Who will run the rails?

When Bob Gray was building the Virginia & Truckee Railroad from Gold Hill to Virginia City in the mid-1970s, he thought that he could operate the reconstructed line all the way down to Carson City. But with age comes wisdom.

Gray, who is in his 80s, said Tuesday that he would like to see the reconstructed V&T Railway operated by a qualified third party. His family-owned and operated railroad is about two miles long. Officials project that the entire 18-mile tourist rail line will be completed in 2009. The railway will operate with a steam locomotive. Gray's railroad is traversed by a diesel engine.

"They need somebody with a background," said Gray from his Orinda, Calif., home. "I just don't want to get involved that much."

The Nevada Commission for the Reconstruction of the V&T Railway will have to decide soon when and who it will hire as the rail's professional operator.

Jeff Jackson, senior vice president and chief operating officer of American Heritage Railways, said the commission should look for an operator that understands public-private partnerships. It should also know how to run a business that must support itself, rather than depending on public monies.

"The most important thing is to make sure that you select an operator that is experienced," said Jackson. "This is an unique industry and a lot of operators out there, their passion exceeds their experience.

"Given the investment and what has been put into your railroad, you have to find an operator with passion, but equally so they should be qualified business people."

American Heritage is the parent company of the successful Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. He said that railroad carries 200,000 people a year in a community of about 15,000 residents. Its local economic impact a year is $110 million, Jackson said. In a year, the railroad grosses about $10 million.

The V&T is projected to make about $2 million, with operating costs of about $2 million, according to the 1994 V& T feasibility report.

Commissioner Janice Ayres said some longtime supporters of the V&T may balk at turning the railway over to an outside operator, but it's all about qualifications. She said the commission has never anticipated that the railway would be locally operated.

"If we don't have the best operator in the world, who knows how to operate a railroad, we would be doing the taxpayers a disservice," she said.

The reconstructed V&T has been funded by federal and state monies and private contributions. Carson City supervisors approved an eighth-cent sales tax increase for the V&T last week. The tax will raise $15 million of the $34.2 million total construction cost.

Carson City Mayor Marv Teixeira, who also sits on the V&T board, said it has an operating agreement with the Grays. When the steam train starts operating between Carson and Virginia cities, the commission will probably pay a licensing fee to the V&T Railroad. Neither Gray nor Teixeira are willing to project when the commission would buy Gray's 1.8 miles of track.

"We might do nothing more than purchase the name and give them a licensing agreement for a number of years where they can charge per head for running (the steam locomotive) on their track," Teixeira said. "For 30 years the Grays have been doing it. They've made a large investment in tunnels and track and equipment. We want to make sure that we do right by them."

Teixeira attended a tourist train convention in Chattanooga, Tenn., recently and found four operators who are "very interested" in the V&T. One of them is American Heritage Railways.

Several V&T commissioners would like to see an operator selected in the next year.

n Contact reporter Becky Bosshart at bbosshart@nevadaappeal.com or 881-1212.


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