By PAM KASEY ∙ firstname.lastname@example.org
Rail tourism in the state took on a new dimension when the Durbin & Greenbrier Valley Railroad began booking trips from Elkins to the North Pole in 2011.
Now in its third year, D&G's Polar Express follows the theme of the popular children's book of the same name by Chris Van Allsburg and the 2004 animated Warner Brothers release, in which a doubting boy finds himself on a train ride to the North Pole on Christmas Eve.
As families ride the Polar Express from Elkins to the North Pole, actors from the local Old Brick Playhouse dance, play music, read from the book and even do magic tricks. Hot chocolate is served in a re-creation of a dizzying scene in the movie in which dancing, singing waiters serve hot chocolate. At the North Pole, Santa boards the train and greets each child on the trip back to Elkins.
D&G's Polar Express is one of 31 such programs licensed across the U.S. by Rail Events Inc. to use the Polar Express brand. Each of the licensed programs has to stick to certain guidelines and to the format of the book and the movie, but each also can add extras that make it unique, Yeager said.
D&G's ride is popular for the involvement of local actors.
"We're one of just a few railroads that use professional acting," Yeager said. "We get great feedback about the actors' interaction with the passengers. There's never any silent downtime. Once people get on, it's pretty crazy — in a good way."
On Fridays and Saturdays, Polar Express passengers can book dinner and a live Christmas music show before the ride.
In 2012, the community got involved.
"This past year we had a program called Santa's Workshop where different local businesses in Elkins would appear on a map that we'd hand out at our welcome center at the depot," Yeager said.
"People can walk through town and see local artisans, things going on that showcase local products. People have told me they loved that the whole town gets involved and that there's so much to do once they get here."
D&G's Polar Express is growing. From not quite 6,000 in 2011, ridership topped 9,300 in 2012 and the railroad expects 12,000 this year. About 7,000 of those seats are already booked, with all of the Saturdays sold out. To support that growth, the railroad has added seats as well as dates, offering 25 evenings this year from early November to mid-December, each with two runs.
The Polar Express runs with the Western Maryland diesel locomotive that pulls the regular-season New Tygart Flyer train, but with different decoration and with more cars, Yeager said.
The D&G has long drawn riders from surrounding states, but Polar Express is bringing in new riders, some from as far away as New York state.
"Rail tourism is not as popular as it used to be, and we're one of few railroads in the country seeing an increase in numbers of passengers," Yeager said.
"I think the best way for that to keep going strong is to offer multi-event trips to folks so they're not just coming to see the train, they're coming to see other things in the region," he said. "That's the kind of thing that's helping us grow now."