Coronavirus vs. tourist railroads and museums

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Thursday, March 19, 2020

This is usually the time of year when most tourist railroads and museums are holding their collective breaths and hoping to make it financially to the first big event of the spring that will bring in a surge of visitors. For most operations, it’s a long, lean winter between the hustle, fast pace, and big bucks of Polar Express or a locally grown Christmas substitute. Those holiday events usually restock most railroad bank accounts for a time, but there are winter locomotive overhauls to pay for, annual insurance policies to renew, and gift shops to restock. This time of the year, most operations I know are beyond ready for an influx of visitors and cash. Usually, that’s an Easter Bunny Express or something else that’s whimsical and light. This year, there will be no bunny hopping down the tracks to save the tourist railroad and museum industry. The coronavirus that has shut down the country has idled most train rides and historical experiences from one end of the country to the other. Our friends at Grand Canyon Railway, for example, closed March 20 and said they would reopen May 22. 


The industry is built on the mobility of Americans and their disposable income to buy tickets, purchase memberships, and splurge in the gift shop. Without those customers, they’re in trouble. Depending on how long the crisis continues and what stimulus packages are enacted by the state and federal governments, some may not make it. This spring will be a significant test for tourist railroads and museums. For the sake of them all, let’s hope it’s a short time until the gates can reopen, the traps on the coaches open, and the crowds can return again to the places we love and enjoy.


A few will come up with clever alternatives. I’ve already seen a virtual tour at some locations with a plea for donations, which is a smart idea. Others that value their skin will get creative. In the days and weeks ahead, I hope to hear more about them.


For now, I hope that everyone will remember something that the late Walter Gray, executive director of the California State Railroad Museum for many years, wrote in Locomotive & Railway Preservation magazine back in the early 1990s. Railway preservation doesn’t heal the sick or feed the poor, but it does a tremendous emotional service for our patrons. Railway preservation evokes smiles, creates lifelong memories, and has the ability to uplift. There is no higher calling. Here’s to the healing of our land and our people and the day when the tourist trains and museums open their doors wide open once again.

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