After a pandemic year that featured a shortened season and a third of its normal ridership, the North Shore Scenic Railroad’s first tourist train of the season departs Friday and already, things are closer to full steam ahead than not.

“There exists a lot of pent-up demand — we can see that in our online ticket sales,” General Manager Ken Buehler told the News Tribune. “I’m optimistic about this summer being very good.”

The first train of the season and weekend departs the Depot in downtown Duluth at 1 p.m. Friday. Seven-day-a-week operation resumes May 28.

Trains will continue to be 75% capacity in a nod to pandemic comfort.

“We’ve gotten pretty used to social distancing, and we want to give people extra room on the trains to move around and be comfortable,” Buehler said.

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The railroad will revisit its capacity restriction again on July 1, with a possibility of returning to 100% depending on COVID-19 developments.

The railroad set a record in 2018 with 110,000 passengers, and followed that with 2019 with another 90,000 passengers. The pandemic summer saw the figure drop to 30,000 in a year that didn’t include the popular Thomas the Tank Engine attraction, which was canceled.

That attraction, coming the first two weekends in August, sold out two weeks ago when tickets went on sale at 50% capacity.

But with the state’s capacity restrictions being lifted May 28, it has allowed the North Shore Scenic Railroad to set its sights higher.

“That’s a huge event for us,” Buehler said. “The beauty of a train is that we can add another car or two if we have to.”

Normally, the railroad’s trains would have been running on weekends for more than a month already. But the railroad used the additional lead time to welcome back and provide refresher training for its volunteer operating crews — some of which decided to take last summer off due to health concerns.

North Shore Scenic Railroad operations manager Scott Leibel operates one of the railroad’s locomotives Thursday, May 20, 2021, as the railroad prepared for the start of its season. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
North Shore Scenic Railroad operations manager Scott Leibel operates one of the railroad’s locomotives Thursday, May 20, 2021, as the railroad prepared for the start of its season. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

Buehler said the railroad will continue with its COVID-19 deep-cleaning protocols. Only one staff member or volunteer tested positive for the virus last year, and riders appreciated seeing staff and volunteers taking cleanliness seriously, Buehler said.

The railroad operates using historic railroad equipment from the collection of the Lake Superior Railroad Museum, which is also open inside the Depot for individual tours seven days a week.

A combination ticket allows guests and passengers to both see the museum and ride the trains.

New on the railroad this summer will be the full-length dome car SkyView, which will be used in first-class service on the daily Duluth Zephyr trains to Lakeside and back, a 75-minute excursion.

The Two Harbors train will also offer first-class service in the railroad’s existing dome car. Also back this year are Murder on the Disoriented Express mystery trains and Elegant Dinner Trains.

The SkyView dome car will allow 60 riders to sit under a glass ceiling, more than twice as many seats under glass as the railroad’s existing dome car.

The railroad purchased one of the rare SkyView cars earlier this year. It’s currently in the process of being transported to Duluth.

Buehler explained that the railroad invested in the car due to the popularity of its existing dome car, which often sells out.

“There were only 30 of the SkyView cars built, and that’s what we went out and got,” Buehler said. “We found that our first-class service is a way for us to grow our business. We’re a very successful attraction, but our mammoth growth years are behind us. We’re now growing in tune with the market, and finding out that the elasticity of our product is on the high end in first class.”

North Shore Scenic Railroad assistant operations manager Zach Start signals the engineer as they near a string of cars Thursday, May 20, 2021. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
North Shore Scenic Railroad assistant operations manager Zach Start signals the engineer as they near a string of cars Thursday, May 20, 2021. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

The SkyView car was one of 11 from the same owner that all hit the market, presenting an enticing opportunity. Asked what the railroad paid for the car, Buehler said: "What they wanted to charge was $860,000 — we didn't pay nearly that."

The North Shore Scenic Railroad will run trains Friday through Sunday at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m., with its Music and Pizza trains departing at 6 p.m. Friday and Saturday. See duluthtrains.com for a full schedule.

Buehler noted Duluth as being one of the only communities in the country with two scenic railroads. The city's other scenic railroad, the Lake Superior and Mississippi Railroad, runs along the St. Louis River in western Duluth, but it's not operating in 2021 due to cleanup at the U.S. Steel Superfund site along its tracks. It will resume in 2022.

"A lot of rail enthusiasts make sure to ride both railroads," Buehler said. "I figure we'll pick up a little extra business."