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The Eye of a Newt

Last July I wrote, “Here we are in the mist of our busiest season ever and people want to know when the trains will run next year. So let’s 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.”

Well, here it is December 2005, so how did we do? Short answer Great! 2005 was a pivotal year for the museum. We learned a lot. We learned that we can operate seven days a week with steam. We learned that people will come if we run the trains. The months of June, July and August brought in 6,968 riders. Compared to a historical average annual ridership of just 5,069, we are really making progress.

For the past six years, the museum has experienced an increase in ridership every year. As it stands right now, 2005 will be another record-breaking year. When the smoke clears, our ridership for the year will be around 14,000.

Where 14,000 riders is a stunning accomplishment, it is not quite half of where we need to be. For the museum to cover all of its operational costs, we need to carry at least 30,000 passengers a year.

The museum is a caught in a classic squeeze play. Like any other business, we have fixed costs that must be covered. Throw in excursion trains and those fixed costs go up higher and then through in steam powered excursion trains and those costs go through the roof.

Yet, the only way we can raise revenue is by operating trains and it is the steam train experience that entices people to drive hundreds of miles to Ely. The balancing act is how many steam trains can we afford to operate versus how much revenue they bring in? That is the $640,000 question. (It was the $64,000 question, but I took inflation into account.)

Corollaries to the $640,000 question are:

1. Do we have enough qualified individuals to operate daily steam trains?
2. Are we wearing out the track and equipment too fast?
3. Can we get the level of reliability to a level that will support operations?
4. Do we have the trained individuals to maintain steam locomotives in a cost effective method?

This year we operated steam trains daily. This daily operation taught all of us a lot. One of the lessons was that we all need to increase our level of aptitude in locomotive operations and train operations. This again is a Catch 22 situation. The only way to increase our aptitude is by handling more trains, by handling more trains we increase our level of proficiency. Secondly, we need to make sure that everyone is trained to the higher level. This will be become more of a challenge as we enter 2006.

In regards to wearing out the track and equipment too fast, the answer is a conditional no. The track we received from Kennecott is in good shape with heavy rail. It was designed for running ore trains on a heavy daily schedule. The lightweight passenger equipment puts hardly any stress on it. The track does need maintenance. It needs ballast, tie replacement, tamping and leveling. It would need these things even if we ran only a few trains a year.

On the locomotives, they go by time rather than miles. A case in point is locomotive 204. Every 92 days a diesel locomotive needs to be serviced. Regardless of the amount of miles it has operated. In this case, 204 has less than 100 miles on it, since its last 92-day inspection. But the inspection still needs to be done. With steam locomotives, it’s the amount of steam days and the numbers of days the tubes are in the locomotive. There is an extreme case of a locomotive that will need to have new tubes installed because it’s the end of the mandatory tube time of fifteen years. Yet in those fifteen years it operated less than a year worth of steaming days, yet for the locomotive to continue to operate, it will need new tubes. Bottom line it’s either use it or loss it, when it comes to locomotives.

Then there is the question of skilled help to keep the equipment running. There just aren’t that many steam people left in the country. And the pool of qualified, knowledgeable steam people is even smaller. Luckily, we have one of the best in the country on our staff, David Griner. Dave’s responsibilities include keeping the equipment functional and teaching the staff and volunteers the nuances of the intricacies of steam locomotive management. Our goal is to develop a maintenance program that will give us a high level of reliability for operations.

So in a nutshell, 2005 was a pivotal year. The schedule that was developed eighteen months ago is paying off. We learned a lot and accomplished a lot. By building on our successes from this year, next year (our centennial year) should see us further along towards our goal of carrying 30,000 passengers a year. It will be a challenge to reach this goal, but it is doable. And once accomplished, it will build up the financial strength of the museum.
It promises to be an interesting journey and you are invited to participate. I encourage you to join the museum and volunteer at the museum. We will need all of the help that we can get, so join up!

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

Our Location

1100 Ave A, Ely, NV 89301

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