About twice a year, I get sent out on the road to field test new software. Last summer took me to San Diego, CA, but this year the powers that be sent me out to the international test site in Vancouver, BC, Canada. The trip was delayed and cancelled several times due to various issues, but finally, on April 27, 2001, I was headed up to Canada. As it turns out, this delay would be a bit of a blessing, as most of the bugs were worked out in the domestic testing (which happened right on schedule in early April). Just as a generic note for those of you thinking of travelling that way - make sure you check that your passport is still valid before you go, or have one of the other various forms of proof of US citizenship handy. I discovered that morning that my passport expired two months ago, and my birth certificate is still back in my parents' house in Iowa. So, with my driver's license and voter registration card in hand, there I went... (I called Canadian Customs early to make sure this would be adequate, but just get a passport, it's easier and necessary if you go pretty much anywhere else.)
I actually arrived in Vancouver late on the night of the 27th. I'd intended to get there in good time (around 1900h) so I'd have a bit of light in which to figure out the layout of the city and find a hotel with quick access to the Hwy. 99 and BC Rail. As usual, this was not to be. We sat in Denver to nearly two hours because the left engine on our 737 just wouldn't start. Working for an airline, I understand how these things happen, but it's still very annoying. Anyway, I finally arrived in a dark, rainy Vancouver around 2100h, and after an hour of waiting, talking to customs, waiting, getting my bag, getting lost, and getting my wonderful rental car, I think I finally got out of the terminal around 2230h. Now, it's dark, the internal sense of direction in my head is all fouled up for some reason, and I don't have a hotel yet. Arg... After half an hour or so, I settle on a hotel in Richmond, somewhat near the airport, though as lost as I was, I never knew it.
Saturday actually dawned beautiful and sunny, and at long last I could somewhat orient myself with the city. Of course studying maps of the place for about twenty minutes the night before certainly helped, but now with sunlight I could actually start putting most of it together. Either way, I was entirely on the wrong end of the town to get at BC Rail.
For those unfamiliar with Vancouver, the city is split by several large and/or deep inlets of water. The major one, the Burrard Inlet, is at the upper end of town, between the semi-flat area that makes up Vancouver, Richmond, Burnaby, etc, and North/West Vancouver and the rugged mountains of the BC coast. To the south is the Fraser River delta, and its several arms. I've included maps (Photo #1), extracted and modified from Microsoft MapPoint, that shows some of the major highlights of railroad action around the Vancouver metro area. (Side note: As many of you know, I'm really a Delorme Street Atlas fan, but being as they don't include Canadian maps, the MS product worked out nicely. Unfortunately, it's level of railway detail is not all that great.) The section I was interested in today was the BC Rail North Vancouver yards, and the mainline going north along Highway 99, but we'll get to all of the other marked locations a bit later in the trip.
Because I slept in, I missed the morning Budd RDCs going north out of the North Vancouver station. BCR still runs daily passenger service out of NV, supplied by the little silver and blue Budds. However, they depart the NV station around 0700h, long before my eyelids are usually open on non-work days. While access to the station and the nearby tracks is relatively easy, security seems very tight around BC Rail facilities. Within minutes of parking and getting out with a camera on the south side of the station (it's a public road), there was a BC Rail security truck coming over to check on me. Also, the word from local railfans is that they've been handing out quite a few trespassing citations lately, so watch it and respect their property. Unfortunately, even with the camera out, good light, and security keeping an eye on me, there really wasn't anything happening, so I decided to proceed north to Squamish.
