Thoughts on railway preservation: the Heritage Rail Alliance meeting in Santa Fe

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Monday, November 12, 2018

I just returned from Santa Fe, N.M., where the Heritage Rail Alliance meeting concluded. I have attended these meetings regularly since 1997 and as a volunteer at the N.C. Transportation Museum served as one of the hosts of the 2001 meeting of the old Association of Railway Museums and the Tourist Railroad Association Inc., which merged a few years ago to become the Heritage Rail Alliance. We also hosted the 2008 meeting of the tourist group here at Trains magazine in Milwaukee.

The tone of the meeting was mostly upbeat. The people who come to these meetings (more than 230 participants this year) are with the railroads and museums that have enlightened managements, dynamic executive directors and staffs, and boards of directors who aren’t content with past glories or just getting by. They’re also the more affluent organizations who can spend $1,000 to $2000 per person in registration, travel costs, hotel, and food to attend. Brand name events like Polar Express (1.3 million at 40 plus railroads this year), Thomas the Tank Engine, and others, have boosted the coffers of the participating railroads. So have other events that are locally grown.

So, is everyone at the table? No. Missing still are a significant number of major railroad museums and mainline steam excursion operators. It would not come as a surprise to you that museums that have experienced significant problems in recent years have been and continue to be no-shows. HRA representatives tell me they want to do more outreach, but it is difficult to recruit all of those who need to learn what’s dispensed here. But there is always hope.

The meeting provided an opportunity to recognize true heroes to he railway preservation cause: Southern Pacific Daylight 4-8-4 No. 4449’s long-time master and the personal restorer of an Alco PA, Doyle McCormack, was honored for his lifetime of work, as was Strasburg Rail Road’s Linn Moedinger, who is retiring next month, again, with a lifetime of efforts for his own railroad as well as the industry. I salute these two gentlemen as well as a beneficiary of much of their good works, for their high standards, and their leadership. Because of them, we are all better off for the experiences they’ve given us and for the future they’ve ensured. Thank you.

There were projects to celebrate: Aaron Issacs, who edits the organization’s online journal, compiled a list of 60 significant projects that were completed this year. Awards went out to restoration projects. Our magazine declared a winner for the annual $10,000 Preservation Award: This year it will buy a boiler jacket for Denver & Rio Grand 4-6-0 No. 168, which the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic is restoring to operation with an expected end of 2019 outshopping.

There also was a lot of educational work with everything from social media to fund raising to Federal Railroad Administration regulations. And there is plenty of networking and gossip: At least one major railroad museum will be searching for an executive director in 2019 to replace one of the best and hardest working directors out there. At least one significant steam preservation organization is on the cusp of a meaningful acquisition.

One issue that the industry will need to address is community apathy. Keeping these tourist railroads and museums relevant is essential. One, Pennsylvania Trolley Museum, is a polling place for its community. Others are economic engine drivers. And yet others are viewed as negatives rather than positives in the same way that happened in the Hoosier State that led to the eviction of the Indiana Transportation Museum earlier this year. The preservation community cannot and should not tolerate an ITM debacle. It is not acceptable.  

Another issue that will need to be addressed at some point is the voiceless: That’s the large number of park engines out there whose communities have forgotten why they have them on display in the first place. More than 60 years after these icons of railroading’s past were painted and put out for all to enjoy, many places that cannot remember their own history. The preservation community will have to find a way to give voice to these lost locomotives, least they truly be lost.  

Next spring the Heritage Rail Alliance goes to Sacramento to the California State Railroad Museum, which is planning a slew of events for the 150th anniversary of the transcontinental railroad. And in September, this organization will reconvene in Squamish, B.C., at the West Coast Railway Heritage Park for a conference that will focus on the business side of railway preservation.  Much has been gained in the 21 years I’ve been following the organized preservation effort, and much is yet to be done.



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