By Andrew Selden
More than 40 years ago, I took the opportunity to ride Canadian Pacific’s Canadian, Thunder Bay-Calgary-Vancouver, in a bedroom in a Chateau-series sleeper, with a standard diner in the train, and of course the Park-series dome-observation-sleeper carrying the drumhead. It was a fabulous trip, the height of classic era, real railroad-run, long distance passenger railroading. But, we didn’t see most of the route.
As the train left Calgary on the second afternoon, in mid-September, and headed up the Bow River valley through Banff and Lake Louise for the continental divide on Kicking Horse Pass, a surprise early snowstorm settled in, reducing visibility to maybe 150 feet. We had to take it on faith that we were traversing the northern Rockies on one of North America’s most beautiful rail lines. We recall meeting an eastbound CP freight laboring uphill behind three or four SD-40s as we crested the pass, but then daylight ended, and dinner and a good night’s sleep carried us across British Columbia, over Rogers Pass and around Salmon Arm, then down the Thompson and Fraser River gorges in the dark, for a mid-morning arrival in Vancouver.
Skip forward 43 years to 2015. We finally decided to splurge on the Rocky Mountaineer, a privately-owned cruise train operating over three different routes in BC and Alberta: one on CP and CN on the route of today’s VIA Canadian, over Yellowhead Pass between Vancouver and Jasper; one newer route using CN’s former British Columbia Railway/Pacific Great Eastern route North Vancouver-Prince George-Jasper (duplicating VIA’s Skeena between Jasper and Prince George); and the route we chose, the traditional CP route, Vancouver-Kamloops-Field-Banff. We chose to ride eastward, to build up to the serious mountains in eastern BC from the coastal plains of the lower Fraser River valley near Vancouver. The Jasper and Banff itineraries all involve an overnight stop at Kamloops, so guests see the entire route in daylight. Trains run two or three days a week in the summer and fall on the Jasper and Banff routes.
Let’s just say that Rocky Mountaineer (“RM”) has the customer service side of this business nailed. From first contact on the phone last January to the final bus (oops, I mean “deluxe motor coach”) transfer from Banff to the Calgary airport, every single person we encountered could not have been more focused on creating a positive experience for RM’s guests. RM sees itself expressly as providing a cruise experience, and they model much of what they do after some of the high-end cruise ship companies. Their pricing follows that model, too, but that assures that RM can deliver on their promise. This is RM’s 25th year, and over time, as they have added features and values, their patronage has grown steadily.
RM offers three classes of service: Red Leaf, a basic coach accommodation with cold picnic meals; Silver Leaf, in panorama cars with windows reaching into the ceiling and an enhanced food service; and Gold Leaf, their primo accommodation in newer bi-level full-length dome cars, with lower-deck dining service and outside vestibule viewing platforms. We rationalized that we were only going to do this once, and went for the Gold Leaf experience. RM offers a large number of packages and schemes to choose from – we picked a relatively straightforward one that included the train in the dome car, Fairmont hotels in Vancouver and Banff, and slightly upscale digs in Kamloops, the transfer to Calgary, and more cooked-onboard food than a normal person could survive. Our dome car was built in 2006, by Colorado Railcar. It seats about 75 in 2×2 reclining leather seats.
This is the summary of our trip (in early July).
In Vancouver at 5:45 AM, our bags are packed and ready for pick-up in the hotel. They will be trucked ahead and waiting for us in our hotel room in Kamloops tonight. A charter bus takes us to RM’s own new depot in a converted GN shop building, driving us past the former CP and CN depots in Vancouver. Other buses have already arrived (and we learn that the train came up earlier from Seattle, another RM innovation), and the depot is swarmed with passengers and staff. The depot has a coffee cart, a gift shop and an “Upgrade Today!” desk. We ask, and the upgrade agent says he sells “a handful” of upgrades every trip. A pianist is playing and later a bagpiper will pipe us out of the depot to board, after the executive staff makes a welcoming speech, and introduces themselves to the crowd.
Our car is the seventh of seven Gold Leaf domes, four in front, then a coach crew and commissary car, then three more domes. Forward are two GP40-M engines, a converted baggage HEP car, six single level coaches and panorama cars, and trailing us are five more single level crew, panorama and coach cars, and a trailing HEP car. Our train boards 667 passengers, and does no intermediate business.
