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Train tours return to Ogema after year off due to pandemic

'As a tourist destination in Saskatchewan, we felt it was important to give our people and families another option to get outdoors and explore the province'

Train enthusiasts eager to ride the rails and participate in an authentic Prairie pioneer experience will soon be in luck, as Ogema-based Southern Prairie Railway (SPR) plans to return this summer.

SPR suspended services last summer due to the pandemic, but its board decided recently to operate in 2021 for a ninth year even though it will not be a profitable season, according to the group’s Facebook page

The season opens on Saturday, July 3 and runs every weekend during the summer. 

“As a tourist destination in Saskatchewan, we felt it was important to give our people and families another option to get outdoors and explore the province during this tough time,” the board said.

Formed in 2010 as part of the Ogema Heritage Society, Southern Prairie Railway is Saskatchewan’s first full-sized tourist railway. Located near Weyburn, SPR travels east and west to the towns of Pangman and Horizon, respectively. Guests travel on a 1925 Passenger car, pulled by a General Electric 44-ton switcher locomotive. 

Other area attractions include the Ogema Regional Park, Solo Italia Fine Pasta Inc. and Bud’s BBQ, Long Creek Golf & Country Club and Willow Bunch Golf Club, and Castle Butte and Big Muddy cave tours.

“We’re hoping for the best, that we’re able to run it. If it turns out that we can run in July, I’m sure we can run in August because there will be more vaccinations,” Carol Peterson, board chair of the Ogema Heritage Railway Association, said in a phone interview. “Vaccination is going to be the big thing, I think; it’s opening up Saskatchewan.”

The association has cut back on the types of train tours it offers, the number of tours it usually runs, and how many people can ride, she pointed out. The organization has also enacted more cleaning procedures and physical distancing measures.

“The biggest effect is not being able to have a full train. We’re a charitable non-profit, so we’re running a pretty skinny line (budget) as it is,” Peterson added. “So running with less passengers, it’s really going to impact more so than having to do extra cleaning … .”

Seventy-three visitors normally ride during one train tour, but the association has reduced that number to 32 people. It has also reduced the tours it offers from five to three: the Heritage Train Ride, the Prairie Pitchfork Fondue Train Ride and the Settlers’ Supper Train Ride.

A couple of small private gatherings have already been booked, but SPR hopes to offer more opportunities once pandemic restrictions are lifted, Peterson said. Many people want to celebrate special occasions and riding a train gives them that chance.  

Peterson provided a glimpse of what to expect when taking the Heritage Train Ride. 

Visitors will leave Ogema to see Horizon and will tour a 1923 grain elevator. They will learn what happened when farmers brought their grain to the building and how that material was loaded onto trains. On returning to Ogema, visitors will hear about the awards the town has won and its ongoing activities, including the construction of a new pool in the regional park. 

This ticket also allows tourists to visit the Deep South Pioneer Museum and its early pioneer buildings. 

Saskatchewanians should take a train trip since it’s a novel activity, it’s a history lesson, and it’s a slower pace that allows people to see the landscape differently than when driving on the highway, Peterson added. Riding a train could be a new experience for many people since transportation has changed over the last 60 years and few ride passenger trains today. 

 To book a tour, visit www.southernprairierailway.ca.