Stuart Forster conducts an interview with a Rocky Mountaineer train manager.
Zebulon Fastabend is a train manager aboard the Rocky Mountaineer, the luxury rail service that travels on four scenic routes in north-western Canada. While travelling on the First Passage to the West route, between Vancouver and Banff, Zebulon took time to chat about his role.
The 2017 season was his third year as a train manager. “I feel there is so much to learn in this role. There are train managers that have been with us 20 years. They have taken me under their wings. It’s so exciting to continue the challenge and to learn,” he said, as we rolled through heavily forested countryside in western British Columbia.
He began working on the Rocky Mountaineer as a host in 2001, spending nine years in that role before becoming a guest services manager. Born in Kimberley, British Columbia, Zebulon grew up in Vancouver.
“I’ve always loved nature and my university education was in environmental protection. I started working on the train as a summertime job and realised it incorporated all my loves and fascination of nature. I found out I really loved people and being on a train is a great way to enjoy the scenery and just a great way to travel,” said Zebulon.
GoldLeaf carriages on Rocky Mountaineer
So what responsibilities does he have as manager of the train? I asked, as we sat beneath domed windows in one of the Rocky Mountaineer’s GoldLeaf carriages.
“My overall role is ensuring the safety as well as the comfort of all the guests on board. The first thing I do on a morning is check my safety equipment, safety briefings with the crew and then the comfort aspect — looking at our physical equipment. I really enjoy the details of the job and, before the guests get onboard, my train inspection,” he answered.
“I enjoy looking for things that I can proactively address when the guests get on, to enhance their comfort,” added Zebulon.
When I asked if that means he has to repair things, if he finds a problem, Zebulon chuckled and shook his head. “We have a fantastic maintenance team. They work shifts at night time. We have a mechanic who comes on board, called our train operations coordinator. So if there are things we couldn’t address proactively we’re able to fix them right on the spot,” he explained.
“The captain of a ship and pilot of an airplane have a lot more to do with the actual navigation. With this train I leave that up the engineers. We have two engineers up there with 40 years of experience. We have Harald and Rick today. It’s great to get up there and talk to them before they start their shifts on a morning. They know every curve of the track. That’s so important,” said Zebulon as we rolled through a curve beneath snow-capped mountains.
Freight trains in western Canada
“They were driving freight trains a long time but, of course, we have people on board. You’ll notice that our stops and our starts are imperceptible. That is difficult to do with a 1600-ft train that weighs several hundred tonnes. To start and stop smoothly on a dime is important. They realise our workers back here are holding trays of glasses. As you go around a banked curve you may not be holding that tray completely level…they recognise that,” he explained regarding the teamwork involved in getting the train along the track.
“They know the signals and how rail traffic control likes to move the train. What I’m left with is the management of the guest service side, the front of house. They’ll communicate to me, like, ‘Hey Zeb, we’ve got three freight trains coming at us. We only have one siding on this side of the Rocky Mountains, so we’re going to be here for an hour and a half.’ With that information I might need to progress to an elevated level of service. If we’ve done breakfast and lunch we may need to do another service and are prepared for that. We can have a light dinner service or hors douerves upstairs,” he added.
So he must be listening to a lot of chatter in the CIA-style earpiece, with a curled wire, that he wears?
“What’s going on in these earpieces is updates about the 10- or 15-minute stops that are quite common. From my experience, guests like to know what’s happening. They’re used to travel where they don’t stop going from A to B,” explained Zebulon.
“There’s a lot of details, things that we just don’t want to guests to hear broadcast on the radio. Such as ‘I need six more bottles of Champagne in coach number three’ or ‘it’s a little cold in coach number five, can I get a temperature adjustment.’ It’s those minute operational details that guests just don’t need to be involved with. A lot less CIA secrets than you might expect!” he answered with a laugh.
