Abilene Railroad Planning More Excursions

The Abilene and Smoky Valley Railroad has announced its most ambitious operating schedule in the railroad’s 31-year history.

According to the organization,  the regular 2024 schedule will open on April 10, with some dinner trains and excursions scheduled during the KSU/KU Spring Breaks in March.

A&SV President and General Manager Ross Boelling said today that the railroad will run as many as 300 trains this year, a number that includes 33 dinner trains, a possible 42 school charters, and an expanded 168-train excursion schedule. But the highlight of the season will be the two special events on the schedule: a return of the Great Pumpkin Patch Express Peanuts train in October and the railroad’s rapidly growing Christmas holiday tradition, the Cowtown Santa Express in November and December.

“We’ve never run this many trains before,” Boelling commented, “but last season, we learned that there is a great demand for what we do among people from an increasing geographical area. We are the only heritage railroad in Kansas, and people are coming from across the state, driving to Abilene for our train rides, dinner trains and special events. We’re trying to meet this demand by offering this expanded schedule.”

Boelling noted that the railroad enjoyed a 42 percent increase in ridership in 2023, and that the A&SV attracted passengers from over half of the communities in Kansas. But the railroad has increasingly attracted tourists from major metropolitan areas, including Wichita, Kansas City, Omaha, and Lincoln. He added that the A&SV also attracted passengers from 42 states and seven foreign countries last year.

“Our passengers do more than just ride trains,” Boelling said. “Our railroad relates a compelling version of Kansas history that most people have never realized. On our trains, passengers learn how railroads built Kansas’ agriculture-oriented economy, and how so many Kansas towns and cities were directly established by the railroads. People learn how dependent we have always been on rail transportation as a major force in our economy.”

The railroad’s Smoky Valley Limited dinner train schedule has been greatly expanded for 2024, with more special themed trains featuring regional caterers and expanded menus. The A&SV’s “Dining Car Heritage Series” returns in 2024, featuring menu items from the heyday of passenger train travel, when some of America’s finest dining was in railroad dining cars. The menus were researched by railroad historian Kevin Bailey, and the menus are being recreated by local caterer Lucinda Kohman. Last year, the Dining Car Heritage Series featured menus from four railroads that have directly impacted the Abilene and Smoky Valley Railroad: the Chicago North Western, Santa Fe, Rock Island and Missouri-Kansas-Texas. This year, two more lines are being featured, the Union Pacific and the Missouri Pacific, which served Abilene and Dickinson County.

Boelling said the Smoky Valley Limited is running more trains centered around holidays and special events. The A&SV ran its first dinner train of the season for Valentine’s Day on February 10. Regular trains relating to Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Oktoberfest, and New Year’s Eve return to the schedule thus year, while trains for St. Patrick’s Day, Cinco de Mayo, Spring Break, and the 80th D-Day anniversary have been added. And a special train will run on Mother’s Day weekend, “Jenny Seeyle’s Tea Party,” featuring four popular desserts once prepared by Seelye Mansion chefs, along with finger sandwiches and fine teas. Amanda Collins of Amanda’s Bakery and Bistro in Abilene has agreed to recreate the dessert recipes for the train. Seelye Museum director Terry Tietjens will assist in narrating the special train ride.

Boelling said the schedule will feature more runs of the Flint Hills Express, the A&SV’s excursion train, and the Meadowlark Flyer, the railroad’s school charter. Excursion trains will begin running in April on a Wednesday through Sunday schedule. School charters will run on Wednesdays and Thursdays. Excursion trains will run through September, Boelling said.

“We know from past experience that there is a demand for more train rides, especially during the height of summer tourism season an Abilene,” Boelling said. He noted that the depot has often attracted would-be passengers on days when the railroad was not operating who have stopped by the Rock Island depot while visiting the other museum attractions in Abilene. “We want to be available to more tourists. This will provide more support to our museum partners. We have applied to participate in Kansas Tourism’s ‘Sunflower Summer’ program benefiting Kansas families vacationing in Kansas.  If we are selected as an approved venue, we expect a large increase in ridership as Kansas families visit Abilene.”

The addition of special event trains was a major draw for the railroad last year. The Peanuts-oriented Great Pumpkin Patch Express drew 1,658 passengers during Halloween season, and the Cowtown Santa Express drew 3,044 holiday season tourists.

Boelling added that the railroad has discontinued its monthly “coffee and cinnamon roll train’ this year, but that feature is being replaced with a weekly special on Wednesday’s at 10:00 a.m. He said the A&SV’s excursion train, the Flint Hills Express, will offer a reserved ‘coffee and snack’ option in the recently remodeled Chicago car.

“This will be a full two-hour excursion run, but we wanted to continue to offer a special coffee break treat. Passengers wanting a regular excursion trip can ride in the Enterprise car or in our gondolas for our regular price, but we wanted to offer the Chicago car upgrade for those desiring it. The nice thing is that we are offering it every week instead of just once per month.”

The railroad’s full schedule and ticketing information is available at the A&SV website, asvrr.org. Boelling concluded by saying “Our tagline is ‘We will move you in 2024”, and we hope you will join us this year.”