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Huntington railroad society’s closing blamed on Amtrak changes

February 1, 2019

HUNTINGTON — U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin says Amtrak has created a financial hardship for the Collis P. Huntington Railroad Historical Society, causing its employees to be laid off and the organization to close its doors.

Manchin, D-W.Va., sent a letter on Thursday to Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson expressing concern over Amtrak’s policies and restrictions that are creating the financial hardship for the society and putting the New River Train’s October trips in jeopardy of ending as well. The letter explained the impact of Collis P. Huntington’s closure to West Virginia and urges Amtrak to re-examine its policies.

“For more than 50 years as the focal point of the Railroad Days Festival, the New River Train has been at the heart of West Virginia’s proud railroading history. From providing jobs to bringing people from across the country to visit our beautiful state, railroads are still vital to the Mountain State today,” Manchin wrote. “That’s why I find it so disheartening to see the impacts of these decisions. I am committed to doing whatever I can, legislatively or otherwise, to save the traditions and communities threatened by these policies. I stand ready to work with you to keep West Virginia’s proud railroad history alive.”

In the letter, Manchin said he feared the New River Train may never run again because of Amtrak’s new policies.

“In March of last year, Amtrak imposed new restrictions that eliminated special trains like the New River Train and removed Huntington as a station where private cars could be added to regularly scheduled Amtrak trains,” Manchin wrote. “I was initially encouraged by our phone call when you agreed to allow Collis P. Huntington to continue operating the New River Train in 2018. Unfortunately, your organization increased the cost to operate the train by $120,000 and imposed numerous additional restrictions throughout the year that drove costs even higher. Despite its enormous popularity and increased seat prices for the two October Railroad Days weekends, the train still operated at a $180,000 loss. To make matters worse, Collis P. Huntington’s regular trips to Washington and New York - which help offset the costs of running the New River Train - had to be canceled since they could no longer originate or end in Huntington.”

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.

Last year, a tentative agreement was reached between Amtrak and the Collis P. Huntington Railroad Historical Society to allow some service for the New River Train in 2018. Now, in 2019, the historical society and the train rides are in jeopardy of closing.

“Everything is in limbo at this moment,” said society Executive Director Chris Lockwood.

New River Train excursions through the New River Gorge in Southern West Virginia are scheduled for October this year and tickets for trips were to go on sale starting Friday, Feb. 1, but Lockwood says that is not going to happen.

“We are definitely pushing back that date and hoping this can be resolved,” Lockwood said.

Although the New River Train, one of the largest mainline excursion trains in the United States, was saved last year, the Railroad Historical Society had to pull the plug on a couple dozen other trips that were planned to depart from Huntington in 2018. The society had to operate sightseeing, tourist train trips out of other locations.

Collis P. Huntington has long been both a means of transportation and a West Virginia historical artifact, helping to bring millions of dollars to West Virginia’s economy annually through its operation of the New River Train, according to both state and local officials.

Tyson Compton, president of the Cabell-Huntington Convention & Visitors Bureau, said the four October New River Train trips bring in around 5,000 people who have an economic impact of about $2.5 million in the local Huntington economy alone.

“We remain hopeful that something can be worked out so these trips can continue in 2019 and beyond,” he said. “However, we have not been able to confirm that these trips will continue.”

Compton said for people following the story, it is happening across the country - that Amtrak has changed their policy with moving private cars.

“Some of the smaller events have already gone away,” he said. “We are hoping we can again see this major event, which has a huge economic impact on both Huntington and Hinton and really across the state. A lot of these people don’t just come for the train but also visit other parts of the state while they are here.”

Manchin said Collis P. Huntington is not just a nonprofit that has showcased the cultural impact of the railroad in West Virginia for over 59 years, but the New River Train also is one of the largest tourist events in the area, bringing in around $5 million to the local economies, which the communities rely on for important fundraising activities for the rest of the year.

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

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