West Virginia's tourism industry last week suffered an apparent blow, courtesy of Amtrak's announcement that it would discontinue immediately its operation of charter services and/or special trains tied to its regularly scheduled train operations.
As things apparently stand now in the wake of that decision, the nation's rail passenger service's stance would derail some popular train excursions in the Mountain State, including the New River train trips operated by the Collis P. Huntington Railroad Historical Society in Huntington. That outcome would harm the state's economy at a time when state officials are hoping to redouble its efforts to boost tourism and attract people to the state.
Simply put, local, state and federal officials should do everything in their power to get those excursions back on track.
According to a spokesman for Amtrak, the rationale to stop supporting special train excursions for private groups was prompted by relatively slim profit margins on those operations for Amtrak and their impact on the schedules of the rail service's own trains. A more detailed justification for the move would be welcome, but whether it is forthcoming remains to be seen. What we do know is that ending those special charters will be harmful to West Virginia.
As an example, the Collis P. Huntington Railroad Historical Society's flagship excursions, the New River Train in the fall, has a $3.5 million economic impact annually on the Huntington Tri-State area through train tickets, hotel stays, restaurants, and local activities and a $1 million impact for the city of Hinton. The proceeds from that train trip to Hinton also helps pay for about $5,000 in scholarships for local students.
The excursions, which have about 4,800 passengers annually and have been a tradition for 51 years, also help open people's eyes to the beauty of the Mountain State and in turn helps promote tourism in the state at other times of the year. Out-of-state visitors who take those trips even may be convinced to make West Virginia their home.
Perhaps part of the reasoning for Amtrak officials' decision is they are mindful of what President Donald Trump wanted to do to the agency's federal subsidies this year and next - cutting those dollars in half. While the rail service received financial support in the recent spending bill for the remainder of the 2018 fiscal year, the president has proposed that federal subsidies for Amtrak be reduced by 50 percent again next year.
It behooves the state's congressional delegation to assure Amtrak officials that such a reduction is unlikely, which could sway the agency to change its mind on eliminating involvement with charter trains. In fact, legislation to address the issue and provide incentives for Amtrak to continue them may be required, and the state's congressional delegation should lead that charge. Simply accepting Amtrak's decision without pursuing an alternative is not acceptable.