Growing up in a suburb of Brisbane, Australia, my brothers, sisters and I, like other high school students of 1950s, caught a train into the city itself to attend secondary school. Those steam trains made lots of noise, ashes from their coal-burning furnaces blowing in through open windows. We heard its huffing and puffing, and when standing on the station as the train pulled in, we felt heat from expelled steam. The engineer and the fireman took their jobs as seriously as the conductor did at the other end of the train or when walking through checking tickets and student passes. No wonder we grew up fascinated by these Puffing Billies.
My brother-in-law, Merv, and sister Vera, who just visited us from Australia, are no exception. As we travelled together recently, trains kept popping into our experiences. When we visited our niece, husband and their four children in Kelowna, choosing activities to suit all ages proved easy. One was riding the steam train in Summerland along the only saved and restored section of the Kettle Valley Railway.
A new experience for younger generations, for the four seniors, it generated a trip down memory lane. On a picture-perfect day we steamed out of the Prairie Valley Railway Station, above luscious green pastures and orchards, along 10 km of track to the steel trestle way above Trout Creek and back again.
As in the olden days, the uniformed conductor clicked our tickets; the whistle blew as we started off, crossed roads, and told us when to reboard at Canyon View Siding. A banjo player strummed and asked for requests, singing Aussie songs with us joining in heartily, and thrilling a group of Ukrainians when he sang one of their favourites. Kids, young and old, had a bingo card to fill in, checking off sights along the way, including “The Old Volks Home”.
A few days later, John and I, along with Vera and Merv, were pushing the raindrops out of the way as we drove east along Highway 1. At Field, a cuppa sounded refreshing, so we sidetracked towards the township. A stationary freight train filled the crossing between us and the café, stopping us in our tracks. We did not hang around.
The viewpoint for the Spiral Tunnels is not far east of Field, so we next pulled in there. With no trains in sight we soon left. Just past the continental divide marking part of the BC/Alberta border, we met a train about to descend. U-turn time! As we reached the viewpoint once again, people were wandering back to cars and buses. Soon a train rumbled by above us, going uphill. We had just missed it! We waited for the other to come down, reading historical information, and got a better understanding of the set-up by studying the model carefully – several times.
Nothing came. We gave up and left – but not for long! Before we reached the divide “our” train appeared. Back we went, noting that it was uncharacteristically short for a freight train. We heard it rumble along above the highway, glimpsing it through the trees before it disappeared into the “invisible” upper tunnel in Cathedral Mountain. “That’s where it is,” we showed each other on the model.
It took an age, but, eventually: “Whoo-oo!” We heard it before we saw it, now below us. Soon it entered the tunnel into Mt. Ogden on a gentle downward slope, to emerge at a lower level. This particular train was hidden for 44 seconds; a long train can have the engine chugging back into view before the last carriage disappears.
Was it worth the waits and our own loop-de-loops to see an actual train descend using these spiral tunnels? You bet.