Pandemic Set Rail Preservation Back About a Decade

Thomas the Tank Engine appears on the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad in May 2018. Lost of revenue from special events has contributed to the financial struggles of tourist railroads.

The COVID-19 pandemic may have set North American railway preservation back about a decade an analysis published on the website of Trains magazine concluded.

The pandemic forced hundreds of museums and tourist railroads to shut down or operate at reduced capacity, thus depriving them of needed revenue to pay bills and loans.

The analysis did not provide any details, but noted that some operations have closed permanently while others will find it difficult to reopen this year.

Some operations will need donations and/or government grants to get rolling again.

The scope of damage the pandemic caused to rail preservation operations may become clearer in the first and second quarters of this year as they make plans 2021 operations, the analysis said

One of the key money makers for some tourist railroads, The Polar Express and Thomas the Tank Engine, were unavailable in 2020 due to the pandemic.

Trains noted that at some railroads specials event revenue contributes more than 50 percent of the operating budget.

In Northeast Ohio, the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad initially began Polar Express excursions, but halted them after about a week later due to surging COVID-19 virus rates in the state and region.

The Polar Express is the largest U.S. licensee of railroad-based performance event. In 2019, 62 locations hosted Polar Express trains. Those trains attracted 1.4 million riders in 2015.

The analysis noted that if there was an upside to the pandemic it was that some railroads that were closed were able to get work done on repair and restoration projects without the distraction of regular operations.

Trains wrote that railroads and museums that have endowments, generous trustees, creative staffs, and major financial supporters should be able to weather the pandemic in reasonably good condition.

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