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Building the 'Iron Road West' that forged modern British Columbia

(Source: Harbour Publishing)

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – Our province as we know it today wouldn’t exist if not for the railway. Iron Road West: An Illustrated History of British Columbia’s Railways is a new book that looks at how trains have shaped our modern world.

Author Derek Hayes says geography was the central challenge when it came to connecting B.C. to the rest of the country.

“People, and trade for that matter, wanted to travel from the East to West, East to West,” he says. “But the mountains, of course, of British Columbia, the mountain ranges, generally run north to south, so the book is all about, really, how the terrain was overcome.”

Iron Road West also looks at how the railway shaped individual communities, not the least of which was Vancouver. “It was created by the railway for the railway,” Hayes says. “Originally, the railway came in 1885 to Port Moody [but] Coal Harbour was a better harbour for ships than making them go all the way to Port Moody.”

Hayes points out the provincial government had granted more than 200 railway charters by the time the First World War broke out in 1914. “Of course, only a relatively small number of those actually came into being because of the costs.”

The book also has shows examples of surviving operating and non-operating heritage railways.

“Locally, the Fraser Valley Heritage Railway in Cloverdale and museums where there are static exhibits,” he says. “The biggest local one here is the one at Squamish from the West Coast Railway Association. They’ve got, of course, the Royal Hudson, which everybody knows.”

But Iron Road West isn’t just a look back. Hayes also looks at the modern railway and lines like the Amtrak Cascades, which connects Vancouver to the rest of the Pacific Northwest. “The Amtrak Cascades is one of the success stories of modern railways because it’s subsidized by the Washington state Transportation Department and the locomotives have that on the side of them even!”

As for the kind of high speed rail we see in Japan and other parts of the developed world, Hayes says, don’t count on seeing it here. “Because of the lack of dense enough population, because it’s incredibly expensive to build and to make the line flat enough and straight enough.”

Its coffee table book format lends itself to hundreds of stunning images, so Iron Road West is very much an illustrated history. Look for it from Harbour Publishing.