Coronavirus vs. tourist railroads and museums: What will recovery look like?

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Friday, April 17, 2020

As a nation, we’re starting to talk about flattening curves, fewer hospitalizations, and declining fatalities from Coronavirus-19. We’re talking about reopening slowly, carefully, thoughtfully. That is good news. We all want to get back to normal, whatever that looks like. But we’re nowhere near being ready to reopen the country full throttle. In the halls of railway preservation, the talk is still about cutting staffs, digging into reserves, and trying to keep vandals from causing damage at historic sites that have temporarily been abandoned. There’s tremendous interest in reopening to visitors – the lifeblood of most organizations. But what will that look like? And if the trains and museums reopen, will visitors come?


Nobody really knows. It is too early to tell. But we do know for sure is that things will be different, at least from the start. We can take a few cues from what governments and major entertainment and transportation organizations are discussing or implementing. Here are a few steps that I anticipate tourist railroads and museums may have to face when stay at home edicts begin to loosen. Some of this will be annoying, others will make it difficult to stay in business. None of it will be easy.


• Masks for visitors and staff.

• Temperature checks before boarding.

• Social distancing seating.

• Fewer touch exhibits.

• Limiting the number of visitors in a building or in a passenger car.

• Intense cleaning of buildings and passenger cars.

• Bans on major events.

• Frequent hand sanitizer stations.

• Changes in how food and drink are distributed.


That’s half of the equation. The other half is about the visitors or the customers. When will they feel comfortable traveling again once restrictions are lifted or eased? Will they have disposable income to travel again? Will they be too concerned about the potential for infection to vacation? Think about it. The primary audience for railway preservation, outside of Polar Express and Thomas the Tank Engine, is an older American – the very population that has been told it is most vulnerable to coronavirus and its impacts.


Railway preservation depends on visitors, and it will be a difficult road back for all. There is so much of America that has to be reopened first. We can all learn from watching how other segments of our country handle this, work together with other venues (both railways and other historic destinations and attractions) and public health officials to develop best practices, and keep the faith. We need to encourage each other. A great museum, an amazing train riding experience, and stories of one of the country’s most important industries are inspiring. These things remind us what this nation is capable of doing and comfort us: Accomplishing the impossible, whether it’s laying tracks over the Rockies, bridging a deep chasm in the East, or conquering a deadly virus.    





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