By BOB WITHERS
For HD Media
HUNTINGTON - Tickets for the Autumn Colors Express excursion train running from Huntington to Hinton during the last weekend of October will go on sale Monday, with prices ranging from $149 to $599 per person, the company organizing the trains said Friday.
Rail Excursion Management Co. said earlier this week that it will operate its Autumn Colors Express three times on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 25-27. The trains will continue the more than 50-year tradition of Hinton's Railroad Days Festival, in which passengers traveled round-trip aboard vintage trains.
Rail Excursion Management follows in the footsteps of the Collis P. Huntington Railroad Historical Society Inc., which said earlier this year it was bankrupted when Amtrak raised the tariffs required to pay for returning passenger cars to Chicago after the society's four 2018 trips.
Those trips ran most years after the first run May 15, 1966.
Tickets will go on sale Monday, Aug. 5, according to the following classes:
Regular coach class: $149 per person.
Deluxe coach class: $199 per person.
Lounge class: $289 per person.
Private suite class: $309 per person.
Dome class: $399 per person.
Chairman class: $599 per person.
Tickets may be ordered by telephone or at the Railexco website, and purchasers will be able to print tickets at home, display them on smartphones or have them delivered by mail. The website is www.railexco.com and the telephone number will be announced Monday when the tickets go on sale, Railexco Chief Marketing Officer Lou Capwell said.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who worked with Railexco and Amtrak to have fall excursion train trips between Huntington and Hinton continue, praised the company.
"The trip from Huntington to Hinton in the fall truly showcases the beauty of West Virginia and brings joy and revenue to our state. ... I look forward to the new Autumn Colors Express and will always support the Railroad Days Festival however I can," Manchin said.
A company official and Hinton's city manager also praised plans for the train trips.
"We are very excited to showcase the beautiful New River Gorge in its fall colors to our passengers," Railexco Chief Executive Officer Adam Auxier said. "I hope they enjoy their journey on these lovingly preserved railcars on their trip to Hinton."
Cris Meadows, Hinton's city manager, said the return of the train means much to Hinton and its residents.
"The annual Railroad Days Festival has brought thousands of people to our town over the years; our local nonprofits operate food and vending tents that in turn provide scholarships to so many of our local students. We're overjoyed that this tradition can keep going year after year," Meadows said.
With the relatively short window to sell tickets, two officials in Huntington said they have doubts or concerns that the excursion trains will be filled up.
Willard "Skip" Reinhard, president of the Collis P. Huntington Railroad Historical Society, believes it will be difficult to sell enough tickets to fill between 25 and 30 vintage passenger coaches three times in less than three months.
"It's going to be hard, because in order to sell that many tickets, you have to promote heavily to reach the number of people you need to reach," Reinhard said. "For example, by the first of August in any year, we were just about sold out. Our tickets went on sale in January, and by May the premium-service tickets were usually sold out."
Tyson Compton, president of the Huntington Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, also is concerned.
"To be honest, I think it will be a challenge, but the CVB is certainly willing to provide our support," he said. "I think it might be an easier sell because it's over one weekend. But the challenge will be to make up for the loss of bus groups."
Reinhard took exception to a couple of statements made by a Railexco official earlier in the week. One was that the railroad historical society didn't extensively work with the state to promote the excursion trains.
"I've got the bills and copies of stories we sent out to papers all over the state to prove it. We attended travel shows. We worked with bus companies, travel agents and a lot of other people," Reinhard said. "If we hadn't done that, we wouldn't have had close to 5,000 people ride our trains in 2018."
Regarding the officials' contention that Railexco's boxed breakfasts and return-trip snacks would eliminate CPH's "non-revenue dining cars," Reinhard said that "the first-class tickets for premium-service passengers produced the revenue for our dining cars The meals were included; passengers got a total package."
Bob Withers, a lifelong railroad enthusiast and retired reporter and copy editor for The Herald-Dispatch, pastors Seventh Avenue Baptist Church in Huntington.