Thursday, 31 December 2015

The Last Spike

"Rails across Canada: A Pictorial Journey from Coast to Coast", David Cable

Despite sharing a telephone dialing code with its more populous neighbour to the south, one area where Canada can hold its head up with a certain level of distinctive identity is in its transcontinental railroad. Just as impressive an achievement as the American drive from sea to shining sea, the twin railroads of the Canadian National and Canadian Pacific span the continental lands mass covering over 30,000 route miles of track.

Culturally there's something very resonant about Canada's railways - perhaps it's because in the great north there's more isolation and the railroad provides one of the tenuous filaments connecting elements of civilisation in the opens wastes together. From the iconic image of Donald Alexander Smith hammering home 'the last spike' at Craigellachie in 1885, through E J Pratt's epic similarly titled narrative poem, to the Cowboy Junkies and their spectacularly melancholy ninth track from 1992's "Black Eyed Man". 

Those looking for a documentary history of the birth of Canada's railways, or indeed an insight into the nature of today's rail system, will not find this in Cable's "Rails across Canada", for this they would be better to start elsewhere, perhaps with Berton's two volumes on the system's origins ("The National Dream" and "The Last Spike"), but as context there is some real value to be had here. In just over 200 pages of photography taken over the course of several journeys across Canada Cable documents the reality of Canadian railways, showing the scale of engineering, the topography dealt with, and the reality that much as in the United States railways in this part of North America are enjoying a renaissance - just one that is comparatively invisible as it is one executed with passengers.

It's a book of few words, but still one that rewards leafing through, discovering Cable's engagement with Canadian railroads and getting a feel for trains draw such a vast country together. It's enough to inspire you at some stage to devote the time to riding the three day journey across the continent, but equally makes you think about the run of the mill elements that through freight stitch the continent together. Can one still dream of hitching a ride on the longest train you ever saw? 

Disclosure: a review copy of Rails across Canada was provided by Pen and Sword Books.

No comments:

Post a Comment