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CP Holiday Train

Our time on the iconic train

Story by Neil Zeller January 19th, 2016

The flying train

As I stood there in the dark, in the cold, waiting for the train to cross the High Level Bridge in Lethbridge Alberta, I couldn’t help but think about CP Railway Officer Stephen, who was waiting back at the parking lot for me to return. We had no way of communicating as my phone had died in the cold. He was about 700 meters away from me through the dark, along the narrow dirt path, but I had come on this trip for one thing really, to photograph the Holiday Train crossing the bridge. I spied a crowd of people and their cars a few hundred meters behind and across the river from me, waiting to see the train as well. Finally after what seemed like forever I could hear the train whistle. It was still a few minutes away and as I struggled to see through the dark, and the headlights of the other train spotters were being obscured by a thick bank of fog. The train’s horn grew louder as the fog bank crept up to me, then past me then I couldn’t see the bridge anymore, not by eye and not by camera. I started to feel a bit defeated, but just then an old personal mantra crept into my head - ‘Some of the most interesting photographs are made in some of the most unusual and uncomfortable situations’ - so I stuck it out. I reset my camera and waited.

Sure enough, the train’s bright holiday lights pierced through the fog and I was able to create an image that has now been seen by millions of people all over the world.

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Calgary to Blackie

Full disclosure: I wasn’t paid for this trip. The opportunity for me was to be allowed on the train, a train that doesn’t actually have passengers aside from employees and Holiday Train crew and entertainers. I was also responsible for getting my own lodging and transportation at the stop in Lethbridge and in Fernie as well as my own ride home. It was quite the investment from our end. I was able to have my wife and son along, which made it that much more special.

Having the Holiday Train stop in your town at any time is cool, but most want to see the train at night. To be able to traverse the country in a few short weeks in December, some of the stops have to be during the day. To my eye, it certainly didn’t dampen the spirit of the communities along the day routes.

We arrived and boarded at 10am in Calgary with little expectation (or information for that matter), as to what we were in for. We have traveled by train in the past (See the Rocky Mountaineer Story), and were comfortable with the ride and ready for the romance of it all. I have come to realize that time is irrelevant on a train, that only distance and landmarks gives you a clue that you are headed somewhere.

We rolled smoothly out of Calgary with none of the typical stop and go you’d be in on a road trip, passed by DeWinton, happily waved at train fans in Okotoks and Aldersyde and as we approached our first stop of the day we were engulfed in a thick fog bank that would stay with us for the next few hours. Blackie afforded us our first glimpse into how much people love this train. Most of the communities along the route have planned around the arrival of the train to make a community event. So the party was apparently long going by the time we arrived and looked to keep rolling on well after we left!

My first few photos started to hit my social streams and people seemed to like being along for the ride! The best part of the Holiday Train was the money raised for local food banks. CP always had a donation, but the rest of the money and food raised stayed in each respective community!
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Blackie to Vulcan and beyond

Leaving Blackie we were treated to a surreal scene of hoar frost and fog all the way to Vulcan where the fog was thick as soup. It seemed to add to the ambiance of a wonderful Holiday celebration going on in town. Not long after leaving Vulcan we were out of the fog and enjoying the waning daylight. The Train was really starting to show her true colors (pun intended). Our next stop was for a crew change at the railyards in Coalhurst. A non event stop, but a seemingly popular one by the amount of people lingering on the side roads.

This was my spot to hop off the train and grab a ride in to Lethbridge to shoot the train crossing the High Level Bridge as it entered the city for the final event stop of the day.

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The magic train moment at the bridge

It wasn’t without stress, being here in the middle of the dark and fog. CP Cop Stephen had to be up to the train as soon as possible to help with security. He being from Vancouver and thinking he knew where to go after the photo, but me knowing otherwise and devising the easiest way to the event location, but not really 100% until I get there, you know? Stressful, like Jim Cuddy depends on this guy getting there to help ensure his safety without really knowing that there is a stress happening in the background. But as you read above, all turned out fine without incident or anyone being late for anything.

The main image, the one that people went crazy for, has been seen by millions around the world (here on their Facebook) and also has directly helped the Lethbridge Food Bank beyond the obvious donations from CP. I sold the image (Link here) over and over and have made a cash donation from the proceeds of the print.

The fog came and went, almost like I’d have asked for exactly that. I didn’t but I was glad for the opportunity to plan to be in the right place for this to happen!

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The Party

I saw the party happen 8 times in the 2 days. Each time it was 100% awesome! Whether it was 10am or 8pm, it didn’t matter. For Kelly Prescott, Jim and Devin Cuddy, and the Holiday Train band (who are the band The Odds, if you were wondering) this was a rock n roll train and they were ready to rock it each time! In between shows, they’d eat, rest and actually learn new songs together. I asked Jim if the long days and all the shows ever get him down, and he simply replied ‘Nah, we are here to play! Better than sitting in the back of the train!’. They all had such great attitudes!
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The people on board

You’d be impressed by the amount of work that goes into each and every performance. Here is something I wrote on my facebook during the trip that illustrated the passion of the people who put this all together, and make it happen.

This moment between a Father and Son (see them below, taking a Holiday Train selfie?). I witnessed this moment over and over again in the 2 days we on the Canadian Pacific Holiday Train. I got to share this wonderful experience with my wife and son. It‘s why I do what I do, to experience and share what is special in the world.

You all need to know that the people that operate and organise this train are employees of CP, but many of them are giving up their own free time, to make this all happen. On top of that, they are all really wonderful people. Here‘s something: There are riders on board between some of the stops. Some riders are employees, some are service clubs like the Boys and Girls clubs. The train staff make and serve hot chocolate and cookies to everyone. Then when the train stops for a performance, the staff are looking after security, timing, all the operational parts of the concert, then they come back in and vacuum and wash the train car so the next group can have the same amazing experience as the first (60 people at most stops). They do this up to 7 times a day. They also write the big giant cheques you see given out at each stop, meet all the local dignitaries and remember every ones names so they can introduce them on stage… You should know all this.

The people that make this train happen, are some of the best people I have ever met. Professional, real and hard-working. I feel so honoured to have been on this train for these two days. (It wasn't a paid job for me. In a series of happen-chances, I was invited on-board simply for the experience, we were responsible for our own hotel accommodation and transportation back to Calgary). Please give generously to your food bank, in the name of these incredible, caring people from CP!

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Day 2 aboard the holiday train

Hard to believe that is all in one day. After a long cab ride out to the Train in Coalhurst we re boarded with our luggage and settled in for a lovely day of amazing scenery and wonderful music. We traveled through Ft Mcleod, Pincher Creek, Frank Slide, and the Crowsnest Pass to Blairmore. Then we passed into BC and made a stop in Sparwood. For us we felt a little like the crew by this time, and even got to break bread with the ‘talent’ back in their private dining space.
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The end of the line, for us.

We have traveled by train before. We are sad to be leaving the train. It’s so, so much about the journey aboard a train. We arrived in Fernie after witnessing an incredible Elk Valley Sunset, grabbed up our stuff and hopped off. And that was that. The train pulled away without us, having a couple more stops this day. We followed along for the rest of the journey, longing to figure out a way to be a part of this incredible train in the future. Who knows what the future holds… time will tell.

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Footnote: None of this happens without the connection to trains from our good friends Martin and Heather at