Locomotive lovers continue to build up a head of steam

Locomotive lovers continue to build up a head of steam

Stettler railway is preparing for its 30th season

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.

SEE RELATED STORY: Want to buy a steam train – don’t

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.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

The Town of Ponoka and the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) have ratified a new agreement, averting a strike. (File photo from Facebook)
Alberta gov’t ‘using pandemic as shield to lay off workers,’ says AUPE

The Government of Alberta’s “attacks on workers” is continuing with a new… Continue reading

Rocky Mountain House RCMP, EMS, Search and Rescue, STARS air ambulance and Alstrom Helicopters worked together to rescue a fallen ice climber Friday. (Photo contributed by Rocky Mountain House RCMP)
Rocky Mountain House RCMP help rescue fallen ice climber

Rocky Mountain RCMP helped assist a fallen ice climber Friday afternoon. At… Continue reading

Students Association of Red Deer College president Brittany Lausen says she’s pleased the college is offering students a choice to attend class in-person or remotely. (Red Deer Advocate file photo)
Red Deer College winter term enrolment dips

Enrolment down about six per cent but mix of online and in-person instruction is going over well

Brett Salomons, of Salomons Commercial, and Mark Jones, CEO of the Central Alberta Child Advocacy Centre, in the CACAC's new temporary home. (Contributed photo)
Central Alberta Child Advocacy Centre’s One Day Challenge returns

Central Alberta Child Advocacy Centre has announced its One Day Challenge is… Continue reading

Dwayne Buckle, 40 of Red Deer finished a 1,638-kilometre walk, in honour of his family. The 12-week, 82 day-journey wrapped up in Port Hardy, B.C. on Monday. Facebook photo
Red Deer man completes 1,638 km hike for cancer research

Dwayne Buckle, a Red Deer firefighter returned home Friday after his 12-week journey

A Suncor logo is shown at the company's annual meeting in Calgary, Thursday, May 2, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Body of worker whose bulldozer fell through ice on inactive tailings pond recovered

FORT MCMURRAY, Alta. — Oilpatch giant Suncor says the body of a… Continue reading

A restaurant manager in Orlando used a sign to secretly ask an 11-year-old boy if he needs help from his family after they were spotted withholding food from him. (Photo courtesy Orlando Police Department)
WATCH: Restaurant manager uses secret note to ‘rescue’ child, says Orlando Police

The manager of an Orlando restaurant is receiving praise from police after… Continue reading

Tourists take photographs outside the British Columbia Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Friday August 26, 2011. A coalition of British Columbia tourism industry groups is urging the provincial government to not pursue plans to ban domestic travel to fight the spread of COVID-19. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. travel ban will cripple struggling tourism sector, says industry coalition

VICTORIA — A coalition of British Columbia tourism industry groups is urging… Continue reading

A health-care worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a UHN COVID-19 vaccine clinic in Toronto on Thursday, January 7, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Provinces work on revised plans as Pfizer-BioNTech shipments to slow down

Quebec and Ontario, the two provinces hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic,… Continue reading

The RCMP logo is seen outside Royal Canadian Mounted Police "E" Division Headquarters, in Surrey, B.C., on Friday April 13, 2018. A young snowshoer who set out alone on a rugged mountain trail on Vancouver's north shore Thursday has died. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Snowshoer dies after overnight search on Vancouver-area mountain: RCMP

SQUAMISH, B.C. — A snowshoer who set out alone on a rugged… Continue reading

nunavut
‘It was joyous:’ Sun returns to some Nunavut communities for first time in weeks

IQALUIT — A sliver of orange rose over Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, earlier… Continue reading

People take photos through the extensive security surrounding the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Friday, Jan. 15, 2021, ahead of the inauguration of president-elect Joe Biden and vice-president-elect Kamala Harris. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Susan Walsh
Less pomp, very different circumstances as D.C. prepares to inaugurate Biden, Harris

WASHINGTON — Some pomp. Very different circumstances. Inauguration day is supposed to… Continue reading

Winnipeg Jets' Nathan Beaulieu (88) and Nikolaj Ehlers (27) defend against Jansen Harkins (12) during scrimmage at their NHL training camp practice in Winnipeg, Wednesday, January 6, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods
Winnipeg Jets cancel practice due to possible COVID-19 exposure

WINNIPEG — The Winnipeg Jets have cancelled their practice today due to… Continue reading

Most Read