After sitting idle for months during the shelter-in-place, Sunol’s beloved steam engines will roar into action again, beginning Sept. 12.
And staff is thrilled to be able to welcome travelers back for September weekends of special steam trips behind Columbia River Belt Line Railway #7, the Skookum.
“Volunteers will undergo a temperature check and health assessment before the start of their shifts and will also be required to wear face coverings and gloves,” said Henry Baum, president of the Pacific Locomotive Association, Inc. (PLA) and owner-operator of the Niles Canyon Railway. “Guest check-in will be conducted by staff at our depot ticket window, and face masks are required for all guests over the age of 2 years old. Guests must practice a 6-foot social distance while onboard, unless arriving as a group of no more than 12. Additionally, train capacity will be limited to no more than 50 percent of the available seats."
The history of trains in Niles Canyon dates back to the building of the original transcontinental railroad, but you don’t have to travel back in time to enjoy a ride through the countryside.
The Niles Canyon Railway has been providing train rides to the public year-round between Sunol, California and Niles in Fremont, since May 21, 1988, almost 122 years after the first Western Pacific Railroad Company excursion into the area.
“I (used to) drive through beautiful Niles Canyon every day,” said Baum. “I heard about the Niles Canyon Railway, and my wife Sandy and I came out one Sunday and took the excursion ride from Sunol. I learned the Niles Canyon Railway was operated completely by volunteers, and I thought that might be something I could look into, as my children were growing up and didn’t need or want Dad to be always around.”
After showing up one Saturday to see how he could help, Baum was immediately wrangled into the maintenance-of-way (MOW) group, which was continuing to replace the tracks going into the Niles District of Fremont.
“I had a ball doing physical labor and met some truly great people – I was hooked,” he said. “I spent virtually every Saturday doing that for the next 10 or 12 years, unless my job got in the way and required me to be out of the country.”
As the years rolled by for Baum, his love of the railway never subsided. As he dedicated so much time to the organization, those who came to visit and take a ride loved it just as much.
“My family of three are members and enjoy our Sunday rides,” said Natalie Rose Self in an online review. “We like to leave out of Sunol on the first ride of the day. I highly recommend riding the train and becoming a member. Thank you to all the volunteers that make this possible!”
Gail Hedberg, the railway’s director of marketing, further noted the most impressive quality about the organization is the volunteerism.
“For the last 59 years, our all-volunteer organization is recognized in the community for its leadership, commitment, and principal mentors and stewards for railway preservation,” Hedberg said. “More than ever in the digital world, our efforts are making a difference in connecting multigenerational families as they experience our heritage railroad in a unique outdoor classroom environment. We are a link for the next generation to discover California’s rich history and the impact railroading had on the communities they served. Our goal is to share the preservation story of the (engines) to inspire others and the future generation to become passionate about heritage railroading and the value of volunteering.”
Trains will run on Sept. 12 and 19, at 4 and 7 p.m.; and on Sept. 13 and 20, at 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Daytime trains are $30 for adults, and $20 for seniors age 62 and older and children age 3 to 12. Twilight trains at 7 p.m. are $40 for adults, and $30 for seniors age 62 and older and children age 3 to 12. A limited number of tickets available for each trip due to COVID-19 restrictions, and ticket sales are available only online.
Health safety measures while riding include:
- Hand sanitizing stations are now located throughout the property and on select railcars. Public restrooms remain available for handwashing.
- Time between train departures will be extended to allow time to thoroughly sanitize the train and to limit guest density throughout the boarding platform, porta-potty corral, Chinese Railroad Workers Exhibit, and retail spaces.
- Retail transactions will be be cashless and shields have been installed at retail registers to protect guests and volunteers.
- Frequent and enhanced cleaning and sanitization will be occurring throughout the property and railcars, with focus on high-touch areas.
- Signage throughout the property has been installed to remind everyone of mandated social distancing, use of face masks, and good hand hygiene.