Wheatland Express Rolling into 2021

·7 min read

Thursday, February 4th, 2021, dawned bright and clear and the Arctic vortex was on its way in, but the chilly outdoor conditions couldn’t put a damper on the excitement for the Wheatland Express crew as their latest railcar arrived at its new home. Its journey began in Stettler, Alberta where it was lifted off its wheels and loaded on a semi and trucked to Cudworth. Once there two huge cranes from Prairie Crane of Saskatoon, began the process of resetting the railcar. First the two sets of wheels were lifted off another trailer and set on the tracks, then came the main lift. With the precision that comes with much experience, the two crane operators lifted the railcar slowly off the bed of the trailer which had carried it more than 500 km across the prairie. As it cleared the trailer, the driver of the semi pulled out from underneath it. The cranes continued to lift until there was adequate room underneath for a bobcat to pull the wheels into position. Once both sets of wheels were more or less in position the crane operators slowly lowered the car while the crew watched to make sure that everything lined up. A few minor adjustments to the position of the wheels (a bit this way… too far… a bit back) and the car was back on its wheels and ready for the Wheatland Express crew to begin the transformation.

Ashlyn Weninger told the Wakaw Recorder, that the car is a “Budd Rail Diesel Car” also known as Buddliners which were built by the Budd Company of Philadelphia, PA between 1949-1962. This is the third Buddliner in the Wheatland Express line, the other two arriving from the Seminole Gulf Railway in Florida. The Buddliners were the first examples of a self-contained diesel multi-unit train, a design which is still used around the world today. This new car will have a permanent lift attached to allow those with accessibility requirements to join in on the Wheatland Express tour experiences. The team at Wheatland Express plan to have the car ready in time for the summer season.

The year 2020 was a challenge for everyone and the tourism industry was not immune to the impacts. “It’s hard to believe that we haven’t seen passengers in over a year now,” Weninger shared, “and it’s been tough. We know so many can relate to the rollercoaster of emotion this pandemic has been. Our season was postponed, and refunds or credit options were extended to ticket holders. Our excursion staff was unable to return to work last year and we miss them dearly.” Support from the government and Tourism Saskatchewan has been instrumental in keeping things moving forward. One of the initiatives Tourism Saskatchewan has been working closely with them on is a Destination Creation program with the Town of Wakaw.

As Wheatland Express awaits the return of guest passengers, they have been busy working hard to ensure that even guests who have ridden with them in the past will enjoy a new train experience. The Wheatland Express – Excursion Train is made up now of three Buddliners equipped with table and chairs, the “Lake Erie” dining car and the “Pacific Rose” sleeper car once it arrives. The Pacific Rose, if all goes well should be making its way to Cudworth in the month of June. Just in time for hopefully, the start of the season. It is currently undergoing renovations by Atlantic Rail Tours, to make it a 10-roomette car with a first-class lounge area. The car has been leased to The Wheatland Express for the foreseeable future.

The Pacific Rose itself has an interesting history. Built in April of 1950 by the Budd Company of Red Lion Pennsylvania for the Union Pacific Railroad and named the Pacific Clipper, it was operated by the Pullman Company and ran on several different routes most famously the Pony Express Route between Denver and Los Angeles. In 1971 the car was sold to Amtrak where it rode the rails in its original state through 47 States for 27 years. After being converted to a crew dorm car in 1998 it operated on the Eastern Long-Distance Trains until being retired from service in 2006. Like an old steed whose original job no longer existed, the old sleeper car sat in a storage shop until 2019 when it was sold to Luxury Railcar Services of Saginaw, Michigan who in turn sold it in August of 2020 to Atlantic Rail Tours. It will be a real treat to see the old girl returned to her former glory and have her living out her days doing what she was designed to do.

If one has never taken an excursion with the Wheatland Express, it is an experience that comes highly recommended by those who have enjoyed any of the previous years’ offerings. The Wheatland Express is busy coming up with different experiences to add to the 2021 schedule to include The Pacific Rose and overnight adventures. Ashlyn Weninger confirmed that Wheatland Express is participating in an experiential design program with Tourism Saskatchewan and Dr. Nancy Arsenault of TourismCafe and with that they “will work to bring some unforgettable and unique experiences and accommodations” when everything is ready. Along with the physical work of fixing and improving the railcars, the people of Wheatland Express have been busy improving themselves as well. Ashlyn has been completing the final legs of her Emerit’s Event Coordinator certificate and received the Tourism Certified Professional Designation and Conductor Bill Noble will be receiving his Tourism Certified Professional Designation as Heritage Interpreter also through Emerit. Bill will become the first to complete the program in the province. As well the team has participated in a wide variety of workshops including Food Tourism Excellence, Inclusion & Diversity and Travel Trade. Still more exciting is that Wheatland Express has been invited to attend Rendezvous Canada, Canada’s signature international tourism marketplace, in May. Rendezvous Canada is the place where the international industry meets and connects with Canada’s tourism industry partners. In 2018 Wheatland Express – Excursion Train received the 2018 Rookie of the Year award from Tourism Saskatchewan and have been striving ever higher each year since.

Wheatland Rail owns and operates the Cudworth Subdivision which includes 47 miles (75 km) of track between St. Louis, SK and the Totzke Junction east of Dana, SK. The shortline is run in partnership with Great Sandhills Railway Ltd. (GSR) which operates 198 km of track west of Swift Current. In 2017, the not-for-profit organization, Wheatland Express Inc., was established with the goal to generate “tourism, economic and employment opportunities in the local community while providing outstanding experience and events to domestic and international visitors to Saskatchewan.” (wheatlandexpresstrain.ca/about) The first car, The Lake Erie, was purchased three years ago in January. With a plan to only host eight tours the first year which quickly sold out even before the first trip down the track, more tours were quickly added and by the end of their first year Wheatland Express hosted 3,500 passengers on 25 excursions. From featured tours with the likes of the Johnny Cash Tribute, Rosie and The Riveters and The Long Run – Canada’s Salute to the Eagles which have on-board entertainment followed by a catered meal and full salute concert, to family and child-oriented summer excursions complete with kid-friendly characters and entertainment, to The Great Prairie Train Heist where the notorious Black Duke Outlaws try to avoid the capture of the Sheriff as they ‘rob’ passengers for local charities.

The tentative 2021 schedule includes seven opportunities to be part of The Great Prairie Train Heist, three Family Summer Express Excursions, and only one opportunity to enjoy The Long Run. As winter turns to spring more events will be added to the schedule. To keep up-to-date on all the activities of the Wheatland Express check out their website wheatlandexpresstrain.ca or their Facebook page Wheatland Express – Excursion Train.

Carol Baldwin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Wakaw Recorder