"I’ve never seen this many smiling people in one contained space," the Toronto Sun sports writer says to me. "Unless it’s in a bar and they’re drunk," he adds as we clink glasses of champagne and orange juice.
It’s 9 a.m. on the first run of the Whistler Mountaineer train from North Vancouver to Creekside. The 168 passengers, tour operators and media types from around the world, have given up a Sunday morning sleep-in to find out what the Whistler Mountaineer fuss is about. Some like me are just travelling to Whistler; others will continue to Quesnel when the nine-car train leaves Whistler mid-afternoon, doing double duty as Rocky Mountaineer Vacations’ (RMV) new Fraser Discovery Route, a two-day trip that starts in Whistler and terminates in Jasper, Alberta. The daily Whistler Mountaineer, which started service May 1, returns to Vancouver at 2:30 p.m., a trip that includes high tea catered by the Fairmont Chateau Whistler.
For the increasingly jolly passengers, the three-hour ride in refurbished 1950s-era coach and dome cars is a lark. A full breakfast served airline style on pull-down trays, yet with hefty cutlery and tiny salt and pepper shakers you’d never see on any plane, served by breathless, smiling attendants as we cozy up in original but reupholstered burnished yellow reclining seats. Through oversized windows with corresponding transom skylights there is an expansive view to Burrard Inlet and then Howe Sound, as we munch our way through fruit salad, puffy French omelettes, back bacon, herbed potatoes and grilled tomatoes.
"I’m not used to eating this healthy or this early," the Sun guy says, "usually it’s deep fried and in a bar after a Raptors’ game."
This is a first not only for passengers but for Whistler Mountaineer’s 11 on board attendants – not only their first group of Whistler Mountaineer passengers but for some their first group of train passengers ever. Most staff were hired specifically for the Whistler Mountaineer trip, which will run daily from May through October.
In one of the coach cars an attendant has his face pressed to the window staring anxiously ahead. Beside him is a mile by mile guidebook (North American railways never switched to metric) that tells him what points of interest the train is travelling past. He knows he’ll have everything soon memorized but for now he’s still orienting himself, learning details, such as the fact that Howe Sound is actually a fjord.
"On our existing routes we allow staff to shadow senior attendants for four days to get to learn the ropes that way, but with our first Whistler Mountaineer run it’s everybody’s first run," Chris Woods , on board train manager, said before departure."Some head to the vintage open-air car on loan from the West Coast Railway Association for an Oh-my-God look over the rail to the Cheakamus Canyon 600 metres below." Photo by Vivian Moreau
Although it’s a trial by fire for staff, gregarious passengers have made it a party, leaving seats to fill aisles and vestibules, introducing one another in the hopes of comparing notes, sharing facts and stealing anecdotes. Some head to the vintage open-air car on loan from the West Coast Railway Association for an Oh-my-God look over the rail to the Cheakamus Canyon 600 metres below. Senior RMV management mingle, answering picayune questions like where is the baggage car and why can’t I go visit the engineer driving the train? (Baggage is shuttled to Whistler by truck and the engineer is bound by Canadian National Railway rules. RMV leases track rights from CNR and Stu Coventry, Director of Guest Services says, and the rules include no snoopy reporters visiting the engineer, especially those drinking champagne and OJ.) No one notices the distracted on board manager fiddling with a control panel or three other RMV managers in conference at the back of the train: "They’ve promised no blasting half an hour before or after we come through," one says of the highway construction crews.
"Or off with their heads," another says.
All is well.
It’s a coup d’état for Peter Armstrong, president of Rocky Mountaineer Vacations, who formed the upstart train company 16 years ago, when the federal government decided to off-load VIA Rail’s daylight mountain rail trips. Armstrong’s company, at that time called Mountain Vistas Railtour Services, won the bid to take over VIA’s Rocky Mountaineer by out-manoeuvering others, including a contentious VIA-staffed bid.
Armstrong’s company initially stumbled through three horrendous seasons: losing $7 million dealing with tempestuous VIA executives and equally temperamental equipment. Only after federal mediators stepped in, ordering VIA, a Crown corporation, to compensate the boutique train company, did the company turn a profit.
"We had taken on something that had been losing money for 40 years," Armstrong, 53, said in an interview in his corner office in Canadian National Railway’s Vancouver terminal. "We had no expertise in the train business and there wasn’t anybody who believed passenger rail could make a revival. The chorus of people telling me I was crazy was deafening."
