Mr. Armstrong's fine train

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Sunday, September 30, 2018

I’m just back from railing from Banff, Alta., to Vancouver, B.C., aboard the Rocky Mountaineer. . . my first such trip in 23 years. Then, it was eight or nine Silver Leaf coaches and a single Gold Leaf bilevel first-class car. This time, it was two coaches and five packed Gold Leaf cars. From the rail trip alone, I figure that Armstrong Group grossed a minimum of $600,000. Usually (but not this time) there’s a section of roughly equal length out of Jasper, Alta., that joins the Banff train at Kamloops, B.C., so this train can easily be a $2 million-dollar baby when the passenger count tops 1,000 (we had 350). But my sense is that Armstrong Group brings in a at least a much money booking people on pre-train and post-train tours and luxury hotel stays.

I’ve always sensed a lot of railfan resentment of Peter Armstrong. The beef is that he “stole” from VIA Rail Canada the idea of an all-daylight trip along the Rocky and Selkirk mountains and the Thompson and Fraser rivers. For sure, the man plays for keeps; he is forever wishing to axe VIA’s Toronto-Vancouver Canadian as a government-funded competitor west of Jasper or to have the train sold to his company to redo in some Rocky Mountaineer manner.

But give the man his due. He created something lasting by becoming one of the few people to run passenger trains more than a few miles and make money at it. Who knows where the Canadian will be in a decade; it keeps losing fingers and hands as frequencies are trimmed and schedules lengthened. But the Rocky earns its way commercially, having proven its durability by weathering 2008-2009’s Great Recession.

In the latest issue of Trains, my colleague Bob Johnston writes an excellent capsule history of this service: “One factor driving the decision to move the Canadian over to [the Canadian National] route was lobbying by Vancouver entrepreneur Peter Armstrong to privatize VIA’s summer excursions to Banff, Alta., introduced in 1988. This came with the understanding that his fledging operation would get route exclusivity and some initial financial assistance from VIA to ensure the venture’s success. After a few shaky early years, Armstrong invested heavily in specialty dome cars to make Rocky Mountaineer a financial and creative success in a way the public funded operator never could.”

The first Rocky Mountaineer operated in May 1990. Today a Gold Leaf ticket—the two-day rail journey alone—costs just over US $2,000. The company, of course, would rather put you up in places like the former Canadian Pacific hotels now operated by Fairmont before and after the trip and send you on days or weeks of other tours through western Canada. Neighbors of mine in Colorado just got back from such a booking, having spent US $17,000 with the Armstrongs.

For my fellow railfans, here’s what you missed by not being with me: The chance to spend the entire two days, if you wished, at a vestibule window or on the open observation platforms of Gold Leaf cars, leaning out all you want. Amtrak would eject you from its train and maybe have you arrested for doing that, and VIA would at least chew you out the first time before tossing you off the second. All our guides asked was that we share that space with others. Or if you doubt the weather will be grand, just ask for seats in the first bilevel Gold Leaf car when you book the trip and you will have better forward vision than in a Budd-built dome. You’ll meet lots of freights; roughly 20 a day run east of Golden, B.C., and 35 west of there.

The rest of you would like the rich, leisurely breakfasts and lunches served on the bottom level of Gold Leaf cars and the gab and commentary delivered by the two upstairs people, on my train nicknamed Sweet Amanda and Brash Brandon. Despite my being a curmudgeon, I got to like them, and no doubt some of the lore they spin is true. In all, six service employees inhabit each Gold Leaf car. Oh yes, there are those mountains and lakes and rivers, if you are so inclined.

After my 1995 trip with my family, I told Cathie it was the best train trip I’d ever taken. It helped that I talked my way onto the locomotive between Banff and Field, B.C.—you could still get lucky like that in Canada then. This could well have been my second-best trip, equaling the adventures I always seem to have on the Canadian as it weaves among the monster-sized CN freights. This I can almost guarantee: The experience won’t be cheap, but it will be unique, leaving you with the feeling that you got your money’s worth.—Fred W. Frailey

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