On 27-Feb-1912, the Pacific Great Eastern was incorporated, and with it, one of the most fascinating yet obscure railways in North America was born. By 1915, the line linked Squamish and Lillooet, and then pressed on towards Quesnel with its eventual goal of linking Vancouver with Prince George and the interior. Williams Lake was reached in the fall of 1919, with the line completed into Quesnel by early 1921. Despite such good progress through the incredibly remote and rugged terrain, progress stopped just north of Quesnel at the Cottonwood River crossing. Due to the inability to find a stable site for the bridge, Quesnel became the de facto terminus of the line for nearly three decades. The trackage laid north from Quesnel and south of Prince George would be torn up in the 1930s, and at this point the line would founder.
However, in the 1950s, provincial politics once again pushed it foward, with the Quesnel-Prince George segment completed in 1952. With the arrival of the politics of Premier WAC Bennet in 1952, the idea of a railway opening British Columbia was once again in the spotlight. An infusion of government investment made the difficult Squamish-Vancouver link along the Howe Sound possible by 1956. Looking at the unopened north, plans for the railroad to be extended beyond Prince George were dreamed up. By 1958, the PGE linked North Vancouver with such northern points as Chetwynd, Fort St. John, and Dawson Creek (at the Northern Alberta Railway). At this point, the railway would once again stop building, if at least for a few years pause.
By 1971, the two last great reaches into the wilderness were underway - one of which would become the Fort Nelson Sub and the other the somewhat infamous Dease Lake Extension. The Fort Nelson Sub, linking Fort St. John with its namesake petroleum-rich boomtown on the Alaska Highway, was completed in 1971. The Dease Lake Extension, however, was built on a far more speculative basis. Following the Rocky Mountain Trench, the line was started at Odell in 1967 to originally connect Fort St. James. However, thinking in a grand manner, after the line reached Fort St. James in late 1968, the province decided to build a line into the upper reaches of nowhere, expected to end at Dease Lake - little more than a random inkblot on the provincial map. The intention was always that this would be the railway link from the lower continent to the Alaska Railroad. However, since it was speculative construction without any real customers, the BC government stopped the rails at Chipmunk in 1977, several hundred miles short of the end of the grade. Also during this period (1972, to be exact), the Pacific Great Eastern became the British Columbia Railway. This would mark the end of BCR's expansionist era, save one new line.
One final piece wasn't yet in place, however. Like I mentioned, it's an odd little railway, and the oddest piece of them all was conceived in 1978 - the Tumbler Ridge Subdivision. Deep in the British Columbia wilderness lay high quality metallurgical coal, near the town of Tumbler Ridge. In 1978, just a year after cost-cutting measures had struck down the Dease Lake extension, the BC government decided to once again extend its railway. Eager to tap the Asian demand for this coal, they proposed a line from Tacheeda to Tumber Ridge and eventually Quintette. However, due to the terrain (and tunnels) it would be traversing as well as some political influences, the engineers chose to electrify the line using power from some of the large provincial hydroelectric projects. With its 50kV AC electrification and six unique EMD GF6C electric motors, the 82 mile route was truly an engineering marvel and railroad oddity in North America. Completed in 1983, it would also be the first shut down. On 29-Sep-2000, the GF6Cs dropped their pantographs, probably forever, and the overhead was turned off. Diesels continued to operate the line until 10-Apr-2003, when the last train left the Bullmoose Mine, and at that point the line was mothballed.
To me, the first sign of trouble came in mid-December 2001, when BC Rail announced that it was exiting the intermodal business, stating that it was losing money. Nearly every other railroad on the continent is successfully trying to capture intermodal traffic, and here's one that's well suited (there really are no high-speed road links from Vancouver to Fort Nelson or the other northern points) that's trying to dump service. Shortly after that, the announcement came that the current BC Liberal administration, led by Gordon Campbell, introduced and passed legislation allowing BC Rail out of its traditional passenger-carrying obligations. This was after an election where Campbell had promised that the BC Liberals "will not privatize or sell BC Rail". I don't pretend to understand the politics of BC - the parties, the issues, the elected officials, or even the general mindset. However, as an American well versed in double-talking politicians, I can smell a weasel a mile away, and something stinks in Vancouver. Just a year after the introduction of its new luxury train, the Whistler Northwind, it was dumping the whole operation - the dinner train out of North Vancounver, the Whistler Northwind, and the traditional Budd car (and well-patronized) Cariboo Prospector. The final dinner train ran on 21-Oct-2002, and the final Cariboo on 31-Oct-2002.
