Even the best railroads require heavy subsidies

To the editor:

Dan Mecklenburg’s recent letter on the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad piqued my interest. After doing some research on this little jewel, I found out that indeed it does have a yearly rider base of 40,000 customers. The original steam locomotives are used to pull the passenger cars through what is probably the most scenic route in America. The train climbs up the 10,000-foot Cumbres Pass, the highest mountain pass reached by train in the United States, and also passes through the Toltec Gorge (thus its namesake). The train traverses over canyon trestles, hugs sheer rock cliffs, passes through mountain tunnels and two national forests (Rio Grande and Carson). The train passes by original buildings from the Old West, and sightings of deer, elk and bear are plentiful. Scenery along the route of our railroad corridor is going to drastically pale in comparison.

Adult tickets to ride this train range in price from $89 to $149. As stated, the train has a yearly rider base of 40,000 customers. There is a nonprofit organization called Friends of the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad that raised more than $2 million (as of 2011) to help fund this railroad. And yet, this railroad does not sustain itself. The railroad is jointly owned and heavily subsidized by the states of New Mexico and Colorado. The states do not operate the railroad but offer a proposal (ctsrr.com/news/2011/07-29-11RFP/RFPaddendum.pdf) giving three different options to any interested parties that want to do so. Operations have changed hands a few times.

If you go to the above website, the proposal informs you that the two states have provided significant financial support, mostly for capital expenditures.

They then hope any operator will be able to cover operating expenses of the railroad. Below is a paragraph pulled directly from the proposal:

“Long Range Goals: The Commission has adopted the goal of growing annual ridership from the current level of approximately 40,000 to at least 60,000, comparable to that obtained, on average, in the period 1997-2001. Revenues resulting from this level of ridership should make the railroad self-sustaining for both operating and normal capital needs in addition to providing acceptable compensation for the operator or lessor. The winning proposer will be expected to incorporate this goal in the development of its business plan.”

This railroad, scenery-wise and Old West nostalgia-wise, has everything going for it that the Adirondack Scenic Railroad cannot even come close to touching – and this railroad still cannot sustain itself. Do we, the taxpayers of New York state, really want to go here?

Tony Elrod