Highway 99, which follows the coastline up to Squamish, is known as the Sea to Sky highway, and for good reason. It starts off at nearly sea level, and quickly works its way high up on the cliffs overlooking the ocean. BC Rail's mainline follows along the bottom of the cliffs, 10-20 feet off the water, I'd guess. Once you leave West Vancouver, and possibly Horseshoe Bay, there aren't any really promising photo locations for some distance. The railway is just simply too far down, the cliffs are too steep, and pulloffs too infrequent to make this a good area for railfanning. That doesn't even get to the fact that you're on the east side of the tracks, and the cliffs block all morning light. The first really decent shot is at Lions Bay, about 25km from the NV yards. Beyond this, there's good access and light at several points, such as Britannia Bay, between there and Squamish. You'll also get advanced warning of trains on this section - pilot trucks (green BCR Dodge Dakotas with amber flashers on the top, Photo #2 from later in the week) operate a few minutes ahead of trains, due to the threat of landslides, grade subsidence, etc. Oh yes, and as a note, there are quite a few insane drivers on this road, and as I understand the number of accidents is quite high - be careful out there, as a few too many seconds gawking over the cliffside will get you in serious trouble when the road turns and you don't... Almost every other railfan I met up there gave me at least a short warning about this stretch of road, and I did meet a few of the aforementioned nutcase drivers - mainly with US plates...
Unforunately, Squamish was also silent - aside from another truck (presumably security) that came over to check on me when I parked just off the road at the north end of the yard. They're very clear with the No Trespassing signs, and they've got them at every possible yard entrance. However, there is a gravel pulloff at the north end, just across from the West Coast Railway Association's museum. Looks like quite a place, though I didn't get time to visit. Back to the point, this pullout provides a handy place to put the car while photographing trains moving in and out of the north end, all while being on public property. It's quite handy, and many of the photos you'll see in this trip report from Squamish were taken from this area. All this security stuff was getting a bit unnerving for someone who remembers the BCR of ten years ago (and my first cab ride, up on the very north end of the system), so I grabbed lunch and headed north again.
The road between Squamish and Whistler only affords a few railfanning opportunties, as most of the time the road and railway are separated by canyons or mountains or trees or some such. There are a few good opportunities, but I never did see a train and by this time it had started to rain, so I just headed on. Whistler, as a town, reminds me a lot of what's happened to Aspen or Vail in the last twenty years. Ick. Aside from a police photo-radar van (you have to watch out for those things, they're very good at hiding them up there), nothing of interest here...
At this point, it was raining, getting colder, and the clouds were making for a very dark afternoon - not to mention I was almost to Pemberton already and hadn't seen anything. I was starting to think I was going to get completely skunked for the day when, lo and behold, a really ugly ex-Santa Fe Dash-7 became visible ahead, coupled to a BCR SD40-2 and a ballast train (Photo #3). Just as I realized what I was looking at, the clouds began to open up a bit, letting through just enough light to make it worthwhile. It was, however, still raining - how this works with clear sky and rain falling I don't quite understand (well, yes, I do, but it still seems odd). I'd barely gotten shots of the two units when I heard a rumbling. At first, my brain tried telling me it was thunder, then a logging truck, and finally I realized that it was the distinct sound of a GE prime mover doing work - and not the one I was looking at! Within seconds, two of the newer non-widebody GEs came into view, travelling northbound and light (Photo #4). Unfortunately they were very backlit at this point, but at least now I had something moving to work with.
Just south of Pemberton is an overlook to Nairn Falls. For some reason, I remembered that it was there from an earlier trip, and hurried to catch the two units as they approached it. (Photo #5) This was to be my first lesson in BC photography - while the sun may be shining, the bottoms of canyons are still dark, and water will screw up the exposure every time. My shot of them passing the falls didn't work so well as a result, but #5 came out just fine. The crew actually stopped the units for a minute at the falls while one got out and walked over for a look. Then, just as unexpectedly as they'd stopped, the crewmember got back onboard and they departed again for Pemberton.
Pemberton, BC, has long been the home of helper sets. They're often sent up beyond D'Arcy to be spliced into trains and help them over the grades and down into Whistler, at which point they're cut off and sent back up to Pemberton to get ready for the next train (Photo #6). The fact I was seeing a northbound set returning means I'd missed a train some time earlier, but at the time I didn't realize this. As of Saturday, April 28, 2001, there were these two modern GEs, SD40-2 #758, HLCX SD45-ish units #6507 and 6525, and BCR Dash-7 #3624 (Photo #7). Also sitting in Pemberton was something completely unexpected - BCR #3716 (a 4-6-0 steamer) and a passenger train, complete with real passengers and sitting right on the mainline. (Photo #8) Within minutes of taking the photo, though, the rain caught up with us again, and I scrambled back for my car. This train was some sort of special charter run working south towards Vancouver, I later learned. It's certainly not normal to see steam this far up the line.
