Special events boost Durango train and sister companies

Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2016 11:35 AM
The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, traveling through the Highland area north of Rockwood, saw its third straight year of growth in 2016.
The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad has several sister companies, including Rail Events, which licenses railroad tourist events in the United States, Canada and Europe.

American Heritage Railways, the parent company of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, is preparing for more growth in Durango and across the country.

The Durango train saw its third year of ridership growth in 2016, and American Heritage Railways CEO and Chairman Al Harper expects that trend to continue in 2017.

“We are finally getting back to the numbers the railroad saw before 2002,” he said.

This year, ridership is up about 4 percent over last year, and Harper expects to see more than 190,000 riders in 2017.

The other two trains owned by American Heritage Railways, the Great Smokey Mountain Railroad in North Carolina and the Mt. Rainier Scenic Railroad in Washington, also saw ridership growth in 2016. American Heritage Railways bought the Mt. Rainier railroad in 2016, and the railroad is expected to see a 60 percent increase in ridership. Harper said the railroad is well on its way to being self-supporting.

He expects the Mt. Rainier railroad will see 100,000 riders in 2017.

“We are feeling really good about it,” he said.

The railroad was a nonprofit before American Heritage purchased it and its annual ridership was about 40,000.

Licensing successAmerican Heritage Railways also operates Rail Events, which licenses events for 50 railroads in the United States, Canada and Europe. The Great Pumpkin Patch Express and the Polar Express are among the events that Rail Events licenses.

The licensing company is continuing to grow, with plans to add six more railroads next year.

“Our shining star is Rail Events,” Harper said.

Rail Events is adding anywhere from five to 10 new venues every year and recently started working with Amtrak, he said.

For some railroads, the Polar Express trains – which Rail Events bought the rights for from Warner Bros. – are the most profitable thing they have ever done, he said.

Rail Events staff provide initial training and annual critiques after that.

In addition to events available in Durango, Rail Events plans to start Wizard of Oz events in about four locations. The events will include a train ride and a 20-minute show.

“We’re experimenting with that and growing that market,” he said.

For 2018, the company is working on a Scooby-Doo event that will include a mystery show, he said.

Rail Events is generating so many reservations – it sold 34,000 tickets in 48 hours for an event in New Orleans – that American Heritage Railways is planning a new business to handle them.

The business would be based out of Durango and it may hire five or six employees, Harper said.

All of the American Heritage companies employ between 400 to 500 people during the peak season. There are between 275 to 280 employees during the peak season in Durango, he said.

Silverton expansionAmerican Heritage Railway Hotels also reopened Silverton’s Grand Imperial Hotel in May this year with plans for it to host several local events.

For example, the hotel is partnering with Silverton Mountain on a New Year’s Eve package. The hotel closed in November, but it will reopen on Dec. 28. It will remain open for weekends.

For other events, such as Silverton Skijoring, the Grand Imperial will be the host hotel, providing space for registration, rooms to event organizers and discounts for participants.

“We are trying to make the hotel the center of all these events,” he said.

The company also recently bought a small adjacent parcel that will be used for summer activities, he said.