Excursion trains are nice, but they’ll need subsidies

Sidebar by Allen Best

Transportation – December 1995 – Colorado Central Magazine

When people talk to Stephanie Olsen about scenic excursion trains between Avon and Leadville, she has one question: Who’s going to subsidize them?

As co-owner of the Leadville, Colorado & Southern, she oversees an operation that has hauled tourists on the 22-mile round trip from Leadville to Climax for the past nine years. She averages 15,000 riders during the four-month season, and this year charged $18.50 a head. That’s $275,000 in revenue.

There is some profit. But she points out that she and her husband, Kenneth, paid Burlington Northern just $10 for their railroad. They got two locomotives, a round-house, and the track and right-of-way to Climax. They also got flat-bed cars, which they refashioned into passenger cars.

New locomotives, such as those used by Southern Pacific on the Royal Gorge route, cost $1 million, and used engines cost from $100,000 to $500,000.

Then there are ongoing expenses. “It’s hard to believe how much maintenance track takes,” she says. “We inspect our track every day. We have to.”

Track moves — because it’s in the sun, and because engines roll over it. And that’s with a light train. Their passenger cars weigh 25 tons; a standard passenger car weighs four times as much.

For just 11 miles of track, they have a four-person maintenance crew. “Tennessee Pass is worse, because every time you have a bridge or tunnel, you’re talking about a great deal more money to maintain it,” Olsen says.

Colorado has an abundance of excursion trains. Best known is the Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge which attracts 197,000 riders a year to be pulled by ash-and-cinder-spewing steam engines 41 miles up the Animas River to Silverton at $42.70 for an adult round trip. Amos Cordova, public relations director, said the train, running four trips daily, does a good business. He declined to release specific figures, but indicated it makes a good profit.

The Georgetown Loop Railroad carries 100,000 passengers a year and the Cumbres and Toltec carries 70,000.

More profitable than passengers is freight. The railroads have said that for years, and Olsen concurs. She points to the Montana Rail Link, a short-line railroad that bridges major lines — and makes a major profit. One Amtrak train can have 45 crew members; most freight trains now only require two crew members.

While freely acknowledging that she sees an excursion train from the Eagle Valley to Leadville as competition, Olsen also has philosophical doubts. She doesn’t want Leadville to evolve into a mere arm of the Vail Valley tourism economy. She wants people to go to Leadville for what it already has to offer: a separate and distinct identity.

— Allen Best