The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad now says it can turn a profit running at 50% capacity and hopes to resume limited service trips by the last week of June.
“It’s just going to have to be a lot of hard work on how we’re spending and handling overhead,” said D&SNG general manager Jeff Johnson. “We’ll continue to be as lean as we can.”
The D&SNG, one of the region’s main tourist attractions and economic drivers, shut down in March amid the novel coronavirus outbreak, and for weeks, there’s been speculation about how and when the railroad would resume operations.
In an attempt to reopen, the D&SNG had been part of an effort spearheaded by La Plata County to submit a variance request from state public health orders.
But in the past few weeks, Gov. Jared Polis has eased regulations aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19. Just recently, the state public health order was amended to allow scenic trains to operate at 50% capacity.
D&SNG officials have maintained the railroad would be profitable only if it could run at 75% capacity.
Johnson said Tuesday, however, that given the unlikelihood of being allowed to run at 75%, the railroad instead looked at ways to make 50% financially feasible.
“We’re making a lot of adjustments,” he said. “But we’re doing the best we can to get rolling.”
To run, the D&SNG needs approval to operate at 50% capacity from San Juan Basin Public Health.
Claire Ninde, spokeswoman for SJBPH, said the latest statewide public health order does not define how to evaluate a company’s reopening plan or even how to provide approval, creating a bit of a challenge for local health officials.
“Our Board of Health is reviewing a policy on plan approvals to provide staff with some direction, and SJBPH staff have met with train representatives, the governor’s office and (the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment) to determine the appropriate sources of infection control guidance to apply to train operations,” she said in a written statement. “We look forward to continuing to work with the railroads to get them open safely and prevent the spread of COVID-19 to their patrons and employees.”
If given the green light, Johnson said the D&SNG could start running limited service trips, like from Rockwood to Cascade, by the last week of June. The railroad is looking at potential options of shorter trips out of the Silverton depot, a desire expressed by residents there. And although no trips would be leaving the Durango depot, the D&SNG would like to reopen the museum and gift shop, and offer yard tours.
“We would love to be in operation before the end of the month,” he said. “We’re just trying to figure out the best way to make it work ... We’re very hopeful right now.”
According to the Durango Chamber of Commerce, the D&SNG’s impact to the region’s economy is estimated at $250 million, with more than 200 peak season employees and 100 year-round employees.
In a typical year, the D&SNG brings anywhere from 150,000 to 200,000 riders from all over the world on the 45-mile trek from Durango to Silverton, cutting through the heart of the San Juan Mountains.
But with COVID-19 restrictions aimed at reducing crowds, railroad officials have said they will have to reduce the number of people per train and implement safety measures like requiring masks to board.
“It’s a very difficult time and we’re anxious to open,” D&SNG owner Al Harper said in a previous interview.
It is not yet known if people will be eager to book a trip on the historic railroad. In April, Visit Durango conducted a survey of 1,400 people considering a vacation to the region, and found 671 people had canceled their trips.
But local tourism officials are slowly beginning to attempt to draw people to the region in a phased approached. Over the next few months, paid advertising will be directed to regional markets, and eventually international markets.
La Plata County is still pursuing its own variance request, albeit a significantly pared down version, said county spokeswoman Megan Graham.
La Plata County commissioners on June 2 approved an effort to seek a variance, which would have addressed the reopening of businesses still closed at the time, like outdoor recreation companies, gyms, churches and outfitters.
Polis and the CDPHE, however, addressed most of those business sectors last week, rendering much of La Plata County’s variance moot.
Still, Graham said the county is looking to receive a variance request as it pertains to indoor malls and libraries.
Businesses in indoor malls with storefront access have been able to reopen. But stores within malls must remain closed. At the Durango Mall, that means Bed Bath and Beyond can and has opened, yet T.J. Maxx must stay closed.
Officials at the Durango Mall drafted a comprehensive plan that would remove seating in the mall and implement an extensive cleaning process, Graham said.
“It’s very thorough,” she said.
Libraries, likewise, would reopen with guidelines similar to ones that were issued to noncritical businesses.
The variance requires a letter of endorsement from SJBPH and letters of support from local hospitals, as well as the Southern Ute Indian Tribe and Ute Mountain Ute Tribe. Graham said it’s unknown when this process will be completed.
SJBPH’s Ninde said the situation is similar with what’s going on with the D&SNG: The state public health order requires local public health agencies to “endorse” county variance requests within their jurisdiction but provides no approval criteria.
“SJBPH staff have provided two rounds of technical comment on La Plata County’s variance request and have developed criteria that would be applied to any county variance request that we receive,” she said. “The Board of Health is currently reviewing those criteria and considering a policy on variance endorsements. We will provide additional updates as the status of the variance request changes.”
Mercy Regional Medical Center did not respond to a request for comment. The SUIT declined to comment. And attempts to reach the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe were unsuccessful.