By Brad Johnson
Senior Staff Writer
One of the most dynamic changes in downtown Elkins in 2011 was the introduction of the Polar Express holiday train, which took nearly 6,000 ticket-holders from the Elkins Depot on a Christmas adventure in November and December.
The new Tygart Flyer pulls into the Elkins area on a fall day.
"It was, without a doubt, the best entertainment train we've ever done," said John Smith, president of the Durbin & Greenbrier Valley Railroad, which operates the Durbin Rocket, Cheat Mountain Salamander and Tygart Flyer excursion trains. "It succeeded far beyond our expectations."
Smith's company is one of 30 excursion railroads across the country to offer the Polar Express national franchise, and the only company within the mid-Atlantic region. The attraction brought riders from other states to Elkins to take part in the holiday experience, and had a positive economic impact on local businesses.
The success of the Polar Express, based on the 2004 holiday film, has led Smith to not only increase the number of holiday trips for next winter, but also to create new special event trains for the spring.
"Now we're trying to attract a younger demographic," Smith told the Elkins-Randolph County Chamber of Commerce in March. "We want to have more specialty events like the Polar Express."
New events offered by the railroad this year include:
- The Mother's Day Package, featuring dinner and live music at the Railyard Restaurant following a trip to the High Falls of Cheat, on May 13;
- The Wine & Roses Package, offering wine tasting from four West Virginia vineyards during a four-hour train ride, following by a romantic dinner with live jazz, on June 2;
- The Father's Day Cookout, featuring live music and a cookout at the High Falls of Cheat, on June 17; and
- A Night with the Stars, a night-time excursion into the depths of the wilderness to study the stars with staff members from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, on Sept. 15.
Other offerings include the Comedy Club Dinner Train, set for June 23, and the Murder Mystery Trains, which will run between July and August. Both the comedy and mystery excursions feature the performers of the Old Brick Playhouse in Elkins, under the direction of Missy Armentrout.
The railroad had 35,998 passengers in 2011, which was "by far our biggest year," Smith said. But he isn't content to sit on his laurels.
In February, Smith presented to the state Tourism Commission his newest and most ambitious plan: the proposed Highland Adventure of Mountain & Rail, a 90-mile excursion train loop that could be used by eight local trains.
Smith said the loop is projected to attract 150,000 tourists in its first year, and create $50 million in economic impact to the counties involved.
"It effectively combines recreation and transportation," he said, by allowing passengers to combine an excursion train trip with hiking, rafting and other activities.
The Highland Adventure loop would run on the existing West Virginia Central Railroad tracks, which are owned by the state. The three Durbin & Greenbrier Valley Railroad trains and the Cass Scenic Railroad currently run on those tracks.
The proposal also would recycle part of the West Virginia Central tracks, which were rendered unusable after the 1985 flood. Those tracks, stretching from Spruce in Pocahontas County to Bergoo in Webster County, would be taken up and used to connect Durbin in Pocahontas County to Glady, Bemis and Elkins to the north and Cass to the south.
"That would require about $10 million of work, and after they are pulled up, that area (from Spence to Bergoo) could be turned into a rail trail, which would be a great addition to the area," Smith said.
With the addition of the recycled tracks, trains could run from Elkins southeast to Bemis, Glady, Durbin and Cass, then west to Spruce, then north to Cheat Bridge, High Falls and Bemis, and then return to Elkins.
"By creating that circle, it will make the region gel," Smith said. "We would be offering a new venue where you don't have to repeat the same scenery twice. You could take our train to Cass, and a different one back to Elkins.
"You have an opportunity to make this the place to ride the circuit. You can have different types of rail experience in one day or one weekend."
The route would allow eight trains to make daily departures from eight different towns.
The eight trains include the four currently operated by the Durbin & Greenbrier Valley Railroad, two operated by the Cass Scenic Railroad and two trains not yet in operation: a steam train from Beverly to Elkins, and a new train running from Cass to Elkins and back, Smith said.
He said the project would cost about $20 million. He noted that some state officials have expressed their support of the project, including Delegates Bill Hartman and Denise Campbell, both Democrats from Randolph County.
"The more variety of experiences the state can offer, the more we will appeal to a wider group of people," Smith said.
Information about the railroad is available at 1-877-686-7245 or www.mountainrail.com.