Scenic routes in western Canada
“I always do the same stretch, the northern routes, our core routes — the First Passage to the West and the Journey to the Clouds. I’ve also done guest appearances on our sister train, the Rainforest to Gold Rush, which is Whistler. I calculated the other day, I have done these routes about 600 times. I’m blown away by the scenery each time. Watching the mist rising off the South Thompson River this morning, I never got tired of it. When I do get tired I think I’ll move on,” he revealed while looking out at the scenery.
“It’s amazing how proud I am of my country and how rejuvenated I get. It recharges my soul, coming out here and looking at the mountains and the forests and the trees. I get energy and vitality from being out here on the rails again,” he added.
With so many journeys under his belt he must have seen some remarkable wildlife from the train?
“Some of my favourite wildlife has been coming out of Banff. We saw a large female grizzly. We got the radio call from the engineers — this is when the earpiece comes in handy — saying ‘we’ve got a bear coming up on the left,’ and we get advance notice to the guests,” he commented, while scanning the horizon.
Grizzly bears and dancing wolves
“We were coming round a curve and there were no trees in the way. I could tell it was a female as there were two cubs with her. She was a silver-grey colour. She turned to face the train and she was going to take on the whole train. She was maybe 30 feet away and the cubs disappeared into the bushes. I was so impressed by that motherly instinct. For us it was a great photo opportunity as she literally stood and faced the train,” he explained with hands in the air like bear paws.
“The other was coming out of Japser. This would have been about my 12th year and I had only ever seen wolves once, early in the morning when we were moving in the railyard. It was dark and there were no guests on board. There was an operational siding and a wolf with cubs in a short grass field. It was like National Geographic. The cubs’ heads were just poking above the grass and they were frolicking. The guests didn’t want the delay to be over. It was priceless to see wolves in their natural habitat,” he added.
So of all the many kilometres of track, what is his favourite?
“It would have to be Roger’s Pass. You get very remote, away from civilisation. Everywhere in Canada is relatively remote but Roger’s Pass is unique in that it was known as the land of the snow gods. There were never First Nations villages in this valley, it has always been remote. My grandfather was born in the nearest town, Revelstoke. Every time we leave from Revelstoke I think of my grandfather and the wildness through there. It’s remarkable and puts your priorities in place, and reminds you what’s important in life,” answered Zebulon profoundly.
The railway in Canadian history
“I think, more than any other country on earth, Canada was developed by the railway. It was the promise of a railway that brought British Columbia into the fold. I’m half-American, on my father’s side, and well aware of the American interest in British Columbia. It could have been an entirely American west coast if it was not for the railway. Being born in Canada I’m cognisant of the fact that there would have been no Canada as we know it,” said the train manager about the importance of the railways in Canadian history.
Trains are still big, in every sense.
“Freight trains average over 100 box cars in length, and can be up to 240. These sidings in the wilderness are built for freight trains with maybe 160 cars. So, if you have a train that’s 240 cars in length it dictates we must go in the siding,” said Zebulon, explaining our regular pauses.
So what does he do when he’s not at work? I asked.
“I love trains. I was in China over winter and took my first high speed train from Wenzhou to Shenzhen. We have Facebook groups and are always posting train trivia. It’s quite a family, quite a community, and once you are a railroader it stays in your blood. I know many of my co-workers take trains in other parts of the world during their time off,” said Zebulon before heading back to work.
The Rocky Mountaineer runs along four routes. The First Passage to the West runs between Vancouver and Banff. The Rainforest to Gold Rush route is between Vancouver and Jasper via Whistler, and The Journey Through the Clouds rolls through Jasper. The Coastal Passage is between Seattle and the Canadian Rockies. The journey is available in GoldLeaf and SilverLeaf classes of service. See the Rocky Mountaineer website, www.rockymountaineer.com (or call 0800 0606 7372, free of charge from the United Kingdom, or toll-free on +1-877-460-3200 from North America) for details of packages.
Photos illustrating this post are by Why Eye Photography.
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