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Riding the rails still a thrill

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Passengers travelling on the Prairie Dog Central Railway might hear these ominous words: "Hands up! Your money or your life!"

But the passengers’ money collected by the mock train robbers will be handed over to a registered charity, not used for gambling and hard liquor.

Prairie Dog Central’s marketing manager Catherine Duffin said the Great Train
Robbery is one of the special events the railway is offering this season. These events, such as rides featuring a magician or Halloween ghouls and goblins, have boosted rider numbers over the past few years.

"We’ve made a remarkable turnaround," said Bob Goch, president of the Vintage Locomotive Society, which operates the Prairie Dog Central.

About 10,000 travellers rode the Prairie Dog Central’s train last year, and Duffin hopes to exceed this number before the season finishes at the end of October.

"The added entertainment is actually bringing people back," she said, adding that similar short line railways in other parts of Canada and the U.S. were also facing decreasing attendance about five years ago.

Goch said the turnaround began when the railway contracted with an American company a few years ago to bring a replica of the children’s favourite, Thomas the Tank Engine, to the depot just off Sturgeon Road in the RM of Rosser. This proved to be so popular that about 13,600 passengers rode the train to Grosse Isle that season.

Pulled by the restored antique steam engine Locomotive No. 3 or a diesel engine, the Prairie Dog Central’s five coaches offer up to 300 passengers a comfortable way to ride on an approximately 30-mile round-trip to and from Grosse Isle.

The entire journey takes about three and a half hours, including a 90-minute stop in Grosse Isle where passengers can eat and visit the farmers market, petting zoo and restored historical attractions before boarding the train for their return trip.

On the train, volunteers work to provide a historical perspective and keep passengers informed and entertained.

The fall supper runs in September are very popular, said Goch, with turkey and all the trimmings served up in Grosse Isle.

Conference and corporate groups can book private cars for special functions.

"We’ve worked really hard to keep a balance between history and family events," Duffin said.

Goch said the idea for the train came about in the mid-60s when a group of Winnipeg railroad enthusiasts wanted to run the steam engine and a coach in Winnipeg to celebrate the Manitoba Centennial in 1970. They formed the Vintage Locomotive Society.

"Their mandate was to preserve stream locomotives and old coaches," he said.

The last member of the founding group, Ralph Grant, recently died. He was inducted into the Railway Hall of Fame’s Community Builder category in 2012 in recognition of the approximately 25,000 volunteer hours he’d devoted to the society.

Goch said the inaugural ride on July 1, 1970 was to Lower Fort Garry, and one of the three coaches carried then-prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau.

After that, the train ran from a makeshift depot in Charleswood to Headingley until 1975 when the station was moved to the Polo Park area. This proved to be a good location, and rider numbers grew. However, in 1996, CN advised the society that this section of the Oak Point Subdivision was being abandoned.

The train stopped operating for two seasons until its current location was developed. With money raised by the society and through government grants, the rail line from the site in the RM of Rosser to Warren was purchased. The depot was moved onto the site in 2000.

Goch said it costs about $8,000 to run the train to Grosse Isle and back. Because they want to keep ticket prices affordable, the society earns much of its revenue from storing railcars along the northern part of its track.

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