Chris Woods is a Train Manager at Rocky Mountaineer, the luxury rail service that operates on routes in Canada and the USA. He’s been with the company for all of the current century, including working on the Rockies to the Red Rocks route – between Denver, Colorado, and Moab, Utah – which has been operating since August 2021.
All of the team operating or working on the Rocky Mountaineer reports to the train manager. As we journeyed towards Moab, I spoke with Chris about his role and what delivering outstanding onboard service entails.
Stuart Forster (SF): What kind of things do you look for, to ensure that everything goes well throughout the journey?
Chris Woods (CW): Basically, it comes down to anything and everything that happens on board. It includes keeping an eye on our train performance – whether we’re on time, whether we’re going to lose time, what’s ahead on the tracks – to making sure that everybody is set up with what they need in terms of food and that my team has breaks.
I do a little bit of everything onboard and a lot of logistics. We’re talking about hotels that are part of the journey as well. All of those little pieces have to come together for a seamless experience. My job is to make sure that all runs smoothly.
SF: On the Rockies to the Red Rocks route is there such a thing as a typical day for you?
CW: Every day is different. Much of what I do comes down to the guests who are onboard, so everything changes from day to day.
My routine is: I’m here about an hour before my crew comes in in the morning, to make sure they have got all the paperwork they need, they know who their guests are and that I’ve identified and highlighted any dietary concerns that our guests might have alerted us to. I make sure all of that is ready, along with all of the catering that we get done.
At the beginning of the day, when the crew gets here, we have a quick crew briefing. We talk about how the day’s going to be, lay out the service sequences in case there’s anything unusual, talk about traffic on the tracks – that sort of thing – and then set them to work and support them.
SF: In terms of the onboard side of things, what stands out in terms of the biggest typical challenge?
CW: I have an excellent team onboard, they’re dedicated to what they do, so there isn’t a real typical challenge onboard.
On the railway, especially here in North America, delays are pretty common. So making sure our services are flowing properly, based on our arrival time and potential delays along the way.
We’re also a moving train. Sometimes trying to make sure we have something to fit some pretty tricky dietary requests is a challenge; so making sure we keep ahead of those things.
SF: There’s a lot of locally sourced spirits, wines and beers. What role do you play in choosing those and getting them onboard?
CW: Back when we started, we sort of mandated ourselves to ensure that we got a lot of local products on board. We do a little bit of that in Canada but I think we took it an extra step down here.
Denver, of course, claims to be the craft beer capital of the United States. So we tried to find some well-known local craft breweries that are based in Denver.
We sourced some of our spirits from Glenwood Springs, or nearby Glenwood Springs, and we did a lot of tastings. We got the pleasure of visiting a few wineries in Palisade. I was pretty involved and got the team involved as well in selecting what we wanted to have on board and that was a fun part of the setup.
SF: The team knowledgeably informs guests about the things that we see along the route. To what extent do you give the team members freedom to interpret the sights, heritage and nature along the way?
CW: We have a fairly robust manual of history and the sights along the way. But I’ve always gone with the fact that the people on my team can most genuinely talk about what they’re interested in. So I try to give them a fair bit of leeway and freedom.
The idea is also that if you were to do a round trip with us, and many of our guests do, then you’re going get a different perspective from somebody else. So your two journeys will be a little bit different, based on the freedom that they have to expound on the base of the stories that we have but we’ve got to hit the key points. We’ve got to talk about the Moffat Tunnel, for example, and what’s outside the window.
SF: In terms of onboard hospitality what challenges does being aboard a train pose to delivering high-quality service?
CW: First of all, there’s no store on board. So if people are looking for something odd or very specific it can be a challenge to fulfil that but we do our best.
A big part of it would be the movement of the train. We’re trying to do a service as elegantly as we can but we’re on a moving train that lurches and bumps around and stops and starts. So there are the physical challenges of that as well as the logistical challenges of moving up and down a narrow aisle. You’ve got 50 guests in a car, it gets quite busy, quite loud and the team is running pretty hard when we have a full railcar.
When you’re on vacation, you should be sitting back relaxing and letting us take care of your needs. We have a pretty high staff-to-guest ratio and I think that shows in the service that we provide along the way.
My team seems to have trouble saying ‘no’ and that’s cool, right? They really love what they do. Pretty much whatever you want to ask for, we’ll do our best to try and make that happen.
SF: Is there anything that you’re particularly proud of on this particular route?
CW: For me, it’s the team. It comes right back to the service team that we have onboard. They work very well together.
They’re all very professional. They look out for one another, which I think is fantastic, and there are some really strong bonds amongst the team. For me, that shows not only their passion for what we do here but their passion for the company and how they work together. They’ll work 16, 18 hour days. They’re long, hard days on our feet for all of us and that’s the one thing that I think stands out on this particular train: the team.
The route itself is stunning but I think it’s brought to life by the team. My job is to keep the team engaged and happy. I can only be one pair of hands on the train but if I can amplify what I want to do through the 20 or so people that are that are part of the team then that magnifies what we can do for our guests.