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For 23 years prior to the construction of the Spiral Tunnels the Canadian Pacific

Railway’s track west of the Kicking Horse Pass plunged down what became know

as the “Big Hill”.

The Big Hill was to have been a temporary solution to the Kicking Horse River's

valley dropping 1,140 feet in the first 7.5 miles. The original Canadian Pacific

Railway’s charter had stipulated that in constructing the route nowhere should

the grade be more than 2.2%. But meeting this stipulation proved impossible for

the western descent from the Kicking Horse Pass, as it would have necessitated

crossing many avalanche paths and unstable areas.

The solution, meant to be only temporary, was to run the run the rails straight

downhill to the floor of the Kicking Horse Valley, creating a 4.5% grade. The

charter was amended to allow this, as it was to only be a short-term solution. It

remained in service for 23 years and 4 months.

The steepest standard-gauge track ever operated in North America with regular

passenger service was the 3-mile long, 5.03% Saluda Grade constructed in 1878

on the Elizabeth City and Norfolk Railroad in North Carolina. The Big Hill would

take second place.

Accidents were inevitable. So, to attempt to reduce the damage that would

result from the pile-ups the Canadian Pacific railway built three runaway spurs

approximately 4,900 feet apart. The “safety switches” were set to divert trains

from the mainline onto runaway spurs.

When a train was 1000 feet from a safety switch, the engineer was to give one

long whistle blast to alert the switchman then a further four short blasts when

300 feet from the switch, to indicate that the engineer had the train under


If the engineer had lost control of the train he did not give the four short blasts.

In that case, the switchman kept the switch to the mainline closed. The train

was diverted onto the inclined runaway spur where wrecks could take place

without hindering traffic on the mainline.

Among the more famous pile-ups was one involving a five-car freight train,

which, among other things, resulted in the destruction of a refrigerator car of

eggs and a car of whiskey. As it was -25°F at the time of the derailment, at the

very least, it was a case of Scotch on the rocks.

Today the Trans-Canada Highway follows the eastern portion of the Big Hill



Posted: December 25, 2012


The Big Hill


The Second Crossing Bridge over the Kicking Horse River.


September 3, 2007


The Big Hill showing the Second Crossing Bridge over the Kicking Horse River (to the left) and the first

runaway track (to the right). Note the two pusher locomotive helping the train up the 4.5% grade to

the Kicking Horse Pass.


Trans-Canada Highway looking west from the Kicking Horse River crossing. The highway follows the

original 4.5% grade of the Big Hill past the Spiral Tunnels (Upper Spiral Tunnel to the left on the treed

slope, Lower Spiral Tunnel around the hillside to the right).


September 3, 2007


Trans-Canada Highway looking east from the Kicking Horse River crossing. The first runaway track left

the curve (in the distance, centre of the photo) and went up the hill to the left.


September 3, 2007


The Second Crossing Bridge over the Kicking Horse River on the MBC 2010 in summer.


The Second Crossing Bridge over the Kicking Horse River on the MBC 2010 in winter.


Reference: The Spiral Tunnels and the Big Hill on the Canadian Pacific Railway by Graeme Pole. Mountain

Vision Publishing, Hazelton, British Columbia. 2009.