May 2020 Wheel Report
Although new to this responsibility, I am following in the tradition of Conway Scenic’s wheel reports. You may be familiar with my railroad writing as I’ve been supplying railroad literature and photographs to a variety of commercial publications since the 1980s. In the mid-1990s, I served as the Editor of Pacific RailNews and as an Associate Editor to both Passenger Train Journal and Vintage Rails, magazines published by Pentrex Publishing. Since that time, I have authored a variety of books, including several titles on steam power and EMD diesel locomotives. Since 2017, I’ve supplied a monthly column to TRAINS Magazine. The May 2020 TRAINS includes an 8-page feature on Conway Scenic.
In the summer of 2019, Dave Swirk hired me to help with some media projects, and then brought me on full-time in December to fill Susan Logan’s role as Manager for Marketing and Events. On the request of Dave Swirk and 470’s Alan Small, I’ve taken over the responsibility of the railroad’s Wheel Report and I hope to continue this on a monthly basis.
My first big project at Conway Scenic was to help organize and promote our re-invented Snow Trains that ran February 15-29, 2020 from North Conway to Attitash, along with our one-day Cupid’s Express Valentine’s night dinner train. I launched a locally focused, but multi-media advertising campaign which contributed toward making these winter excursions resounding successes. In the fifteen days of the Snow Trains, we carried nearly twice the number of passengers than anticipated by my internal ridership targets. More to the point, our guests and crews were delighted with the experience and we were able to attract many new riders that had never before experienced our trains in motion.
To help keep the line clear both in anticipation of our Winter excursions and between snowfalls during the weeks of operation, we operated several work extras to clear snow. These ran from North Conway to just east of Rogers Crossing of Rt 302 in Bartlett. While in some cases operating GP7 573 was sufficient to clear the line, however as the snow deepened, we needed more space to move it out of the way. So, on three occasions, Conway Scenic brought out the vintage former Central Vermont Russel snowplow, which proved to be an excellent tool for clearing the line. This was the first time in several years that the Russel was employed in the capacity for which it was designed.
A the end of April, I asked our shop foreman, Louis Edmonds, to give me a status report of the various locomotives on the property and regarding Conway Scenic Railroad’s active fleet; GP35 216, GP38 252, and 470 Club’s F7A 4266 have been idle since they put to bed for the winter in late 2019. These have been stored serviceable outside the roundhouse waiting to return to regular duty. GP7 573 and GP9 1751 were active through February, working on the Valentine’s Day Cupid Express and Snow Trains revenue passenger extras and snow removal work extras. After conclusion of these moves, locomotive 1751 was drained and ‘put to bed,’ after Snow Train, but has since been returned to service to assist with crew training, operation of maintenance trains, and to serve as a yard switcher among other duties. GP7 573 has been kept warm in the roundhouse and had remained available for switching moves and crew training filming. However, as of this writing, both 573 is undergoing its 92-day inspection and minor repairs to prepare it for the Summer season.
In February, the roundhouse crew prepared Budd RDC 23 Millie for Snow Train service, which included replacing the brake valves and completion of required brake inspections, plus the construction and installation of ski racks by master carpenter, George Small, that also involved removal of a few seats in the car to make space. After receiving a fresh coat of paint on the ends, the RDC was used on three occasions for filming of Snow Train promotional material, ultimately the decision was made not to use the car for revenue Snow Train service. From the first day of Snow Train service, passenger numbers exceeded what the RDC could comfortably handle. There were also some concerns about the effects of extremely cold weather on the RDC’s performance. Once the locomotive powered train with culinary facilities was introduced and its revenue potential demonstrated, Conway Scenic opted to keep this train running, leaving the RDC for back up. On May 14, we took the RDC to Conway for training and media purposes and to open the line in anticipation of our eventual reopening for public excursions. Presently the RDC sits out on the short track near the station, where it awaits its call for service in the Summer 2020 season.
Steam locomotive 7470 has been in the roundhouse undergoing its annual inspection and related work. In April it passed a preliminary hydrostatic test and other inspections in preparation for an FRA inspection. It was undergoing some minor repair in relation to the FRA inspection and other routine maintenance, and this included construction of bushings for the front and rear couplers and coupler pockets in order to correct for wear stemming from the engine’s many years of operation. We anticipate that the 7470 will be in great shape to resume operations this summer although we do not have any specific plan to operate the engine as of this writing.
