Who will operate V&T Railway? | NevadaAppeal.com

Who will operate V&T Railway?

Becky Bosshart
Appeal Staff Writer
The Sierra Dinner Train approaches Cooperstown, Calif. The excursion train has several different tourism venues, such as a murder-mystery show, Christmas train and a "raft and rail" ride. Visit the railroad online at www.sierrarailroad.com. Submitted photo

The operating contract of the 18-mile Virginia & Truckee Railway is between two established companies: American Heritage Railways, known internationally for operating the popular 50-mile steam train between Durango and Silverton, in Colorado, and Sierra Railroad Co., a Northern California company that operates three tourism trains.

This is potentially one of the most important decisions in the reconstruction project. A rail operator will influence what the Carson City depot will look like and such details as tickets price and souvenirs, all things of great interest to train fans and the 160,000 tourists a year this railway is expected to attract once it’s completed in 2010.

On Monday, the state commission reconstructing the historic rail will meet to discuss the two companies and decide who’s qualified to submit a full business plan. As project coordinator Kevin Ray said, both are qualified and are the only ones to show interest in the project.

The V&T Railroad, which operates two miles between Gold Hill and its Virginia City depot, is interested in partnering with the company awarded the contract.

Executives from both companies said the V&T is the only scenic railroad that they know of that is being built with public funds and overseen by a state board, which is one reason they were interested in the contract.

“I think the competition will bring the best out of the potential operators,” said commission Chairman Bob Hadfield. “They know they have to put their best food forward, be creative and innovative to achieve the goal of having the commission select them to operate the railroad.”

Since American Heritage and Sierra are both qualified, commissioners will ask each company what they will contribute to the $40 million V&T before they make their final decision. Commissioners want an operator who will bring cash and rolling stock to the deal, what they would consider the best use of taxpayers’ money.

“The Durango & Silverton is American Heritage and they are a very, very successful tourist railroad,” said V&T Commissioner John Tyson. “They are one of the most successful in the country.”

Tyson is a locomotive engineer on the Nevada Northern Railroad in Ely and sits on the nine-member board.

“They are greatly responsible for maintaining the two cities of Durango and Silverton. The are business savvy, so I will be anxious to see what they bring to the table.

“Sierra also has a very successful operation, but you don’t hear too much about them. They are business savvy and they’ve been in business for a long, long time. Both are contenders and have a very good business record. Any one of them under the right circumstances can do very well. But it’s going to depend on what they can bring to the table.”

Mayor Marv Teixeira, who also sits on the board, said both operators will make presentations to the board after they submit business plans, which will be followed by negotiations. It could take another two to three months to select the operator.

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

The company: American Heritage Railways

Its history: The company formed in 1998, at about the time it purchased the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. Owners are Al and Carol Harper.

The executive: Jeff Jackson, senior vice president, American Heritage Railways

Experience: He went from running a public rail transportation agency in Florida to heading the Durango operation in 1997.

Trains: The Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad operated the Durango line until 1981. It sold to Charles Bradshaw, who then renamed it and sold it to the Harpers. The 50-mile excursion track is a popular tourist destination and is considered one of the most scenic locomotive rides in the country. This 1881 line carried miners, tourists and freight between Durango and Silverton.

The company purchased the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad in Western North Carolina in 1999.

Advantages: The company has experience operating on terrain that Jackson said is similar to Virginia City, with tight curves and steep grades. The V&T and Durango line also share a similar mining history and tourism venues. The company has 400 employees between the two rail operations.

Number of passengers a year: 400,000

The company: Sierra Railroad Co.

Its history: Hauling freight since 1897. Mike Hart was part of a group that purchased the company in 1995. He is the primary owner.

The executive: Chris Hart, president of the company’s tourism division.

Experience: Vice president of the Central Valley Tourism Association. He has worked with his brother in the operation since 1999.

Trains: In addition to freight, the Northern California company runs the excursion Sierra Railroad Dinner Train in Oakdale, which has multiple tourism venues, including dinner and murder mystery shows.

Skunk Train runs 40 miles between Fort Bragg and Willits, in Northern California. Sierra rescued this line from bankruptcy in 2004; the Sacramento River Train acquired in July 2003 with a freight merger.

The company also is a part in many commercials and movies.

Advantages: One-third of the company’s 200 employees are located in the Sacramento area, which would be an advantage for sharing employees, supplies and equipment with Carson City. Hart has an extensive tourism marketing campaign in California and could lay the groundwork for the V&T train.

Number of passengers a year: More than 80,000