The Kaoham Shuttle

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The Kaoham Shuttle

Postby bdawe » Sun Apr 03, 2016 3:50 pm

See photo album here: http://imgur.com/a/JyLER

I've just returned from a marvelous day riding the Kaoham Shuttle, a daily gas-car service running between Seton Portage and Lillooet along the shores of Seton Lake in British Columbia. The Kaoham shuttle has run for 14 years, ever since the cancellation of BC Rail's former daily Budd Car services between North Vancouver and Lillooet. The shuttle is run by CN and ticketing is managed by the Tsal'ahl band.

We left Vancouver around 6 AM, giving ourselves a 1 hour pad from the Google Maps projected time. The road into Seton leaves Highway 99 in the small Lil'wat town of Mount Currie, near Pemberton, following the ex-BC Rail/Pacific Great Eastern route, itself following the historic Douglas Road that once provided the 'water level' route into the interior. At D'arcy, the pavement ends, branching off to a 33 km dirt road known as the 'Highline', winding over the the lake roughly along the path of BC Hydro's high tension power lines. The road was in surprisingly good condition, being advertised on the internet as being for 4x4's only, and to bring emergency supplies (apparently maintenance has improved in recent years). Previously, the Shuttle would make periodic trips to D'Arcy as demanded, but this has ended recently.

Arriving in Seton Portage, there's a decaying old church, a few old buildings, a restaurant, and a brand new hotel being constructed. The Chamber of Commerce is an old PGE caboose. Seton Portage is a flat spot between Seton and Anderson lakes where a donkey-hauled portage railroad once transported miners between steam boats travelling the long lakes, formed when a landslide 10,000 years ago divided Seton and Anderson Lakes, and formed a place of good soil and convenient trade. We miss the station, which is somewhat removed from the main road and continue down the road another fifteen minutes until we find our selves at South Shalalth stop, next to a BC Hydro facility where water from an adjacent lake is allowed to flow through mountains down the tunnel into Seton Lake. The stop is a small wooden platform at rail level and shelter, decorated with a raven in native style. A fellow pulls up in a pickup truck, and chats with us a bit about the area, his work as fighting fires, and the deer he'd bagged the other day (and the deer are quite plentiful).

At 11:40, ten minutes after departing Seton, the train (CN 10800) pulls into South Shalalth and we board. We are at this point the only ones aboard the train save for the engineer, a CN employee who notes that the fare collector will board at the next stop. The train is a single home-made gas car, with large tinted windows, a slate-tiled floor an ac unit cut into the roof, and five or so rows of school-bus type seating all in one compartment, offering nearly 360 degree views. The whole vehicle has two axles and weighs about 11 tons. Apparently it was built down in Sacramento for a museum service, but was brought north when the service began in 2002, and have since been heavily modified. When the two shuttle cars are trained together, they're coupled with a sort of link and pin coupler. While both cars are engined, they are not MU'd, and instead the rear car is towed.

We set off down the track, and the long wheel base of the car hunts and bumps mightily, despite not exceeding the allowed 20 mph. At the main station in Shalalth, there's a crowd, and there boards the conductor, his assistant, a young family and a few others. The conductor, an employee of the Tsal'ahl Band is a talkative man, perhaps 40, takes his seat upon a plastic tub in front left side next to the engineer, chatting with the engineer and many of the local passengers who he appears to know well. The conductor has worked on the shuttle for six years, working in forestry before that. He notes that the shuttle sees many more tourists than it once did, since it was featured on a BBC article a few years back, but it's obvious that tourists are still rare enough in this remote corner of British Columbia that they're still somewhat interesting to have aboard. Along with the conductor is a shy young native woman, seemingly a teenager, who collects our $10 return fares and notes us down in the manifest. She's in training he notes, and the engineer complements her on her learning how to use the radio properly.

Soon after, the conductor spots a little brown-colored black bear up the hill, noting with relief that they hadn't seen the bear in a few runs. The bear is a three year old orphan, and is likely stunted. The engineer stops the train and backs up a short ways, as the conductor invites myself and my partner to take pictures. The trip is well punctuated with wildlife, with eagles, big-horn sheep, ducks, and deer. As we come across a group of animals, the engineer slows or stops the car, to make sure they get off the track.

Set against all this is is the scenery - spectacular. Seton Lake sits in the bottom of a long, steep-sided glacial canyon, and shines with an emerald glow from the glacial rock-flour that pours in through BC Hydro's tunnels. Above the lake rise high, snow capped peaks where mountain goats roam. The track itself is along a narrow cut into the side of the lake, hugging only a few feet from the water at times, which was repurposed a hundred years ago by the Pacific Great Eastern Railway from an old cattle-drive road built at great expense in the 1870s. The Lillooet Cattle Trail had been something of a disastrous boondoggle for the province, with only one cattle-drive ever being completing the full route, in which most of the cattle died somewhere between the trestles and floating platforms built at the lake's edge or along the rocky stairways built over the North Shore Mountains which cattle were expected to surmount to get into North Vancouver. This railroad is highly slide-prone, with much evidence of that along the track - a slide detector here, a roadbed crusted in rock dust and freshly crumbled stone there, a creekbed piled with old rails to catch washouts in another spot. As such, the shuttle is limited in it's speeds and many freights are preceded by a highrailer running ahead to check for fresh falls.

