By November 8, 2016 Read More →

WV to get another Santa-themed train excursion

Charleston Gazette-Mail photo by Lars Burne/Durbin & Greenbrier Valley Railroad  Enclosed cars from the Cheat Mountain Salamander excursion train make their way through the highlands between Elkins and Cass in preparation for the debut season of Elf Unlimited Christmas-themed rides along the Greenbrier River.

Charleston Gazette-Mail photo by Lars Burne/Durbin & Greenbrier Valley Railroad
Enclosed cars from the Cheat Mountain Salamander excursion train make their way through the highlands between Elkins and Cass in preparation for the debut season of Elf Unlimited Christmas-themed rides along the Greenbrier River.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Thanks to Santa Claus, West Virginia’s excursion train season is getting longer, busier and more profitable.

The Durbin & Greenbrier Valley Railroad got the trend rolling six years ago when it landed a regional franchise to operate Polar Express trains, themed rides based on the Tom Hanks movie and the popular children’s book. The trains run from Elkins to Santa’s Christmas headquarters at the North Pole — or, more precisely, a branch office in Belington.

Tickets sold out long before the season’s first snowfall for the 20-day Polar Express debut run in 2011, during which 4,800 pajama-clad kids and their parents boarded the train, met Santa, munched on cookies and slurped hot chocolate while actors from Elkins’ Old Brick Playhouse entertained them with Santa-themed skits and a mini-musical. This year, more than 15,000 Polar Express fans will board trains at Elkins Depot for a 50-day, long sold-out excursion period that ends Dec. 18.

“People come from all over West Virginia and the neighboring region to ride holiday trains,” said Chase Gunnoe, external affairs manager for the Durbin & Greenbrier Valley Railroad. “In some cases, our Polar Express trains are sold out before summer is even over.”

This year, to accommodate overflow demand for Christmas-themed train rides and stretch its operating season, Cass Scenic Railroad State Park will host twice-daily Elf Limited rides along a recently repaired and reopened section of track along the Greenbrier River north of the historic Pocahontas County logging and lumber town.

The 6-mile round-trip journey takes passengers to the Parliament of the Pines, located in a dense stand of evergreen forest, where, in a hidden grove of ancient Christmas trees, Santa operates a training camp for junior helpers. Actors from the Old Brick Playhouse help bring the scene to life and provide entertainment along the route, and Santa will provide each youthful passenger with a gift.

Nearby Snowshoe Mountain Resort is partnering with Cass Scenic Railroad to provide a lodging package for Elf Limited riders not wanting or needing to drive home immediately after the evening excursions.

The section of track used for the Elf Limited rides is part of a 15-mile stretch of railway that connected Cass and Durbin until 1985, when severe flooding damaged or destroyed much of it. A 3-mile section of the rail line was repaired and reopened earlier this year, following work that began in 2015, while a 2-mile stretch was rebuilt south of Durbin in the years immediately following the flood.

The repairs are being made by personnel and equipment from the Durbin & Greenbrier Valley Railroad, which the state appointed to assume management of rail operations at Cass in 2014. Rebuilding materials are being supplied by the State Rail Authority. About 6 additional miles of the rail line need to be repaired before trains can travel directly from Cass to Durbin.

The Elf Limited rides will depart at 5 and 7 p.m. Nov. 25-27, 30, Dec. 1-4 and Dec. 7-11. Cost is $47 for riders 12 and older, $41 for riders 4 to 11 years old, and free for children 3 and younger.

“We are happy to be able to offer this holiday train ride at Cass Scenic Railroad and bring a little Christmas spirit to the rails of Pocahontas County,” said Gunnoe.

While the Cass Scenic Railroad normally closes for the year on Oct. 31, the new Elf Limited rides “mean that trains will be running in Cass through Dec. 11 on a limited schedule,” Gunnoe said. Added rides, he said, should bring an extra 3,000 or so people to Pocahontas County during what is normally a less-than-prime visitor season, since fall colors often have peaked and the ski season may have yet to begin. Snowshoe Mountain’s ski season is tentatively scheduled to begin Nov. 23.

In addition to Snowshoe Mountain, the Cass Scenic Railroad is partnering with the Pocahontas County Convention and Visitor Bureau to make the new rail excursions possible.

The new winter excursion route “will give people a chance to ride a holiday train in one of the state’s most beautiful regions at a location that has never hosted a holiday train experience,” Gunnoe said. It will also benefit Cass-Snowshoe area restaurants, shops and lodging locales, he said.

Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-5169, or follow @rsteelhammer on Twitter.

See more from the Charleston Gazette-Mail. 

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