Maybe passenger train service will never equal its popularity of past generations, but a comeback from virtually dormancy has occurred. More people are hearing the familiar boarding wail of railroad conductors as they visit small passenger tourist lines across the nation and even abroad.
One needs only to visit Jim Thorpe any weekend between May and December to see the long lines of people waiting to board the Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway to know how popular the trains have become.
"Attendance has been growing every year," said Laura Kennedy, director of passenger service for the railway. "We get people from all over riding with us. This year we've had people from England ride the train."
Last week, we met people aboard Train 426 (which takes people from the train station to the Old Penn Haven Junction and back) from Boston, Nebraska, and New Mexico.
Several of the trips were filled to capacity. The riders ranged from toddlers to senior citizens.
"This is a gem for this community," said Carl Mendez of Hoboken, N.J. "These are beautiful, well-maintained rail cars. The reputation of the Lehigh Gorge ride is widespread. This is about the fifth time in three years that I've been coming here. I love the town and never visit without taking the train ride."
The train ride is about 16 miles round-trip and takes about an hour.
Jim Thorpe isn't the only town that has tourism railroads. You can ride passenger trains in Kempton, Wellsboro, Strasburg in Lancaster County, and, of course, Steamtown in Scranton.
Older folks can still remember the trains which had daily commutes from the local area to Allentown, Philadelphia, and New York on a daily basis. Such train service came to an end in the early 1960s.
For youngsters, the PBS show "Thomas the Tank Engine" has created a surge of interest in trains.
The Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway is a sister company of the Reading & Northern Railroad, based in Port Clinton, Schuylkill County.
The Reading & Northern Railroad is a privately held railroad company which operates in eight counties. They are Bradford, Carbon, Schuylkill, Luzerne, Northumberland, Lehigh, Lackawanna, Berks, and Wyoming.
Under the leadership of chairman and CEO Andy M. Muller Jr., the company has expanded its operations over the last 26 years and has grown into one of the premier railroads in the state, with both freight services and passenger excursion operations. Currently the railroad employs about 150 people.
Muller began operating the Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway after the late George Hart ceased tourist rail operations in Jim Thorpe. Hart ran sporadic scenic train rides. Since the acquisition, a regular schedule was developed.
Originally that schedule was only Saturdays and Sundays. Last year Friday runs were added during the summer months. This year, as the wave of popularity intensified, Thursday rides were added for the summer months.
While the majority of the rides are on diesel-pulled trains through the gorgeous Lehigh Gorge to Penn Haven Junction, there are several special events.
On Sept. 4, 5, and 6, "Steam Days" will occur during which a steam engine, built in 1928 by Baldwin Locomotive Works, will be utilized.
Old timers appreciate the steam train since the former Lehigh Valley Railroad retired its last steam engine on Sept. 14, 1951.
During the first three weekends in October, there will be rides from the Jim Thrope Train Station to the Hometown High Bridge, an 1881 wooden span that is 156 feet high 20 feet higher than the famed Brooklyn Bridge.
After Thanksgiving, there are special Santa rides which obviously appeal to the youngsters.
Passengers on the train are given a general synopsis of the town of Jim Thorpe, receive a history lesson about local railroading, and are called attention to various sites along the trip.
Rides are generally taken on either red standard passenger cars built between 1917 and 1920, or blue standard passenger cars constructed in the early 1930s by Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corporation for the Reading Company.
The riders also have the option of an open air car or a caboose, both which fill to capacity on most of the runs.
Regular train rides are every Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday in August at 11 a.m. and 1 and 3 p.m. After Labor Day, the trains revert to a Saturday and Sunday schedule. The Special Steam Days are Sept. 4, 5, and 6. Hometown High Bridge rides are the first three weekends in October. Tickets can be purchased on the premises. For more information, phone Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway at 570-325-8485 or visit www.lgsry.com.