Increasing expenses could derail fish train

Written by Bill Rautenstrauch, The Observer January 06, 2010 03:07 pm
In 2009 the fish train transported 328 anglers, yielding $20,220 in ticket revenues, or an average of $3,370 per excursion. BILL RAUTENSTRAUCH/The Observer
In 2009 the fish train transported 328 anglers, yielding $20,220 in ticket revenues, or an average of $3,370 per excursion. BILL RAUTENSTRAUCH/The Observer
Union County Tourism is scrambling to find a way to save the  “fish trains” that have been a part of the Wallowa-Union Railroad’s excursion schedule the past five years.

The excursions run along the Wallowa River between Minam and Rondowa on weekends during the steelhead season. They transport anglers to fishing holes, drop them off, then pick them up and return them to the Minam Motel later in the day.

The railroad has partnered in the excursions with the Minam Motel, a business situated at the confluence of the Wallowa and Minam Rivers in Wallowa County, right beside the track.

The motel has booked the fares, keeping 10 percent of gross ticket sales and giving the rest of the money to the railroad.

But now, because of increasing expenses, the railroad board says it needs to change the way it does business. The railroad plans to charge the motel a flat $4,000 per day to run the train.

Minam Motel owner Dawn Smith said that while she understands the board’s financial concerns, she is in a difficult position.

“I can’t do it,” she said. “There’s no way the motel can come up with the money to cover it.”

Mark Davidson, a Union County commissioner who sits of the WURA board and is the railroad’s general manager, said the board decided on the $4,000 figure after extensive analysis of costs.

“Like all of our excursions, the fish train has been running at a loss when we’re continuing to try to break even or make a profit,” Davidson said.

Davidson said the expense of the fish excursions goes beyond driving the train down the track. The costs of maintenance and inspection of equipment and track need to be figured in as well, he said.

“There’s just a lot involved in it,” he said.

Figures provided by the motel say that over six weekends in 2009, the fish trains had 328 riders, yielding $20,220 in ticket revenues, or an average of $3,370 per excursion.

So far, though, this year’s excursions, scheduled for seven consecutive weekends beginning Feb. 13, haven’t been officially canceled.

Janet Dodson, Union County Tourism executive director, said she hopes to be able to save the fish trains at least for this year.

Dodson, whose agency supports and promotes local tourism-related activities, said she understands the railroad’s need to cut losses. But she also believes the fish excursions are important to the region’s tourism industry.

“We know that most of the people riding the fish trains come from out of the area, and that translates into money spent locally for meals and lodging,” she said.

A fish train ticket currently costs $75 for a full day. Dodson said a solution for keeping the excursions on the schedule might be to raise the price.

She added she is struggling to arrive at a “price point” that won’t scare riders away.

“We have to raise the price. The question is, how much can we raise it?” she said.

One proposal is to up the full-day price to $125 and to run only on Saturdays. With the sale of 35 full-day tickets, train expenses would be covered, with a little money left over.

A half-day fish train ticket, currently priced at $40, is also available. Dodson said she thinks more aggressive marketing of that option, aimed at sightseers and other recreationists, could yield extra revenue.

Davidson said the board is reviewing the costs associated with all the excursions currently offered by the railroad and its volunteer organization, Friends of the Joseph Branch.

“We have not accurately portrayed the costs of the excursions and people aren’t educated about it. We cannot continue to operate at a loss,” Davidson said.

Likely, the number of excursion trains traveling up and down the scenic Wallowa River Canyon will be scaled back in the future.

Davidson said a shorter excursion season would reduce the number of required inspections on equipment.

“That would save us significant money,” he said.

As for the fish trains, Davidson said they are endangered, but not dead yet.

“We’re continuing to talk about it,” he said.