CANADA’S FIRST MODERN-ERA SHORTLINE RAILWAY
PHOTO OF CENTRAL WESTERN TRAIN AT MORRIN BY BILL HOOPER
At its Stettler station, as many as 24,000 passengers per year board Alberta Prairie Railway train excursions powered by its vintage diesel and steam locomotives. Winter and summer, trips include a stop at Big Valley or the line’s Country Hideaway, an old-time amusement park and meal facility. Not so long ago, the line transported grain as the Central Western Railway.
Until the mid-1980s, CN and CP operated mainlines and grain-dependent branch lines. As grain industry consolidation saw aging wooden elevators decommissioned, the rail companies shed lines they believed uneconomical. This included the Stettler Subdivision line from Ferlow Junction south of Camrose to Dinosaur Junction at mile 108 near Munson. The line serviced elevators from Edberg to Morrin.
An avowed shortline railroader for almost 40 years, Shawn Smith is an executive of three rail companies and an Alberta Prairie Railway board member. He recalled Tom Payne, an Edmonton locomotive engineer who had always wanted to run a railroad, was determined to operate the branch as a shortline rather than seeing it abandoned. “His vision and tenacity, sitting in the offices of the Canada’s transportation minister until he agreed to talk to him, ultimately resulted in the formation of Central Western, the first modern-era shortline,” said Smith. Starting in 1986, Smith worked for the new railway in operational and management positions.
In 1992, Central Western bought a CP line that ran to the Saskatchewan border. At its height, the company served about 20 communities along 400 kilometres of rail. In 1996, the Alberta Wheat Pool, the line’s biggest client, built its first high-throughput elevator east of Camrose. “Overnight, they closed the wooden elevators north of Stettler we had served,” said Smith.
“We diversified and moved on,” said Smith, who was then general manager. In the meantime, Stettler grocer Don Gillespie and local shareholders had successfully operated a tourist railway on the line. Alberta Prairie Railway launched in 1990 and by 2006 had taken over remaining freight service.