The door to our car – like all of the cars – sports a red carpet, steps, and the Canadian and British Columbia flags flying, and all four of the car’s service staff to introduce themselves to and warmly greet every passenger. Boarding takes 20 minutes. Our car has scones, juice and coffee out as we board; a full hot breakfast will be served shortly in two sittings on our lower deck.
At 7:50, the train backs slowly out into a wye, then reverses and crawls forward through CN yards. It will be an hour of steady, slow, urban movement before we pass Portman Yard, cross over to a double main track, and accelerate to an estimated 65 MPH.
Soon we are summoned down to breakfast. Our car’s galley has two chefs and the dining section two servers, Grace and Becky. Tables are set with linens, heavy stainless silver, and real plates and glasses. A fresh flower in a vase adorns every table. The dining section seats 38. During breakfast, we cross the Fraser River on a rotary drawbridge and join CP, but CN and CP’s directional running on paired track west of Kamloops means we encounter no delays to meet or overtake any freight trains. The menu offers a half dozen choices at each meal, and a slightly different menu appears on Day Two. Service is superb.
Upstairs, David and Britney (assisted by Service Manager, Jill, who supports just two cars) keep everyone well informed, and well fed between meals, with traditional Canadian courtesy and élan. Beverages are available throughout the journey at no extra charge. Forest fires in BC have put enough smoke into the air that the sightseeing is obscured by haze, but several intervals in the open vestibule are most entertaining. During an extended lunch, we see four westbounds on the opposite wall of the Fraser River gorge, with distributed power near the ends of the trains: a coal drag, a 140-car merchandise train, a 150-car grain unit train, and then a short, 40-car, local.
At 5:30, we cross the Thompson River on CN’s connecting track, and stop for the night at Kamloops. An incredibly well-choreographed bus fleet whisks passengers off to a dozen area motels. We are too stuffed from the train and skip dinner entirely.
At 6 AM the next morning, we leave our bags in the room and bus back to the depot, a slightly scary trusting of RM to get the bags and again truck them ahead to Banff. At the depot, the carpets, steps and flags are out again, as well as staff to greet everyone. The train has added a third GP-40, anticipating some serious mountain railroading ahead. In the midst of a repeated safety announcement, at 6:40 we depart Kamloops, climb up to the CP main, and head east on a mix of single and double track. CP dispatchers keep us moving smartly; we soon meet two westbounds, one a double-stack, in sidings holding for us. A long run along Salmon Arm shows the smoke is less dense than yesterday, and eagles and osprey are everywhere. We quickly pass Sicamous and at 10:45 Revelstoke. CP’s track is smoother than BNSF’s Hi-Line.
During lunch, at 12:20, we cross Rogers Pass via the older Connaught Tunnel, completed in 1916, five miles long under Mt. McDonald in the Selkirk Mountains. The new 10-mile long Mt. McDonald tunnel, 90 meters below us, serves mostly westbound trains. Two hours later, we stop briefly at Field, BC before the climb (“assault” might be a better description) on the Continental Divide, up Kicking Horse Pass via the famous twin Spiral Tunnels, built in 1909 to lower the grade on the west slope from an unmanageable 6 miles of 4½%, to about 10 miles of 2.2%. We experience the climb in the open vestibule, at the cost of a face-full of diesel fumes in the tunnels. Soon, we are over the summit, into Alberta and a new time zone, and begin the fast, easy descent in the Bow River valley, through Lake Louise (where, unexpectedly, we meet CP’s Royal Canadian charter train), and to Banff. A fleet of buses again distributes passengers to area hotels. RM used to run to Calgary, but gave up because the train was getting there too late in the day for passengers’ comfort. Still, the train now deadheads to Calgary to be serviced and turned overnight.
We are sad to leave the train. For one thing, we have been completely spoiled by the service staff on board. The trip has been wildly successful in letting us see the Canadian Rockies that we missed 40 years earlier. It has also shown what high-end travel by rail can be – which is expensive, but highly rewarding when the “product” is positioned just right for today’s experience traveler. The RM train is somewhat odd in that there is never a reason to leave the one car; food is served in the car in all three classes, and so even in a 22-car train, there’s no point to moving around as on Amtrak to the diner or lounge car. The cost is high enough that we are unlikely to make this particular trip again, although we might try the North Vancouver-Prince George-Jasper route someday. But the RM experience is definitely something we will recommend to others.