ELKINS - The Durbin & Greenbrier Valley Railroad opens its 2014 season today with "a fun excursion for families celebrating springtime weather and the Easter weekend."
"The Cottontail Express pulls out of the Elkins Depot at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. for a 90-minute hop down the rails, all the while offering up a cast of characters to entertain everyone on the train. This ride is just one of many special event trains scheduled this season," a railroad spokesperson said.
"The Durbin & Greenbrier Valley Railroad has spent the past three years nurturing special events as part of its fleet of 'Mountain Rail Adventures' hosted on four unique vintage trains. These trains depart the historic depots of Elkins and Durbin on regularly scheduled runs into the wild and remote areas of the Monongahela National Forest from April through December. Some event trips are shorter, depending upon type of event and age appeal," a railroad spokesperson said.
The Durbin & Greenbrier Valley Railroad (DGVR) is best known for its "Polar Express" experience in November and December. Nearly 14,600 people traveled to Elkins within a six-week period last season to experience this nationally franchised ride that includes dancing chefs, a journey to the North Pole, merrymaking and a surprise visit from Santa.
John Smith, DGVR president, said the railroad plans to increase event offerings in 2014. "We are broadening our event calendar this year to include a Wild West Weekend in August on the Durbin Rocket in Durbin," Smith said. "The Polar Express, which departs Elkins, will increase seating from 14,600 to 15,800."
With the growth in event and rail offerings, Smith also noted that new employees have been brought onboard to help co-ordinate staff and improve passenger services.
"As our rail offerings grow, the company needs for qualified people to manage segments of services also increases," noted Smith. "We have become a company that helps create jobs in the two counties where we operate - Randolph and Pocahontas."
Smith noted that other improvements for 2014 are in the works. "Despite the tragic accident last October that crippled the Cheat Mountain Salamander, the Salamander will run a full schedule to Spruce for the first time in several years and will also participate in the West Virginia Great Train Race at Spruce in July," he said.
"We are still working on the cars that were damaged and they should be ready by June," Smith explained. "Those cars are important to the Salamander excursion. The curve at the High Falls of Cheat is one of the sharpest curves in the U.S., and special short cars are needed to make that curve. Unfortunately, those were the cars damaged in the accident."
The Durbin & Greenbrier Valley Railroad is known for its signature run to the High Falls of Cheat on the New Tygart Flyer and Mountain Explorer Dinner Train that depart Elkins. It has been several years since the pathway and stairs to the falls have been rebuilt. A full renovation is planned this spring to include new steps down to the falls and a new platform to view the falls.
"We have needed this upgrade, especially the viewing platform," Smith said. "Many of our senior riders that come with bus groups cannot climb the stairs to the falls, so it will be an added extra to be able to view them without having to walk down to them."
Other additions this year are two new vintage locomotives added to the fleet and new marketing approaches.
Taking into consideration the decline of available grant funds from the West Virginia Division of Tourism for direct marketing, the Durbin & Greenbrier Valley Railroad marketing team created a regional partnership in 2013 to pool resources to help expand advertising efforts into new markets.
"We are trying different approaches this year," said Kathy Smith, director of Advertising and DGVR vice president. "We are putting more emphasis on internet and social media, ... working more with partners to create new marketing mediums such as Highland Adventures magazine to get the word out."
"With the rapid growth we are experiencing," added Smith, "we need marketing tools that can be easily changed and updated. Highland Adventures Magazine gives us a digital element we can change at any time."