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"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.
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