Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The High Cost of Big Steam Excursions

Thus far, the summer of 2016 has been a great one for excursions pulled by larger steam locomotives. We’ve had several runs of the 611, a doubleheaded run pulled by the 630 and 4501, several excursions with the 1225 at the head, and the promise of the Union Pacific team program sticking a toe back in the water this coming July. The streak of good fortune was partially broken last week, though, with the cancellatio
n of two trains between Chicago and Galesburg, Illinois.

It was a disappointing announcement, particularly since this train would have departed from Chicago Union Station. The 765’s operators implicated low ticket sales and a shorter-than-ideal window to market the trip for the cancellation. Critics fired back with an almost unified response: If ticket prices weren’t so high, over a hundred dollars even for a basic coach seat, then more people would have purchased tickets.

This is a common criticism of any excursion, not just this one, and admittedly, they have a point. Ticket prices for excursion trains are high, and they do price many people out of riding, especially those who would like to take a whole family along. Where the critics are wrong is in implying that ticket prices are inflated across the board. In most cases, the high ticket prices reflect the very real challenges of operating steam in the twenty first century. This blog post will attempt to illuminate some of the general costs associated with running excursions and break down what, exactly, drives ticket prices up so high.

First, a caveat: The numbers thrown around in this post will remain somewhat general, because no two tourist railroads or excursion operators travel over the same geographic territory or operate the same equipment. As a general rule of thumb, though, the larger the locomotive, the longer the train, and the greater the duration of the trip, the more costs increase.

With that said, the preserved steam locomotives  locomotives themselves present the first significant set of costs. They begin to siphon away money before they even begin to raise steam: Before an excursion, operators must put up the manpower and materials to ensure that it is in good working order and have it certified as such. Small repairs and replacements of the components which take the most wear will be common through the rest of its operating life.

Once a particular locomotive is deemed worthy for the tracks, the real costs begin to pile up. Steam locomotives are fundamentally inefficient machines--it was that which led to their withdrawal, more than any failing of strength or speed--and they require fuel and water in significant quantities.

It isn’t possible to nail down a steam locomotive’s exact fuel usage rate in the way that a road vehicle’s miles-per-gallon can be calculated, since their operation is much more variable according to working conditions, the chemical constitution of the fuel, and the skill of their operators. Even with the engine operating at its most efficient, though, the fuel will be required in significant quantities.

I reached out to the 765 operators to see if they could offer numbers to put a better perspective on exactly how much fuel goes up the stack during average operations.  According to them, the 765 can travel approximately 7 miles on a ton of coal (which, to visualize, would compact down to a cube about six and a half feet in dimensions.) They stressed that the number varies, but in any case, fuel composes a substantial portion of their operating costs. The modern coal industry is designed around customers which order hundreds of thousands of tons of coal per year, and by the time delivery is factored in, smaller quantities of coal like those needed by tourist railroads are substantially more expensive than market rate. It is not uncommon for tourist railroads to pay more than $200 dollars per ton of coal. Oil fired steam locomotives are comparatively costly: Even a mid-sized locomotive will swallow up about 6-700 gallons of fuel on a roughly fifty mile round trip, and the specific grades of fuel typically use average $2-3 dollars per gallon.

Steam locomotives also require incredible quantities of water. Water itself is cheap-- pennies per gallon if accessed from the local municipal water system--accessing it in the appropriate quantities and arranging for it to be delivered to the specific place where the excursion plans to pause can be an expensive and research-intensive process. Organizations that do not have the flexibility of carrying more than one tender must contract trucks to bring in water or pay a deposit to access water from fire hydrants. As with fuel, the cost of the water itself is complicated by the process of getting it to the locomotive itself.

Steam locomotives also require a number of other substances in the course of operations--sand for traction and cleaning the flues, chemicals to reduce the water from foaming or scaling in the boiler, several different kinds of grease to lubricate the running gear. None of these are required in the same quantities as fuel or water but, because they are highly specific substances, can still be expensive to purchase.

Every coach added to the consist, likewise, has costs associated with its operation that go above and beyond just making the engine work harder and burn more fuel to pull the additional weight. In advance of each excursion, they also must be supplied with fuel for their generators, water and chemical treatment for their plumbing, and the appropriate repairs to keep them in track worthy condition. Excursion coaches that are intended to operate on mainline tracks must meet especially stringent requirements, since they must be compatible with the machines used to automatically detect and classify contemporary freight equipment. For their operators, of course, that translates into a much higher overhead on any excursions.

Some excursion hosts may choose to rent passenger coaches from private individuals or other organizations to make up their train or provide additional capacity, but the cost of renting each one, and of moving them onto the organization’s grounds, can run into the tens of thousands of dollars.

Simply keeping equipment in proper shape for an excursion is an accomplishment in its own right, but another financial barrier appears before the train can actually begin to move.
Furthermore, the organizations which own larger locomotives tend not to own the tracks on which they operate. While this removes the burden of keeping the tracks and associated infrastructure in good condition from their shoulders, the “rent” that organizations pay to access the tracks isn’t cheap-- the 765 group estimated that track fees were a whole 75% of their operating costs for the Galesburg excursions.

Ownership of the tracks conveys few financial benefits for the organizations that do own the infrastructure, other than greater freedom to schedule events as they please, because that organization must also assume the financial responsibility for repairing and maintaining the tracks. The costs are particularly high for narrow gauge railroads, as the difference in gauge prevents them from offsetting costs by permitting occasional freight trains or offering up seldom-used portions of their track for storage of excess freight cars as standard-gauge tourist railroads do.  

Finally, there is the cost of insurance.  Any tourist railroad must keep a policy in place to protect its equipment against damage or destruction, as well as possible injuries suffered by crews and passengers. Having a robust policy--sometimes one approaching a million dollars--is usually a prerequisite for venturing out onto tracks that the excursion operator does not own.

All of the factors noted in this post combine to make running steam excursions and tourist railroads an expensive business to be in. While the ticket price might look exploitative on the surface, it does reflect the actual cost of doing business: Even at a high price point, many operators only make a slim profit per passenger.

We are unfortunately unlikely to see any loosening of regulations or special considerations being given to excursions and tourist operations, even though interest in heritage operations seems to be growing. In the mean time, the best way to support those programs is to purchase a ticket. Most organizations are also registered as non-profits and will accept donations.