But Armstrong had a history of seeing opportunities and going for them. As a 21-year-old Hotel Vancouver bellman he’d noticed government-run Gray Line tour buses turning customers away every day.
"I thought ‘Okay, if they don’t want to look after these people I will.’"
He created a plan he would duplicate many times over, putting in little of his own money and finding investors who would put up their own. With three small buses he started Spotlight Tours. In 1976 he took over Trailways, which ran the airporter bus, then in 1979 he acquired Gray Line, after the provincial government privatized the bus company.
In his early 30s then, Armstrong admits it was a steep learning curve.Peter Armstrong in his early Gray Line days. Photo submitted.
"There were some things I did and attitudes I had that were just awful," he told author Paul Grescoe in Trip of a Lifetime (Tribute Books, 2006), a book about the company’s history.
"I was just a young kid who had a very little business that all of a sudden went very big, and I had this grandiose idea that I was good," he said. "I was arrogant, belligerent – and those were my best attributes."
Before he was muscled from Gray Line by his partner in 1988, Armstrong took a promotional ride on the very first daylight VIA Rail run through the Rockies.
An initiative of a forward-thinking VIA vice-president who had received one too many letters from guests complaining that the train travelled through the Rockies at night, VIA launched its first all-daylight train between Vancouver and Alberta in 1988. Armstrong was on that first run.
"Within 15 minutes of being on the train, I understood what was going on," he said in Trip . "People were comfortable and relaxed. They could stick their heads out from the vestibule and watch some of the most spectacular scenery pass by. I never saw such happy people pour off a train."
A year later the federal government put Rocky Mountaineer out to tender and after a brief dalliance with a group of VIA staffers putting together a bid, including the man who’d thought up the Rocky Mountaineer model, Armstrong found his own investors – his brother Beverley Armstrong, a real estate developer and restaurateur, and others – to pull together their own bid. He also convinced some qualified advisors to come on board, like Mac Norris, the former head of BC Rail.
"I’d recently retired and had a good reputation as a railroader," Norris recalled in a telephone interview from his Slocan Valley home.
"I was concerned about that reputation if I got involved in something that was flaky," he said.
He asked to meet with Armstrong’s backers, did some research, and decided to join the undertaking. Norris accompanied Armstrong to negotiation meetings with CN, Canadian Pacific and with VIA’s grumpy senior executives. Their $7.2 million bid was accepted and within weeks Mountain Vistas had its first run with a tour.
The first years were rough, with Armstrong calling on his wife, sister, and sister-in-law as on board attendants. Using aging stock with heating and air conditioning equipment that frequently broke down at just the wrong time, in constant squabbles with VIA over questionable billing practices and being challenged with everything from exploding toilets to suicidal people leaping in front of the train, Armstrong and his staff doggedly persevered.
"Listening to my guests I realized if I could just stay on, hang on long enough to realize that what we were creating – the environment, the culture of the company – we would be able to attract people from all over the world," Armstrong said in his wood-panelled office at the 1919 Neo-classical terminal. "And knock on wood, we’ve been proven right."
Armstrong’s hair has turned grey in the years since he started Rocky Mountaineer, but at six foot four, he still has an easy, light-footed Cary Grant kind of grace. He knows how to work a crowd, like at the Whistler Mountaineer launch two weeks ago, spending enough time with each person so they feel they’ve had his full attention.
In his office, the shelves display not only a copy of The Little Engine that Could , photographs of his children, the family’s Savary Island cottage, but also a framed Expo 86 ticket.
"People were saying Expo wasn’t going to be a success but I kept saying it was going to be a huge success," said Armstrong, who bought the first 100 tickets.
In an interview Armstrong smoothes his tie when asked a difficult question ("Is there danger of over-extending the company?") and links his fingers together on the table in front of him. He glances away to consider, then makes, and holds, eye contact.
"Always. But we know exactly what we’re trying to do," he said. "We have no plans to acquire any other businesses at present time… but I have to keep pushing the envelope to keep my team challenged."
BC Rail halted passenger rail service to Whistler in 2002. Armstrong believes it’s the right time to bring it back and that the 2010 Winter Olympics will be an economic springboard.
