Many people are familiar with the Conway Scenic Railroad, which for many years has traveled the Mount Washington Valley rails from North Conway to Crawford Notch each summer and fall. And perhaps they have heard of, or even remember, the snow trains that ran from Boston to North Conway from the 1930s to the 1950s.
In 1931 the Boston & Maine (B&M) Railroad had an innovative idea that proved to propel the winter sports industry in the Eastern Slope region of New Hampshire to the forefront of skiing in this country. Snow trains already had been successful in Europe and Canada, and with winter sports beginning to take off in northern New England and B&M looking to increase ridership, executives saw an opportunity. The first snow train left Boston’s North Station in January 1931 for destinations in central New Hampshire. The train was a huge success that winter, and in the following season, operators added a trip to North Conway to usher in the beginning of the winter sports boom in the area.
The trips attracted the gamut of riders from families with young children to the 20s and 30s single crowd to the older generation, some of whom did not ski but just rode the rails for the experience. The influx of people was of course a big boon to the region. Already a summer destination, the Mount Washington Valley was now experiencing a vital economic growth in the winter. These once popular excursions brought hundreds of skiers to the slopes of Cranmore each winter, helping to popularize skiing in the area. But once the trains stopped running, perhaps due to the rising popularity of the automobile, a little piece of romantic history was lost.
Last winter, the Conway Scenic Railroad decided to bring some of that romanticism and history back, with a snow train from its station in North Conway along eight miles of rails to Attitash Ski Area in Bartlett. It proved to be a big success. The trains ran daily for the two weeks around the Presidents Week holiday. It was a popular and successful experiment.
“We did much better than expected,” said Conway Scenic marketing manager Brian Solomon. “We had targeted about 20 passengers per train and actually ended up with about 40.”
This winter, more cars have been added, and an expanded train will run weekends from Jan. 9 until the end of February, with extra days around Martin Luther King weekend and daily during school vacation weeks — the last two weeks of February.
“Guests from last winter gave enthusiastic reviews, saying they were delighted with riding in the coaches. This year we decided to upgrade the experience and add first class,” Solomon said.
There will be five cars, so about 120-140 people per trip can be accommodated on the train, about half of the pre-COVID capacity but considerably more than last year. The exact number depends on the size of the groups. This year, in response to the pandemic and with an eye toward safety for all, the cars have been modified for social distancing. Dividers have been added to separate one party from another, and compartments with doors have been built to give passengers a better level of safety and let them feel more comfortable riding the train. Passengers will be in compartments only with members of their own group.
There will be three classes of service this winter. Premium class utilizes the Budd Vista Dome, an elegant car with a 1950s vibe featuring a glass bubble top dome with elevated seating and panoramic views. There are two of these. The Rhonda Lee (all the cars have names) features seating around tables and in summer is used as a dining car. The Dorthea Mae has a lower-level screening room with comfortable club chairs and a projection of what’s ahead.
First Class has a more traditional train setup with upgraded and more comfortable, padded seating than coach, while also being modified for COVID protocols. The coaches are basic train cars, nothing fancy but also modified to conform with social distancing. All the cars are 1950s era, or earlier. It is heritage, or antique, equipment.
“People have asked why we don’t modernize the trains,” said Solomon. “We want it to be comfortable, even luxurious, but still authentic. We want to give people the experience of the golden age of railroad.”
He continued, “We are always looking for ways to make our railroad more relevant, not just to our guests but to the Mount Washington Valley as a whole. So we want to not just improve our business but make the whole experience in the valley better for everyone.”
The train runs weekends during January and February with five trips a day, departing North Conway at 9 and 11 a.m., and 1, 3 and 5 p.m. Trains depart Attitash for the return trip one hour later. While some people may take the train just for the experience of riding the rails, others use it as an easy, unique and fun method of transportation to the ski area. Some may ride up on the first train and return on the last while enjoying a full day of skiing and perhaps a little après. Others may ride up just for lunch, or never get off the train at all.
Solomon says more people do excursions, take the train just for the railroad experience, than for skiing. However, for skiers staying in North Conway, the train provides convenient transportation without them having to use their car and avoiding the parking hassle that sometimes occurs on busy days. Also, if one member of a group doesn’t ski, they can be left with the use of the car while the others are on the slopes.
With five trips a day, if some members of a group or family want to ski less, they can return early with the others remaining to last chair. Guests staying at Attitash also can take advantage of the train to ride into North Conway for shopping or dining. Either way, it’s not just a convenience but an experience in itself.
It is best to make advance reservations to ensure a seat and arrive at the station at least 15 minutes before departure to get settled. Reserve online or call the ticket office at 603-356-5251.
More: New England Ski Journal TV takes viewers aboard the Conway Scenic Railroad.