On Sunday December 10th, 2017, the Canadian Pacific Holiday Train came to Lethbridge, Alberta, marking nineteen years that the Holiday Train has been going across Canada and parts of the United States raising awareness, money, and food for local food banks. Unfortunately, Lethbridge is off the main line so we only get the Holiday Train every second year, which has its drawbacks. This year would be different, as I wanted to chase the train from Lethbridge west to the mountains, and friends Simon Aperloo & Ken McCutcheon, had similar ideas so we planned out the itinerary for Monday!
As I and my wife were in Pincher Creek that weekend, we decided to have an early supper with her father and head back to Lethbridge a bit early so we could get over to the performance site, which is located on the north side in Lethbridge. We drove from Pincher Creek to Lethbridge, and quickly headed to our apartment to unload the car before we headed downtown. We unloaded the car, jumped back in to go and click, click… the car wouldn’t start! Knowing our time was running out, we quickly moved the car seat and our daughter to my truck and left the car in the parking lot. We jumped in and headed on our way. Another setback occurred when we turned onto Stafford Drive north and saw the long lineup of cars wanting to go to the performance site! We finally reached 2nd Avenue north, where we found several hundred people walking down the street towards the performance site. After ten or so minutes of stop and go driving, I said to Becky we may never be able to get to the performance site, as we could both see the area where it was supposed to occur was jammed packed full of cars parked with people milling around. My wife suggested we abandon this idea and instead head to the High Level Viaduct and watch the train return to Kipp there. I agreed, and we got out of the parking lot and hightailed it west. We headed over to Heritage Drive west and a few minutes later we were parked and walking on the trail towards the river valley and that would lead us over to the High Level Viaduct. There were a few families by the Viaduct with a similar idea of waiting for the train. We waited 10 or so minutes, while I got my camera ready. And sure enough someone yelled out “the trains coming!” and we could see in the distance the headlights and the multi-coloured train was slowly making its way over to the Viaduct. We all stood in silence watching the train come closer and then we heard the Christmas music playing over the speakers. After the train went by, we walked back to the truck and drove out to the Kipp yard to see the train park for the night. We took a few photos from the main road and headed back to the apartment to deal with our dead car (which we had to get towed to the dealership and then found out the next day that the battery died and one of the cables corroded though . . . but that’s another story).
The next morning at 6:30 a.m. I texted Ken to have him come over to my apartment to pick me up so we could meet Simon at the local Tim Hortons before we got the chase going. A good time to BS and catch up since our last railfan trip in October. At Tim Hortons we got our coffee and food, and Simon showed up and we talked a bit more before we headed out to the Kipp yard. At the yard, the train was getting ready for its long journey west so we took a few photos from the road and then headed west on Highway 3 past Monarch to the other High Level Viaduct. However, Ken suggested the next range road over to the east may be better, so we drove past a farm yard until the gravel road turned into a gravel trail in the grass. We parked and got our cameras ready and listened to the scanners. Not long afterwards we saw headlights from the east and the CP Holiday Train was highballing it west. After a flurry of photos, we jumped in the vehicles and dashed back to Highway 3, where we caught up to it by Pearce. Ken got far enough ahead that he pulled over at one of the grade crossings to photograph the train, while I and Simon went a bit farther down the road to where both the highway and train track curve west. We pulled over there and photographed the train as it curved west. We then headed off to Fort Macleod and parked at the next grade crossing down from the Holiday Train. We took a few photos and I and Simon decided to drive over to the performance site, while Ken elected to stay at the grade crossing.
We parked on a side street and walked over to the GP20c locomotive where we saw a CP police officer keeping an eye on the locomotive. We chatted for a bit and he explained some of the trouble that happened the night previously at the Lethbridge site. For instance, when the crew arrived a couple hours early to check things over they noticed hundreds of discarded needles laying in the CP right of way, from drug users and homeless people. It was decided before the train arrived to lock the access gates so people couldn’t get hurt with the used needles. Another issue was people had parked their vehicles out front of where the performance was to take place and it prevented people from walking up to the fence to see it. But, oh well, the stage car door is opening nearby and Alan Doyle is warming up the crowd with his east coast music. We said thank you and headed over to listen to the show!
After a bit, I and Simon headed back to the vehicle and then back to the other grade crossing where Ken was waiting. After a few minutes the Holiday Train was heading west so we got into position again to photograph it.
We headed west on Highway 3 trying to figure out where the next best stop would be to photograph the train. Since we missed Chokio, we decided to keep going west. I suggested the overpass over the highway roughly between Brocket & Pincher Creek as a good spot to photograph the train. At the overpass we pulled over to the side and got out to climb up the ditch to be along the fence to photograph the train. All of a sudden another vehicle pulls up behind ours (a rental) and a fellow with a large camera comes out and walks up to us. He introduces himself as a CSX engineer from Delaware, on vacation following the Holiday Train westward! We talked for a few minutes before the Holiday Train appeared from the east and crossed the overpass and curved westwards towards Pincher. We all jumped into our vehicles and our little convoy headed west.
At Pincher we saw the train pulling up to the grade crossing and I spotted Ken off to the side taking some shots. The local firefighters were on hand directing traffic and helping people park their vehicles. Several school buses were on hand as well. A few minutes after 11:00 the stage car doors opened and the MC appeared to greet the public. As this was going on, I and Simon walked around taking photos and enjoying the warm west wind that was blowing!
