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CP Holiday Train - West Leg

My time on the train from Calgary to Salmon Arm

Story by Neil Zeller January 6th, 2017

Being part of an amazing team

A few years ago, I left a big company in a close-knit industry to become a photographer. Now, as a working photographer, I am hired by corporations and individuals to supply a product. I have several very good clients that consider me a part of their creative team, and I appreciate that immensely. However, it's still different from when I was an official team member.

This year on the Canadian Pacific (CP) Holiday Train, I was once again part of the team. Being hired to photograph the events, and ‘capture the spirit’ as they say, was only part of my experience on this leg of the trip. Tracking the train from Calgary to Salmon Arm, B.C., over three days for this part of my contract, I was jumping on and off to get my photos.

This is what I wrote about being on the train last year:

The train is operated by a tiny group of people, who are multi-tasking all the operations. For example, the guy who is responsible for the schedule and crew of the train is also serving hot chocolate to the people on board and cleaning up after they disembark. Everyone knows what must happen and it all simply happens.

I was giddy to be able to do my part on the train, too. Between getting my photos, I had the opportunity to help serve refreshments and chat with the guests. As small a job as this seems, it was the world to me. I chatted with small-town mayors, I told jokes to kids, I served hot chocolate and cookies. Might seem trivial, but when my regular work world demands that I am constantly looking ahead to fill my work schedule, to complete projects against deadlines, and to fight in a competitive business, it was a complete break to be able to let my guard down and simply be in the moment of sharing the joy and purpose that is the CP Holiday Train.

That all said, I had a job to do...

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I couldn't have done any of it...

...without the incredible support of the CP Police Service!

Like all police officers, they are there to uphold the law. They do that just fine. It's all the other little things they do that make them remarkable humans.

Some of you know the train is late from time to time. It has challenges on the tracks as freight volumes can be very high, especially transporting the Canadian grain harvest. It simply comes down to many trains and few tracks so the Holiday Train gets set aside occasionally. While the on-board staff are warm on the train, the CP Police officers are at the event at the scheduled time, mainly to assure the safety of the crowds as the train approaches. They are CP's first ambassadors for each stop along the route. They field more questions than anyone else, they liaise with local police, and they do it with grace.

Inevitably someone will try to cross CP property (the tracks) or try to climb the train, and the police must use their authority to manage these situations. They all like this project, as it's a bit different than their regular duties, but still, it can be hectic. Remember my last story on how I chased the train for 41 hours across Northern Ontario? Imagine having to maintain that schedule and craziness for three weeks! Yikes!

I personally owe them a debt of gratitude for helping me make all the 'off train' photos on this leg. With a healthy dose of respect for their duties and schedules, I was demanding of them to get me to my locations whenever I'd hop off the train. Two Steves helped me specifically. We got the job done, as in every instance my shot was successful, but on top of that, we had a great fun time! Steve G especially was great fun. He is the top cop on this project, and we figure we could make a great cop buddy sitcom based on our exploits trying to chase and photograph the train.

An enormous thanks to all of them for their work!

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Bonus segment - Calgary

It wasn't a part of my assignment to photograph in Calgary, but being it's CP’s and my hometown show, CP asked if I'd come and I was happy to. Up until this point, I had only chased this years train in Ontario and Manitoba, but hadn’t had the opportunity to ride it. It had been extremely cold the past few days of the last trip, and this night was no different. We still had a pretty good size crowd come and enjoy the party, and even Mayor Nenshi joined us!

As many of you know, Mayor Nenshi is a friend of Neil Zeller Photography and it's always great to see and photograph him at uplifting events like the Holiday Train show. He understands how to help make an event even better and does his part to make it lots of fun for the folks involved. As we rode the train from the yard to the show site at the Anderson C-Train station, we had fun chatting all things holidays and we snapped some great photos of the him and the guests. Mayor Nenshi simply has to be requested for a photo idea and his genuine nature allows for wonderful interactions with those around him. As per my request to get a great photo of the onstage team at the event, I just tell him my idea and he jumps into action making sure everyone knows what the end goal is. So a hearty thanks to Mayor Nenshi, the train staff, the performers and the great crowd for being awesome on this night!

I hopped off the train at the show and drove back to the Alyth Yard to try and get a shot of the train crossing the steamy Bow River. It was a cold wait, but it was worth it (isn't it always?) in the end.

