By Justin Franz
Tourist railroads are starting to reopen and navigate the unique challenges that come with life during a global pandemic. Just like freight and commuter operations, many museums and excursion railroads have been forced to change how they do business because of the coronavirus.
Last month, the Heritage Rail Alliance released a series of guidelines and recommendations to help tourist railroads navigate the “new normal.” Among the recommendations is to have staff and visitors wear masks whenever they’re in confined spaces; to sanitize surfaces and equipment frequently; promote social distancing by making sure people can keep at least six feet from each other; and use assigned seating onboard trains so that space can be left open to create distance between individuals and groups. In a statement to members, the group’s president said that the coming months would be tough but he was hopeful that the second half of the year could cushion losses.
“I encourage all of you to use this time to make your recovery plans… we need to pack the second half of the year with as many revenue-producing activities as possible,” President Mark Ray wrote. “Consider ways to cut costs to bare-bones staffing and curtailing any activities funded by your visitation.”
Out west, operations like the Heber Valley Railroad in Utah and the Nevada Northern Railway in Nevada are now finally starting their regular season. In order to maintain social distancing, they’re not packing trains to capacity and they’re asking passengers to wear masks. The NNRy also got a bit of good news earlier this spring when it received a waiver from the Federal Railroad Administration to continue running 4-6-0 40 into the fall. The locomotive is due for its 15-year overhaul this year. The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, is expected to begin operations on June 13 with an adjusted schedule. The much-anticipated Round-Up of Victorian Horses featuring four 19th century-built steam locomotives that was scheduled for August has been postponed to 2021.
Back east, in Maine, operations like the Seashore Trolley Museum are offering rides exclusively to state residents or visitors who have followed the recommended 14-day quarantine. The museum is also encouraging people to consider renting an entire trolley if they would feel safer riding exclusively with members of their household. The Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad Railroad C. & Museum in Portland also resumed operations on June 1 with similar rules. The railroad open seven days a week.
Right next door in New Hampshire, tourist railroads are still closed although a coalition of operators made a pitch earlier this week to the state on how they could reopen. As part of the plan, the railroads are considering only opening to Granite State residents and only running at 50 percent capacity. The state’s Economic Re-Opening Task Force has the final say in whether or not the railroads can resume operation but the Mt. Washington Cog Railway’s owner tells WMUR News that he hopes it will happen sooner rather than later.
“COVID-19 couldn’t have hit at a worse time,” Wayne Presby said. “All seasonal operators try to open as soon as possible in the spring to stop the winter hemorrhaging of capital. Many of us sign contracts to complete projects that only can happen in the summer months.”