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Looking for a future for the past with tourist railways and museums

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Monday, November 05, 2012

MONTREAL — I’m in Montreal this week for the annual joint conference of the Association of Railway Museums and Tourist Railway Association. It is a meeting that I always enjoy because of its seminars and field trips. I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, when railway preservation was in its infancy, and I’ve been involved in it directly through volunteer work at the North Carolina Transportation Museum since 1986. So this is a homecoming of sorts for me — the chance to visit with the current keepers of railway history’s flame. The torch is passed from one generation to the other all the time as new volunteers, new employees, new managers, new owners come to put their spin on tourist railroads and museums.

I’m anxious to see how the industry is doing. At the onset of the recession in 2008, I confided with an official of the tourist group that I was worried that many of the groups at the annual meeting Trains magazine co-sponsored that year would be in trouble. We both wondered how many would be back the following year or the year after. To our surprise and delight, the fallout from the recession has been slight. That’s not to say that tourist railroads or museums aren’t feeling the effects of the recession. Many are just scraping by or have had to make drastic changes to business plans to stay alive. But to date, thank goodness, few of the wounds have been fatal.

The tide of professionalization that has been sweeping across the industry for about 20 years has led the museums group and the tourist railroad group to merge their organizations. They’ve already done that for the most part with joint meetings, a joint newsletter, and other housekeeping activities. On Thursday, they’ll vote to finalize a merger. It’s unsettling to some, as both the museums association and the tourist association have been important catalysts for change, growth, and development. But it is a small industry, and one strong trade association instead of two weak ones makes better sense.

This is my first trip to Montreal, and I’m eager to see the city, its trains, and how Canadians do preservation here. We’ll be riding a dinner train, visiting the science and technology museum in Ottawa, Ontario — which has a large railway exhibit — and checking out Exporail near Montreal. I expect a wonderful visit with old friends and new in railway preservation, as well as new experiences in railroading.

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