One of the fastest-growing tourism businesses in the state continues to be the Durbin & Greenbrier Valley Railroad, with its tremendously popular Polar Express holiday train and an ambitious plan to link the area's tourist destinations with a railroad loop.
"We're growing in the 20 percentile every year," said John Smith, president of the Durbin & Greenbrier Valley Railroad, which operates the Durbin Rocket, Cheat Mountain Salamander and Tygart Flyer excursion trains.
The railroad had 42,000 total passengers last year, up from about 36,000 in 2011. Smith anticipates 48,0000 passengers will buy tickets this year.
Smith's railroad, based out of the Elkins Depot, brings thousands of tourists to the area every year.
"A little over 50 percent of the people who rode the trains last year are not from West Virginia," he said, noting that many of those tourists stayed in Elkins overnight and bought meals and shopped in the area.
"We advertise heavily in the Pittsburgh area and other out-of-state markets," Smith said, adding that online advertising, particularly on Facebook and other social media, is key to "getting the word out."
He said the railroad has booked 250 buses into the area so far in 2013, and estimated 350 buses will be booked before the end of the year.
The Polar Express has been a remarkable success. All 9,303 tickets available for the holiday train were sold last year, and Smith is adding 5,000 tickets this year, for a total of 14,300.
"We've already sold 7,000 tickets this year," Smith said.
To keep up with demand, the railroad has been adding some new pieces.
"We've bought some new cars, and we're renovating some of the cars we have," Smith said. "We added another locomotive as a backup, and for freight hauling."
Last year, Smith presented to state officials his plan to create the Highland Adventure of Mountain & Rail, a 90-mile excursion train loop that could be used by eight local trains.
Smith said the loop is projected to attract 150,000 tourists in its first year, and create $50 million in economic impact to the counties involved.
"In Charleston, we're getting tremendous support for the plan," Smith told The Inter-Mountain recently. "I haven't yet run into any negativity from state government. Even though it's a tough year, they're looking for how they can make things happen that will be good for the state.
"Del. Bill Hartman has made great progress for us," he said. "He's been a big-time supporter, and Agriculture Commissioner Walt Helmick as well. The West Virginia Tourism Commission has also been great."
The Highland Adventure loop would run on the existing West Virginia Central Railroad tracks, which are owned by the state. The Durbin & Greenbrier Valley Railroad trains and the Cass Scenic Railroad currently run on those tracks.
The proposal also would recycle part of the West Virginia Central tracks, which were rendered unusable after the 1985 flood. Those tracks, stretching from Spruce in Pocahontas County to Bergoo in Webster County, would be taken up and used to connect Durbin in Pocahontas County to Glady, Bemis and Elkins to the north and Cass to the south.
With the addition of the recycled tracks, trains could run from Elkins southeast to Bemis, Glady, Durbin and Cass, then west to Spruce, then north to Cheat Bridge, High Falls and Bemis, and then return to Elkins.
The route would allow eight trains to make daily departures from eight different towns.
"Right now we're having an engineering design study done to determine the feasibility of the project," Smith said. "It should be finished by mid-June. Then we'll look at how the state wants to move forward."
Smith said the project has an anticipated 2015 completion date.
"We feel like we're right on schedule, but it's still in the study phase," he said.
Smith continues to add new special train events, inspired by the success of the Polar Express.
"We're really advertising heavily toward families and younger couples," he said. "If we can get them hooked on the trains, there's a lot more for them to do in this area."
Special events offered by the railroad this year include:
Smith said the railroad creates package deals with local theaters, and has added a new reservation system that allows packaging with other companies over the Internet.
Information about the railroad is available at 1-877-686-7245 or www.mountainrail.com.