New River Train 10-20-2018: Twenty-Nine Private Cars sailing through West Virginia

I’m currently sitting on a massive backlog of railfanning pixels to post, and I figured I’d start with the most recent batch and try to work backwards.

Earlier this year, Amtrak announced that they would no longer operate Charter or special trains, and placed additional restrictions on the movement of privately owned passenger cars, colloquially known as Private Varnish, or “PV’s.” This put the famed New River Train in jeopardy, until the state of West Virginia expressed to Amtrak officials their displeasure with the potential loss of multiple millions of dollars of tourist revenue that the excursion service brings in over the course of two weekends. On that basis, Amtrak agreed to run the train in 2018. In recent years, the train changed from using a mix of private cars and Amtrak coaches to using ALL private varnish, as Amtrak found they were running low on spare equipment. This meant that nearly thirty private cars would make their way from across the United States to gather in Huntington, WV, where the New River Train begins and ends its day-long round-trips to Hinton. However, Huntington is an “intermediate” stop for Amtrak, and the new rules regarding the movement of private cars state that such cars can only be added or removed from Amtrak trains at terminal stations. As a result, this year, most of the varnish gathered at Chicago Union Station, then traveled as a unit with three dedicated locomotives to Huntington, WV (aside from the first leg of the journey, where the consist was attached to the Hoosier State service, which terminates in Indiana). Once the consist arrived in Huntington, some minor switching was performed to arrange the cars in the desired order, as well as add a couple of private cars that reside in Huntington, along with one or two that arrived by freight train. Given the concern that this may be the last year the train operates after a 50 year history, I made my own way to West Virginia to photograph the popular excursion as it passed through the beautiful countryside and the famed New River Gorge.

I woke up late on Friday, so not much railfanning was accomplished on the way to my hotel room in Charleston, WV, but I did stop in Alderson to eat lunch and saw one coal train, which had mid-train helpers; both are things I rarely see in my home railfanning turf of Northern Virginia.

I woke up relatively early on Saturday to drive 45 minutes from Charleston to my first spot of the day at Barboursville, WV. The drive was nerve-wracking, as road construction put me further behind schedule than I would have liked. Still, I arrived with about ten minutes to spare, and although my still images didn’t turn out due to the cloudy weather, I shot a decent video of the train and got a horn salute from the engineer!

The highways do not follow the railroads very well in this area, and experienced railfans advise that chasing the New River Train is almost impossible. Because of this, my second photo spot (and last one of the Eastbound leg of the trip) was in Thurmond, WV; two hours from Barboursville, which required driving on some VERY narrow twisting and winding roads. I arrived with perhaps 30 minutes to spare, and a small group of railfans had already formed a photo line, which I joined. The train was traveling rather slowly through this area, which meant I was able to get a picture of ALMOST every car on the train. Apologies to the J. Pickney Henderson, I was waving to some passengers and came in late on the capture button.

While the other railfans departed to continue their chase, I chose to stay behind and photograph an incredibly common, but rare to me, scene: a coal train passing through Thurmond.

Although an R.J. Corman employee informed me that a cut of coal cars would be coming down the branch (seen in the lower right of the last photo), I got bored of waiting, and saw no movement on the branch as I drove away from Thurmond. After another hour of stressful West Virginia back-road driving, I arrived in Hinton just in time to see the locomotives coupling up to the other end of the train. This meant I got to view the “egg test.” A few years ago, the organizers of the NRT started placing an egg on the coupler of the last car; the challenge to the engineer is to couple up to the train of vintage passenger cars so gently that the egg does not break. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to see if the egg survived the ordeal or not.

I briefly walked around the Railroad Days festival at Hinton, but I was too broke to sample any of the local foods or arts & crafts. So, I departed for yet more nerve-wracking West Virginia back-road driving to reach my final photo spot of the day at Hawks Nest, WV, where the National Park Service has an overlook of the railroad bridge across the gorge.

While awaiting the arrival of the now-westbound New River train, the rumble of an eastbound coal train echoed off the gorge from miles away. The downside was that the coal train went by on the bridge track, diminishing my hopes for capturing the entire NRT in one shot.

After the passing of the coal train, more waiting ensued. Tourists came and went, including a gaggle of high school girls taking their homecoming photos, and while I waited I briefly turned my camera towards the many birds flying above the gorge.

I’d like to say “I GUESS THAT’S WHY THEY CALL IT HAWKS NEST, HAHAHAHA” but… this is a vulture.

Finally, after nearly 90 minutes of waiting, a glimpse of headlights through the trees upriver alerted myself and the other railfans to the impending arrival of the New River Train.

Getting back to the interstate from Hawks Nest required one more hour of driving back-country roads, and the West Virginia interstates weren’t as well-laid-out as the ones in Virginia. I made it about 3 hours on the interstate before I gave in and took a nap before the final 2-hour push home. A stressful trip, but certainly worthwhile to see a beautiful collection of vintage passenger cars among gorge-ous scenery. While this was my first time seeing the New River Train, I am hopeful that it won’t be the last. A YouTube video is linked below, and as always, thank you for reading!