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"At The Throttle"
by Mark Bassett, Executive Director

A weekly series of columns originally published in the Friday edition of the Ely Times 
Mark Bassett is the Executive Director of the White Pine Historical Railroad Foundation, operator of the Nevada Northern Railway Museum. He can be reached at the museum (775) 289-2085 ext. 7 or e-mail: director@nnry.com

 


The Race — Part II
26 May 2006

Steam Locomotive 40, the pride and joy of the Nevada Northern Railway, is out of service, again. She went into the shops for her annual inspection in February and we have hopes of having her back in operation by the 4th of July.

At the same time last week, the museum went through its annual audit. The museum has been bleeding red ink since day one. Museums are just like any other business. They need to be in the black; in twenty-one years that hasn't happened yet.

The museum has survived so long by what I call the "pot of gold method." Periodically, the museum stumbles onto a pot of gold and gets just enough money to keep the doors open a little while longer.

One of the questions the auditor asked me is, "Can you convince me that the museum has a future?" Short answer, "Yes, (pause) I think."

The museum is in a race. We are running against, time, money, and program development. It's a triathlon actually with a Catch-22 aspect just to spice things up.

Catch 22 is a term from Joseph Heller's novel by the same name. A Catch-22 is a situation in which an individual has to accomplish two actions both of which require that the other be done first.

This is how it works for the museum. To generate income, we need to operate steam locomotives. To operate steam locomotives requires a great deal of money. When we operate the steam locomotives, we generate money. The race is to see whether the steam locomotives can last long enough to generate the revenue needed to maintain them.

Our two operating steam locomotives are ninety-six and ninety-seven years old. They both need major repairs to their running gear. Our third locomotive (number 81) is only eighty-nine years old. It hasn't operated since the late 1950's and then sat outside for thirty-plus years.

The current plan is to bring locomotive 81 into the shops and do a ground up restoration on it. The thinking is that this will take three years. In the meantime, repairs will be made to locomotive 40 and 93 to keep them running for three and five years respectively.

Once locomotive 81 is done, locomotive 40 will head into the shops for a complete overhaul of its running gear. Once 40 is done, then it is locomotive 93 into the shops for a complete overhaul of its running gear. The cost of this program? Most likely, a cool million dollars spent over five years.

It also needs to be pointed out that while this program is going on we need to maintain the diesel locomotives, make running repairs to the steam locomotives, keep twenty miles of track to class two standards while at the same time continue working on the infrastructure and buildings of the complex. All of this will take millions and millions of dollars.

Will the steam locomotives by themselves bring in the millions required? No, but they are the lynchpin of the plan to raise such money. People come to Ely to see operating steam locomotives. With operating steam locomotives people will make the trek to our little outpost of civilization to experience what an operating steam railroad is like.

The proof is in the ridership figures and income. Since 2002, the railroad has experienced an increase in riders every year; the averaged increase is 20%. Where that is impressive, last year we only carried 13,014 passengers. Our target is 30,000 passengers a year. So we have our work cut out for us. But we will only reach the 30,000 if the steamers keep steaming and that is an open question.

Every time we fire up one of the steamers and use it, we take a little life out of the locomotive. So we need to put some life back into the locomotive. We have an ambitious schedule. This year, for the second year, we will run steam seven days a week from the 4th of July to Labor Day. This schedule will again push the resources of the museum to the limit.

So why do it? Last year the steam-powered trains experienced an 89% increase in ridership over the diesel-powered trains of the previous year. That increase saved our bacon last year. May's numbers took a hit because of three weekend snowstorms.

The increased ridership led to an increase in gift shop sales and increased membership, which equated to increased revenue for the museum. This revenue was plowed back into the operations and a little life was put back into the steamers. But at the end of the year, more life went out than was put back in.

So the race is on. Can we keep the steamers going until the revenue gets to the level where we can put more life into the locomotives than we take out? Again, I think the answer is yes.

 

 

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