‘The railroad is a huge attraction for our community’

Chehalis-Centralia Railroad & Museum president looks to continue train excursions, explore steam engine repairs


In April, the Chehalis-Centralia Railroad & Museum (CCRM) resumed train excursions after a two-year hiatus that came due to the loss of its liability insurance coverage in 2022, which was partly blamed on two collisions involving its train.

Damaged tracks were also cited as a reason for the hiatus.

After partnering with the Oregon-based Goose Lake Railway LLC, the railroad was able to reopen and maintain the tracks, signals, rolling stock and engines while Goose Lake assumed responsibility for running excursion trains and for training and hiring crew members.

The City of Chehalis currently owns and leases the land where the CCRM is located at 1101 SW Sylvenus St. in Chehalis, while the CCRM owns the track it uses.

Since resuming excursions in April, the trains have been packed with riders, CCRM President Mary Kay Nelson told the city council. She gave councilors an update on how the CCRM is doing during the Chehalis City Council meeting on Monday, July 8.

CCRM’s train ride takes passengers on a two-hour, 18-mile round trip excursion through the Chehalis River Valley, providing passengers with glimpses of scenic vistas, farmland, mountains and rivers.

“We believe that the railroad is a huge attraction for our community,” Nelson said. “... We believe there’s even more potential to increase and develop it further. We would like to work with the Veterans (Memorial) Museum, the (Willapa) Hills Trail, that whole area, to make it more park-like.”

She also thanked Goose Lake for its assistance in helping the CCRM get train excursions going again.

“It’s been a great partnership,” Nelson added.

Despite not actually running train excursions over the past two years, the CCRM was still making repairs and improvements to its railroad and facilities including new signals and trestles at the railroad’s intersection with state Route 6.

Nelson said the work was funded by the Washington state Department of Transportation.

She added with trains operating again, the CCRM is now helping bring tax revenue back to Chehalis. Since restarting train excursions in April, the gross income earned by ticket sales has been $112,583.

In total, 3,819 passengers have taken a train ride since excursions resumed, with 65% of them being from at least 25 miles away. Gift shop retail sales have hit $10,000, Nelson said.

Along with excursion train ticket sales, the CCRM also collaborates with local schools and the Boys and Girls Club to charter train rides for kids. 

Many private companies and organizations have also chartered train rides for their employees.

The CCRM has a variety of upcoming events throughout the rest of the summer and fall, including a Harry Potter Wizard Express train, murder mystery dinner trains, escape room trains and pumpkin trains.

All of those are only leading up to the CCRM’s biggest annual event starting in November, the Polar Express trains.

“We expect to get about 14,000 people, and 6,000 of those will come for the Polar Express. It’s a big, big event for us,” said Nelson.

She anticipated the Polar Express trains will generate around $400,000 of revenue this winter. Tickets for the winter Polar Express will go on sale Sept. 1, with rides commencing Nov. 9.

Aside from keeping the train running, the CCRM has a number of improvement projects on the horizon, including:

• Making repairs to the railroad’s Stearns Creek Bridge

• Making repairs at the railroad’s state Route 6 west crossing

• Increasing passenger capacity by acquiring an additional passenger coach car

• Replacing railroad ties on 9 miles of track

• Building a new office and restrooms for the museum

Funding for many of these projects will come from $200,000 of Federal Emergency Management Agency money the CCRM was awarded to pay for damages incurred during the 2022 flood but has yet to receive, Nelson added.

And though the CCRM’s train excursions are running again, they are being carried out using a diesel locomotive and not a steam engine. Another project is to repair either one of the CCRM’s two steam engines, but this task will be much more difficult and much more expensive to accomplish, Nelson said. 

Nelson told the council the CCRM did hire a consultant to look over both steam engines and determine which was the most salvageable, as both will require at least an estimated $1 million to get them back in working order.

Of the two, engine No. 15 — a 1916 Baldwin 2-8-2 Mikado steam locomotive — is in the best shape. Even though it’s in better shape, the consultant still estimated it would take about five years to complete needed repairs.

To complicate things even further, those who have the knowledge and qualifications to repair classic steam engines are difficult to find.

“There’s a group of people that come and constantly email us and talk to us about when the steam train will be running again. The young people that don’t know steam trains love the train ride, love the two-hour excursion, love being out on a train because some of them have never been on a train before. So they’re satisfied with the diesel,” Nelson said. “So I can’t say everybody wants (steam) back … But (steam engines are) what our organization was founded for and upon, so we do really want to restore it. But it’s a pretty insurmountable situation.”

A potential donor has come forward to help pay for the repairs but hasn’t committed yet, Nelson stated. Given the estimated $1 million it will take to restore a steam engine, Nelson doesn’t anticipate it will be running anytime soon.

“We’re going to continue because we feel our operation is worthy whether or not we have a steam locomotive,” Nelson said.

The CCRM was originally founded 38 years ago as the nonprofit Chehalis-Centralia Railroad Organization. For more information and to purchase tickets for upcoming train excursions, visit https://steamtrainride.com/