Not long ago, vintage steam rides meant a relaxing trip past scenic landscapes, perhaps a few dizzy traverses around high-line curves and trestle bridges.

Not anymore.

While traffic-free vistas and uniformed conductors still prevail on most of the country's short-line train trips, passengers can now add mobile apps, real-time Instagram posts, and trendy themes like Steampunk and wine and gourmet chocolate tastings to their travels.

Strasburg Railroad, a 19th-Century freight and passenger line, converted to a short-line tourism railroad in the '60s.

“We are always adding and updating the train experience, but at the same time we make sure it still fits in with the vintage steam experience people expect," says Hope Graby, spokeswoman for the Strasburg Railroad in Lancaster, Pa., a 19th-Century freight and passenger line that transported Presidents Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln before converting to a short-line tourism railroad in the 1960s.

In 2013, the railroad added a Steampunk theme, an alternate-history genre that appeals to Millennials. Passengers can enjoy a curated experience that includes science-fiction author signings, an artisan craft fair, and absinthe cocktail tastings. Strasburg also hosts shop tours, wine-and-cheese tastings, and a throwback baseball day that includes stops at a local farm hosting glove-free games and vintage uniforms. While the baseball event celebrates the past, attendees are encouraged to RSVP and spread the word via the railroad's Facebook page.

The Strasburg Railroad presents Steampunk-themed train rides.



Colorado's Durango & Silverton Narrow-Gauge Railroad, in continuous operation since 1882, has added similar 21st-Century perks, including wine tastings and premium car-class options with lounge-style seating, personalized historian narratives, and private outdoor-viewing platforms.

“Those seats often sell out before standard class," notes chief conductor Rich Millard, who started as a brakeman at age 22 and has been with the line for 25 years. Last year, the railroad launched a free mobile app that lets riders follow along with real-time GPS tracking, describing key locales as the train approaches, such as a key scene featured in the 1969 film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Colorado's Durango & Silverton Railroad now offers wine tastings and premium car-class options.

Yvonne Lashmett

As the summer tourism season gets underway, other trains are rolling out innovative touches that were unheard of a decade ago. The Great Smoky Mountains Railroad offers both a Wizard of Oz train, in which costumed actors re-create the classic movie, and a BBQ-and-brews trip that includes craft beer samplings and a slow-cooked pork feast. The SAM Shortline, which runs vintage 1949 cars through southwest Georgia, has added Chick-fil-A sandwiches to its menu. And many rail outfits are using social media networks like Facebook to post updates on schedules, restoration projects and special events.

Picking Up Steam

The modernization of vintage train rides coincides with a steady increase in passenger rail trail. In 2015, 30.8 million passengers used the nation's largest rail network, marking the fifth straight year in which its ridership exceeded 30 million.

Some link the overall increase in train travel to savvy marketing campaigns — this summer, for example, kids 5-12 can ride anywhere in North Carolina for $5 with a paying adult, for example — and licensing agreements with popular children's brands like Thomas the Train and Polar Express. Another factor that may be fueling growth: studies that show fewer Millennials are using cars, preferring instead to reach work and leisure destinations by foot, bike, or transit. Three New York-area commuter rails, for example, attributed record 2015 ridership numbers to Millennials.

Others say it simply comes down to the fact that everybody loves a good train ride. “The rail fan community bridges all generations," notes Debbie Conway, superintendent of Steamtown National Historic Site in Scranton, Pa.

Steamtown has always had a large volunteer pool, but in recent years, Conway says it has seen a “significant uptick" in young adults, from high-school age to late 20s, signing on to help out. She attributes it, in part, to a childhood love of trains that either returned as they matured, or that they never outgrew.

While Rich Millard has watched the Durango Silverton railroad adapt to changing tastes, his reward as a longtime railroad employee has remained the same. As the train leaves the station in Durango and heads toward the old mining town of Silverton, "the passengers go from asking simple, obvious questions to more poignant ones that show they really get it," he says.

"That's what I enjoy," he adds. "And it's one of the reasons I never get tired of my job."

Other railroad observers agree that, no matter how trendy trail travel becomes, their main mission won't change.

“We still market the ride as a way of slowing yourself down," notes Durango & Silverton spokesman Christian Robbins. "You just have to let everything go."