For Don Gillespie, there’s no sound like the train whistle from No. 41.
“It’s got that melancholy. It sounds like you’re coming down a mountain grade. Yeah, it’s nice.”
Only a year shy of becoming a centenarian, the Pennsylvania-built steam engine has taken tens of thousands of passengers back in time at Alberta Prairie Railway.
This season will mark the 30th anniversary for the Stettler-based company that boasts it offers the only regularly scheduled steam trips on working rail lines in the country.
Gillespie has been on the steam train business journey since the beginning. N0. 41 came to Stettler from Alabama when it was purchased by a local steam train enthusiast.
“He was a dedicated railroader and he just had to have a steam engine,” said Gillespie.
Unfortunately, when the true cost of owning and operating a steam engine became apparent, it was clear the money was not there to run it and it was all set to be sent back to Alabama.
That’s when Gillespie, who owned a local grocery store, and other local business people stepped in.
“It intrigued me that maybe this was something central Alberta could handle. There was no other tourism at the time in central Alberta, and if it ever got out of here, or course it was not coming back, because of the cost.”
So Gillespie and his group bought the engine and helped finance the purchase by selling shares.
The first trips took place the following summer with only two passenger cars.
But this isn’t one of those the-rest-is-history success stories. There have been plenty of challenges.
Gillespie rhymes them off: “Learning the business. The tourism business, the railroad business.
“You had to have the people with the proper credentials to operate the locomotives,” he says, adding the engines, especially the steam engines, have to pass rigorous annual inspections.
“There are very few people around who understand steam and the properties of steam and how dangerous it is if you don’t do due diligence and handle it properly.”
If spare parts are needed, you have to make them.
“That’s because there are only a few steam engines around and the parts are just not there.
“It was an extremely costly situation.”
Starting with only two cars — nowhere near enough to carry enough passengers to cover costs — within several years, they had lined up 10 passenger cars.
The oldest car dates back to 1919. It spent its life as a passenger and mail car running from Jasper to Blue River in the days before roads.
“They all had to be refurbished and gone through. We’ve done all of our cars over the years at an approximate cost of $80,000 to $90,000 per car.”
When the steam tours first started, the company had access to Central Western-owned track from Camrose to Dinosaur Junction near Drumheller. Early trips went as far north as Edberg and south to Morrin.
Ridership climbed steadily to almost 20,000, when the railway was dealt a setback.
In the late 1990s, the rail company tore up and sold most of the track in a financial move. The tracks from Camrose to Stettler and Big Valley to Dinosaur Junction were gone.
“It was a very big blow at the time. Everybody thought we were shutting down and our passengers we dropped by half.
“We’ve been building back and building back, and last year, we were over 20,000 passengers.”
Track from Stettler to Big Valley remained, and that route has now been turned into a successful tourist attraction that draws passengers from around the world.
“Every trip has international passengers,” he says.
Meanwhile, a group of dedicated volunteers has been fundraising to install about 30 kilometres of new track from Stettler to Donalda. They have reached the halfway point at Red Willow and the project continues.
Over the years, they have added three diesel electric engines from the 1950s and No. 6060, a huge locomotive built in Montreal in 1944, which is currently under repair.
Despite the passenger numbers, Alberta Prairie Railway would not have made it without the help of some canny diversification.
More than a decade ago, Alberta Prairie Railway bought Central Western’s remaining track in the Stettler area.
They entered into a contract with CP to act as an interchange — receiving products such as fertilizer and frac sand and storing it so it can be picked up by trucks for final transportation.
The company also provides track space where train cars can be stored. Dozens of tank cars can be seen on the company’s track next to the road to Botha.
“Otherwise, we wouldn’t have made the 30 years,” he says. “We wouldn’t have made it just on the tourism.
“It created a job for quite a few people.”
In the summer, they employ 40, and off-season, about half that number work for the company.
On the tourism side, Alberta Prairie Railway has added all sorts of spins on its rail journeys — not the least of which are the regular holdups by horse-mounted train robbers. Murder mysteries, pumpkin fest trips and events geared to adults are all offered, and around Christmas, there’s the popular one-hour Polar Express tours.
Prairie Railway plans to celebrate its 30 years by offering reduced-price fares on every trip in June. Adults save $25 and youths and children save $10.
As well, all adult riders this season can enter a draw to win a private coach for themselves and 29 friends and family on one of the 2020 trips.
Gillespie says he can hardly believe his rail journey has now lasted 30 years.
“Thirty years ago, if you told me I was going to be here, I would have told you you were crazy,” he says with a laugh.
For more information, go to www.absteamtrain.com.