Guide for museums, tourist railroads spells out challenges

Open-air cars are in demand; food service not recommended
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Open-air cars, like this one on the Leadville, Colorado & Southern — shown on a Trains Tour of Colorado private excursion — are in demand for tourist railroads looking to operate in the COVID-19 environment.
TRAINS: David Lassen

Guidelines for reopening in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak has made one thing clear for museums and tourist railroads: Open-air cars are a hot commodity.

So says Cheryl Marcell, chair of a HeritageRail Alliance task force that issued those guidelines in early May. The HRA’s “Recommended Practices for Reopening Tourist Railroads and Railway Museums,” created by a five-member committee, says operating sealed-window coaches with no outside ventilation should be avoided. Other key recommendations include 6-foot social-distancing markings, assigned seats, and asking family members to assist mobility challenged customers.

“Social distancing and sanitizing museum and passenger equipment sanitizing are other key elements of HRA’s reopening guide,” says Marcell, president and CEO of the California State Railroad Museum Foundation. Almost all historic rail and rail museum operations, including both of California’s state-owned rail heritage parks, have been shuttered since mid-March.

Marcell says the guide “communicates protocols to make the museum or train as sanitary as possible so a customer feels safe.” It’s a huge challenge, Marcell says, in light of other critical findings included in the guide:

— Covid-19 will remain a danger to the public for the remainder of 2020 and likely beyond.

— It is impossible to guarantee no risk of infection.

— Museums and  railroads may be subject to local laws, emergency rules or other restrictions imposed by states, local governments, or others that [will] supersede these recommendations.

Earlier in her career, Marcell was an aviation industry executive who faced the challenges of operating a major airport on and after 9/11.  “After the 9/11 shutdown,” she says, “we had a federal government playbook and were able to open up in just a few days. Nothing like that exists for operating in the pandemic environment.” In putting together its own guide, the task force “looked at best guidance from airlines and state guidance for the retail and restaurant industries,” Marcell says. It also consulted industry groups like the California Travel Association.

An additional issue facing HRA’s 189 members is that pandemic impacts vary widely from state to state and within states, Marcell says: “In northern New York, things are fine, but it’s completely different in New York City.

“HRA members view themselves as story tellers and a train ride or museum visit is a very ‘customer-facing-forward’ experience.” That’s a huge challenge, she says, as “virtual does not work well for a train ride. It needs to be an in-person experience.”

At the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento, Marcell says repairing two open-air gondolas has become a priority for shop forces. Other features to make customers feel safer are sanitation stations with sanitizers, paper towels, wastebaskets, and appropriate signage. And, she says, “Wearing masks and gloves are new standard protocols for all staff and visitors.”

This will be the case at all HRA member operations, where changes will be significant. The time-honored sight of a trainman offering a helping hand to alighting or boarding passengers may be verge of extinction. With widespread and strong warnings against large gatherings, Marcell observed special events like Polar Express and Day Out With Thomas, which rely on attracting big crowds, full trains and merchandise sales, may take a hit. So will food service – the HRA prefers there to be none.

Will the pandemic threaten the strategic viability of some operations?

“That depends on the financial reserves of smaller operations dependent on Thomas or Christmas-themed events like Polar Express,” Marcell says.

“It’s all so frustrating for the people in this business.”

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