The Golden Age Of Steel

When I first learned of Ottawa’s plan to derail the transcontinental passenger service, my thoughts turned to a warm day in June, 1878. There, stretched out exhausted on a meadow 240 km out of Kamloops, a young surveyor’s assistant named Robert Rylatt looked into the future and saw, in fantasy, the end results of his handiwork – a long line of railway cars sweeping across the empty flats. For a moment he thought he could glimpse the passengers of the future, secure in the dining car – a cocoon of civilization hurtling through the wild – devouring superb meals washed down with vintage wines (for Rylatt himself was half starved at this point). He could even hear them talking as they gazed from the windows and remarked on the superb vistas unrolling before them.

If it were possible to be nostalgic about the future, then Robert Rylatt would be kin to all of us. For, more than a century later, we too in our dreams look back on the same Golden Age of Steel to which he looked forward. In that brief moment in history the transcontinental train has come and gone. We think of it now, as Rylatt did – a wonder from a different age.

In its day, the steam train was king and the private railway car the dominant symbol of material success. That is not surprising, for all through the ages the contemporary mode of transportation has had overtones of elitism and conspicuous waste – from the golden barges of the Egyptian pharaohs to the golden Cadillacs of the Saudi princes.

Has there ever been a more efficient and attractive form of transportation than the private railway car? For ease, convenience and sheer comfort, it has not been equalled. Hitched to the rear of an accommodating train, these wheeled caravansaries spirited the captains of industry about the country at commendable speed. George Stephen, first president of the CPR, could turn up one day in New York, the next in both Montreal and Ottawa. He did not need a hotel; the train was his home. There, he had instant communication with the world. He bathed in comfort and slept in a broad bed. Royally breakfasted by his personal chef, bandbox-neat thanks to his valet, he could recline at ease in one of the leather chairs in his miniature parlor and enjoy a whisky and soda with his vice-president, William Van Horne, who arrived in his personal private car.

That was not the lot of the ordinary traveller; yet much of the elegance rubbed off. The age of public railway luxury began in Canada as early as 1870 when the Grand Trunk introduced the first of its Palace Cars. Handsomely painted and exquisitely decorated, with fine furnishings and costly panelling, each was a miniature hotel with three state rooms and two drawing rooms, cabinet work of polished black walnut, upholstery of crimson velvet, and small, intimate tables lit with shaded lamps whose romantic rays were reflected in the splendid mirrors that adorned the walls. Of the country’s first Palace Car, the Canadian Illustrated News exclaimed that “for elegance and beauty it seems impossible to surpass it.”

Only the very rich could afford to travel in a Palace Car. But Van Horne of the CPR brought this elegance and beauty within reach of the common traveller, and his competitors followed suit. More than anyone, he is responsible for our misty image of a vanished way of life. For when we old wayfarers think of old-fashioned train travel, we think in sensuous terms of texture, polish and sparkle.

Nothing but the best would do. Van Horne, a painter of romantic vistas, brought the same touch to the railway. He hired interior decorators to design his parlor cars. He brought in European craftsmen to hand carve the wood-work. He made the berths longer for extra comfort, for he himself was a bulky man. In the dining cars, the silver service gleamed, the china and linen were of the highest quality, and so was the food – the mounds of paper-thin breakfast bacon, each slice grilled to such a perfect crispness that it curled into a tiny, bite-size ball; and the Winnipeg goldeye, hot and juicy with its half-melted pat of butter, lying beside a golden bed of home fries! That’s how my own love affair with the railway began at the age of 5, devouring gourmet breakfast in the shadow of the Rockies.

This common love affair with the railway – or, more properly, with the idea of the railway – is as old as Confederation. If we have been shaped by the railway it is because, for practical purposes, we are shaped like a railway – a 6,400-km population strip along the border, for the most part no more than 320 km thick. No other country, not even Chile, faces this kind of problem. The railway has held us together, spanning a bleak Precambrian desert, an angry ocean of plumed mountains, a chill wasteland of muskeg, to give us unity we could not otherwise have achieved.

Every nation rejoices in at least one epic moment from its past, as much myth as history – the Spanish Armada, the storming of the Bastille, the Boston tea party, the Long March, the Voortrek. Ours is unique, less violent but equally dramatic: the construction of a line of steel to unknown shores to create a nation. The covered wagon is not a Canadian symbol. Our immigrants invaded the West on the slatted seats of colonist cars.

Railway politics, much of it clandestine, has dominated our history – and still does. In just three years in the 1850s, $100 million in foreign capital was pumped into Canadian railways, much of it to enrich the promoters and contractors. It was said that when the Speaker’s bell rang for a division in the Upper Canadian legislature, most of the members could be found sipping champagne in the apartments of influential railway builders.

Railways and Canadian nationalism have been inseparable since the days of the Intercolonial system that preceded the CPR in the Maritimes. Like it or not, the government has been in the railway business since the beginning through direct subsidy, guaranteed loans or full ownership. After the turn of the century, Canada went railway mad. One transcontinental line would not do. Two would not do. Three were scarcely enough. Railways, it was held, spelled prosperity; the very promise of a branch line sent real estate values soaring. Shortly before the Great War an advertisement in Maclean’s promised that seven railways would soon reach Fort George, a paper community in the heart of British Columbia. The dream died, and Fort George’s ghostly streets have long since been entombed in a jungle of lodgepole pines.

Too many railways almost did us in. The bubble burst, the companies toppled. Canada, a country built on compromise, compromised again. We ended up with two roads – one too many – a private road that made money, a public road saddled with debt for which the taxpayers, not the bondholders, were charged. It’s unnerving to realize that in the seven worst years of the Depression, Ottawa shovelled out more money to service the debt of the CNR than it did in relief payments to the dispossessed.

Must the railway era end then with a whimper? It seems so, for we have lost both the nerve and the pride that ushered in the Golden Age. The government won’t gamble to improve the rolling stock or build the roadbeds that would provide the kind of fast, efficient service that other countries enjoy. Profit and loss are surely secondary considerations here, for if we lose the railway we lose more than our heritage; we lose the most energy-efficient form of transportation available. When the oil crisis strikes again, we will have to downgrade the buses and go back to the rails, as Calgary and Vancouver have already done. The euphemism is Light Rapid Transit; but, light or heavy, a train is still a train, and the day will come when we will welcome it back as an old and trusted friend.