Train sees a slow finish to season

SILVERTON — What started as a strong season for the The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad in May has lost steam, and train ridership is now about flat with the 2011 season.

“It’s been a lackluster end of the year, to be honest,” said Al Harper, owner of the D&SNG.

The railroad is a major contributor to the summer economy of Durango and Silverton.

Harper said the season started strong, running about 7 to 9 percent ahead of last year in May and June, but by later in the summer “it really slowed down.”

Harper said “right now, we’re within 1 percent of last year” in terms of ridership. “It’s an OK year.”

Harper spoke to a couple of dozen Silverton residents recently at Silverton Town Hall as part of his annual October pilgrimage to discuss issues involving the train.

Harper said the D&SNG has fared better than some of his other ventures. His Great Smoky Mountain Railroad in North Carolina is down 9 percent so far this year. And the Texas State Railroad from Rusk to Palestine, Texas, has seen ridership drop 13 percent.

The Cumbres & Toltec Railroad from Chama, N.M., to Antonito has seen business fall 11 percent.

“We actually did pretty good in the market place,” Harper said.

The overhead associated with running a historic railroad is significant.

“We’re dealing with steam engines that are in their 80s,” Harper said. The railroad must sink up to $700,000 a year in maintenance of the line and equipment.”

Harper expressed concerns about “issues with regulations,” higher operating costs and how the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act may affect his business.

But he said he wants to “brainstorm” some new marketing approaches.

“We’re searching for new ideas – new ways to get exposure,” he said.

Harper expressed gratitude the season has avoided “major calamities” so far. Last year, the train was blocked for days after a massive rockslide.

He said the extreme fire danger early in the season posed challenges, but the railroad took extraordinary precautions, including chartering a helicopter to monitor the tracks.

Fortunately, the trains were able to keep running, and no serious fires erupted along the line.

“We were lucky,” he said.

Harper, who has owned the D&SNG for 15 years, told Silverton residents, “We’ve come a long way. We’ve worked together. I’m very proud of our relationship.”

Trains have been on time about 90 percent of the time this season, he said, and he expressed regret over what he called a “loading controversy” at the Silverton terminus.

The railroad has a policy of alternating arrival and departure tracks to allow businesses on each side of 12th Street between Blair and Mineral roughly equal access to passengers.

But Tommy Tynes, owner of The Ice Cream Shop on the north side of 12th Street, said the practice has been unfair this year, with two out of three daily trains favoring the south side of the street.

“I’m going to make it as even as I can for both sides of the street,” Harper said. “I don’t want to get anyone mad. We don’t want anyone to think we’re unfair.”

Harper said he is optimistic about next year, though he expressed disappointment at this year’s Railfest.

The August celebration of trains cost the railroad some $37,000 to pull off, Harper said.

“It gave us no bump in ridership. Zero,” he said.

And Harper again expressed his opposition to possible development of a short excursion line along the old Silverton Northern grade between Silverton and Howardsville.

“I think that would possibly hurt the railroad,” Harper said.

His disagreement with Silverton Northern proponent Fritz Klinke, he said, is a “friendly divergent view.”

The last train to Silverton this year will be Oct. 27. The next season will start on May 4, 2013, and run through Oct. 27, 2013.