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June 22, 2014

A Railroad That Turns Heads and Makes a Profit

Hardly a week goes by that someone doesn’t ask me… “Why doesn’t a private company take over Metro-North and run it properly?” 
The reason all US railroads got out of the passenger business is there was no profit to be made.  Even with the highest rail fares of any commuter railroad in the US, Metro-North’s tickets still cover less than 75% of their actual operating costs… and that’s not counting the billions in capital spending needed to keep the rails, bridges and signal system running.
But earlier this summer I rode a profitable, privately owned passenger train.  It only runs 45 miles but commands $85 - $175 per ticket (round-trip)(.  It’s been running for over 130 years and carries over 160,000 very happy passengers a year.
It’s Colorado’s Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, one of the most spectacular railroads in the world.          

“People will pay a fair price to see history,” says owner Al Harper who, along with his wife and three sons, is hands-on in running this National Historic Landmark every day.  His passengers come from around the world to the tiny town of Durango, just to take this ride.
The D&SNGR runs 3-4 steam power trains up the mountain to the tiny town of Silverton (with only one paved street) using restored passenger cars kept painstakingly in working order by dedicated craftsmen.
Unlike depressing historic rail lines in the east, which run a few cars two miles down a track then return, this is a fully working railroad with a paid, year round staff of 75 that, in the summers, swells to 200, many of them volunteers.  Damn, I would pay them to volunteer on this railroad!  And some folks do.
For $1000 (one-way), you can ride in the cab of their old steam locomotives wearing authentic overalls and cap and catch the bus or passenger coach back.  You can even help them shovel coal into the boiler.  

For $134 (round-trip) you can ride in the Deluxe Rio-Grande  open gondola car, or for a bit more, enjoy the 3 ½ hour ride sipping wine in a restored 1880 first class car.
While many who ride this line are railfans (“foamers”, as they are pejoratively called by most railroad folks, because they foam at the mouth when they see a train), history buffs or western fanatics, the D&SNGR’s owners know they have to grow their audience, so they offer discounts for kids and many other specialty excursions:  Brews and Blues, a Cowboy Poet excursion and many seasonal trips. But no, they have no plans for “Reefer and Rails” despite the legalization of marijuana in Colorado. (Durango has yet to authorize retail sales of pot.)
They are clever marketers, packaging the train ride with horseback riding, ATV’s, camping and other activities.  And, importantly, they have the support of their community which recognizes how much this little railroad means to the economy.  In 2001it was calculated that the railroad brought $100 million a year to Durango in business… hotels, meals, shopping… not to mention those employed by the railroad.
Imagine that:  a railroad that people will travel thousands of miles to ride, are willing to pay high fares because they get an amazing experience, owned by people making a good return but reinvesting for future generations of customers, while keeping the local economy thriving.

Yes, you can run a great railroad that people love and turn a profit!



June 08, 2014

The Billion Dollar Bridges

Twice in recent days, all Metro-North (and Amtrak) train service was disrupted for three hours in peak travel times because of one broken bridge: the 118-year-old Norwalk River Bridge in the city of the same name. 

Because this swing-bridge is so old and in such bad shape, it wouldn’t close, severing all train service and forcing replacement bus shuttles incapable of handling the crowds.  These are but the most recent problems on this bridge, and they won’t be the last.
Governor Malloy says this is “outrageous” and is calling for a sit-down with Metro-North. (Wouldn’t it be great to be a fly on the wall at that bully-session?)
What the Governor doesn’t admit is that Connecticut is responsible for that bridge, not the railroad.  Any reasonable civil engineer (and CDOT has many) would have replaced that bridge decades ago.
Instead, in the last two years alone, Governor Malloy (like Rowland and Rell before him) diverted millions in Special Transportation Fund monies into balancing his budget instead of replacing or repairing old bridges.  It is disingenuous for the Governor to express outrage at and blame others for a problem he exacerbated, but hey… that’s politics.  Blame everyone but yourself.
Instead, the Governor is asking Uncle Sam to use Super Storm Sandy money to pay 75% of the expected $465 million in replacement cost of that bridge, a six-year construction project.
But the old bridge will still be in use until at least 2018 and, doubtless, will fail again.  Each time it won’t close, rail service will halt.
Why not keep the bridge closed?  Too logical.  The handful of boats that use that river have historic and legal right-of-way over the 120,000 daily rail riders.  And that includes heating-oil-carrying barges, not just pleasure craft.
But this is but one of five railroad bridges in need of replacement.  The highly respected Regional Plan Association’s recent report said it will cost $2.8 billion to replace those five crossings, four of them in Connecticut, built in 1904.
Who’s going to pay all that money?  You guessed it, Connecticut taxpayers!  Why, because we delayed this work for so many decades and, more importantly, because our state owns the tracks, the bridges, the power lines and signals.  Remember, Metro-North owns nothing in Connecticut.
Back in 1970 when New Haven RR parent Penn Central went bankrupt and Conrail then got out of the commuter rail business, the MTA and Metro-North were born.  Both NY and Connecticut agreed they would own the tracks in their respective states while Amtrak went on to own the rest of the Northeast Corridor. Ownership has its privileges and obligations (costs).

So here’s a modest proposal:  why doesn’t Connecticut sell the New Haven mainline to Amtrak / Uncle Sam / “The Feds” for $1 and let them be responsible for fixing those bridges?  Remember… Amtrak trains run on those tracks as well as Metro-North.  This railroad is a national resource worthy of federal spending.