After stopping for gas and chocolate, I continued north towards D'Arcy, the northernmost point on BCR you can get to from Vancouver without diverging from the railway for some distance (Hwy. 99 spends almost 100km between Pemberton and Lilooet away from the BCR main, whereas a diverging backroad near Pemberton will follow the line to D'Arcy, about halfway in between.) Once again, the first 45km showed no sign of anything except rain and gloom. Maybe I was just being self-depressing... Still, the typical schedule of trains someone had sent me before I left showed a northbound freight that left Vancouver around 0800h, and I still had some hopes I might catch it.
Just a few kilometers short of D'Arcy, I did. Once again, the clouds broke open (it's moments like this that make me swear that ,the Almighty is a railfan) and shortly thereafter I spotted a few Sultran sulphur cars disappearing around a corner. Thanks to a ballast tamper working on the south switch at D'Arcy, it bought me a few precious minutes I needed to get ready for its appoach. Almost as if on cue when the light came into its prime, 4622 and 4621 came out of the trees and headed on north. (Photo #9) A few minutes later, 4610 showed up as the mid-train on this particular northbound (Photo #10). The road crossing the tracks here is the road north, but it dead ends just another km or so up the line. There supposedly is a 4x4 road north along the line to Lilooet, but needless to say my Chevy Cavalier wasn't going to make it, especially in the pouring rain and mud.
At this point, it was almost 1430h, so I decided to head back home. Even if I'd wanted to go on, there was the 50-ish km drive back down from D'Arcy to the main highway near Pemberton. I decided I didn't really want to go any further north, so back home it was. At least the weather was clearing, and at least the first hour to Pemberton was under blue skies and sunlight. Unfortunately, radio stations are a bit rare up here, and due to the mountains even the ones that do exist don't carry very far. Note to self: next time, remember your CD collection. Still, the sunlight and fresh air made for a pleasant trip.
Not much was seen until arriving back at Squamish around 1330h. When I did arrive, the yard was much livelier than I'd left it before - Cat-repowered RS18 #611 was out with its slug (S407) switching cars (Photo #11), and a northbound from Vancouver was trying to cut a few cars out as well (Photo #12). No sooner than they had both cleared the main than the sound of steam power was heard off to the north - apparently I'd beaten the special back to Squamish, and with good light and no rain, it would make an interesting bit of traffic going back to Vancouver.
After sitting for almost an hour and taking on water, 3716 finally got underway southbound, and of course there were a few more railfans following it. The best photo location I found, in view of how low in the western sky the sun was getting, happened to be at Britannia Bay, about 10km south of Squamish. Even with slow traffic, I still beat 3716 in handily, and had my pick of shots. I settled on one from a grade crossing near the center of town, where I could get on the western (lit) side of the line. (Photo #13)
After that, and a few more attempts at shots futher south that didn't work out (and one that did, about halfway back to Lions Bay - Photo #14), I decided to call it a day. It was starting to rain yet again, and the light was gone. So I drove back to my hotel down in Richmond, BC, and started looking over the day's efforts. After a while, though, the urge to go get some dinner overcame me, and on the way I decided to run down to the Roberts Bank Superport, where tons of CP/CN intermodal and coal traffic are transloaded to and from ocean-going vessels. Being late on a Saturday, not much was happening, but at least I knew where the place was now. As it turns out, there's quite a gravel parking area between the main access road and the ocean inlet, which is surprisingly good for watching trains/ships/waterfoul in the afternoon - or hundreds of semi trucks, if you like that order of thing. Either way, after that I really did call it a day.
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|Oh yes, one other thing
I should probably mention - all the images here are Copyright
2001 Nathan D. Holmes
Note this doesn't mean you can't use them - In fact, I encourage people to use and enjoy them.
I'm placing them under the same license as RailARC images.
All images were taken with an Olympus C-3000 camera, a beautiful piece of machinery.