Board finds Sumpter group’s proposal to operate excursions for railroad unworkable

By Bill Rautenstrauch, The Observer February 10, 2010 02:20 pm

A proposal from a Sumpter group to run excursion trains for the Wallowa-Union Railroad has come to naught, and the future of this season’s “fish train” excursions remains in doubt.

After reviewing a formal proposal from Twin River Railway LLC last Thursday, the board decided the services offered would be too costly.

“We reviewed their two options, and it would be more expensive for us to operate under either one,” said board member and railroad General Manager Mark Davidson.

At a meeting in Elgin in January, board Co-Chair Mike Hayward presented figures showing that the railroad’s overall excursion operation is running deeply in the red.

During the meeting, the board heard a proposal from Scott D. Hutton, Melinda Sue Hutton and Daniel C. Robirds of Sumpter.

They expressed interest in forming a for-profit company to operate excursion and recreational access trains over Wallowa-Union Railroad tracks.

After listening, the board decided to formally advertise a Request for Proposals, and consider offers at a future meeting.

The Sumpter group, called Twin River Railway LLC, withdrew its original proposal and submitted a new one, containing two options.

“They were markedly different from what we heard at first,” said Board Co-Chair Mike Hayward.

Under one option, Twin River would have been a contract provider of train crew and mechanical services.

Under the other, it would manage, operate and maintain excursion trains, taking 50 percent of gross ticket revenues.

The board decided neither choice was workable.

The board has said it plans to save money by shortening the excursion season and reducing the number of runs.

A problem in the immediate future is the Minam Motel’s “Steelhead Spectacular,” which offers train excursions for anglers during the late winter and early spring.

The “fish trains” take anglers downriver, drop them off at fishing holes, then return them at the end of the day. They run on weekends in late winter and early spring.

The railroad and the motel are partners in the fishing excursions. In the past, the motel has booked fares, keeping 10 percent of gross ticket sales and giving the rest of the money to the railroad.

Looking at excursion expenses, Davidson proposed a new business model in which the motel would be billed a flat $4,100 per day.

Motel owner Dawn Smith, who has booked nearly 400 passengers for the upcoming season, said that was impossible for her.

At last Thursday’s board meeting, the board decided to run under the old model this season.

“Most of the board felt that a commitment had been made and we need to honor it,” said Hayward.

But there are a couple of conditions. Smith has to find and pay for liability insurance that will cover anglers when they are off the train. Also, the Steelhead Spectacular schedule will be shortened significantly.

The insurance poses a significant problem, said Hayward.

“She is finding that challenging, because it’s a specialized kind of insurance,” he said.

Today, Smith said she has yet to find an insurance carrier, and is uncertain whether the fish excursions will run.