Just outside of Pincher, Ken pulled over to a grade crossing to wait for the train, while I and Simon headed west. We wanted to get the train crossing the bridge over the reservoir outside of Cowley—we had to improvise a bit as the train was heading west so we had to stand along the fence on the highway side to get the bridge in the shot. I was looking at the CP Holiday Train app and it showed the train was leaving Pincher when Simon yelled it was coming! I looked up and saw the train almost at the east side of the bridge. I guess the app was a bit slow to reload the train’s position! After some quick shooting we jumped in the car and headed west as we hoped to catch the train under the Highway 3 overpass. I and Simon got to where the track curves just past the overpass and waited patiently for the train to appear. After a few minutes the headlights popped up on the horizon and we got some great shots as the train curved on the track with the Rocky Mountains in the background. We then jumped back into the car and headed down the road to Bellevue.
Bellevue is an interesting place as the track is far below the highway, and is only visible from the top of a high cliff! As we got ahead of the train, I and Simon were able to park across the highway, and run across the lanes and then climb a small rise and then find a spot to photograph from within the coniferous trees and rocky outpoints. I was made aware of the spot back in February and it has become one of my favorite spots in the Pass to take photos. The only downside for the location was that shooting the westbound Holiday Train, we were looking into the sun, so you had to be creative to reduce the glare off the lens.
The west wind was very brisk at this location and our hands were getting cold in the wind! As soon as the train passed us below, we decided to head to nearby Blairmore to catch the train going through the downtown. Back into the vehicles and down the highway we went!
We got into downtown Blairmore just minutes before the Holiday Train entered the town limits. We crossed the tracks and drove up the one street a bit until we jumped out and got a few shots of the train highballing westward. We then continued west, diverting back to the Highway before entering the Coleman town limits. We then headed downtown (to old Coleman) where the train was pulling up to the performance location. Considering it was lunchtime, we decided to retreat to the nearby Subway to get some food and get ready for the next push westward. Ken texted and said he was setting up by the overpass over the tracks by Sentinel. Simon suggested we set up closer to the track behind the small hamlet by a small lake that connected to Crowsnest Lake. There was a nice view of Crowsnest Mountain to the north. The only downside again was the wind! Since we had a few minutes, we quickly drove down to Crowsnest Lake to see the situation – the lake was dark as the clouds were moving into the area. We turned back to Sentinel and parked the vehicle and waited inside listening to the blowing wind and the near silence on the scanner. Finally a radio burst from the train passing the detector by the Sentinel overpass led us to go outside and wait in the wind until I was able to spot the headlight through the trees. A quick few shots before we dashed back into the car. As we approached Crowsnest Lake we were amazed that the sun was peeking through the clouds and lighting up the surrounding mountains. We pulled over to the side of the highway at an opening between the rocks. We ran over to the fence line and photographed the train as the sun lit it up nicely on the mountain behind it. As we walked back to the cars Ken passed us on the highway, off to Crowsnest!
At one time, CP had a large yard at Crowsnest with several support buildings, tracks, etc, but over the years have reduced their footprint at the site. Their yard is actually just a few feet over the Alberta / British Columbia border. At Crowsnest there were some CP employees working on some stacked rail at the side, and there was a van parked by the crew shack on the north side of the tracks. Another railfan was there and we chatted a bit until the Holiday Train pulled up near the crew shack to do the crew change. We overhead on the scanner the one foreman working the rails make a comment to the train crew about the nearly torn American flag, so the departing train crew fixed the flag before handing over control to the new crew. After a few minutes the train headed west, Christmas music blaring out of the loudspeakers.
We got back into the vehicles and headed west towards Corbin Road. Corbin Road was named after a former coal mining town—not much remains, though a few people still call it home. Farther up the mountain a spur track runs south towards the CanAus Coal Mine which is in operation. Considering the grades in the area, the track loops around the contours and can make for nice photographic scenes. Our spot to photograph was at a place called Fabro Station where the track actually splits off the CP track and heads southeast towards the mine. At this spot there is a nice hill on the east side of the track which elevated our positions to be above the train. Behind us, the track curves to the west, crossing several creeks with iron bridges—a very picturesque spot! When we pulled up Ken was already on top of snow covered hill, and another railfan was also there. We all visited a bit on the hilltop until we heard the locomotive pulling up the grade and sure enough through the curves we saw the headlights. A flurry of photo taking ensued as the Holiday Train curved around the track and crossed the far west bridge and began its decent down the mountainside.
Back at the cars, Ken said his goodbyes as he was going to head back to Lethbridge and then back to Saskatchewan that evening. The rest of us headed back down the road, stopping at a large metal trussed bridge surrounded by snow-covered trees which made the scene almost a Christmas card shot! After a few photos we jumped into the car and headed west to nearby Natal.
Similar to Corbin, Natal was another coal mining town that has almost withered away with the mines shutting down in the 1970s. We pulled up to a nice spot outside the Sparwood sign by the creeks edge and photographed the train. By this time the sun was setting behind the mountains so the light was starting to darken a bit, and the lights on the train shown a bit brighter! We then jumped into the cars and headed into downtown Sparwood. There a walking trail went down towards the tracks. We walked down the trail to almost grade level with the train track on the west side. Further up that track a CP coal train was slowly advancing towards our position. As we watched the coal train take the adjacent west track, someone yelled out “the train’s coming!” and the Holiday Train quickly became visible as it curved on the east track. We took a few more shots of both trains heading west and then slowly walked back to the parking lot. I and Simon were going to head back east to Lethbridge. A great ending to a fantastic chase!
Holiday Train Gallery
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Jason Paul Sailer – Text and photographs Copyright 2018