Creators of the online marketplaces that match buyers and sellers of used motor oil sometimes say that black is the new green.
For Thomas Gray, it’s the new headache.
Gray, who runs the historic Virginia & Truckee Railroad from its headquarters at Virginia City, relies on used motor oil to fire the locomotives that haul passenger cars through the mining community.
And it’s not nearly as cheap as it used to be.
In fact, his father often was able to get used motor oil for free from automotive repair shops during the first years that the railroad began running.
Bob Gray rebuilt tracks in the Virginia City area and got the tourist attraction into operation in 1976. Free or nearly-free fuel helped bootstrap the heritage railroad as it offered 35-minute round-trips several times a day between Virginia City and Gold Hill.
In those days, Thomas Gray says, the railroad sometimes bought used oil by the truckload, dealing in a market that was exclusively local.
“Now everybody wants waste oil,” Gray said.
The development of online marketplaces and the construction of storage and processing facilities that allowed for nationwide shipments of used oil pushed prices up to $1.70 or $1.85 a gallon.
That’s a burden for the little railroad. It can use as much as 500 gallons a day on the weekends that its locomotives work under contract with the state commission that reconstructed the track that allows passengers to travel from the east edge of Carson City to the mining towns of the Comstock.
The recession that followed the financial crisis of 2008 didn’t help matters either. The economic slowdown meant less used oil came onto the market, and prices stayed up.
The V&T Railroad has managed to buffer itself — at least a little — from the vicissitudes of the market through the use of some 1920s-era tank cars.
The cars provide a little more historic flavor to the V&T’s shop at Virginia City, and they allow Gray to store as much as 40,000 gallons of oil if he’s able to nab a bargain in the market.
(A historic note: While many folks think that steam locomotives burned coal, that was true only on the East Coast, where coal is abundant. In the West, early-day locomotives burned wood, but fairly quickly moved to more-efficient, more-abundant oil.)
To help overcome its rising costs, the V&T Railroad Co. runs a nearly constant stream of special events — Civil War trains with riders in costume on Labor Day, trips down to the pumpkin patch in October, the Candy Cane Christmas Express during December.
Still, no one is getting rich from the V&T Railroad.
But Gray and his staff of 30 employees find other satisfactions beyond money in their work. Among the biggest reward: Preservation of workplace skills that otherwise might slip away.
On one recent afternoon, Ed Gallegos, a veteran fireman, proudly explains how he carefully monitors the fuel valve and atomizer valve that deliver a flow of oil to fire a 1914-era steam locomotive just right.
Gray, meanwhile, takes particular pride in the wicker seat coverings in a passenger car that dates from before World War I.
Experts at an East Coast trolley museum taught workers at the V&T how to soak wicker and glue to a canvas backing to create historically accurate seating, and the wicker shines in the afternoon sun.
Gray often reaches far afield to find experts in with specialized skills in maintenance and repair of historic rolling stock.
“These people aren’t in the phone books,” he said.
Not that the shops of the V&T are exclusively the haunts of old-timers.
Gray says young workers — some of them just out of high school — are learning the skills and developing a new generation’s love of steam power.