By Mark Esper
“It’s been a lackluster end of the year, to be honest,” said Al Harper, owner of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.
The railroad is the economic engine that drives Silverton’s summer tourism-based economy.
Harper said that the railroad started the season 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 that “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 Tuesday night at Silverton Town Hall. He makes the annual October pilgrimage to Silverton to discuss issues involving the train.
Harper said the D&SNGRR has fared better than some of his other ventures.
He said that business on 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, Colo., has seen business fall 11 percent.
“We actually did pretty good in the market place,” Harper said.
Harper described the railroad business — particularly his sort of railroad — as “a strange one.”
“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 Affordable Care Act may affect his business.
But he said he wants to “brainstorm” some new marketing approaches.
“We are going to try to have a real team meeting to see if there is something we can do dramatically different next year,” Harper said. “We’re searching for new ideas. New ways to get exposure.
“The railroad keeps getting great reviews,” Harper said. “Everybody says this train ride is the best there is.”
Harper expressed gratitude that this season has not seen any “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,” Harper said. “Then we had rain. But we got through it. We didn’t have a major slide.”
Harper said “it’s hard to believe” he has owned and operated the D&SNGRR for 15 years now.
“We’ve come a long way. We’ve worked together,” Harper said. “I’m very proud of our relationship.”
Harper said trains have been on time some 90 percent of the time this season.
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.”
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.
And he said that his disagreement with Silverton Northern proponent Fritz Klinke is a “friendly divergent view.”
Gary Kyle, the railroad’s assistant general manager, reviewed the proposed 2013 Durango to Silverton schedule. (The last train this year is Saturday, Oct. 27.)
The season will start on Saturday, May 4 and run through Saturday, Oct. 27, 2013.
The season will start with one daily train leaving Durango at 8:45 a.m. and arriving at Silverton at 12:15 p.m. The train will leave Silverton at 2:30 p.m.
From May 14 to Oct. 11, a second train will run, leaving Durango at 8 a.m. and arriving at Silverton at 11:30. It will depart for Durango at 1:45 p.m.
A third daily train will run from June 3 to Aug. 8, leaving Durango at 9:30 a.m. and arriving at Silverton 1 p.m., then leaving Silverton at 3 p.m.
Kyle said the railroad hopes to eliminate double-header trains next year.
Double-headers are longer trains with two engines.
Next summer the railroad instead intends to add a fourth train as needed between June 25 and Aug. 8
The extra “section” would leave Durango at 10 a.m., arrive at Silverton at 1:30 and then leave Silverton at 3:30.
Kyle said the double-headers cause maintenance problems and negatively impact passengers’ experiences.