Amtrak decision jeopardizes West Virginia train tradition

HINTON, W.Va. (AP) — For much of Bobby Cox’s life, two weekends in October in his hometown of Hinton have been devoted to Railroad Days.

The festival brings in thousands of visitors who travel in by antique rail car from Huntington to the city at the confluence of three rivers that was once a central hub for the C&O Railroad in southern West Virginia.

“People look forward to Train Days,” Cox said. “Even myself, I look forward every year for it.”

Cox, who is a board member and volunteer with the city’s railroad museum, speaks with the riders each year as they make their way through town; some, he said, have made the trip annually for over 30 years.

While that dedication is impressive, it could all soon come to an end as Amtrak has issued a policy change forbidding charters such as the one that brings passengers to Hinton for Railroad Days.

For Borden Black, that change will not only cost her one of her favorite times of the year, it will cost her business.

Black and her husband, Nelson McGahee, own and operate Dearing Railroad LLC, a privately owned rail car travel service.

While a portion of their business comes from privately booked trips, a portion comes from the charter trips that the new Amtrak rule would end.

For the past six years, Black’s car has served as the premier car of the charter which ends in Hinton’s Railroad Days and the couple has even thought about moving to Huntington from Georgia because the West Virginia city is where they keep their cars parked.

While the new Amtrak rule ends the charter trips that use Amtrak engines, it also limits private cars to be parked at Amtrak line origination points only, which Huntington is not.

“There wasn’t even the courtesy of giving us notice so we could move our cars out and give them any input,” Black said of the new order.

While Black’s car has a move order already in Amtrak’s system, other cars that she is aware of haven’t been so lucky.

A car that Black’s is often partnered with is, for lack of better words, stuck in Huntington with few options for movement.

According to Black, that car’s owner put in a movement request with Amtrak after learning about the new rule, but that request was quickly denied.

“The only way he is going to be able to get out of there, they tell him, is by a freight train,” Black said. “Not only is that outrageously expensive, but it can be destructive. We’ve had damage to our car when we’ve had to run it in freight.”

Because Black’s trip was scheduled before the rule was emplaced, she believes that their car will be able to move attached to an Amtrak train.

In a huge example of irony, that trip is to Washington, D.C., to serve a donated platform for the Rail Passenger Association (RPA) to lobby lawmakers for rail travel, for which Amtrak receives the most benefit.

“We’re pretty unhappy,” the train car owner said of the feeling of private train car owners toward Amtrak right now.

While the Amtrak decision cites not enough profit for them through charters and concerns that the charters delay normal operations, Black strongly disagrees.

Citing evidence from private train car organizations, Black said Amtrak makes approximately $10 million a year from private rail travel, which she said costs them minimal effort.

The train car owner also disputes that private cars delay normal rail traffic and said that delays to Amtrak, for the most part, come through freight train traffic and accidents.

While upset, Black believes that there is still a good chance to overturn the rule.

“I would hope we will be able to reverse this,” Black said. “There are a lot of organizations and people working to provide information and data so that these executives can maybe revisit their decisions.”

While concerned about her own livelihood, Black is also concerned about what will happen to places like Hinton and Huntington if the charter is lost for good.

While Cox doesn’t believe an end of Railroad Days would mean an end to Hinton, he does fear what impact the loss would have on some of the city’s charitable organizations.

According to the Hinton native, many of the city’s charity organizations and youth programs make a good portion of their yearly proceeds during the four days of Railroad Days.

Cox said a loss to that fundraising effort would impact the community service abilities of those groups greatly.

Along with the loss of the charitable groups’ fundraising efforts and crafters’ place of business, Cox said the loss of Railroad Days would be a loss to the state.

The Hinton native said that many of the people he talks to during Railroad Days are from out of state and that many are blown away by their trip through southern West Virginia.

While a loss for visitors, Cox said a loss of the festival would also be a loss to the residents of the state, particularly families who do not have access to many events such as the festival.

“This thing affects the whole state,” Cox said. “It would be like doing away with the state fair. That’s not for Fairlea people; it’s for the state.”

That family experience on the trains is something that Black said she has seen first-hand.

While participating in a Christmas train for the same group that operates the New River Train Excursion, Black said she was blown away by the joy of the children on the trip.

“Kids don’t have a chance to see historic cars anymore. They just don’t run,” Black said. “There are about 250 of us left in the United States.”

The loss of that type of experience hits home for Cox as well.

The history lover believes a loss of Railroad Days would end the opportunity for the next generation to experience what has happened in the past, a wholesome adventure and learning something about the past.

When thinking of telling his grandchildren of his experiences in the past, Cox could fathom having to tell them that they couldn’t experience the same thing because of someone’s decision.

The Hinton native, who is expecting a grandchild in the summer, is hopeful that he won’t have to do that.

“I want my grandchild to be able to ride the train,” Cox said. “If it’s not there, they can’t ride it.”

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