Full Steam Ahead

Clients can ride the rails through history

By: Marty Wentzel

This is the first Image
Armstrong Explorer steams through
farmlands, by lakes and across bridges.
Train aficionados claim they can identify an engineer by the way he toots his horn. The length, tone and rhythm of his call create a sound so singular that longtime residents along the route immediately know who’s in charge.

On a recent trip aboard the Armstrong Explorer the longest regularly scheduled steam-powered rail excursion in Canada I made a point of listening to the aural idiosyncrasies of our engineer, 77-year-old Gordon MacDonald. While clients can choose to sit in assigned coach seats, I spent my time in the train’s two open-air observation cars, which provided unparalleled sensory stimulation.

Powered by the immaculately restored 1912 steam locomotive #2141, the train is wrapping up its third season courtesy of the Kamloops Heritage Railway Society. It makes a variety of one-hour runs out of Kam-loops, B.C., as well as the nine-hour trip I took from nearby Campbell Creek to the rural community of Armstrong and back.

“People simply love steam trains,” said Howard Grieve, marketing and communications manager for the city of Kamloops, a four-hour drive from Vancouver.

The tireless Grieve spearheaded the effort to launch the rail excursions, and he frequently volunteers as a conductor. Drawing devotees from Canada and the U.S., the trip appeals to special-interest railway groups, empty nesters, families and seniors, said Grieve. KHRS often joins marketing forces with Kamloops’ 68-room Plaza Heritage Hotel, dating back to 1928 and a renovated gem in its own right.

As the Armstrong Explorer chugged out of the station at 8:30 a.m., my open-air perch provided me with views of the shiny black engine working its way along the tracks. Great plumes of steam rose from its snout in a classic choo-choo refrain. I heard the steady clackety-clack of the wheels and felt the warmth of the sun on my face. Early in the trip the train entered a tunnel for nearly one mile, draping the cars in darkness and emerging into a dramatic horseshoe curve. We passed farmlands, crossed bridges, hugged a lake, waved to excited bystanders and spotted wildlife, while savoring gratis snacks and sodas served by volunteers.

The train stopped to take in water, so I chatted with KHRS operations manager Brenda Pollock.

“Our first three years were focused on getting the tours up and running,” Pollock said. “Now we’ll start reaching out to travel agents and tour operators.”

At noon, a group of townspeople some in vintage garb greeted the train with cheers as it pulled into Armstrong.

“The town has been a great partner,” said Grieve. “Sometimes a band even comes out to welcome us.”

With two hours to stroll the quaint streets of Armstrong, passengers dispersed for lunch at several eateries, including the Village Cheese, Brown Derby, Beamer’s Bistro, Junction Cafe and the Branding Iron Pub, home of a bounteous baron of beef buffet. Folks reappeared as Grieve hollered the classic “All Aboard!” and locals waved goodbye.

The train retraced its tracks, and once again I lingered in the observation car, entranced by the ambience found only on a steam train. By 5:30 p.m., as we pulled back into the Campbell Creek station, I had memorized MacDonald’s song: two long toots, a low dip and a slide up to a third longer toot. I’d know it anywhere.


Kamloops Heritage Railway Society
#6-510 Lorne St.
Kamloops, B.C. V2C 1W3

In 2008, the Armstrong Explorer runs May 3, June 7, Sept. 6 and Oct. 4. Rates are $154 per adult, $144 per senior, $99 per child and $134 per person for groups of 20 or more.

From Kamloops, KHRS also runs the Ghost Train (Oct. 17-18, 24-25, 2008), Spirit of Christmas (Dec. 13-14, 19-21, 2008) and Spirit of Kamloops, complete with a train robbery (July 4-Sept. 1, 2008).

Plaza Heritage Hotel
405 Victoria St.
Kamloops, B.C. V2C 2A9

Nightly Rates: $109-$139 per night

Commission: 5-10 percent