“There is a strong pent-up demand – we can see it in our online ticket sales,” CEO Ken Buehler told the News Tribune. “I am optimistic that this summer will be very good.”
The first train of the season and weekend leaves the depot in downtown Duluth at 1 p.m. Friday. The seven-day-a-week operation resumed on May 28.
Trains will continue to have 75% capacity as a sign of pandemic comfort.
“We’ve gotten used to social distancing, and we want to give people more space on trains to move around and be comfortable,” Buehler said.
The railway will review its capacity restriction on July 1, with a possibility of reverting to 100% depending on COVID-19 developments.
The railway set a record in 2018 with 110,000 passengers, and followed in 2019 with 90,000 additional passengers. The pandemic summer saw the figure drop to 30,000 in one year which did not include the popular Thomas the Tank Engine attraction, which was canceled.
This attraction, which ran the first two weekends in August, sold out two weeks ago when tickets went on sale at 50% capacity.
But with the lifting of the state’s capacity restrictions on May 28, it allowed the North Shore Scenic Railroad to aim higher.
“It’s a huge event for us,” Buehler said. “The beauty of a train is that we can add an extra car or two if necessary.”
Normally, the railroad trains had already been running on weekends for over a month. But the railroad took advantage of the extra time to re-welcome and offer refresher training to its volunteer operating crews – some of whom decided to take off last summer due to health concerns.
North Shore Scenic Railroad Operations Manager Scott Leibel operates one of the railroad’s locomotives on Thursday, May 20, 2021, as the railroad prepares for the start of its season. (Steve Kuchera / [email protected])
Buehler said the railroad would continue with its COVID-19 deep clean-up protocols. Only one staff member or volunteer tested positive for the virus last year, and runners enjoyed seeing the staff and volunteers take potty training seriously, Buehler said.
The railway operates using historic rail equipment from the Lake Superior Railroad Museum’s collection, which is also open inside the depot for individual tours seven days a week.
A combined ticket allows guests and passengers to view the museum and take the train.
New on the railroad this summer will be the SkyView Full Dome, which will be used in first-class service on the daily Duluth Zephyr trains to Lakeside and back, a 75-minute excursion.
The Two Harbors train will also provide first-class service in the railway’s existing dome car. Also this year, the murder of the Disoriented Express mystery trains and the elegant dinner trains.
The SkyView dome car will allow 60 riders to sit under a glass ceiling – more than twice as many seats under glass as the railroad’s existing dome car.
The railroad bought one of the few SkyView cars earlier this year. He is currently being transported to Duluth.
Buehler explained that the railroad invested in the car because of the popularity of its existing dome, which often sells out.
“There were only 30 of the SkyView cars built, and that’s what we went out and got,” Buehler said. “We have found that our first class service is a way for us to grow our business. We are a very successful attraction, but our years of gigantic growth are behind us. We are now growing in tune with the market and finding that the elasticity of our product is top of the line first class. “
North Shore Scenic Railroad Deputy Director of Operations Zach Start signals engineer he is approaching a chain of cars on Thursday, May 20, 2021 (Steve Kuchera / [email protected])
The SkyView car was one of 11 cars from the same owner that all hit the market, presenting a tantalizing opportunity. Asked about the price the railway paid for the car, Buehler replied: “What they wanted to charge was $ 860,000 – we didn’t pay about that. “
The North Shore Scenic Railroad will run Friday through Sunday at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m., with its music and pizza trains leaving at 6 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. See duluthtrains.com for a full schedule.
Buehler noted that Duluth was one of the only communities in the country to own two scenic railroads. The city’s other scenic railroad, the Lake Superior-Mississippi Railroad, runs along the St. Louis River in western Duluth, but is not operational in 2021 due to site clean-up of the US Steel Superfund along its tracks. It will resume in 2022.
“A lot of rail enthusiasts make sure to ride on both railroads,” Buehler said. “I guess we’ll pick up some more stuff.”