The Polar Express rolled out of Durango for the first time this season Nov. 20, with new coronavirus safety precautions in tow.
Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad said this week that San Juan Basin Public Health inspected and approved D&SNG safety measures for Level Red, or severe risk, conditions. The inspection was Nov. 18. SJBPH implemented stricter public health restrictions for La Plata County on Nov. 20 when COVID-19 cases increased dramatically after Halloween.
“With La Plata County now in Level Red ... it was critical for San Juan Basin Health executives to comprehensively review our operating plans,” said Jeff Johnson, D&SNG general manager, in a news release this week.
Level Red restrictions halted indoor service at restaurants, limited social gatherings to one household and limited capacity in indoor places of worship, offices, gyms and other locations.
The restrictions mean The Polar Express Train Ride and Cascade Canyon winter train excursions look different this year.
D&SNG has agreed to comply with the state’s transportation guidance, which allows vehicles to run at 50% capacity in Level Red, said Claire Ninde, spokeswoman for the local health department.
The railroad also certified its compliance with state outdoor event guidance for The Polar Express. Outdoor events can operate at 25% capacity and up to 75 people per event space, with adequate space between household groups, Ninde said.
To make up for the capacity loss, The Polar Express is running up to four trips a day, instead of three, during the peak season, Johnson said.
To comply with public health restrictions, D&SNG leased The Palace restaurant to allow guests to safely spread out around the property before boarding the train.
The onboard portion of the trip takes less time than previous years, about 35 minutes. The train travels from the Durango depot to just north of 32nd Street – with engines on both ends to allow it to return to the station without having to turn around.
The Polar Express includes face coverings for all guests and staff members, and there are up to 20 people per railroad car. Windows stay open in the heated compartments.
“Our biggest challenge has been to remain open-minded and watch how our plans work in reality,” Johnson said. “I know everyone here at the railroad is committed to a new way of doing business in order to make things work for everybody.”
Dancing chefs are on an open-air stage instead of in the train cars. Hot chocolate and cookies are being offered at the end of the event, and elves are using magnetic wands to hand out bells, allowing them to maintain social distancing.
Once the train reaches the “North Pole,” relocated to the museum, passengers walk through the display in small groups. The museum serves as the “toy factory,” and Santa stays 10 feet away (wearing a mask under his beard).
One passenger car at a time is invited to visit the concession car to stay within capacity limits. Groups briefly travel through other cars when necessary, and they are able to preselect items beforehand using printed menus.
The railroad’s winter train excursions to Cascade Canyon are operating with the same capacity limits, window usage, social-distancing instructions, face-covering requirements and enhanced cleaning protocols.
“While The Polar Express Train Ride and Cascade Canyon excursions will be different this year, we’re confident guests will appreciate the many steps we’ve taken to preserve their safety,” Johnson said. “The spirit of the holidays is as important as ever. ... It is still very much alive in Durango.”