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Autumn Colors Express marketing manager Lou Capwell shows off the Fox River Valley lounge car during a tour of the special passenger train assembled for the Autumn Colors Express on Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019, at the C&O Depot in Huntington. Due to toe COVID-19 pandemic, the Autumn Colors Express has been canceled for 2020.

Operators of the Autumn Colors Express excursion trains announced Monday that scheduled fall runs have been postponed to next year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

State restrictions limiting public gatherings to 25 people along with the previously announced cancellation of the Hinton Railroad Days festival made it clear postponement would be the best option, said Lou Capwell, spokesman for Railexco, the rail excursion and charter company that operates the train.

“With state mandates being what they are, right now is not the greatest situation for anybody,” Capwell said Monday. “We’re saddened by the postponement of this great event, and can’t wait to get back on the rails as soon as possible.”

Tickets held for excursions originally set for Oct. 22-25 will carry over to next year’s trips, tentatively scheduled for Oct. 21-24, 2021, Capwell said.

“The same (train) consist is guaranteed for next year,” he said.

Hinton Railroad Days organizers announced June 16 the cancellation of the festival in downtown Hinton. That event coincides with the excursion train runs and provides activities for passengers during the roughly three-hour layover in Hinton.

At the time, Capwell said Railexco management was working with incoming Hinton Mayor Jack Scott to provide at least some activities on those dates. However, Gov. Jim Justice’s recent executive order reducing the maximum size of public gatherings to 25 people made that unworkable.

This would have been the second year for the Autumn Colors Express, which operates on the same route from Huntington and Charleston to Hinton through the New River Gorge as the long-running but now-defunct New River Train.

Early last year, the Collis P. Huntington Railroad Historical Society announced the cancellation of 2019 runs of the New River Train after 52 years of continuous operation. The society cited more than $180,000 of operating losses the previous year, the result of higher fees and operational restrictions imposed by Amtrak.

That set off a scramble headed by U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin to find a new operator for the popular excursion trains. While negotiations with Railexco and Amtrak continued through spring and summer, the first runs of the Autumn Colors Express were not formally announced until early August with less than a three-month window to sell tickets.

Nonetheless, sales for the Friday-through-Sunday excursions were strong, prompting Railexco to expand to a planned Thursday run this year.

“We owe a huge debt of gratitude to our support from state and local agencies who have worked so hard to make this event a reality, and particularly to U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, whose office was instrumental in the success of our 2019 debut,” Capwell said.

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-1220 or follow @PhilKabler on Twitter.