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.”
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:
- 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.
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.