"It’s about building confidence, about setting a goal and achieving it and showing that we’re a world-class destination."
One RMV board member, alongside since the early years, says an important element in Armstrong’s success has been his regard for staff.
"We went through a period of growth," Mike Phillips said in a telephone interview. "We had about 300 employees. And Peter looked at me one day and said very sadly ‘You know I don’t know everyone’s names anymore.’"
"You have to start with respect," Armstrong says. "When something goes wrong or even goes right, what made that happen, what’s the lesson learned, and then how do you apply it so it never repeats itself or apply it across your company so it becomes a better experience for everyone."
The president of Grouse Mountain says unlike some entrepreneurs, Armstrong listens well and is open to fresh ideas.
"There’s a difference between just being a good listener and willing to hear but actively going out and seeking it so you can improve yourself – that’s a rare talent as an entrepreneur," said Stuart McLaughlin.
Former head of BC Rail Mac Norris takes it one step further.
"Peter’s confident of his own abilities but aware of his deficiencies and has the courage and wisdom to seek help in those areas – which is unusual."
When Armstrong courted Alberta premier-hopeful Jim Dinning as a board member, Dinning, now entering his fourth year as a board member, said he took a ride on the Rocky Mountaineer from Kamloops to Calgary to check out the operation. Ensconced in the cozy dome car with attendants at hand, Dinning managed to slip away to the kitchen, and even to the engineer.
"And the way the employees felt about how they were treated by the company was extraordinary," Dinning, the former Alberta treasurer, said in a telephone interview from his Calgary office.
"It isn’t just a thin veneer at the top of the organization. It crosses the whole organization and that to me is the success of the company."
"Peter is politically astute," Norris added. "He understands politics and makes sure that politicians know who he is.""He understands politics and makes sure that politicians know who he is." - former head of BC Rail Mac Norris. Photo by Maureen Provencal
Armstrong learned important political skills from federal Conservative advisor David Aftergood who told him he had to start playing ball on a different level to deal with VIA Rail executives like Jim Roche. In Trip Roche is quoted as saying: "I am no particular fan of Mr. Armstrong, not just because he bought our train… I find him smarmy and unctuous."
Aftergood told Armstrong: "You’re dealing with competing interests that are much bigger than whether or not a train goes from Calgary to Vancouver. If you’re there to show them that you can run a profitable part of their network, then why in the world would the government continue to subsidize them?"
Provincial Transportation Minister Kevin Falcon’s appearance at the launch of the Whistler Mountaineer April 19 is evidence Armstrong has learned to apply the benefits of building a good team beyond the company.
At 53, Armstrong is an accomplished networker, has served as chair of Tourism Vancouver and on several charitable organization boards.
But retired railroader Norris said Armstrong’s commitment to community is altruistic and that he also has a strong commitment to his wife Wendy and three grown children. In the past four years Armstrong has become the family patriarch, with the untimely death of his older brother Bev and recent loss of his mother.
"He’s become the leader of the family clan under some very trying circumstances," Norris said. "What I’ve appreciated has been to watch him grow from a young guy into the position and stature he’s reached now. He really has progressed."
Jim Dinning says that although RMV now has over 70 route packages, a Kamloops hotel, bus line, and shiny new rail station in the False Creek area, Armstrong must continue to progress as RMV’s challenges will be to stay one step ahead of the market.
"If you had a list of 100 great vacations this year, in five years it will be 1,000," Dinning said. How the Whistler Mountaineer may contribute to that will be through Armstrong "embedding into the organization and leadership team that same kind of passion, zeal and infectious enthusiasm around guest experience."
Trundling toward Whistler, a Scottish political reporter points to a route map on the wall. "Are these two mountain ranges the same?"
No, those are the Rockies and these are the Coast Mountains, I explain.
"What’s there to do in Whistler?" he asks.
I launch into its attributes, a town I’ve lived in for only six months but born and raised in Vancouver, I’ve known most of my life. A lot more than skiing, I tell him. There’s cycling, mountain biking, hiking, flyfishing, oh, and the restaurants have these fantastic deals right now.
"What about just a walk through the village?" he asks.
I remember Peter Armstrong remarking that as British Columbians we aren’t aware of how lucky we are to live where we do. I’m suddenly seeing this town with new eyes and understand where this little train is taking me.
"That too," I tell the man. That too.
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