Rocky Mountaineer Bounces Back from Pandemic Shutdown

Written by David Thomas, Canadian Contributing Editor
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The Rocky Mountaineer in Ruby Canyon, Colo., on Union Pacific tracks. Rocky Mountaineer photo

While the overall transportation sector struggles to find a new normal following the extreme disruption of pandemic lockdowns, customer levels have strongly rebounded to 85% of pre-pandemic levels for North American private rail-tour operator Rocky Mountaineer.

“We are thankful for our guests choosing to travel with Rocky Mountaineer and we look forward to welcoming them onboard our trains to experience incredible, memorable journeys with some of the best scenery North America has to offer,” the company’s new CEO David McKenna told Railway Age July 7.

McKenna, with a background in Rocky Mountain tourism development, assumed company leadership in January 2022. New capital was also recruited as the business gasped for breath amid Canada’s erratic and sometimes extreme regime of social and economic restrictions. Even now, Rocky Mountaineer’s Canadian passengers must remain masked except when eating or drinking, even though the cars’ air conditioning removes 99.9% of airborne viruses and bacteria.

Rocky Mountaineer’s revival was a close-run thing. The entire 2020 season was cancelled, and very limited service resumed in July 2021, including a “preview” of its Denver-Moab service.

“The pandemic dealt a disastrous blow to travel and tourism companies around the globe, including Rocky Mountaineer,” said Carlson. “We had to make the difficult decision to lay off close to half of our team members and scale back the business to essential activities only.”

Wisely, that included continuing care of its 60 full-length dome cars, eight generator cars and its diesel fleet at the company’s Kamloops, B.C. maintenance base.

The company has since restaffed all of its 320 year-round positions and its seasonal roster of 550 train crew and customer service staff.

Despite contentious health regulation and air travel chaos, determined clients are arriving one way or another in time for their pre-departure cocktails under the atria of the Canadian company’s purpose-built sightseeing cars. 

“Most of our guests arrive by air,” said communications coordinator Dallas Carlson. “So far, we have not experienced an impact due to travel disruptions.”

Full service has been restored to Rocky Mountaineer’s three Canadian routes from Vancouver, B.C., to National Park destinations in its namesake mountain range: “First Passage to the West,” two days, Vancouver to Banff; “Journey Through the Clouds,” two days, Vancouver to Jasper via Kamloops, B.C.; “Rainforest to Gold Rush,” three days, Vancouver to Jasper via Whistler, B.C.)

The new “Rockies to the Red Rocks” service over Union Pacific tracks departs westbound from Denver Sundays and Wednesday and eastbound from Moab, Utah, Mondays and Thursdays.

The Canadian trains operate April to October over CN and Canadian Pacific tracks but are powered by Rocky Mountaineer’s own fleet of 11 blue, white and gold GP-40 diesels acquired from CN. The U.S. trains are hauled by PTC-compliant SD-40 locomotives leased from UP.

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