Two undeniable truths about Coronavirus and railway preservation

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Sunday, May 17, 2020

Ever since the Covid-19 pandemic prompted a nationwide shut down of tourist railroads and museums, I rarely have a conversation with friends in railway preservation that does not include two troubling questions. 

Everyone wants to know what the new normal will look like — what will preservation railroads have to do to reopen and draw the crowds they need to survive. What will the physical act of being open and relevant to the public look and feel like. Relatively speaking, that’s the easy one. The second question is more deeply disturbing because of the way I view the act of running a train for people to experience or to saving and interpreting old locomotives, Pullmans, and historic sites. I believe to my core that railway preservation has the power to change and improve people’s lives. For that belief, the nature of the second question is upsetting. But here it is: Everyone wants to know what the casualty count will look like — how many tourist railroads and museums will be shuttered permanently because of the extended shut down.

 Let’s start with the new normal. The undeniable truth is that it will be messy, difficult, expensive, and a headache. The Heritage Rail Alliance, the industry trade organization, has released its guidance. You can read it here It doesn’t take long; it’s four pages long. The recommendations are sound, and you can expect them to change and evolve as the understanding of the Coronavirus does likewise. Among the highlights: Social distancing; clean, clean, clean; touchless ticketing, restrooms, entrance doors, etc. Expect this to be just the beginning. There is always value in looking beyond one’s own front yard. Take for example one of the largest fast-food chains in America, yes, McDonald’s, which has issued a 59-page guidance to its thousands of franchises across the country. They go into everything from shutting down public soft drink fountains to cleaning restrooms every 30 minutes, to giving customers a thumbs up when they come in. Like I said, this will be complicated.

 Some tourist railroads are starting to open. Colorado’s Royal Gorge Route, is set to open May 23, and many others will come back online as the summer comes on. Others have already elected to sit out this year (Nevada’s Virginia & Truckee) or part of the year (Ohio’s

Cuyahoga Valley). But most will try to come back sooner than later – they have bills to pay.

 Except for those who don’t.

 That brings us to the casualties. Undeniable truth No. 2 is that the pandemic will likely treat railway preservation the same way it is changing the fate of traditional retail stores like J.C. Penney and Macy’s. It will hasten the decline of some. It will be the death of some. So far, nobody has gone out of business. But some will.

 Who will live and who will die? It’s hard to say. But if I had to foretell the future, I’d offer this rough guide:

 Survivors: Railroads that have diversified revenue streams (Tennessee Valley’s freight switching operations) or the ones that can store freight cars for profit (North Shore Scenic). Museums with strong management and active, focused boards (now is the time that every board member needs to be living the Three Gs of boardsmanship: Give money, get money, or get off the board [thank you my teacher, Stan Brosky, for that nugget of wisdom!]). Museums with endowments. Volunteer-driven organizations with small paid staffs and low overhead. Those who are well connected and networked who can rely on friends for help, advice, and whatever it takes.

 Casualties: Railroads struggling with ridership, high costs, and short train sets of sealed window cars where social distancing will be almost impossible. Museums with significant loans, high overhead, and boards that are not engaged. The lone wolves out there.

 Before I leave you, let me put one more undeniable truth one the table: Some of the most tenacious people in the world work or volunteer in railway preservation. The toughest among us will stay long after others might give up the fight. They’ll figure out how to stay in business, reopen, and stay relevant. To my brothers and sisters in railway preservation, get busy. There is power and magic in taking action.




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