Then, without much warning, the big bomb hit. On 15-May-2003, BC Rail put out an RFP for prospective buyers, signaling the beginning of the end for the Crown corporation. For those interested, the RFP information is available online from BC Rail's website. As one can clearly see by its history, BC Rail has always been a puppet of politics, seldom building as market forces dictated, but rather being built to help build a province. While the early and unexpected closure of the Tumbler Ridge line had left the railway with a considerable amount of dept, everything I've been able to find shows that the railroad is profitable and getting moreso, despite having to service some $600 million in debt and operate through some of the most remote and inhospitable country in all of populated Canada.
The worst part (and this is purely my speculation now) is that I believe this is driven by a two-forked issue: the current government wants to make a quick one-off buck (or should I say, "loony") to make the provincial budget look good this year, and they want the right-of-way to pave in order to meet capacity needs for the 2010 Olympics in Whistler. CN is often mentioned as the leading bidder for the line, and it's been admitted that they've drawn up a plan for abandoning everything south of Chasm. Since they connect at Prince George and North Vancouver, there's no reason to operate the costly southernmost 200 miles of the BCR system. This works out conveniently, since the Province needs to build more highway capacity between Vancouver and Whistler to accomodate the 2010 Olympics traffic. The only place to put more lanes between North Vancouver and Squamish is - you guessed it - the BCR roadbed. Oddly convenient, isn't it? There's that weasel smell again...
I've had a fascination with BC Rail since the late 1988 issue of Pacific Rail News covering BCR's North End (Chetwynd north and east, basically). Something about four-axled Alcos and other bizarre power running through middle of the BC wilderness always captured my interest and imagination. At the time, I was only 12, and as such obviously couldn't go see it for myself. As luck would have it, a year after receiving that issue, the family vacation for the summer was to head north to Alaska - by road. With the Alaska Highway starting in Dawson Creek, the route took me right into the heart of BCR's north end operations. Used to the fan-ambivalent (or fan-hostile) railroads of the US, I was quite surprised when, after photographing the Dawson Creek job (with BCR 643 and 644) switching for a while at Dawson, one of them asked my parents if they could haul me around for a bit. So, my first cab ride - in BCR M420 644 - came about on BCR in one of the units I'd been looking at pictures of for months. Later in the day, again without asking, the yard crew invited up on RS18 623 in the Fort St. John yard. All I need say is that still some of my best memories of railfanning are still about that remote segment of BC Rail, thanks to the great people up there that took time out of their day to make the day of a train-loving kid in an ugly pink shirt. (Photo #1) Yes, that's really me in 1989 on 623.
With the news of the impending selloff of BC Rail, I decided to make one last trip up to see it. My last trip was in Apr-May of 2001, and you can go see that trip report here, if you're interested. I'd lost the Rio Grande before I really had the ability to go see it in person for any length of time, and now that I had the time, money, and capability, I wasn't letting my other favorite railroad slip away. So, in the course of two weeks, I put together all the needed pieces and headed out for Vancouver late Friday night (22-Aug-2003).
