CUMBERLAND, Md. — The Western Maryland Scenic Railroad set a ridership record with nearly 26,000 tickets sold for its 2021 Polar Express excursions.

Cumberland Mayor Ray Morriss, the WMSR board treasurer, said Tuesday the final tally was 25,722 tickets sold. Polar Express rides were held Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from Thanksgiving weekend until Christmas Eve.

"We've been talking a lot about the scenic railroad lately. They have had a fantastic turnaround," Morriss said. "Terrific ticket sales with Polar Express. The 2022 schedule is already up and out."

The Polar Express season included the long-awaited return of the Baldwin No. 1309 steam engine.

After a seven-year restoration project, the locomotive, dubbed Maryland Thunder, made its debut in mid-December. The largest compound-mallet steam locomotive operating in the world, Maryland Thunder will be in regular use beginning in May.

"The expectations I had for Polar Express certainly were surpassed," said Wes Heinz, the railroad's general manager. "I was hopeful we would do at least 18,000. All things considered with the last year of COVID lockdown, I was very pleased with the performance of the railroad. Everything across the board, we couldn't be happier about."

Polar Express features a ride from the Western Maryland Railway Station to Helmstetter's Curve near Cash Valley Road, where Santa's North Pole workshop with lights is set up. In 2019, Polar Express sold 9,000 tickets. The 2020 Polar Express was canceled due to the pandemic.

"So much of this isn't just about me," said Heinz. "It is the crew. It's the leadership Mike McKay has provided, and his support of my vision for the railroad. It's about the people that make up the whole image of the railroad. As long as we keep our eyes on the prize we will continue to be successful."

Polar Express ran three times on Friday, four on Saturday and three on Sunday.

"Next year we will add more trips, one additional on Sunday nights," said Heinz. "We need to serve our customers because we turned away thousands. By Nov. 1, we were pretty much done for ticket sales. We were sold out for every ride, so we wanted to bolster availability."

Heinz said the scenic railroad will remain open throughout the winter. On Saturday, winter weekend service begins.

"The railroad has never done that," Heinz said. "They had special runs during the winter but we will actually run a schedule of trains twice on Saturday and once on Sunday. On board we will have a full menu; you can have breakfast, lunch or brunch."

Heinz said the railroad will continue the popular Ice Cream Train, Pumpkin Express and other feature rides in 2022. For more information, visit WMSR.com.

Greg Larry is a reporter at the Cumberland Times-News. To reach him, call 304-639-4951, email glarry@times-news.com and follow him on Twitter.

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Greg Larry is a reporter at the Cumberland Times-News. To reach him, call 304-639-4951, email glarry@times-news.com and follow him on Twitter @greglarryctn.