CHARLESTON — The Autumn Colors Express, the popular fall excursion train of vintage passenger rail cars operating between Huntington, Charleston and Hinton, won’t be running next month as scheduled.
Rail Excursion Management Co. (Railexco) announced Wednesday that scheduled runs of the train this Oct. 21-24 have been canceled over concerns about West Virginia’s surge in COVID-19 cases and the lack of any state public health mandates. The train is expected to return in October 2022.
“The question became, is it ethical to risk the health of our riders?” Railexco CEO Adam Auxier said. “Had a bunch of my passengers gotten sick or worse, I couldn’t live with that.”
He said the company decided to postpone the 2021 runs, rather than hope that the state’s COVID-19 surge would be contained by late next month.
“We just found ourselves in a position where we couldn’t bet on cases going down by then,” Auxier said.
This marks the second straight year that the pandemic has forced postponement of the Autumn Colors Express, which had a successful inaugural run in 2019, replacing the defunct New River Train, which operated for 52 years on the same route.
Auxier said ticket sales for the 2021 runs had been strong but that, in the past month, sales in the key markets of Columbus, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh had dried up as news reports showed West Virginia experiencing one of the worst surges of COVID-19 in the nation.
He also said calls and emails from ticketed passengers asking to either postpone their trips to 2022 or requesting cancellations had jumped in the past month.
“It’s a very complicated situation for us,” Auxier said. “We didn’t have any statewide guidance for safety measures. It’s been left up to the counties and localities.”
Auxier said a particular concern is that a sizable percentage of excursion passengers are senior citizens.
“Our ridership is older, and the state itself is older,” he said.
He said ticketed passengers have the option of retaining their tickets for 2022 runs or requesting refunds.
Auxier said Railexco has a contract with Amtrak to provide engines and train crews for the Autumn Colors Express for three years, but he said that does not have to be three consecutive years.
“We’ve been on the phone with them a lot this month,” he said of Amtrak management. “They’ve been very supportive of our return in 2022.”
Autumn Colors Express runs coincide with the Railroad Days festival in Hinton. Auxier said he has been in touch with Railroad Days organizers and said they are considering having a scaled-down, one-day event, in lieu of the trains not operating.
After the now-defunct Collis P. Huntington Railroad Historical Society announced in February 2019 that it would not be operating the New River Train, Railexco, a Midwest-based rail excursion and private-car charter company, jumped in.
By May 2019, it was able to finalize a deal and formally announce resumption of the fall excursion train under the new moniker.