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Ponokans ride the rails for a worthy cause

Engineer Dave O’Reilly says driving the CP Heritage Train GP 39 diesel locomotive is just like driving a car.

By Dale Cory

“I hear the train a comin’. It’s rollin’ ’ round the bend.”

The first time that phrase was uttered July 30, it turned out to be a false alarm.

The small group of people waited in the parking lot adjacent to the railroad tracks along 50th Street in downtown Ponoka that afternoon got excited, albeit briefly, when the sound of a train whistle could be heard to the south.

As the train approached, it quickly became obvious it was not the ride everyone was waiting for, and people watched as the freight train rumbled through town on its way to points north.

Minutes later, another train whistle could be heard echoing through the Battle River valley.

This time, as the train approached, it began to slow, and eventually came to a stop.

Our limousine service had arrived.

Soon, we would be taking a ride back through time aboard the CP Heritage Train, past the many stations that dotted the landscape when trains carried goods, and more importantly, people, along the rails through Hobbema, Wetaskiwin, Leduc, and on to the major hub of Edmonton.

The train, which has been as far west as Vancouver, as far east as Maple Creek, and has been winding its way through Alberta since June 11, was part of a summer tour in support of the Children’s Wish Foundation.

For a mere $25, people could board the train in Ponoka, and head north on a two-hour journey filled with brightly-coloured canola crops, backyard garage sales, and plenty of people to wave at along the highway.

All for a worthy cause

“One hundred per cent of the proceeds come straight to Children’s Wish. Every leg is ticketed at a certain price, ranging from $20 to $25,” explained Kate Marchessault, Edmonton fundraising co-ordinator for Children’s Wish. “People have been picking up pamphlets. Some feel inspired to cut a cheque, like one gentleman did here this morning for $50. For our chapter, which is Alberta/Northwest Territories, we’re expecting to hit $50,000. That’s huge. And when you think that the average cost of a wish is $10,000, that’s pretty sweet.”

For its part, CP is donating its equipment and staff to allow the Heritage Train to travel across Canada in supporting of Children’s Wish. Aboard the train were a conductor, an engineer, a couple of mechanics and coach attendants.

“It’s a fun way for people to come on and see what it’s like. A lot of people don’t get to ride the trains that often anymore. It’s a new experience for young kids, and a lot of older people get to relive their childhood. It’s fun to bring people into our world,” said T.J. Nelson, manager of public affairs and research for Canadian Pacific. “And, it’s a way to give back and work with Children’s Wish.”

The CP Heritage train was to have been pulled by CP’s 2816 class H1b Hudson type locomotive, built by Montreal Locomotive Works in December 1930 but mechanical trouble sent the old engine to the side rails, forcing CP to bring in a GP 39 diesel locomotive. While some steam billowing out of the locomotive would have been a nice touch, no one was asking for their money back, given the nature of the tour and the cause involved.

“CP has been amazing. They treat us like gold — and we’re the ones who should be treating them like gold because they do so much for us,” added Marchessault. “This is quite the endeavour, because it goes all across Canada. It’s huge.”

Clickety-clack, ckickety-clack

It quickly becomes obvious that a train is the perfect conductor for conversation. It didn’t take much time upon leaving the station for people to begin walking up and down the three cars that were accessible, stopping to visit with strangers and asking questions of the CP staff on board.

Many people made their way back to the observation car with four huge openings allowing passengers to reach out and get the feeling they could touch the many switches and light poles alongside the tracks.

“I was surprised at how comfortable the seats are. It’s nice because you can see the country from a different angle than what you normally would see,” said Sonja Isaac of Ponoka. “You see the lakes and rivers, and people’s backyards. It’s really fun going down the tracks and watching people on the highway. When you wave, they wave back. I really like the observation car where there’s open windows and you can feel that breeze on your face.”

Another rider, Richard Bottomley of Lacombe, commented on the immaculate restoration the passenger cars have undergone, given their 60 to 70 years of use.

Young Rylan Spence of Ponoka was enjoying his first train ride. It was a birthday celebration for mom Dianna and her son.

“I’ve seen lots of nature,” said Rylan, 8, who was often seen in the back car that had access to the wide open spaces that flew past the train as it rumbled down the track.

“This train is pretty neat. It’s a really nice way to spend the afternoon. It’s for his birthday, and here we are, on a train. A real, live Thomas the Train,” said Dianna with a smile. “It wobbles a lot more than I thought, and walking around is kind of difficult. But it’s more spacious than a bus.”

A view to die for

Once the train arrived in Edmonton, and people were filing out of the passenger cars, I was taken to the very front, to the heart of the train, for a tour of the locomotive.

Tour may be a strong word though — considering the close quarters engineer and conductor must work within.

Still, engineer Dave O’Reilly appears to have a dream job.

“It’s just like driving a car. Once you get the hang of it, it’s easy to operate,” said O’Reilly, somewhat downplaying the role he plays while behind the ‘wheel’. “The key is to watch my speed. You operate throttle, you operate brake. If you get going too fast, you’ll have to apply some brakes. Other than that, it’s just like riding a car. Once you start to speed, you’ve got to give it some brake.”

O’Reilly, who lives in Red Deer, and operates a freight train that makes a return trip from Red Deer to Edmonton daily, admits the engineer can do some ‘gawking around’ while in control of those trains. However, when there are people on board the CP Heritage Train, his approach takes on more of a serious tone.

“With passengers on board you really have to have an eye. You have to be vigilant with regard to everything around you.”

Asked what the best part of his job is, O’Reilly, who was hired by Canadian Pacific in 1991, was quick to answer. “The best part of my job is I’m done now,” responded O’Reilly with a laugh.

Well, not quite. After posing for a photo, O’Reilly began backing the train away from the station at Old Strathcona, steering it into its parking place for the evening.

“This is important for the next generation of kids. It pulls them in,” summarized Karen Bottomley of Lacombe. “Riding on the train is always something special. Always.”

To find out more information on Children’s Wish, check out: