By Aaron Isaacs, editor, HeritageRail Alliance
HRA: I’m here with Jason Lamb, General Manager of the Everett Railroad and a HeritageRail Alliance Board member. I want to ask him what it was like to start a tourist train operation on an existing freight railroad. Jason, when did you become involved with the Everett Railroad?
Lamb: I’ve been general manager there for about six years.
HRA: What made you decide to restart a passenger service after so many years of the railroad being freight only?
Lamb: Alan Maples is the president of the railroad and he’s wanted to have a passenger operation for many years. He’s enthusiastic about old time tourist railroads like Strasburg–just your basic tourist railroad with a steam engine, four coaches, out and back. He’s always wanted to do that. He’s owned the railroad about 35 years now and the freight income was stable so he decided now is the time for starting the tourist railroad.
HRA: Was there market research that went into this?
Lamb: Maybe some, but he was going to have a tourist railroad.
HRA: So he came to you and said make that happen?
Lamb: Well, a little more nuanced than that. The previous general manager of the railroad was retiring after 20 years. He had a little bit of tourism experience and I had some tourist railroad and freight experience before that. So that’s one of the reasons why he wanted me. I worked on Disney’s Lone Ranger movie and before that at the Grand Canyon Railway, the Huntsville & Madison County, the Nevada Northern and also the Pacific Harbor Line. I am just one small part of the Everett Railroad team that was able to get our tourist operation off the ground.
HRA: What were the steps you had to take to start up the tourist railroad? I know some of this might be obvious but I think it’s interesting to go through it.
Lamb: We had the track in service for freight, most of it at 20 miles an hour. Of course, FRA serviceable track and track you want passengers to ride over are two different things. From an oversight standpoint there’s not a whole lot of difference but we wanted the track to be as good as we could for the passengers so we’ve done a lot of work to try to smooth out the railroad. That was a big undertaking. At the same location that we had parking we didn’t have a depot and at the location of the depot we didn’t have the land available for parking. So we decided to build a new depot. We ended up having to turn part of our transloading yard into a parking lot. During the week we’re able to transload freight there and do commodities like used oil, fertilizer, feed, lumber and crane mats. The land is our parking lot on the weekends. The rest of the days it’s a freight yard.
HRA: How did you acquire equipment?
Lamb: Before I became involved in the railroad we had most of the equipment. We bought steam locomotive #11 and it took us nine years to get it running. Part of the work was done at Western Maryland Scenic. After we got it back on its wheels using both our shop guys working in Cumberland and the Western Maryland Scenic guys, we brought it up to our shop to finish it. That was quite the undertaking to get a steam engine going. It hadn’t run I believe in 43 years. For coaches we started out using the former Bessemer & Lake Erie combine which had formerly been part of collection at the Pennsylvania Trolley Museum. We did a whole bunch of work here to make it go. The Horseshoe Curve NRHS chapter had three former Lackawanna MU cars and we started out using two of them which has since expanded using a third and we have six former CNJ commuter coaches and we’ve been able to get one of those in service so that’s our fleet now.
HRA: How is the market for this service so far?
Lamb: The Horseshoe Curve NRHS chapter that owned the Lackawanna cars had for a number of years run Christmas time Santa Trains which they had contracted with the railroad to operate. They ran the train and we showed up with the locomotive and pulled it, so they had a customer base built already. We initially leased their cars and ended up buying them. But that provided the start with our customer base. We’re very grateful to them for allowing their hard work to transition into our tourist railroad.
HRA: Are they still running their special events at all or are they just out of the business?
Lamb: They’re out of the business but they help us out. Some of their members volunteer as car hosts on our excursions. The depot staff and the actual operating crew are all employees.
HRA: You’re running weekends?
Lamb: During the summer we run the third weekend of every month. We run an extra weekend for Easter, an extra couple of weekends for pumpkin trains and four weekends for Christmas. We also run special trains and charters as it makes sense to do so. It turns out to be about 40 days a year that we run.
HRA: How many passengers are you carrying?
Lamb: Last year we were just short of 20,000. Right now our employees are stretching to cover the office and freight trains during the week then the depot and passenger trains on the weekend. If we do much more passenger service we’re going to have to get some more people just to cover the passenger operation. Of course that means more cost which means we will have to run more trains and haul more passengers to cover the cost. If we get much bigger than we are now there will be an increase in cost.
HRA: Is the trend line on ridership up or is it stabilizing?
Lamb: We’ve come up every year since we started. We started out I believe with 12,000 passengers. And we’ve come up to 16,000 and in 2018 it was 20,000. We’re hoping for a little more this year without having to run more trains.
HRA: Can you describe how you allocate the costs and how it fits in economically?
Lamb: Most of the track costs are allocated to the freight railroad. So we don’t have to bear the cost of that. The crews spend three quarters or better of their time doing freight related things. We end up having professional railroaders on staff without having 100 percent of their time allocated to passenger service. Running with paid employees gives us a lot better train handling by the engineers and a lot more reliability. With some volunteer operations you wonder if a guy is going to show up on Saturday morning. For the most part, we don’t have that same difficulty with employees.
HRA: Without getting into the financial specifics, would you say since you were tending to break even or run a surplus?
Lamb: We’re tending to break even right now. We’re still doing a lot of improvements to our physical plant and equipment. We’re going to pave our boarding platform this year. The passenger side of the business is bearing that cost. As things stabilize and the plant and equipment gets to where we want it to be I think that we’re going to do better than break even.
Lamb: Our Christmas trains last year were over half our total ridership. We had 3000 or so on our Pumpkin trains and about 2000 for Easter. If you add up our event trains they are three quarters of our ridership. Also we’ve had a few charters.
HRA: Have you thought at all about bringing in licensed special events like Thomas the Tank Engine or Polar Express?
Lamb: We have thought about licensed special events, but it might exceed our current capacity to run trains, especially at Christmas. We would have to have more engineers, firemen and depot staff. We would have so much more overhead and then we would have to give 30 percent of it or whatever the number is to the licensing company. Sometimes 100 percent of a smaller number is better. Freight is still our primary business. We want to be careful that we don’t interfere with that too much.
HRA: Has there been any kind of marketing spillover to your freight business from the visibility of your passenger business?
Lamb: Not that we’re aware of. The freight customers are primarily folks who are physically located on our railroad. They already know what we do. We’ve had a couple of new customers come in over the last couple of years but I don’t think the passenger trains had anything to do with that.
HRA: Do you market the passenger trains?
Lamb: We do market on social media extensively, as well as some print and occasionally other avenues. I am not directly involved in that, Sophia Jones, our Manager of Passenger Excursions takes care of that side of things.
HRA: How does steam compare to diesel for attracting passengers?
Lamb: We haven’t run a lot of diesel trains. The ones we have run have been specifically advertised as a diesel train.
We started last year doing a weekday diesel train. They sold OK. I think the tradeoff in operating costs was well worth it. As I’m sure all your readers are aware, steam is much much much much much more expensive to run. Even if we get half of the customers with the diesel instead of steam we’re probably way ahead. You have to want to run steam, because it’s not going topay for itself, at least not in my experience up to this point.
HRA: Anything you want to add?
Lamb: If you want to run tourist trains you really have to want to do it. It’s a lot of work and unless you’re charging a huge amount of money or you’ve got a good solid destination at the other end it’s tough. Without the freight side of things to borrow infrastructure I don’t see how we could be doing as well as we are.