we suffer,” he says.

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I’m not suffering. North American commerce doesn’t get much more basic than trains and grain. And here I am, in a big old locomotive, hauling grain west across the plains of Saskatchewan, one of the great wheat-producing regions of the world. And this train is part of the most romantic and legendary of North American railroads: the Canadian Pacific, the steel spine of Canada.

The dream that made this world of grain was a dream of rails. Grain is the railroad’s biggest single commodity, but the farmers couldn’t have reached the prairie without the railroad, and then, without the railroad, there would have been no way to market the abundant grain the prairie can produce.

The idea of a coast-to-coast railroad is older than Canada, but it began to take shape just after nationhood in 1867. Soon it became the single most important thread in the fabric of Canadian identity.

The final spike was driven 27 miles west of Revelstoke, British Columbia, on Nov. 7, 1885.

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The railroad made Winnipeg king and Regina queen, led the stampede to Calgary, carried climbers to the Selkirk Mountains, founded industrial trade on Lake Superior, made fortunes in Vancouver and brought the checkerboard to the prairie. Its link with grain is not just a handclasp; it is a weld.

The partnership between rail and farm is a conspiracy to attack distance. To each community the prairie may be intimate, but its dominant characteristic is expanse. From Winnipeg on the east to Calgary on the west is 839 rail miles. Distance itself is the enemy here; the train must conquer it to make the system work.

A few days after riding with Bill Bell, I catch CP Extra 5741 West at Moose Jaw, a big town with a railroad yard right through the middle of it.

“We’re away from home for 3,800 miles a month,” says Duane Weekes, the engineer. “We miss a lot of Kodak Moments with our kids. I’m paid really well for the time I’m away from home, but I earn every penny of that. You never get that time back.”

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Things are not working well right now. A few miles later, familiar alarm bells sound: another engine problem. This time the No. 4 locomotive is overheating. The conductor opens the engine’s access doors to try to cool it, and we rumble on.

This railroad is having power problems. Its diesel-electric engines are struggling. Almost every train I’ve ridden has lost an engine while I’ve been aboard.

Engineers accuse management of cutting back on maintenance to save money. Management says that all available engines have to be used because of increased business.

All that stands between the grain and the sea are two walls of rock--the Rocky Mountains and the Selkirk range--the canyons of the Thompson and Fraser rivers and the toughest 125-mile stretch of track on this railroad: the notorious Mountain Sub.

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Wayne Tetrault is the locomotive engineer on CP Extra 9015, which I join in Field. This is the beginning of the Mountain Sub.

There is plenty here to scare you. This 125.7 miles of track consists of an initial downgrade, a tough upgrade through two tunnels and a long, winding downhill haunted by the memory of one of the railroad’s most costly wrecks.

One night in November, 1977, just on the other side of the hill, a train run by Timmy Hamm, Clarence Thacker and three other men bit the weeds big time.

It was a coal train without brakes plunging down 20-m.p.h. track at 50, 60, 70, 85 m.p.h.; the hammer and scream of wheels; the expectation of death; and the bloom of light at the end, when the train came apart just behind the lead locomotives, plunged into a river and burst into flame.

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Our last two engines are now running with the doors hanging open, but that doesn’t help. As we emerge from the Mount Shaughnessy Tunnel, a poorly ventilated, mile-long hole in the Selkirks, three of our four engines, cooked in the tunnel, switch out of action.

The train, with the last surviving unit pouring its smoky heart out in futile effort, comes to a roaring halt. We’re stuck.

As Tetrault and conductor Frank Bonanno work to get the train inching forward, I look back. Clouds of smoke pour from the tunnel’s mouth. It looks like the gates of hell.

But the day-to-day partnership between rail and farm has power of its own. It may be running with its doors hanging open, but it’s still going up the track. There’s something sustaining about the value of the work itself.

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“I guess you do it,” Tetrault says now with a shrug. “Whatever it takes to get the train going again.”

For all the railroaders I met, that was always the bottom line.


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