Options being looked at to save New River Train trip

February 21, 2019

HUNTINGTON — There is still some hope that the New River Train might run again.

“Amtrak has agreed to allow the 2019 train to run, but their quoted price and the debt from last year’s trip make the 2019| excursion economically impossible without financial assistance,” according to New River Train executive director Chris Lockwood.

In March 2018, Amtrak imposed new restrictions that eliminated special trains like the New River Train and removed Huntington as a station where private cars could access regularly scheduled Amtrak passenger trains.

Last year, Amtrak agreed to allow the 2018 special train to run but increased the price by $120,000 and imposed additional costly restrictions. Despite selling all the seats for the two October weekends at an increased price, the train operated at a $180,000 loss.

Also, other regularly scheduled trips to Washington and New York had to be canceled since the Huntington railroad society cars could no longer originate from Huntington.

The financial loss meant the two employees were laid off and the chapter’s offices closed. The Collis P. Huntington Railroad Historical Society Inc., the nonprofit organization running the annual excursion train, is being forced into bankruptcy due to the actions and increased costs from Amtrak last year, according to Lockwood.

Lockwood says he continues to work as a volunteer hoping to make a 2019 run possible, but he is concerned.

“Not only have the prices from Amtrak for our trip increased again, but because of increased costs and restrictions for private cars, many have gone out of business across the country and we may not be able to lease enough cars to run the train,” he explained.

Lockwood adds that time is running out for a solution as debts must be paid before ticket sales can begin and marketing is already a month behind schedule.

Members of the staff of U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W. Va., recently met with Huntington area state legislators and the state tourism commissioner to explore options to secure funding for the 2019 train trips.

The meeting was organized by Mark Maynard, a Republican member of the West Virginia Senate representing the 6th District, and focused on ways to secure funding and also ways to get relief from Amtrak’s increased pricing.

Maynard says he remembers riding the New River Train in 1982 and hopes there is a way for the state to assist.

“It is a great way to see the beautiful state of West Virginia,” he said. “I enjoy helping this great cause and hope that we can find a solution to their funding problem so future generations can continue to enjoy this type of unique transportation.”

For 52 years, the New River Train has run for two weekends in October between Huntington and Hinton. About 4,800 passengers ride each year, pumping more than $2 million into the economy of Huntington and $5 million into the state’s economy.

Tourism Commissioner Chelsea Ruby is also on board in trying to find a solution.

“Folks have been coming to southern West Virginia to ride this train for years, and we know how important it is to the local tourism economy,” she said. “We are working with Gov. (Jim) Justice to try to find a solution that will allow them to continue providing this incredible experience to visitors this fall.”

U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W. Va., said in January that Amtrak has created a financial hardship for the Collis P. Huntington Railroad Historical Society and the company should have to explain their position.

Manchin sent a letter to Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson expressing concern over Amtrak’s policies. The letter explained the impact of Collis P. Huntington’s closure to West Virginia and urged Amtrak to re-examine its policies.

Manchin said Amtrak continues to justify its policy changes by arguing that they achieve cost savings and improve on-time performance, but it has failed to provide any statistics that corroborate its argument.

“I strongly believe that if you are going to jeopardize these institutions and harm small-town economies, you should at least have to explain why,” Manchin wrote.

Follow reporter Fred Pace at Facebook.com/FredPaceHD and via Twitter @FredPaceHD.