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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

 


What Are We?
20 October 2006

In discussions with staff the other day, the question came up: what are we? Are we a railroad masquerading as a museum or a museum masquerading as a railroad?

Good question; the answer to this question determines how we do things. For example, the Hancock inspirator on locomotive 93 has been giving us fits all summer. The inspirator is similar to an injector in that both devices put water into the boiler. In layman's terms, every time the locomotive wheels go round, some steam is used, which lowers the water level in the boiler and of course this water must be replaced. The tender carries water for this purpose and it is either the injector—or the inspirator—which replaces the expended water. The boiler is under pressure, so the delivery system must overcome that pressure to replace the water. If these devices don't work then the locomotive needs to drop its fire pronto.

So there we were; No. 93 was out of service because we could not inject water into the boiler. And of course, the Hancock Inspirator Company has been out of business for decades. So what to do? We discussed buying new injectors from China or from the Strasburg Railroad, or using Penberthy injectors. We finally decided to go with the Penberthy injectors as they are still being manufactured in the U.S. and they had a model that would work for our locomotive. This was the plan.

Then it was asked: aren't we a living museum? Shouldn't we be able to figure out a way to make the Hancock inspirator work? At this same time we discovered the Penberthy injectors were not quite the solution that we had hoped for as their installation would require us to spend a couple of thousand dollars to re-plumb the locomotive in order to make them work. So that was the situation: the old units were shot, the factory was history, and using Penberthy injectors would force us to modify the plumbing on the locomotive—not an ideal solution to our pressing problem and an added expense to boot.

So the decision was made to cancel the Penberthy order and take another look at the worn out Hancock units. That task is a another story for another time; the point being made here is that we decided that we are indeed a museum and that we need to do our best to maintain the locomotives as they were given to us and in the same manner in which the original shop workers would have done.

This situation quite accurately pointed out the need for us to develop a plan on how we do things. The museum has never had a plan; as we're twenty-two years old, now is the time for us to tackle that task.

Why develop a plan? In addition to the true story you just read, it is a proven fact that a plan is vital to the continued growth of any business or organization, including (and most especially) our museum. Thus far, the plan that the museum has been following has not ever been printed or disseminated—it's been floating around in my head. And bluntly put, that plan is incomplete and may not be right for the museum. So we need a plan that all of our stakeholders can participate in. By having a plan that is developed by everyone involved with this railroad, most, if not all of the contingencies will be covered and it will give all of us a modicum of ownership in the future of the museum.

Also, by having a plan we can finally stop acting like overworked fireman putting out a continuous series of brush fires. As the old saying goes, "When you are up to your rear-end in alligators, it's hard to remember that your job is to drain the swamp." We need a pro-active plan, which takes into consideration future difficulties as well as a map for growth.

Ok, so we know that an overall plan would give us guidance for the development of the museum. What type of plan do we need? I'm sure that you have all heard terms and catch phrases thrown about such as development plan, sustainability planning, marketing plan, preservation plan, financial plan, and strategic plan. The plan I have in mind would be comprehensive in that it would incorporate all of the above and would serve as a bible for the museum.

Why write all aspects into one plan? Because everything we do is interlocked. People come to Ely to ride behind the steamers. If the steamers are not operating, our ridership (and revenue) goes down. Yet the question must be asked: "What is the cost of using the steamers and are they paying for themselves?"

What should be the hours of operation of the museum be? How would changes affect both what we do and the money we receive? How and what do we market in the future? What sort of future special and recurring events should we be looking at and how are they supported by the various departments? How many people do we need to do all of the tasks that need doing? How do we increase our outreach for more volunteers? Are we ready for access to more trackage than we have ever had before? What are the priorities? As you can surmise, the list of questions goes on and on and on.

A case in point is the preservation issue. Every time we use the steamers, we use up some of the locomotive. So are we preserving the steamers by using them? If we use locomotive 40 so much that we need a new boiler for that locomotive, is the new locomotive still locomotive 40?

This is similar to the conundrum of my great grandfather's axe that I still use. During its lifetime, my great grandfather's axe has had the head replaced thee times and the handle replaced six. Is it still my great grandfather's axe? Without getting into a philosophical debate, this is a question we need to answer or at least define. And it is a complex one.

It is asked, "Why not hire someone to do the plan for us?" It has been my experience that when you hire a consultant, the first thing they do is give you a list of things to do. You do the list and then they give you a new list. By the time it is done, you've written the report but their name is on it, along with an expensive invoice for services rendered. All too often, when non-profit organizations and local governments hire planning consultants, the plans end up laying in a drawer somewhere. As we near the end of the process, we will need to seek professional help, primarily to make sure we haven't missed anything and to analyze what we have done.

As we go through this planning process, we will have to examine our sacred cows. This will undoubtedly become a little contentious at times. We will not agree on everything, so we agree to disagree. When we do disagree, we need do so in a dispassionate and civilized manner and learn something from each other in the process. This is how consensus is built.

It promises to be an interesting journey. It will be hard and at times even seem hopeless. At other times, we will be elated as we complete a piece of the puzzle and can move on to a new challenge. By the end of the journey, we will have a document that will make our lives easier. It will be a road map that will set the tone for our future.

In the coming weeks and months, you'll see more on the plan. Everyone is invited to participate. So put on your thinking caps and imagine what the future of the museum could be like. And think about how we can get from the here to that future. Then document your thoughts and send them to me.

 

 

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