CHARLESTON — Despite innumerable delays, organizers of a fall excursion train to replace the now-defunct New River Train insist that the train will run this October, with announcements pending shortly.
"We're in a really weird spot right now. There's nothing we can say publicly, except that the train is happening," Lou Capwell, with Rail Excursion Management Co. (Railexco), said Monday.
That comes nearly seven weeks after Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., first stated in a tweet that an announcement would be "coming soon" on the resumption of fall excursion trains between Huntington and Hinton.
In February, the Collis P. Huntington Railroad Historical Society, which had operated the New River Train along that route for 52 years, announced the train would not run in 2019, blaming higher costs and more restrictive policies for operation of private cars and excursion trains imposed by Amtrak, the national passenger rail service, effective in 2018.
The New River Train operated its four round-trip excursions from Huntington to Hinton that year, but the society reported operating losses of $180,000 because of Amtrak's higher charges and policy changes.
Shortly before that announcement, the society closed its offices in Huntington and laid off its two employees.
A week after Manchin's initial announcement, Railexco put out an embargoed news release indicating an early June announcement for the new excursion train, to be called the Autumn Colors Express. The release indicated the train would continue the tradition of taking passengers in vintage railcars from Huntington to Railroad Days festivities in downtown Hinton, and back.
Unlike the New River Train, which operated on consecutive weekends in late October, plans were announced to operate the Autumn Colors Express on three consecutive roundtrips on Oct. 25, 26 and 27, to save the costs of storing railcars in Huntington railyards during the interim week.
A few days later, Railexco management, citing a "slight delay," asked that any articles or social media announcements be embargoed until further notice.
Capwell said Railexco officials have spent the meantime working out details of the excursions with state and local government entities, Amtrak, the CSX railroad, and liability insurers.
As in the past, Amtrak would be contracted to provide locomotives, engineers and conductors for the trains.
"It's taken us time. It's a complicated process," said Capwell, who said they are closing in on final agreements with all entities.
He noted that Railexco staff have also been operating rail excursions and charters during the negotiations, including rail charters to Vermont currently ongoing, and next week's 70th anniversary run of three original 1949 Pennsylvania Railroad Broadway Limited luxury streamliner cars from New York to Pittsburgh and back.
Katey McCutcheon, press secretary for Manchin, confirmed that it is the senator's understanding that an operating agreement for the fall excursion train is close to being finalized.
Capwell lauded Manchin's efforts to resolve sticking points in order to close the deal.
"Sen. Manchin is the biggest cheerleader for the state of West Virginia," he said. "This is a priority for him."
Capwell said Railexco has also had great support from the state Division of Tourism, which he said is prepared to promote the train once arrangements are finalized.
"We have had the full support of the state of West Virginia," he said.
In the past, tourism officials have estimated the economic impact of the New River Train on the city of Huntington at $2.5 million annually, with most out-of-town passengers spending two nights in the city. It also has provided thousands of visitors to Hinton's Railroad Days, a major fundraiser for many of the town's civic and charitable organizations.
Plans for the Autumn Colors Express call for a train consist essentially similar to the New River Train, featuring 25 to 30 vintage railcars.
While in the past, tickets for October New River Train runs have gone on sale in January, Capwell said he believes there is enough time to effectively market the Autumn Colors Express over three months.
"We are confident we can sell tickets. We are confident it will be a success," he said Monday.
Reach Phil Kabler at firstname.lastname@example.org, 304-348-1220 or follow @PhilKabler on Twitter.