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Calgary to Banff

If there is another trip anywhere in the world that changes scenery so dramatically in such a short distance, I haven't heard about it. Going by train simply heightens the experience. I arrived early to the Ogden Yard in Calgary, where the train spent the night, so I could get my bearings and settle in. This was my first trip where I was 'staff,' so I had access to the living quarters. The four cars at the end of the train are a part of the iconic 'Royal Canadian Pacific' that is used for corporate and charter trips around Western Canada. The cars were built in 1926 and 1927 and have carried all manners of people, notably Queen Elizabeth I and II, and U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The history of these trains was not lost on me. I tried to imagine a time when this was the only way to travel and what seeing the sights of Western Canada for the first time might have been like for the guests.

Leaving Calgary takes us right through the heart of downtown, along the Bow River, and all the way to Cochrane for the first stop of the day. My main shot request was after the next stop in Morley, so I hopped in with Steve G. from CP Police, and we zipped ahead of the train to set up. There is a siding West of Morley called Ozada where I have taken photos of other trains, as the backdrop of the flatlands with the mountains rising up in the background is astounding. I am a little sad the schedule wasn't advanced by a half-hour, as we would have photographed the train with a huge full moon rising over the horizon. However, I did get my request granted for a full stop of the train with the twilight scene of mountains and sky.

After the show in Morley, we learned the train had to wait for a long-haul freight train to pass, so that gave me a little extra time before we had to be in Canmore. I suggested to Steve that we take a short detour to the Seebe Dam area to scout a possible location. It turned out amazing! With the moon in the background and the reflection on the exposed ice, I was pretty happy with this unscheduled stop.

After that, I got back on the train in Canmore as the full dark night didn't allow me to shoot the train in any way that would be better than from on the train. With recent snow covering the trees, I captured the reflection of all the lights in the snow as we rolled along.

When we arrived in Banff, I didn't have a plan for the shots, just that I wanted to firmly place the images in the mountain town. I took some photos of the performance and the crowd, even capturing one person sticking her tongue out at me, then hopped off and walked around looking for the right angle. The head end had a bunch of photographers down in the ditch happily clicking away, but I couldn't find an angle that proved we were in Banff. I walked away from the train and found a well-used path along a creek heading into the woods. Once I was far enough back from the train, Rundle Mountain revealed herself, and I knew I had my spot. The shot turned to be one of my most popular ones for the entire trip. As the show wrapped up, I grabbed my gear and headed over to my hotel for the night.

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Banff to Revelstoke

My mind was exploding with ideas for photos on this day of the trip. Morant's Curve, the Continental Divide, the Spiral Tunnels, Field, Yoho Park, Rogers Pass, Stoney Creek Bridge, Connaught Tunnel, and on and on. On top of this already over-the-top scenery, it was a true winter wonderland out there, with snow bending the trees over from the weight of recent snowstorms.

If I had one place on the entire assignment to have clones of myself to shoot all the angles, this would be the place. I desperately wanted to be on the train for the entire trip, but I knew the shots were best from various vantage points, so I started the day with my cop/photographer/sitcom buddy Steve G. After breakfast, we headed for Morant's Curve. This is as obvious a location to shoot the train as any. I have many photographers that I admire, but Nicholas Morant would be as close to my photography hero as I can imagine. From the Canadian Railway Hall of Fame website:

His name is synonymous with Canadian Pacific. He is known across Canada and in many other parts of the world for his photographs of the railway and its related business activities. He was the CPR photographer! His 50-year career spanned the Great Depression, the Second World War, the Cold War, the end of steam, and the end of company-operated passenger service.
He died 10 years ago [sic: in 1994], but his legacy and body of work will live on forever for train photography fans.[i]

The serpentine railway curve just east of Lake Louise bearing his name was considerably attractive on this day. This shot would be perfect just after sunset and the train heading east, instead of west. It was a dream shot.

I had it in my head to catch up with the train next at the Spiral Tunnels, but the unspoiled scene at Wapta Lake stopped us in our tracks. We waited for the train to chug up and over the continental divide at this point. The photo across the lake with the snowy mountain backdrop has emerged as my own personal favourite daytime photo of the Holiday Train this year.

