Several dozen feet of snow have fallen this winter in the spectacular pass through Canada's Selkirk Range. It is piled up beside the roads like the walls of a minor canyon. Occasionally, the Trans-Canada Highway that runs through the pass is closed for a day because of the threat of avalanches. But deep underneath the slopes of 9,000-foot Mt. Macdonald and smaller Cheops Mountain, miners continue to work on the longest rail tunnel in North America. The 9.11-mile tunnel is part of a $600 million (US$438 million) project to reduce the grade between the Beaver River Valley and the Rogers Pass area of British Columbia.
``This railway mega-project is the largest of its kind since the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway more than 100 years ago,'' says John Fox, vice-president of CP Rail, special projects.
Last October, a large charge of explosives broke through the final six or seven feet of rock in the middle of the tunnel. Representatives of two joint-venture contractors - one a Canadian-American group, the other Japanese-Canadian - exchanged special Roberts Pass flags, which have since been put into CP's corporate archives, the same as the golden spikes used in the ceremony marking the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway's transcontinental line 101 years ago.
The Rogers Pass project will not be finished until the fall of 1988. Right now miners are hacking out an 80-foot-tall ``gate chamber'' from solid rock, part of an underground ventilation system needed to cool the diesel locomotives and purge exhaust fumes.
Other tunnelers are blasting out the ``bench'' in the eastern tunnel section, about seven feet of rock left behind at the base of the horseshoe-shaped tunnel after a massive, circular boring machine drilled out the top part. Also, a nearby second tunnel, 1.1 miles long, is being blasted out.
When the snow melts in April or May, work will resume on the surface portion of the project. There's 10.7 miles of track and six bridges, including a mile-long viaduct, to complete. Some track is being doubled.
The goal of the project is to increase mainline capacity to meet projected freight demands between Calgary and Vancouver. The present steep grades require as many as six pusher, or helper, locomotives to shove westbound freight trains over the 4,300-foot Rogers Pass. The grade is now 2.2 percent. With the tunnel, the grade will be 1 percent, and the usual complement of locomotives should manage the task. The ventilation system will permit one train to pass through every 30 minutes.
But the realization of those traffic projections will probably take longer than originally expected. Traffic on CP Rail, a division of Canadian Pacific Ltd., is rather sluggish. Canadian farmers have faced greater difficulty in selling their grain against American, European, and other competition. The Japanese have taken less coal from mines in the Sparwood area that, after a jog northward to Golden, goes through Rogers Pass on the way to Vancouver.
CP Rail's trains now pass through the Selkirks in a spiral tunnel. The track loops over itself and climbs the grade between the portals of the Connaught Tunnel, completed in 1916.
The new illuminated, concrete-lined Mt. Macdonald Tunnel goes relatively straight through the mountains. It will allow trains to travel 30 miles an hour, about 10 miles faster than at the moment.
So far there have been no fatal injuries among the 500 to 1,000 employees (depending on the season) - unusual for a project this size. The camp for employees is ``dry,'' helping to avoid fights and alcohol-related accidents.
Because the route goes through Glacier National Park, special attention must be paid to environmental issues. Exhaust fans for the camp kitchen are equipped with a bank of filters to eliminate all cooking odors. Otherwise, black bears would flock about and possibly tear the place apart in an effort to reach food.
It was after a calamity in 1910 that Canadian Pacific decided to build the Connaught Tunnel. A slide buried a work gang clearing the tracks from another avalanche. Sixty-two men were killed. Hours later a passenger train with 400 passengers was caught between that killer slide and another slide. They were isolated for days.