As a teenager growing up near Quarryville, Craig Lefever liked relaxing and hanging out.
But his dad, Glen, had other ideas for his son.
“I first came to the (Strasburg Rail Road) as a result of my father deciding I needed to be not laying by the pool in the summer,” Lefever said.
His dad, who worked at Strasburg Rail Road as a carpenter, recruited him to help out in the car shop where the teenager helped clean, sand and repaint the equipment.
That job lasted during portions of eight years while Lefever was in high school and college. Lefever worked there over the summer, during school breaks and on Saturdays.
“It was a tedious job as a high schooler, and there was no glory in it whatsoever,” he said.
Those early experiences working at the railroad motivated Lefever to go to college so he could do something different.
He attended Millersville University and graduated with a degree in music education, then spent several years as an adjunct professor while working at a music store.
But when Linn Moedinger, his former boss at Strasburg Rail Road, visited the music shop, he convinced Lefever to return, a decision that started him down a path that led to his succeeding Moedinger Dec. 22 as president of Strasburg Rail Road.
“It feels rewarding to have been where I’ve been and evolved to this position,” said Lefever, 52.
He knows his late father, who died in 2013, would be proud of him.
A working railroad
Chartered in 1832, Strasburg Rail Road operates along a 4.5-mile spur line built to connect Strasburg to the main line. In 1958, it was turned into a tourist attraction by 24 stockholders.
Today the privately owned railroad features five working steam engines and 19 operating passenger cars, attracting about 300,000 visitors annually.
The 160-employee business also operates a freight rail line and a mechanical shop. The shop repairs and restores its own stock and that of other railroad companies.
Its season extends from mid-February through the end of December. It includes theme rides such as rides with Santa, the Easter Bunny and the popular Thomas the Tank Engine train.
Lefever said he expects this year to unveil several more theme rides, which he says are crucial in getting riders to come back.
“A lot of the tourist destination railroads are realizing that just having a train ride is not enough anymore. You need to capture families’ attention and millennials’ attention across the different demographics by different events and different methodologies,” he said.
But one thing Lefever said Strasburg Rail Road won’t be doing is a zombie train or any kind of scary Halloween train. Such a theme was looked at, but Lefever said it doesn’t fit.
“It certainly would have drawn people, but considering who we are and what we’re trying to represent, we just weren’t willing to make the compromise to the wholesome entertainment aspect,” he said.
Instead, Strasburg Rail Road tries to create an authentic experience for visitors by emphasizing its history and offering tours of the recently expanded mechanical shop where crews work on steam locomotives.
“Right now, that business is booming,” said Lefever, noting that repair work brings in about one-quarter of the overall revenue.
Lefever said a freight business begun in 2008 adds only a small portion to the bottom line, but underscores the message that visitors are coming to an actual railroad, not a theme park.
End of a line
Moedinger’s retirement in December was the culmination of succession planning that began about seven years ago.
By that time, Moedinger had brought Lefever into the office, giving him responsibilities with compliance, safety and regulatory issues.
After his initial reluctance, Lefever said he expressed his interest in taking over, and then was named to the newly created position of general manager.
Now Moedinger’s former duties are split between Lefever, who serves as the eighth president of Strasburg Rail Road, and Richard L. Musser Jr., who is chief mechanical officer.
Lefever said he’s been getting more attuned to bigger-picture issues around budgeting and planning, as well as mundane, but necessary, projects like repaving the parking lot.
Lefever said he’s grateful for the long apprenticeship under Moedinger.
“A smooth and quiet and almost unnoticed transition to me seems like a healthy one,” he said.
And while Moedinger will be around to help after he returns from a brief hiatus, Lefever admitted to being a little nervous in his first several weeks on the job.
“Up until now there was that cushion of Linn being the next guy up the ladder where the buck stops,” he said. “That’s me now.”