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Steaming Daily

Every morning at 9:30 a.m. a glimpse of history unfolds at the East Ely Depot. A steam powered passenger train whistles off from the depot and heads back in time. Either steam locomotive 93 or 40 heads out of town with another load of passengers.

The last year that the Nevada Northern Railway ran daily steam passenger trains was 1941. Now, sixty-four years later, a steam-powered passenger train heads out of the East Ely Depot daily.

Daily steam trains did not just happen. The idea actually started three and a half years ago. The museum was caught in the classic squeeze play. The easiest way for the museum to raise revenue is to run trains. But running trains takes locomotives, crews, tracks, servicing facilities, passenger cars, phone systems, tickets, marketing and, most importantly, a desire to succeed.

When daily running was suggested three years and a half years ago, eyes were rolled. We didn’t have enough of anything, including money. Yet the preservation and maintenance of the complex was going to take a great deal of one thing—money. And money could be raised by running trains, but we didn’t have enough of . . .  It was a circular argument. We broke the circle by drawing up plans—asking what if and developing a program of raising the bar.

Now in the summer of 2005, the year before the Centennial of the railroad, three trains a day head out. The operating season now starts in April and goes through December. This is all well and good. But three trains a day put tremendous stress on the locomotives, equipment, and staff and the bottom line question is: is it worth it?

The short answer: yes it is. If we compare 2001 with 2004, the answer is a resounding yes. In 2001, the museum carried 6,359 passengers. Last year we carried 12,415 passengers. So far this year we are at 7,188 passengers, which is ahead of last year’s record.

Great, so you are carrying a lot of passengers, but are you making any money? Answer, yes and no. I know that sounds like a weaseling answer, but we do have special circumstances. First off, we are a non-profit corporation, so we don’t need to make a profit per se, but we need to cover expenses. Second, we are battling at least twenty-five years of little to no maintenance. Sometimes we need to spend money we don’t have to preserve a building or artifact. That all being said, at the end of the day, like any other business, we need to be in the black. After all, the museum does have payroll to make; while the staff is very dedicated, they still need to eat and pay bills. IOU’s won’t cut it.

Continuing with our comparison of 2001 to 2004, let’s start with income. The museum has two different flavors of income: operating income and grant income. In 2001 operating income was $285,799; in 2004 the operating income is $577,845, and this year we running 22% ahead of last year. Our grant income was $126,411 in 2001 versus $242,544 last year. All totaled, in 2001 the museum took in $412,210 versus $820,389 last year—almost double the amount of money. So the income side of the ledger looks excellent, but how about the expenses?

Our biggest expenses are labor and fuel. Let’s look at labor first. In 2001, the museum spent $203,663 on labor and $83,440 with consultants for a total of $287,103. Last year we spent $294,955 on labor with zero on consultants. We doubled income and raised payroll 3%. But more importantly, by not spending the money on the consultants we were able to increase the staff, and even more importantly, the skill levels of the staff. To illustrate this point, when stay bolts broke on locomotive 40 this summer, we were able to make the repairs in-house. No. 40 was back in service in a week. However, fuel increased from $12,107 to $48,677, and, of course, it will be higher this year.

Overall expenses in 2001 were $937,387; last year they were $852,140. In short, we increased revenues and lowered expenses. So how was the bottom line? In 2001, the museum ended the year $590,606 in the hole. Last year we ended the year $65,004 in the hole. While it is nice to have increased the bottom line by over a half million dollars, we were still in the hole last year. Right now, the museum is just $10,000 in the hole. Our goal is to end the year in the black. It might only be by a penny; but we are on track to make it. (Pun intended.)

The risk that the museum has taken over the past three years is paying off. We have a dynamite staff in place that has a high level of expertise in steam railroading. Our secret weapon though is our volunteers. Without them, we would not be positioned to break even, as we are now. These hard working individuals are the reason that we can run so many trains, which brings in so much of the revenue that allows us to preserve and maintain this complex.

The combined efforts of the staff and the volunteers are allowing us to catch up on the maintenance needed for the complex. As we go into our Centennial year, we are positioned to be in the black and have an aggressive excursion program that will raise more money that can be in turn be invested in locomotives, crews, tracks, servicing facilities, passenger cars, phone systems, tickets, and marketing, which will then bring in more revenue for investment into locomotives, etc., etc. This is the type of circular argument that I like.

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Hours of Operation

Monday - Saturday | 8AM - 5PM
Sunday | 8AM - 4PM

Our Location

1100 Ave A, Ely, NV 89301

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