'Our excursion trains are an experience, stepping back in time and sharing that experience with friends and family, and reliving how people lived in the 1950s or the 1920s,' Conway Scenic Railroad co-owner Dave Swirk said.
It's a trip that 135,000 people a year take now. But by cultivating the cruise business, Swirk models his ambitions on the Alaska Railroad and is investing every year to grow scale.
Conway's new dedicated cruise train will consist of four first-class, air-conditioned cars with total capacity for 364 passengers. With the departure timed to ships' arrivals, the railroad can accommodate lines and customize the experience for their guests.
Alpine peaks, lakes and streams
The classic rail cars pulled by a vintage locomotive climb into the White Mountain National Forest with its alpine peaks, lakes and streams, black bears, moose, deer and other wildlife. Mount Washington, at 6,288 feet/1,917 meters, is the highest peak in the US Northeast.
It is an eight-hour rail-bus experience, fully narrated. Cruisers embark Conway's own motor coaches at Portland's Ocean Gateway or Ocean Terminal for an hour's drive through the scenic countryside into North Conway, New Hampshire, a 'quaint, Norman Rockwell village' of copper steeples and wooden storefronts, to board the train from a picturesque 1874 station on the town square.
The train ascends into the White Mountains on a 2.5-hour journey of nonstop scenery through forest, over river rapids and gorges, across steep trestles, past waterfalls, a ski resort and historic homes and lodges.
For the dedicated cruise train, the railroad plans to offer hot-plated lunches in dome-car dining, with chefs working in a fully equipped kitchen car. Special experiences can be tailored for each brand, for example, a micro-brews tasting.
High up at Crawford Notch, passengers disembark and return to buses for a faster (40-minute) ride down, with different scenery, stopping for an hour at North Conway to explore its one-of-a-kind shops including an old-time general store.
'The bus ride itself is awesome,' Swirk said, as it winds down through the mountains and, between North Conway and Portland, passes through countryside of forests and fields, with horses, barns, churches, old graveyards, farmers' markets and art fairs.
'It's one of the most famous places in the world to see the fall colors, and the train makes it easy and convenient,' said Brad Ball, a public relations executive with Silversea Cruises whose family frequented the area when he was growing up in New York.
'The autumn colors in the White Mountains are amazing,' Ball said. 'Every September and October people from all over the world go there. With the variety of trees, the colors are like nothing you see anywhere else. It's really dazzling.'
Ball added the area has 'year-round beauty.' His family visited in the spring and summer for hiking, in the fall for the foliage and in the winter for skiing, staying at Mount Washington Hotel, site of the 1944 Bretton Woods monetary conference and listed in the National Register of Historic Places. In the 1800s, before air conditioning, the affluent would take multi-month excursions to the area's grand hotels.
On a recent trip aboard the Conway Scenic Railroad, Seatrade Cruise News met people of all ages, from a young couple with their two little boys dressed in old-fashioned suits to celebrate the 3-year-old's birthday, to multigenerational families, teens and young adults, couples and seniors.
A Japanese traveler with a group of friends from Boston called the trip 'Astonishing!'
Historic rail cars
In North Conway, Swirk proudly showed off a rail yard that now numbers 25 cars including Rhonda Lee, named for his wife. Originally the Silver Buckle, it was part of the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad's Denver Zephyr. Art Deco in style, it has plush lavender seats, green walls and polished steel details, and the railings to the dome are topped with lights.
Another dome car, Leslie Ann, is named for Swirk's business partner's wife. $1.4m went into renovating this beauty, resplendent in rich wood paneling, sconces and the Parisian bronze bust of a woman.
The 1898 Pullman sleeper-parlor-observation car Gertrude Emma with its woodwork, arched windows and ornate outdoor platform is the oldest train car in regular operation in the US.
Cruise ships are flocking to Portland, a trendy small city of fishing wharves, cobblestone streets, top restaurants, breweries and a major art museum, in part due to uncertainty over nearby Bar Harbor's plan to cap passengers at 1,000 a day.