470 Club’s Boston & Maine 4268 occupies stall 4 of the roundhouse, where over the winter, Cory Fothergill and Wayne Allen have continued their restoration work. The parts needed for former Maine Central 501 will be inspected and inventoried as the next logical step for eventual restoration to service.
Also, in the roundhouse, is our former Pennsylvania Railroad 1898-built Pullman open observation car Gertrude Emma. This has been getting needed attention from the shop crew that includes installation of a new front-end sill and the reworking of all the “clerestory lights” (upper, outer windows). The car body from windowsills down, have been sanded and will be repainted in green along with all exterior lettering. Window frame exteriors and related areas and all varnished portions of the platform have been sanded and are being re-varnished. In addition, the car will receive the annually brake work.
The shop has also been making necessary repairs to various pieces of the maintenance-of-way equipment that are used to keep the railroad open through the winter, as well as for Spring and Summer track work projects.
The roundhouse itself has had new wallboard and insulation installed in stalls three and four, in conjunction with a general tidying up of equipment in those areas.
Cinders the Cat
Cinders, the roundhouse cat, is the shop’s mascot and one of the most popular members of Conway Scenic’s full time staff. She is well cared for by the roundhouse shop crew and earns her keep by eliminating vermin. She often sleeps on a cushion located in stalls one and two, and keeps an eye on the equipment, including steam locomotive 7470, which is among her favorite perches. From time to time she takes forays into the yard to survey the property and mark her territory. A few weeks ago she was the star of a short video that we posted on Facebook showing her inspecting the locomotives and dreaming of her day as Conway Scenic’s first feline engineer!
Unfortunately, the biggest news affecting Conway Scenic have been the knock-on effects of the global Covid-19 Pandemic. Luckily this did not impact our Snow Train operations. However, by mid-March, the side effects of the virus had started to take their toll. One of our first moves was to close the gift shop to the public. About the same time, we took the prudent measure to request that all employees returning to the area, following travel outside the region, take a two-week quarantine before returning to the property. This was consistent with policies elsewhere and was deemed necessary to help protect our more vulnerable staff members from contracting the virus. During this period, we have regularly sanitized surfaces in the station and made hand sanitizer available to staff and visitors. Among the great difficulties in coping with this disease, are its long incubation periods and its reported highly contagious nature, which includes the presumed ability for asymptomatic people to carry and transmit it without displaying symptoms themselves.
On Thursday, March 26, 2020, Governor Sununu issued a statewide ‘stay at home’ order that mandated closure of businesses deemed non-essential from midnight on Friday March 27th until at least May 4, 2020. We complied with that order and this resulted in the temporary layoff of the railroad’s full-time staff and the postponement of our Spring reopening, which included the canceling of our planned rules classes and planned training. However, a few days after the initial order, Conway Scenic was able to get an exemption to allow the return of a handful of core staff in order to maintain key assets and continue to prepare the railroad for its postponed reopening. However, staff on the property working under this temporary exemption, have to and continue to adhere to strict new safety measures that include social distancing.
Among the changes that coincided with our temporary closure, was that Mike Lacey accepting the new position of Trainmaster, which he will hold in addition to his duties as the Road Foreman of Engines. Mike’s responsibilities now encompass the training, compliance, and assignment of train crews, including engineers, conductors, trainmen and steam fireman. Mike has put together a new Train Service Handbook. Also, Mike and I have produced a Rules Class video to help train crews and provide them with detailed information on our rulebook to assist in preparation for taking our rules test.
We are making the most of the forced closure by continuing necessary repairs to equipment, engaging in the planning of a comprehensive training program, and the filming training videos to engage our train crews and others in place of live classes. George Small has been working to install compartment seating in our 1133 Mount Washington passenger car and considering similar arrangements for some of our other cars. Compartment seating is an experiment intended to give vulnerable guests and those with safety/heath concerns a more secure traveling environment.
As of this writing, we do not know when we will be allowed to resume operations, nor when conditions will allow us to return to a full normal operating schedule, yet we are using this down time to put Conway Scenic in a much better position to accommodate its guests and improve the overall experience at the railroad. When the time comes to reopen the railroad, we will follow all recommended safety protocols to ensure the safety of our guests and employees. We look forward to our reopening and hope to see you this year.