By Mannix Porterfield
Hour upon hour of playing with an American Flyer toy train with younger brother Bob in their St. Albans home could convince David Gay to seek a career in the railroad industry.
Yet, the time spent watching the little train make the loop through the figure-eight track, the whistle blowing at proper intervals, did leave its imprint on Gay.
As did a next-door neighbor, a retired steam locomotive mechanic. To the Gay brothers, the man and his wife served as an extra pair of grandparents.
“I remember the fun we had watching him do different things,” Gay said.
“So, I got interested in trains as a child.”
Rather than invest his life’s work in the rail business, Gay attended Potomac State College in Keyser, then earned his pharmacy degree at West Virginia University. For 21 years, he was a pharmacist at Beckley Appalachian Regional Hospital, then worked a dozen years for CVS Pharmacy, where, even today, he fills in as a relief man on occasion.
Coincidentally, the year he picked up his Potomac State degree, 1971, ushered in the arrival of Amtrak, the government-run passenger train, after private rail companies no longer found this aspect of the business profitable.
“In the 1973 oil embargo, I learned first from studying newspapers that passenger trains are more fuel efficient than other forms of transit,” he said.
Soon after he arrived in Beckley to start his career, the Carter administration forced budget cuts on Amtrak, so he joined a rail passenger activist group seeking to keep the routes going. Then, Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., intervened and the run was restored in January 1982, only a few months after it had been abandoned.
Originally, the run was offered daily, but this dwindled to a tri-weekly route.
“Thirty years later, it’s still three days a week,” he said.
“We’re working to get it back daily, working with various aspects to make the case for daily service.”
Gay sees the Cardinal as one that fits snugly with the majestic scenery, capable of pulling in enough passengers to make a go of it.
“We have the New River Gorge and different park activities that can draw visitors in, such as the private whitewater and high adventure places,” he said.
“And now, we have the Boy Scouts facility located on the hill at The Summit. We’re looking to bring in Scouts for the high adventure camps.”
Gay holds membership in the National Association of Railroad Passengers, the lobbying group in Washington, focusing on improving and expanding Amtrak service. He also is aligned with Friends of the Cardinal, an activist group based in Charleston.
“I want to work with the Mountain Transit Authority as well as Raleigh Express to encourage them to run buses here to meet the trains,” he said.
“Intermodalism is something that’s been common in Europe for years. You’re seeing more of that in this country, as being in different modes of transit to one place. If you have buses from communities, you have a smooth, seamless trip from, say, Summersville to the station to catch a train. With the higher gas prices, if buses are coming down here, it gives folks an option to leave cars at home and ride the bus to meet the train, or board a bus when it comes in to go back home.”
What’s more, buses are accessible to those with mobility issues, such as an elderly person, or one confined to a wheelchair and can no longer drive.
“Having the bus service down here helps that many more people to be able to ride the train,” Gay said.
“Of course, trains are handicapped accessible.”
His own idyllic youth taught him a valuable lesson about trains, and that is, children love them.
“Obviously, they’re seeing the bright colors and seeing something that adults do,” he explained.
“Children like to mimic what adults do and adults are driving trains. It’s interesting to see the trains go by.”
Unlike flights, limiting passengers largely to see empty skies, or passing clouds, trains afford their customers a fleeting panorama of scenery as they coast along the rails. One big different these days is the absence of the clickety-clack sound of yesteryear, since a different kind of rail system is used.
“Unless you work with a railroad, trains are not something you’re with every day, so a passenger train trip is something special,” Gay said.
“It’s a wonderful way to see the country. The Cardinal showcases the New River Gorge that no other form of transit can, because there’s no highway through the gorge. For example, Route 41 dips down briefly from Beckley, then crosses the river, but there’s no room in the gorge from one end to the other for a highway. Even CSX has to have their double track main line one track on each side. If you ride the Cardinal, particularly eastbound, you’ll see the entire gorge in daylight year-round. West bound, you will see the gorge during daylight savings time.”
As service improves, and gas prices remain steep, more folks are looking to the rails. In fact, says Gay, Amtrak’s ridership is the highest it has been in year.
“Comparing the ridership now with 50 years ago (when private trains occupied the rails), it’s much higher,” he said.
“The 1973 oil embargo gave it its first shot in the arm. Then the 1979 oil crisis gave it a shot which has continued ever since. You would have to say it’s been on a continuous upward track.”
Does this mean the privately-held railroads aren’t likely to make a comeback?
“You never know,” Gay said.
“It all depends on how well one can adapt and make use of the market. Amtrak has been given the overall nationwide responsibility. In the approach they take, you actually have more cost effectiveness than when the railroads ran their own service.”
One reason is that railroads ordered cars from the same service but they were manufactured differently, according to individual orders, he noted.
“And so you didn’t have the economy of scale like you do with Amtrak,” he said.
At the historic Prince station, the Cardinal makes its runs on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.
“One of the things we’re hoping to see on this train is a full service diner with china and silverware, which is the way in most of the country now,” he said.
“We have tray meals now, which are tasty, and the coaches are quite comfortable. Seats recline and are wider than those on a plane. The interiors are bright and cheerful. The basic amenities are like those you found in the past.”
Granted, one can take in the scenery to some degree on a bus, but it’s just not the same as gliding down a set of steel rails.
“Particularly in an area where the train is the only form of transit and the area is quite beautiful,” Gay said.
“Planes have their place, too. But you’re going to just basically see clouds when you’re up there. Every form of transit has its place. But there needs to be balance, and they need to be connected, as much as possible.”
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