However, there was no sense wasting the 1600 mile drive each way, so the first night's stop was Helper, UT. However, before leaving work I'd seen a note from Paul Birkholz that several MRL units (302, 303, 304, and 356)leased to BNSF) were making their way down the Front Range, so I was carefully watching for them as I left work. As luck would have it, I caught up with them in a light power move at Sedalia in what would turn out to be some of the last sunlight for the afternoon. (Photo #2) A nasty storm system was brewing over the mountains, and after leaving Sedalia I'd be fighting periods of intense rain and wind for the next eight hours. The only other train I'd actually see for the rest of the day was a BNSF job (with ATSF 925 and a rebuilt BN GP30, 2806) working the American Soda branch out of Parachute, CO, on the western slope. However, due to cloud cover, I didn't get any really good shots of it. (Photo #3)
Friday dawned bright and early, but I didn't. I hadn't gotten in to the National 9 in Price until after 2300h, so I overslept the alarm by quite a bit. Suspecting that I'd already missed the Saturday dirt train, I headed up to Helper to see if anything else was going on, only to be surprised by the the train in question calling West Maxwell on the radio. In true Rio Grande form, four DRGW tunnel motors were up on the front, even if one did have a severe case of yellowness. Helper always feels good in the morning, partially because it's nearly always a clear, crisp morning when I'm there, and partially because the old Grande motors are always up and running. Today it was 5349 on the lead, followed by 5371, UP 8620 (ex-DRGW 5363), and DRGW 5390. (Photo #3) I chased the train down as far as Wellington, but with the cloud cover to the south, I eventually gave up. Besides, I hadn't brought the Yukon on this trip, but rather my Del Sol. I had no particular desire to take a tiny, two-wheel drive car out into the desert the morning after a large rainstorm, due to the danger of getting stuck.
Heading north again, I heard another one call Maxwell - this time the Utah 5006 east. For those that don't know, the Utah 5000-series units were the six (and only six) MK5000C units ever built. However, about a year ago, all of them were withdrawn from service and sent back to Morrison-Knutsen / MotivePower Industries due to broken crankshafts, bad crank bearings, and/or damaged alternators. After some work, MPI decided to rebuild them with EMD internals (giving up on the big 5000hp Caterpillar engines, believed to have failed due to excessive flex and vibration), and bought 6 ex-UP, ex-MP SD50s for the task. 5005 was the first returned, in the full orange colors of the Utah's new owners - the Gennessee & Western. Shortly afterwards came Utah 5005, and then later 5002. While they retain their original cab and frame, long hood is now that donated from an SD50, and the internals are mostly EMD variants - a 16-645F3B prime mover and an AR10 alternator, combined with a Q-tron QES-3 control system. As luck would have it, I met 5006 leading the other two and the bizarre MPEX 5000 (SD45 body and frame with an MK5000 cab) on one of the Intermountain Power Project trains at Price. (Photos #4, 5, 6)
Continuing up the hill, the next train didn't show up until near Gilluly, where Amtrak 6, the eastbound California Zephyr, was passing under the highway as I drove over. I've seen 6 a zillion times, and normally it wouldn't hold that much interest. However, today it was late for some reason, and there was a UP SD70M (4821) tacked on the front. This has apparently become somewhat common as a way to help Amtrak make up time over the former Rio Grande, as this has been reported several times on the DRGW list lately. I drove back up to West Soldier Summit and waited for him, and fortunately the cloud cover decided to cooperate and open up as it approached. (Photo #7)
At that point, I'd blown quite a bit of the morning, and to keep on schedule I decided to skip over looking at anything in the Provo to Odgen area. With all the rail activity, it would have been easy to blow half a day chasing random stuff, but I was determined to get into Vancouver early Sunday afternoon. That would require making good time across Idaho, Oregon, and part of Washington. I actually managed to do it, too, despite seeing some old SP motors while passing through SLC. By early afternoon, I was on I-84 headed out of Utah.
The next train of the day was a loaded UP grain train I spotted near Bliss, ID. Since it was moving along pretty well, I stayed on 84 for a bit and finally got off the freeway near Hammett. Following the line west of town on what my maps show as the Old Oregon Trail Highway, I found a small driveway at the top of the hill, overlooking a broad curve and the valley below. After waiting for what seemed an eternity (but was rather more like 45 minutes), UP 8510 and train finally showed up. (Photo #8) As the end of the train appeared, I realized why it had taken so long to go so few miles - there were now manned helpers at the back of the train, shoving it up the hill. Ever since DPU showed up in force in Colorado, manned helpers are an oddity in my world. It makes me wonder why UP hasn't started using them through this area, too.
