Thirty years, 100,000 miles, 400,000 visitors. These are the conservative numbers the Alberta Prairie Railway has accomplished over the years since it began operating in 1989.
Started by a small group of local investors, including Don Gillespie, it has grown into one of Alberta’s most recognized tourist adventures and draws people from all over the world on an annual basis.
Gillespie dedicated himself right from the beginning, finding approximately 13 investors to make this dream a reality.
“I was with a business in the Town of Stettler and I felt that that would be an excellent thing because we didn’t have any tourism in east central Alberta at that time,” said Gillespie.
Its mission is to fulfil people’s dream of riding a genuine steam train and experience the ‘wild west’ of days gone by.
Alberta Prairie has been operating it’s 1920 Baldwin locomotive since 1990 on the last remaining piece of Canadian Northern Railway mainline track in Canada.
Over the years, Alberta Prairie has developed the train excursion experience to the point where its business model is being replicated by new train excursion developments throughout the nation.
They ran their first year in 1990 with three coaches; two of which were converted from the United States and one which was built in Stettler.
“Our first year, of course, was a disaster,” chuckled Gillespie.
“We didn’t have enough seats to pay the bills,” chimed in Bob Willis, general manager and good guy ‘Gabriel Dumont’ on the excursions.
Willis joined Alberta Prairie Railways in 1993 and has been there ever since.
They did manage to pick up coaches to refurbish along the way after their first year.
Their cost ranged anywhere from $70,000 to $125,000 to refurbish as codes must be met.
“The regulatory aspect of them dictates part of that because it all has to be pulled apart and it all has to conform to the regulations.
“The regulations in the train industry are extreme. We operate Alberta Prairie on the same regulations that are operated by the national CP and CN,” said Gillespie.
Training a staff member has also been costly so they tend to keep them around because of the price and effort put in.
Within 29 years of service, this locomotive has travelled over 100,000 miles and out of all of their trips, only one trip has ever been cancelled in the history of its operations.
On average, in the later years since they began, they make about 55 to 60 trips a year between Big Valley and Stettler.
Steam Engine 41, their pride and joy, is treated slightly differently compared to the other engines and coaches.
Each year it is essentially torn apart, inspected, rebuilt, inspected again, and then sent back to begin a new season.
The train must have a mini wash out after every 10 trips during the season as well.
Gillespie has admitted they have spent millions keeping this rare attraction alive and available to the public as it is now 99-years-old.
“But 41 is our dream,” said Gillespie. “It drives a lot of our traffic. People want to see it.”
Last year, the tourist attraction carried 22,000 people which has been an average year over 29 years.
This traffic has boosted the local economy whether it be to fill up a vehicle with gas or hotel stays or meals.
“We feel it’s a benefit to the area,” said Gillespie.
Many of the visitors have become repeat customers as they have built up a rapport with them over the years.
Some have rode the train seven or eight times because they enjoy the experience so much.
Many of the people who do grace the boardwalk of the station come from all corners of the world just to witness this unique experience.
Their staged train robberies have been renowned but another highlight has always been the Christmas themed Polar Express.
Passengers dress in their pajamas and are given snacks and a gift.
“We’re really proud that we get all of these people coming together and we are sort of kicking off their Christmas, especially the ones that just aren’t able to do much. We are just delighted to have them,” said Willis.
Residue from robberies is donated to local charities and organizations, something they pride themselves on as a proud supporter of the community.