We photographed the train at the Spiral Tunnels as planned; then, I climbed aboard at Field, B.C., where we picked up a new locomotive crew and some passengers for the trip to Golden and Revelstoke.

The ride into Golden was lovely, with the changing light adding interest to the photos, especially along the teal-coloured Kicking Horse River.

I had some pretty ambitious photo requests for when we crossed the Stoney Creek Bridge that didn't pan out in the end; however, the storybook winter scenery had us all in awe of this magical wonderland we travelled through.

My thoughts in the moment:

At times, the beauty was overwhelming. As we clickity-clacked our way up, through the many-kilometers-long Connaught Tunnel, and back down the Rogers Pass last night, it was like being inside a winter storybook. In a place that is usually reserved for the hard-working men and women simply doing their job of moving products from place to place, an antique passenger train rolls through with everyone from the staff to the entertainers to myself intently watching this fairytale world pass us by. We said things like: 'Well, this doesn't suck," and, "Wow," and, "We are so fortunate to be here right now.' And this, just to get to the next destination to donate some cash, provide some entertainment, and to help give a boost to the local food bank. I count my blessings every day. I work extremely hard over endless hours and days in my business, but moments like this one make it all worthwhile. My next most worthwhile moment will be when my wife and son pick me up at the airport on Thursday. I know all the folks on board the Canadian Pacific Holiday Train are anxious to get home, too. But for now we have a train to keep moving, to help feed those who are struggling this season. I can't express properly, in these words or these photos, how honoured I am to be on this train, doing what I am doing.


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Revelstoke to Salmon Arm

The end of the line for me. My contract would be complete at the end of this day. I felt it. I was anxious to get back to my family in Calgary and get on with enjoying all things Christmas, but I also was yearning to ride the project to the end. Maybe I'll get to be a part of the Holiday Train again in the future, but if this was my last opportunity to do this, I am a happy, and entirely fulfilled guy.

It was a pretty casual day, as the train didn't leave until 4 p.m. from Revelstoke. It was great to sit and chat with the crew, and I even got to walk around downtown for a bit, finding myself in a lovely little coffee shop. When it was time to pull away, I hopped in another CP Police car, as Three Valley Gap was one of my main targets from the inception of this photo project. Having driven past that place dozens of times in my life, and even riding through there on a different train a few years back, I had my spot all picked out.

It wasn't to be, though. My spot wasn't giving me the reflections on the water I had hoped, as the wind was kicking the surface into whitecaps. Thankfully I had spotted a section of the lake near the lodge that had frozen over and was glass-like.

From my Facebook post on the photo:

The ice had just started forming on the east end by the lodge, but most of the lake was pretty much whitecaps under the east wind that was blowing. I crawled down the bank next to the road and cautiously set the camera on the ice. I had to shoot quickly, as I saw a big crack in the ice form right before my eyes. The wind was strong enough to cause the ice to almost look like it was a breathing chest.
When I was travelling through Northern Ontario a couple weeks ago, I listened to a radio program that talked about the Great Lakes, and how the water in them can slosh back and forth like in a giant bathtub due to pressure from storms in one area of the lake. I thought of this as the ice heaved and groaned right at my feet.

I was completely satisfied with the photos here. My wish for a 'slow' train was granted, and we succeeded in realizing my vision for the shot once again!

It was only 20 more minutes by car to get to Sicamous, where they set the record for largest bonfire I'd seen at any of the stops. At -25 and snow everywhere, it was welcomed by everyone, including me as we waited for the train to arrive.

I spent the rest of my time on the train for the stops at Canoe (where they filled an actual canoe with food bank donations) and Salmon Arm, as those were my last stops. I helped deliver hot chocolate and cookies, took photos of the crew and the events, then grabbed my gear and hopped off the train one last time.

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The real reason

This story is about my photos of the train. But the real reason any of us do this is to help raise food, money, and awareness for hunger-related charities across Canada and the U.S. It's easy to put 100% of my passion and efforts towards this cause.

The 18th annual Canadian Pacific (CP) Holiday Train raised more than spirits across North America this holiday season, with donations of $1.2 million and 250,000 pounds of food counted to this point.
As food banks continue to count the money raised and weigh the food donated at each stop this year, the program is on track to have raised more than C$13 million and four million pounds of food since its inception in 1999. Learn more at

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Footnote: As always, I am indebted to for connecting me to trains in the first place.