Organizers of the annual Railroad Days festival in Hinton voted Tuesday to cancel the event for 2020, blindsiding operators of the Autumn Colors Express, who are planning to proceed with four round-trip rail excursions in October, with or without the event.
Dorothy Jean Boley, director of the Hinton Railroad Museum, confirmed Tuesday that the museum’s board of directors voted Tuesday morning to cancel the festival this year.
“We postponed it for this year because of all the guidelines we’ve been issued for festivals. We just can’t meet them,” Boley said, referring to COVID-19 guidance for fairs, festivals, amusement parks and rides issued by the Governor’s Office on June 5.
Under Gov. Jim Justice’s state reopening plan, fairs, festivals and amusement parks may resume on July 1, if they comply with guidelines established by public health officials.
For fairs and festivals, those guidelines include limiting entrance and exit points, practicing social distancing and enhancing cleaning and sanitation.
“You can’t have a festival and force people to stand 6 feet apart,” Boley said.
The cancellation of 2020 Railroad Days was first announced in a post on the museum’s Facebook page Tuesday afternoon: “The Board of Directors of the Hinton Railroad Museum in a meeting held Tuesday, June 16, 2020, voted to approve the recommendation of the Hinton Railroad Days Committee to postpone Railroad Days scheduled for October 22, 23, 24, and 25, 2020, based upon guidelines published by the State of West Virginia for COVID-19.”
Lou Capwell, spokesman for Rail Excursion Management Co., or Railexco, operator of the Autumn Colors Express excursion trains, said the company was blindsided by the announcement but intends to proceed with the round-trip excursions from Huntington and Charleston to Hinton on the scheduled dates.
“Nobody called us, nobody told us anything,” he said of the decision to cancel Railroad Days. “When you have a provider bringing this much tourism to the town, you would think they would at least give us a heads up.”
The Autumn Colors Express, which last year replaced the long-running but now-defunct New River Train, is an excursion train made up of vintage passenger rail cars. The trains normally depart from Huntington and Charleston in the morning, have about a three-hour layover in Hinton for Railroad Days, and return to Charleston and Huntington in the evening.
Capwell said plans are to operate the trains on the scheduled dates, even if there is no festival in Hinton.
“Ticket sales have been relatively strong, everything considered,” he said.
While the primary attraction of the Autumn Colors Express is riding vintage rail cars through the New River Gorge, Capwell said the festival in Hinton is part of the appeal of the trip.
“This is not great news for us,” he said. “We’re playing catch-up right now.”
Capwell said Railexco management is hopeful of working with incoming Hinton mayor Jack Scott to provide at least some activities in Hinton on those dates.
Scott, who takes office July 1, defeated three-term mayor Joe Blankenship in the June 9 election.
“Hopefully, we can use this as a springboard to reinvent Railroad Days,” said Capwell, who added that the incoming mayor is a strong supporter of the festival.
The festival features live music, with food and craft vendors filling two blocks of downtown Hinton.
Cancellation of the festival comes less than a week after the West Virginia State Fair board of directors voted to proceed with the 2020 State Fair, Aug. 13-22.
As a practical matter, Capwell said, the three-hour layover in Hinton could be shortened, since it takes a relatively short amount of time to switch the train’s engines from eastbound to westbound for the return trip.