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"At The Throttle"
by Mark Bassett, Executive Director

A weekly series of columns originally published in the Saturday edition of the Ely Times 
Mark Bassett is the Executive Director of the White Pine Historical 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

 


A Peek at 2005
23 July 2004


 

Well it has already happened, we have already received the first requests for the 2005 schedule. I know I shouldn't be surprised but I am. Here we are in the mist of our busiest season ever and people want to know when the trains will run next year. So lets put a kettle on the fire and take a peek in the crystal ball and develop next year's schedule.

In developing the schedule we are caught in the classic conundrum of the chicken and the egg, which came first? In our case, it is, do we schedule trains and hope to build a larger passenger base? In other words if we schedule trains will they come? Throw the eye of a newt in the kettle; crystal ball is still very cloudy.

Looking at the results of this season, it would appear that when we have trains running, they will come. Then the next part of the equation is, will the train operations pay for themselves? This is where it gets a little tricky. The rule of thumb that we have developed is that for a diesel train to make money we need at least five passengers. The steam is different, because of the tremendous costs in operating steam; we need fifty passengers to break even. (As a historical note, this is why steam was replaced so fast by diesels.) Throw in another eye of a newt, in the kettle; crystal ball is still cloudy.

 

 

Passengers boarding train at the East Ely depot

The management of the Nevada Northern Railway
Museum uses a very scientific method to develop
the annual train schedule. Successful use of this
prediction model will increase the number of
passengers that the railroad carries. So far
ridership is up 70% this year.

 

At this point, I need to point out that these breakeven numbers are based on using a volunteer train crew. To get a train up the hill and back again it takes at least six people for a diesel train and seven people for a steam train. If paid employees were substituted for the volunteers then it would be a whole new ballgame. So the schedule needs to be developed in such a way that we don't burn out the volunteers. For without the volunteers the schedule would be cut way back. Throw a dragon's scale and a used volunteer's glove in the kettle; crystal ball is clearing slightly, but still cloudy.

As we weigh steam versus diesel another factor needs to be thrown in. In past years 70% of our passengers rode behind the steam locomotive. And steam powered only 30% of the trains. In short, people come to Ely to ride behind the steam locomotive, yet the steam locomotive costs 10 times more to operate then the diesel locomotive. Throw in another dragon's scale and volunteer's glove in the kettle; crystal ball is clearing just a little bit more, but still cloudy.

Reviewing the ridership of this year so far, the stand out was the month of May. We started the season two weeks earlier than we have in the past and it paid off. May had a 139% increase in riders this year. So let's build on this success and push the start of the season back another two weeks, and start it, the third weekend in April. Throw in a griffin's beak in the kettle; crystal ball is clearing just a touch more, but it's still cloudy.

Last year, we started operating six days a week after Memorial Day. In reviewing the operations of other tourist railroads, we find, they start their daily operations in the middle of May. So…maybe we should start daily operations in May? Since we mentioned daily operations, we might as well tackle that nut at this time. This year we operate six days a week, with no operations on Tuesdays. This gives the staff a break and a chance to make any repairs to the equipment that we may be needed. On the flip side of the coin, people who come to Ely probably don't understand or care why there are no trains operating on Tuesdays. They're just disappointed. So is this the year we go to seven day a week operations? Throw in another griffin's beak in the kettle, add more coal to the fire; crystal ball is clearing just a touch more, but now it's slightly cloudy.

For the 2004 schedule, we added daily operations for the month of September. But since we haven't got to September yet, we have no idea, if that was a prudent move. If it was a prudent move, we need to keep that schedule. If it wasn't, it will need changing, oh well there is always the 2006 schedule. Throw in two of Pegasus' feathers into the kettle, add more coal to the fire; crystal ball is clearing some more, a plan is almost visible.

The schedule on Saturdays needs to be reviewed. On Saturday we have two steam trains back to back. The railroad offers a combination ticket that lets the ticket holder travel both routes. So let's change Saturday's schedule where the first train is steam then diesel, then steam again followed by diesel. Throw in two more of Pegasus' feathers into the kettle, add more coal to the fire, and hit the bellows. The crystal ball is clearing; a plan is coming into view.

Then there's the Ping-Pong trains, what do we do with them? The Ping-Pong just started. On some days ridership is good and on some days ridership is poor. Currently, the Ping-Pong trains are operating Fridays through Mondays. What do we do with them next year? Throw a witch's wart into the kettle, add more coal to the fire and pump the bellows harder. The crystal ball is clearing; a plan is coming into view.

Throw in two more eyes of a newt, another witch's wart, a griffin's beak, four more Pegasus' feathers, a heavy dash of steam oil, a volunteer's engineer's hat, a volunteer's sweaty, stained shirt, diesel oil and two volunteer applications. Throw more coal onto the fire, pump the bellows harder, the kettle is beginning to boil over, the crystal ball is clearing; and…we…have…a…schedule for 2005!

To review here's the schedule for next year, which is the start of our Centennial Celebration. April 23, 2005 is the first day of operations for the Nevada Northern Railway Museum. The museum will operate weekends until May 16th, when we will start daily operations with a morning train. Then starting after Memorial Day, we will increase to two trains a day, with four on Saturdays. In July and August we will operate steam daily on the morning train. We will hold this schedule until Labor Day, when we will cut back to one train a day through the end of September, but keep four trains on Saturday. October will have weekend operations. November will still have the Thanksgiving food train and the Polar Express trains. Finally we will wrap up the year with Polar Express trains the first two weekends in December.

In addition to the scheduled trains, we will fold in the locomotive rentals and the photo specials. So for the start of our Centennial Celebration we will be operating an expanded schedule, which should bring in more tourists and riders.

Now, you've had a glimpse of the scientific method that is used in the preparing of the annual schedule. It's not a pretty picture. This was the methodology used last year and our ridership for this year is up over 70%.

Just one last note, no living or mythical creatures were harmed in the production of the 2005 schedule.

 

 


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