We arrive in Lillooet on schedule, around 12:30, at the former BC Rail passenger depot which could not have been more than thirty years old. The Lillooet Yard is nearly filled with waiting box cars and centerbeams loaded lumber, and after we disembark the car is wyed and coupled to the waiting second unit, CN 10900 to make the return trip to Seton at 3:30.

Lillooet isn't a terribly interesting town these days, a windswept stop along the highway not unlike many BC Interior towns, but it has a history unlike most. Outside the communities of the First Nations, there are only a few settlements in BC that date back so long. Lillooet was a hub during the 1850s and 1860s Fraser Canyon Gold Rush, where the natural travel route through the chain of lakes and rivers from New Westminster through Seton met the Fraser River, itself a difficult passage with it's great rapids at Hell's Gate until the construction of the Cariboo Wagon Road. The confluence of trade lead to claims that it was at one time the largest settlement west of Chicago and north of San Francisco. However, the end of the Gold Rush and the coming of the Canadian Pacific and thus the reorientation of the province along that route reduced the town's relative prominence. It is however, the place where the rock-flour induced blue-green of the Seton River and the thick silt of the Fraser combine for an impressive and colorful mixing.

Returning to the station at 3:30, we board again, and the conductor invites myself and my partner to sit in his spot in the front left corner of the train to take pictures, while he heads to a few rows back to chat with a passenger he knows, along with a young Tsal'ahl girl whose laughter adds a bit of smile to return journey. A bit more conversation opens up with the engineer and the conductor, and stories are told and fun facts shared. The engineer has worked on this train for four years, and regards it as his retirement job. He lives in Seton Portage only a short walk from the station. The conductor shares some of the local history, noting local places and histories. He notes that the valley once was home to 10,000 people before contact, where it's only hundreds of band members and a few hundred non-natives today. Along this route is a cemetery hastily rebuilt after BC Hydro's daming of Seton Lake had induced erosion along it's banks and caused the unearthing of the graves of friends' great grandparents. To my surprise the conductor notes that he doesn't drive, and rarely leaves the valley, even when it was on fire a few years ago. He's proud of his son, who is outside the Valley learning to pilot helicopters.

The crew and passengers play a game of 'guess the temperature', awaiting the reading of the CN Detector to come over the radio. About half-way into our return trip, we take the siding. While the Kaoham Shuttle is obviously a passenger train, it does not have any priority along these tracks, and is officially treated by CN as a freight, the conductor states with a note of resentment. Along these tracks will come CN freights carrying the resource wealth of the British Columbian interior, along with the seasonal land-cruise trains of the Rocky Mountaineer We must await the passage of a highrailer and the following freight headed northward, losing us about 50 minutes on a 1 hour scheduled journey until the haul of box cars rumbles past, and we are given-over the track by the dispatcher over the radio.

The Conductor notes that the service has actually seen investment in recent years, including a re-build of the cars, and now the train doesn't have to stop mid-way and let the engines cool down, and that the AC works much more satisfactorily, and that the rebuild raised the floor quite a bit over the wheels.

Most of the passengers deboard in Shalalth (including the conductor), with only a few sticking it out for Seton Portage. Between the two lies a mile-long tunnel, detouring around an older, more collapse prone one. Though we're parked in South Shalalth, the engineer kindly offers to take us through the tunnel to Seton and then take us back the ten minute trip to South Shalalth to pick up our car, dropping the passengers in Seton, and starting the engine of the rear car to change directions. As this happens though, he hears over the radio that another north-bound freight is coming, and that he needs to clear the track, so we head north a short few hundred yards to the small car barn and turntable where the cars are dropped off, and the engineer takes us in his truck over the hill to Shalalth.

The Kaoham Shuttle is a short, scenic and informal train trip unlike any other in North America. It's a small train serving real needs in a small community that's far away from the amenities that most of us take for granted, but stretching through a spectacular stretch of country that few get to see. As the engineer dropped us off at our car, I thanked him for his trouble, and he noted as he left, 'make sure to come back, and bring all your friends'.
Last edited by bdawe on Sun Apr 03, 2016 4:44 pm, edited 1 time in total.
B. Dawe's map of routes and urban populations https://brendandawe.carto.com/viz/80b9d ... /embed_map NOW updated with 2016 Canadian Populations
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Re: The Kaoham Shuttle

Postby NS VIA FAN » Sun Apr 03, 2016 4:18 pm

What an interesting read!......Thanks for posting.

I've seen the cars at Lillooet and wondered about taking a ride.
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Re: The Kaoham Shuttle

Postby AgentSkelly » Sat Apr 16, 2016 6:16 am

Great report! I'm looking forward to taking this train someday.

As for the DMU they use; I want to say Siemens built the thing at its Sacramento plant...
New Westminster to Amtrak 516, whats up with the extra 4 axles, over?
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Re: The Kaoham Shuttle

Postby sageorge » Tue Jan 17, 2017 1:35 pm

Terrific post and images. I've been through this section of rail quite a few times on PGE and later BCRail but had no idea this service was operating now. On my next trip to BC "to visit relatives" the more important reason will be to take the Kaoham Shuttle. Thanks!

P.S. Check the order of the last 2 letters in Tsal'alh (like the order in Shalalth but without the 't' in between.)

Cheers, Steve George
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