Saturday, October 31, 2020
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Valley Railroad Chugs Steadily Along, Despite COVID-19

By Kathy Brown.

In March, as we all know, many businesses had to shut down due to the worldwide pandemic of COVID-19. Some businesses closed their doors for good, others retooled machines or changed and adapted to stay open, some businesses used the time “off” to improve their business. Valley Railroad, better known to locals as the Essex Steam Train, used their time “off” for many improvements and made some changes to their offerings.  “it’s been a tough year,” said Rob Bradway, VP of Track & Property. “In my 29 years on the railroad I’ve experienced nothing remotely like this.”

Coach 602

They performed upkeep on various engines:

  • Steam Engines 40 (which celebrates its 100th birthday this year!) and 3025 received their annual Federal Railroad Administration inspections
  • Steam Engine 97 was lifted off its wheels and axles and is undergoing major mechanical rebuilding
  • Passenger Coach 602’s interior was sanded, repainted in appropriate colors, and the woodwork was stripped and finished.
  • Passenger Coach 603 is in the process of receiving the same treatment as 602.
  • Vintage diesels 0901 and 0902 received tuning on all their engines (0901 is the front-line diesel for this season, and is believed to be the oldest regularly operating diesel locomotive in the country — built in 1939).

They also completed some other upkeep:

Crossing Tender shanty at Essex Station. In days of old this is the building where a Crossing Tender would jump to his feet and flag a crossing upon approach of a train, to be a human version of a STOP sign.

  • The River Valley Junction/Dickinson Bottling Plant building received a new roof
  • The Goodspeed Yard Office (which was the original 1871 Chester Station building, and believed to be the one remaining building from the original opening of the railroad in 1871) is getting some cosmetic work done on it
  • In the Essex Station, all of the restrooms received new touch-less sinks, soap, and towel dispensers in response to COVID-19
  • Landscaping and maintenance of all property continued through the pandemic
  • New railroad ties were installed in many locations
  • The vintage concrete Mile and Whistle Posts along the line are being repainted “so they look sharp”
  • In the spring, they performed a major project with the CDOT, resulting in all new signage and LED lighting/gates at the public railroad crossings from Old Saybrook to Haddam, which should enhance safety, giving motorists the most current devices to help them to be safe while crossing the tracks.

    Improved crossing

Rob explained that they have had to reduce the number of people they normally hire in a season, which was difficult. “With such limited operations, our need for the massive cadre of seasonal employees just has not been there, and that’s painful – they are not just employees, they are our friends. The economic toll of the pandemic is impossible to watch, we’ll not come close to employee the 450+ people per season that is our norm.”

In June, they started running their Rail Bikes. “These have been the Connecticut hit of the summer,” said Rob. Seven rail bikes have been operating for 12 hours per day, five days per week. They are on different parts of the track between Deep River and Shailerville, based at their Bridge Road site (behind Goodspeed Station gift shop). “Most of our guests take the opportunity to shop and dine locally,” said Rob. “EDC’s from both towns put together a visitation guide to keep folks in the Swing Bridge region and deeper into Haddam and East Haddam.” It’s nice to see the Economic Development Commissions in both towns working together to keep tourists here!

In July, VRR started operating a limited Train and Boat schedule. They are selling train and boat combination tickets so that the entire train empties out allowing it to be sanitized prior to the return trip. Speaking of sanitizing, their training and retraining has been “intense and continual,” according to Rob. “We have kept our employees safe, and to the best of our knowledge, we can say the same for our guests.” According to Rob, “all train and bike seats are sanitized between seatings, hand rails and doorways on the train the same, restroom and park benches sanitized frequently. We are keen to instill a sense of safety in our guests by exceeding sanitization requirements.” They hope to expand the train schedule when the foliage season starts.

The Essex Clipper Dinner Train was restarted in mid-July, operating on Saturday nights. They run under half capacity with seating only on the river-side of the train, and have plexiglass dividers between the tables. They are planning on running the Dinner Train twice a day on weekends in October, as well as an adult-geared Dinner Train that will operate mid-November through Christmas.
Their North Pole Express Christmas train, which has been selling out every year, has unfortunately been postponed until 2021 because it wasn’t feasible during a pandemic with so much close contact. However, they will still be celebrating the holiday! “Not to worry, no bah humbugs here,” explained Rob. “We have a fantastic event planned for the Essex Station site (Christmas Adventures) that will keep folks safe and still provide the great Holiday Spirit we are known for.”
The “Hand on the Throttle” experience is still occurring as well. According to their website, the registrant receives home study materials covering safety, locomotive theory, and operation. When they arrive for their session, they are instructed on locomotive operation and given a safety test. Then, the student gets to operate a steam locomotive under supervision of the engine crew. The experience is between Deep River and Goodspeed Station in Haddam this year.
Unfortunately, the Lady Katharine cruises are not running at this time because modifications for social distancing weren’t feasible for the large vessel explained Rob. They did complete upgrades to its galley and power generation systems though.
“We are taking very prudent and active steps to ensure the Essex Steam Train and Riverboat, and Lady Katharine Cruises, is prepared to weather the length of the pandemic intact,” said Rob, “so that when conditions improve, we can ramp back up to previous employment levels and positive economic impact. It’s a brave new world.”

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