2024 is scheduled to be a record season for Portland, with 143 ship calls and just over 230,000 passengers expected.
So many visitors puts pressure on the Old Port area so by adding the scenic railway tour, 'it's allowing Portland to accommodate more ships and people in a day ... to maximize their infrastructure,' Swirk said.
'By offering something. new and extremely unique to the passengers, we will enhance Portland,' added Tom Spina, a Conway Scenic Railroad consultant who brings expertise from the Alaska Railroad and key port operations roles at Carnival. Corp., Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings and NYCruise.
Acquires VIP Tours
Swirk's group, and Spina, just acquired Portland's VIP Tours with its eight tour buses, two transit buses and five shuttle vans, adding to the three 56-seat buses purchased earlier.
'By us being flexible with our fleet of big and small buses, we can provide cruise lines better pricing,' Spina said. Plus, with the extra coaches, 'We're looking to create new and exciting tours in and around Maine, as well as the train.'
Royal Caribbean first on board
Conway Scenic Railroad first began testing its combination bus-rail journey just a couple months ago with Royal Caribbean, since the line's ships spent 10 hours in port, enough time to operate the tour. Starting with a few dozen people on the first outing, numbers steadily grew to a total of 649 and would have been higher but two ship calls were canceled for weather.
Marlene Barzana and Bertha Valentin, Royal Caribbean account executives in global tour operations, 'deserve a lot of credit,' Spina said. 'Marlene knew it would be something new and exciting and those two guided the entire process because we didn't do it through a traditional tour operator.'
Instead, Conway designed the tour, arranged the buses, brought in guides and put senior people on the pier. Swirk himself acccompanied every cruise departure this year, while cruise industry veteran Sandra Needham was on the pier and met with shore excursions managers and sent them on the tours to understand the experience.
Their feedback has been enthusiastic. As Spina said, 'We want to execute flawlessly.'
The success of this first short trial period convinced Swirk to designate a cruise train for 2024.
'Our company is all about growth,' said Needham, sales executive, Conway Scenic Railroad, who helped put Portland on the cruise charts in the 2000s and spurred more tour content as executive director of Discover Portland & Beyond and the city's cruise ship marketing manager.
She noted how Swirk and his partners in this family-owned enterprise proactively purchased additional dome cars, buses and, now, VIP Tours, to gear up for the cruise business.
If demand warrants, Conway could effectively double capacity by splitting the excursion to send half the group up on the train and back by bus, with the other half going up by bus and returning on the rails.
'The business is scalable,' Swirk said. 'Whatever it takes, we will make incremental investments to support it. I want to get to 1,000 [cruisers] a day or even more.'
Beyond fall foliage
Having a major new family-friendly tour like this also helps support growth of the Canada/New England itinerary beyond the fall.
'We've created something that's still iconic in the summer season,' Spina said. 'We're getting closer to what we've been talking about for more than decade: Canada/New England is more than a fall foliage destination. For Sandy and I to be part of this and see its early success is very rewarding.'
For Swirk — who helped build a successful freight railway business over 26 years before sadly watching it being sold off — going on to buy the Conway Scenic Railroad five years ago with partner Bill Sullivan came with a strong personal connection and a conviction.
Making a difference
As a 9-year-old, he'd traveled to North Conway with his parents, excited to ride the train. But they missed the day's last departure. Not having enough money for both a hotel and the train tickets, they slept in their car and took the train the next day.
'That was my introduction to this railroad,' Swirk said. 'I remember looking up at that steam engine, wow!' And now he owns that engine, among others, and is lovingly restoring them to bring back into service.
'It's the American dream,' he said.
Building the cruise business will bring in 'thousands of guests we wouldn't have,' people from all over the world, according to Swirk, who said a growing customer base is needed to make the business sustainable.
'This is so rewarding to me. It's so unique. It brings joy to my heart to see people enjoying this. You want to feel like you did something to make a difference in the world. This makes a difference.'