I stopped for dinner in Boise, ID, and drove past the MPI facility on the way out of town. Sitting in the shadows, half buried behind some stuff, was one of the new GP20Ds that MPI is building for Union Pacific under contract from EMD. They're being leased through CIT Group, and you can read more about it in the press release here. Unfortunately, I couldn't get a shot of it, or even fully read its number.
I finally wrapped up the day at the Motel 6 in Yakima, WA, putting 1250 of the 1600 miles to Vancouver behind me. I figured the remaining 350 would make for a nice, relaxing drive across the costal ranges and up the coast into Canada. Things are never that easy, though.
I'd logged on to Trainorders from the motel Sunday morning to find that Tacoma Rail would be going all the way out to Morton (on its Mountain Division, a former Milwaukee branchline) to drop off a boxcar. Figuring that might be an interesting thing to see, I headed over to Morton via US 12. When I left Naches, it was a beautiful, warm morning, so I took put the top down on the car. Stupid me - while it was a fun drive up to White Pass, as soon as I crested the summit I was freezing to death from the cold ocean winds. Dumb, dumb, dumb. However, having the top off, I could hear that the bizarre thumping noise I'd been hearing since Utah was indeed growing louder. However, it still wasn't alarmingly loud or even consistent, just enough to get paranoia worrying types like myself thinking about all the things that could ruin the trip.
Passing through Morton and then driving up towards Tacoma on 7, I never did find the aforementioned Tacoma Rail train. The scanner went off a few times, but never provided enough information to get a good idea of where it currently was located. However, at Elbe I did try to pull over to get a picture of one of the Mount Rainier Scenic's Heislers sitting right alongside the road. However, with the insane traffic density, I never managed to get turned around, so I eventually gave up and just continued driving. However, in the sharp curves around Lagrande, the thumping noise became ever so much louder, especially on hard lefthand turns. Well, that was going to put a dent in the day, but at least it was loud enough to identify with some certainty - flat spot on one of the rear tires.
As luck would have it, I found a Firestone dealer in Puyallup that was actually open on Sunday, though heavily backlogged. I explained my situation, and he promised to get me in this afternoon, despite the number of cars he needed to work on. As it turns out, one of the back (nearly new) Firestones on the car had an enormous flat spot developing, and he replaced it for minor cost under warranty. At the same time, I had them go ahead and put matching new tires on the front, since they were nearly shot as well (probably only about 8k miles left on the tread). I figured since he was nice enough to fit me in so my trip's schedule wouldn't get trashed, I'd do more business with him. Four hours later, I finally got out of Puyallup and back en route to Canada. However, any ambitions of reaching Vancouver by early-afternoon were shot, as it was 1630h and I was stuck in Tacoma traffic. (Rush hour traffic jams on Sundays? What's wrong with you people?)
I finally made the border about 1930h, and spent half an hour as I picked the slowest customs lane at Peace Arch (on the I-5 corridor). Customs cleared me without any trouble (aside from adamantly asking three times if I was going to be leaving anything in Canada). I simply explained that I was traveling on vacation, since that was, at the core, the purpose of my trip. However, with all my timetables and copies of operating plans tucked safely in the back of my camera bag, I was just as rather they didn't decide to get suspicious and start looking. In today's terrorist-under-every-rock mentality, I didn't want to explain my hobby or why I was carrying such legal, but odd (and potentially suspicious) materials. So, for fans heading into Canada, be honest with Customs and you'll have no trouble, but I personally wouldn't mention your hobby unless there's a real need to do so.
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This work is copyright 2003 by Nathan D. Holmes (email@example.com), but licensed under a Creative Commons License. This allows and encourages others to make productive use of my work by giving them permission to copy, modify, use, and distribute my work, without the hassle of asking me for explicit permission or fear of copyright violation. I encourage others to consider CC or other Open Content-style licensing of their original works.
All photographs in this trip report were taken with a Canon EOS 10D with a Canon 28-105mm USM, a Canon 100-300mm USM, or a Canon 75-300mm f4-5.3 IS/USM.