A passenger train crosses Mineral Creek on its way to Silverton on Monday, Oct. 12.
By Mark Esper
Despite a grueling recession and an overall downturn in the tourism industry, the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad has avoided an economic train wreck this season, said owner Al Harper.
“The railroad and Silverton are probably about as lucky as you can be in this economy,” Harper said. “Railroad ridership is up slightly; revenue is up 7 percent.”
Harper noted that the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad he owns in North Carolina has seen ridership plummet 22 percent this summer.
“Our first-class cars sell out instantly, way faster than standard coach,” Harper said.
Harper said he will continue to emphasize first-class service.
Harper, meeting with Silvertonians at Town Hall Wednesday night, Oct. 7, gave an update on his proposed Railroad Square project in Durango.
The project in downtown Durango is estimated to cost $72 million. It would be a 4.3-acre development with a 220-room hotel, restaurant and spa, 21,525 square-feet for a conference center, and 30,000 square-feet for retail and office space.
Harper said he has sunk $3 million cash into the project so far. It has all necessary approval for a groundbreaking.
“We’re all ready to go, except for one problem,” Harper said. “No banks are lending money to start-up resort facilities. Railroad Square is not going to happen quickly.”
Harper said he is still pursuing financing options, “but we’ll probably have to put that project on hold for a year or two until the market turns around.”
Harper said a convention center would not in itself be a moneymaker, and would probably lose up to half a million dollars a year, but it would bring in some 65,000 visitors a year to Durango, including tens of thousands who would ride the train.
“It would be a big boost. We should do it,” Harper said. “The question is how do you pay for it.”
Harper floated the idea of a voluntary room tax in the Durango area to support the convention center. He said room taxes in Colorado are low compared to other states.
Harper also suggested he might be willing to institute a fee on train tickets to help fund the convention center.
“I’m not telling you I will or won’t do that,” Harper said. “But I may have to tax myself.”
In reviewing the railroad’s performance as this season comes to a close, Harper said the 3-train schedule seemed to work out well, from the railroad’s perspective.
“We never turned anybody away, and we carried just as many passengers as when we had four,” Harper said.
“It saves us 25 percent of the cost of our operation for the railroad for that 6-week (peak-season) period,” Harper said.
And as far as ticket prices, Harper said he foresees a small increase in prices for next year, from the current $81 base ticket to about $84.25.
“I don’t expect much resistance to that,” Harper said. “People are upgrading to first class when we have the space.”
Harper said it looks like the railroad will have about 165,000 to 170,000 riders this year.
“I’ll be happy with that,” he said.
And he said the railroad’s on-time performance was “outstanding” this year.
Harper also provided a bit of insight into the economics of running his tourist train route.
“From a business stand point, we’re lucky if we break even on our tickets,” Harper said. “We have to make our money in food, beverages, gifts and special events. All my profit comes from that.”
Train watcher John Cook of Silverton told Harper that by his calculations, trains were “late” arriving in Silverton 13.2 percent of the time, compared to 14 percent of the time last year.
Harper said the railroad has fared well in terms of operations, with no landslides or rockslides, and no reportable accidents.
“It may be the best year in the history of the railroad, for operations,” Harper said.
“I love what I do. I am in this mission to save and preserve history,” Harper said. “What I do with this railroad is my effort to preserve history.”
“I don’t want any charity,” Harper said. “I will make this the best railroad run in the world.”
He noted the American Travel Writers Association has voted the D&SNGRR the best train ride in the United States and the third best in the world.
“We have an American treasure,” Harper said. “I am just blessed to be the caretaker for this American treasure.”