He thought he could, he thought he could 

Sixteen years ago people told Peter Armstrong he was crazy to start a passenger rail
company. Today they’re lining up to come aboard. Vivian Moreau takes a ride on the
Whistler Mountaineer and sits down with the man behind the train.

click to flip through (4) Crowds greet Whistler Mountaineer as it pulls into Creekside May 1. Photo by Maureen Provencal
  • Crowds greet Whistler Mountaineer as it pulls into Creekside May 1. Photo by Maureen
    Provencal
     
 

"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

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