More than 7 years after the federal government forced VIA Rail to sidetrack the Evangeline, the railliner between Halifax and Yarmouth, a new passenger train is operating in the Annapolis Valley.
The Windsor and Hantsport Railway's Evangeline Express began service between Windsor and Wolfville on July 5th. The train includes a former VIA day-niter, and two open-air "tourist cars", obtained from the Smokey Mountain line in South Carolina. Nominal capacity for the train is 175 people, depending on the size of those people. Many trips have operated with more than 200 people aboard. The consist also includes the railway's caboose and has a locomotive at each end.
The regular schedule for the Evangeline Express was 2 round trips between Windsor and Wolfville, operating on Sundays only. The initial schedule included 3 trips, but ridership on the first run was fairly low, so the schedule was changed to 2 round trips. The schedule permitted people to leave the train at intermediate stops, and resume their journey on a later train. Some people in the Windsor and Hantsport areas have been using the train as transportation to attend plays at the Atlantic Theatre Festival in Wolfville.
On the first weekend, the train operated both Saturday and Sunday, in conjunction with Acadian Days at the Grand Pre historic site. There were also 4 trips between Wolfville and Grand Pre on the Saturday of Wolfville's Mud Creek Days, and 4 trips between Windsor and Mantua on the Saturday of Windsor's Sam Slick Days.
Staffing for the train, approximately 8 university or high school students, was provided through tourism or business agencies in the area between Windsor and Wolfville. These agencies also provided information and promotion for the train, through the local tourist bureaus.
Although the regular schedule for the Evangeline Express expired August 31st, there will likely be a number of special trips. Windsor and Hantsport manager Jim Taylor says they are willing to operate the train for special occasions, if they can do that without disrupting their normal operations. Taylor says they get a number of requests each week from groups wanting to charter the train.
There have been suggestions there could be "fall foliage" specials, "picnic" specials, and special trains to things like the Apple Blossom Festival, and sporting events. The July 10, 1997 edition of "Maine Rail Watch" commented on a release from the railway. "The written description points out three benefits from such services: cash contribution, buildup of goodwill toward the railroad, and selling the railroad to shippers. 'Our sales and marketing staff for freight traffic could also use this opportunity to entertain the local clients and vendors...'"
Now for some editorializing:
Although the Evangeline Express is not a typical passenger train, it has created interest in rail transportation in this area. I had the good fortune to work on the train several times during the summer. I talked with many people who enjoyed their ride, and who were considering a trip on VIA as a result. For some of these people, it was their first train experience. Many people suggested there should be service to Halifax.
From discussions with some of the people involved with Iron Road Railways, and the Windsor and Hantsport, I get the impression that this could happen. Don't look for it overnight, though. The Windsor and Hantsport is in the freight business, but at the same time, it is a fairly aggressive operation. The company is willing to explore ventures that would improve its financial performance. If their research indicates operating a passenger service would return a benefit, then I expect they would operate that service.
In the meantime, expect the Evangeline Express back next year, with improvements. ---