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Some like model trains, but this guy had his own railway

He didn't need a ticket to ride: Thomas Payne owned his own 170-kilometre stretch of track and the equipment to make a business of it in 1991.

170-kilometre short line in Alberta hauled freight and made money

Tom Payne has made a success of operating his own 170-kilometre railway. 2:58

With a single small railway to his name, Tom Payne wasn't a rail baron.

But he demonstrated that a small upstart could succeeded where the freight-hauling giant Canadian National couldn't.

"In the last decade alone, Canada's railroads have abandoned 11,000 kilometres of track," said CBC reporter Dan Bjarnason in October 1991.

"It didn't pay to stay, they said. Those big shots."

'Every kid's fantasy'

Tom Payne was a former CP Rail employee who bought a section of track and the equipment to operate a freight-shipping company. (CBC Newsmagazine/CBC Archives )

Enter Payne. 

According to the Edmonton Journal, he was a certified locomotive engineer and former employee of Canadian Pacific Railways.

"He lives every kid's fantasy, to be an engineer," said Bjarnason. "It helps to be the boss."

In 1986, Payne formed the Central Western Railway and stepped in where CN had stepped away.

He bought a 170-km section of track, from Ferlow Junction to Dinosaur Junction south of Edmonton, as well as three engines, and began making a business of hauling grain.

'Somebody's gotta be first'

The Central Western Railway hauled grain in Alberta with three engines and 12 employees in 1991. (CBC Newsmagazine/CBC Archives)

"Like anything, it's like learning to drive a standard automobile. You learn this stuff and you never forget," said Payne, wearing an engineer's hat while driving the train as Bjarnason rode along. 

By 1991, Payne had 12 employees with his railway operation housed in a small trailer.

His rail line, which linked with the main CN line, was one of a "half-dozen" small railways in Canada and cost $2.7 million to buy, said the reporter.  

"The first question I get asked is," said Payne, "'If this is such a hot idea, how come nobody else has done it?'"

"And my answer to that was, well, somebody's gotta be first."

According to the Edmonton Journal, Payne also operated a small passenger train, using vintage equipment, on tracks he owned between Stettler and Edberg, Alta.

"Payne's first theory of railway economics is," said Bjarnason, "lean and agile small upstarts can pull it off out here off the main drag, where the mega-corps can't hack it."   

Payne's small company hauled grain from a section of the Alberta prairie where big freight operations had pulled out. (CBC Newsmagazine/CBC Archives)