It is as recognizably Canadian as hockey, the beaver and the red-coated Royal Canadian Mounted Police. And ever since the now-legendary last spike was driven into the Canadian Pacific railway on Nov. 7, 1885, the steep approach to the 4,340-foot-high Rogers Pass in British Columbia’s towering Selkirk Mountains has defied engineers and hampered the movement of freight to the Pacific Coast. But last week, while bagpipes skirled and Mounties stood at attention, 1,000 railwaymen, politicians and businessmen watched CP Rail chairman Barry Scott officially open a new $500-million, 34-km rail line through the fabled pass. It includes a 14-km tunnel, the longest rail tunnel in the Western Hemisphere. After more than a century of trying, CP Rail had conquered the mighty Selkirks—and opened a new chapter in the saga of the transcontinental railway.
Taming Rogers Pass is an important economic breakthrough for the Canadian West. Located deep within British Columbia’s Glacier National Park, about midway between Calgary and Vancouver, the pass acts as a funnel for billions of dollars worth of coal, potash, grain and sulphur destined for B.C. ports. But ever since the railway through the Rocky Mountains and the Selkirks was completed in 1885, struggling up the steep incline of the Beaver River Valley through the narrow Rogers Pass has presented problems. Before the opening of the new tunnel, freight trains were forced to stop at the foot of the pass while six pushing locomotives were added to the five pullers already in use, a process which delayed shipments and limited the traffic heading west through the pass. Recently, the problem has become more pressing as the steady increase in traffic threatened to outstrip the line’s capacity. But the latest expansion, which was completed on schedule and $100 million under budget, eliminates CP Rail’s most serious bottleneck. And it helps ensure an expanding role for Canada as a supplier of raw materials to the Pacific Rim.
The project doubles the capacity of the CP Rail main line through the pass and lowers the grade to one per cent, which is a vertical rise of one foot over 100 feet, from the previous 2.2-per-cent grade. Without the necessity of adding the pusher locomotives to all westbound trains, they can run from the Canadian interior to the West Coast two hours faster than they did before. East bound trains, many of them hauling empty freight cars, will continue to use the eight-kilometre
Connaught Tunnel, which opened in 1916.
The arithmetic is simple. By shortening each trip, CP Rail can increase the number of trains travelling through the pass daily to a maximum of 24 from 15—an increase of 60 per cent. The new line ensures a dependable route to move Canadian coal, sulphur, grain and potash to the Pacific Rim—a fact emphasized by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in a message read at last week’s ceremony. CP Rail’s Scott read Mulroney’s congratulatory note as Ottawa was continuing its struggle to pare down Via Rail Canada Inc.’s passenger service. The federal government was represented by Charles Mayer, and the absence of a senior member of the cabinet was apparent to CP Rail executives. But there was a historical precedent for the oversight. Not one member of Sir John A. Macdonald’s government was present for the driving of the last spike in 1885.
The new tunnel was clearly a huge undertaking. According to the railway, it was the biggest construction project since the completion of the transcontinental line. It involved four years of work and the excavation of 88 million cubic feet of earth and rock, and employed 1,100 people at peak construction. The railway used two contractors, each starting from opposite ends of Mount Macdonald. One used a large drilling machine to bore through the bedrock, while the other used conventional blasting methods. And the two sides met in the middle, only inches out of line. CP Rail also excavated a 1.8-km-long tunnel under Mount Shaughnessy and built five bridges, four culverts and a 4,032-foot-long viaduct. Said Ronald Tanaka, CP Rail’s chief engineer: “Every day the engineers came on the site, there was a different problem.”
As well, carving the tunnel involved overcoming one of the most inhospitable climates on the continent—including an annual snowfall of about 400 inches. Indeed, when the first rail line was laid through the pass in 1885, avalanches caused by the fierce weather wrecked trains, killed workers and blocked the line for weeks. But even more difficult was working within the strict environmental constraints imposed by Parks Canada, the custodians of the fragile mountain refuge. The railway even had to put mechanical scrubbers into the vents of work camp kitchens so that the smell of food would not attract animals. And CP Rail has planted more than a million trees and shrubs to prevent erosion in areas disturbed by the construction. Said CP Rail’s Scott: “After nearly 104 years of railroading in these Selkirk Mountains, we have finally tamed the geography— or at least as much as man is ever likely to do.”
Even so, CP Rail officials say that the project’s real value to the Canadian economy will only be realized in the next century. Any significant increase in traffic to the Pacific Rim would have swamped the old Connaught Tunnel line. Now, CP Rail officials predict that they can handle the activity—no matter how much it expands.
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