Sad that New River Train tossed off tracks

March 7, 2019

My guess is that most people in the greater Huntington area have never ridden the amazing scenic New River Train. Now with Amtrak’s decision to raise the price astronomically so that the nonprofit Collis P. Huntington Railroad Historical Society Inc., cannot afford to run the train, they will never have that chance.

Amtrak’s actions mean that a half century of regional, well-organized railroad activities are dead. Despite efforts by West Virginia’s Democratic and Republican senators, Joe Manchin and Shelly Moore Capito, and many others’ pleas to keep the New River Train on the tracks, it is doomed.

The New River Train excursions began 53 years ago and started with steam engines, which were more scenic, but were discontinued due to their inherent problems. This train’s economic impact for West Virginia has been estimated between $5 and $8 million annually and over $2 million benefiting Huntington. Amtrak’s extreme rate increases made the 2018 excursions operate at a loss and the 2019 excursion way too expensive to run.

Decades ago, my husband and I read about the October train trips and decided to try it. We’d never met anyone who had taken this train and when we made our initial New River train excursion, we realized that almost all passengers were from out-of-state. Most had traveled long distances and were staying in Huntington for one or two nights to see a new part of the country. Those we talked with thought Huntington was wonderful.

We so enjoyed the train ride that a few years later, we convinced our relatives, then living near Clarksburg, to join us for the experience. We noted that Hinton, the end of the line for the New River train, looked a bit livelier and the community was actively using the train weekends to boost their economy.

A few years later, we convinced Maury’s medical school classmate, who lived in New York City and thought that civilization stopped about 30 miles from the city’s border, to spend a long weekend with us in Huntington. The highlight of his weekend was the New River train ride.

In early 2017, my cousins from London, England, who are true train aficionados, suggested that we all ride the excursion train, which was known around the world. Wisely, we purchased the tickets for the October trip in January, as in April, when other friends tried to join our train party, our date was completely sold out. The New River Train actually caused two people to fly to the U.S. and travel to Huntington. How many other local events can do that?

About a year ago, Amtrak chose a new chief executive officer, who had previously been CEO of Delta Air Lines. It seems he has a vision for passenger rail service — smaller seats, fees for baggage, removal of dining cars and more. Doesn’t that sound wonderful? Now people will be able to travel on the ground in uncomfortable conditions and pay more fees, just like on airlines. Passenger rail service, which is important for millions of Americans, is rarely profitable, except in highly populated close-by geographic areas. This is true the world over. Freight is the most profitable aspect of railroads.

There is no guarantee that the new CEO’s goal to make Amtrak more profitable is related to the demise of our beloved New River Excursion train rides. But it certainly makes one wonder, how more than a half-century of a positive, profitable railroad activity could be run off the tracks so quickly.

Diane W. Mufson is a retired psychologist. Her email is dwmufson@comcast.net.