There have been some pretty loud howls that the ticket price for the reconstructed V&T Railroad is too high. Last month it was announced that the tickets would cost $48 for a round-trip from Eastgate Siding to Virginia City. $36 for children under 13. Many people did the quick math in their heads, and determined it would cost $200 for their family of four to ride, slightly cheaper if the kids were still young. It’s the reason I haven’t bought tickets for the train yet, even just to take my boy and me would be $84, and I just can’t pay that right now.
Today at 6pm the first official train between the two cities steams out of Virginia City full of VIPs on a special excursion, and tomorrow the first paying passengers will board at the new platform at Eastgate, handing over those $48 tickets in exchange for being the first to ride over those rails in 70 years. So it was good timing for the Nevada Appeal to run a news story today on the complaints about the high ticket prices.
Candace Duncan, director of the Carson City Convention & Visitors Bureau, has been fielding a lot of complaints coming in over the phone. She says that the price has to be that high mostly because steam trains are expensive to run. I’ve been hearing conflicting things about exactly how expensive, but the quote that’s been kicked around the most says it costs $5,000 to run the train down to Carson and back up to Virginia City. And because of the way they’re running these Saturday trains, with a CC-to-VC round trip in between two deadheads, the train has to make the trip twice. That’s $10,000 right there, and the employees haven’t even been paid yet. So the general agreement is that even at $48, they’re not bringing in enough money to cover costs. And that’s why a state commission was formed to create this railroad, because it’s been known for years that a fully-restored V&T was going to operate at a loss, every day, every trip, and would therefore need a government subsidy to keep operating. The idea is that it will draw out-of-state visitors to come spend money here, and the overall benefit to the economy will make up the money lost.
So then, the ticket price becomes a matter of how much money the Commission is willing to lose on each trip. Obviously if the ticket prices are too low this thing will hemorrhage money left and right. But if they’re too high, like $100, you’ll get three people on each trip and then everyone loses. So there is a sweet spot, a “just right” price point, and the Commission decided it should be $48. Now whether or not that changes and becomes lower next year probably will depend a lot on how many people buy tickets at that price. If the people are willing to pay it, the Commission will charge it. And so far, the first several runs are sold out, so it seems to be going well.
But how many of those people, who are selling out the first trains, are buying just because they want the experience of finally riding the V&T? The experience that we’ve been waiting for for 20 years? And how many of them are going to come back for a second ride later this year, or even next year, if the prices remain that high? Someplace like Disneyland can charge high prices because they know people will pay it. They just raised prices again to $72, in fact. And they know their market is huge; people all over the country want to visit Disneyland, and if a few people are priced out of a visit no worries; there’s always someone else in line who will pay. The V&T, I think, doesn’t have that luxury. The market of people who want to ride the V&T is relatively small, especially the all-important tourists that the railroad is supposed to be attracting in the first place. If you price too many of them out of the market, there’s no one else in line to take their place. You’re running trains a quarter full. It’s crucial for the V&T to find the right sweet spot, and from the protesting that has been going on, they may have overshot it this time.
A lot of comparison has been made between the V&T and other big tourist railroads, especially the Durango and Silverton in Colorado. The D&S is like the gold standard for tourist railroads in the West, attracting visitors from all over the country, and from all over the world. A ride on that railroad will set you back $79, and a first-class parlor car can be had for $159. So it’s considerably more expensive than the V&T. But for that money, look at what you get. The route is 45 miles each way, compared to the 13 miles of track currently on the V&T. So there’s a factor of three, just on the length. And as for the view, well, I’ll let this photo speak for itself.
Getting back to the article, several people are given the chance to air their grievances. And I think one of the funniest ones is the guy who is upset about the train’s final destination.
“Getting dumped in Virginia City for over three hours adds a stomach ache to the wallet wallop,” he said. “How much fudge must I eat before that train fires up to take me home?”
Taking the train to Virginia City wouldn’t be so bad if you didn’t have to spend the day in Virginia City, I guess, and there’s also the guy who compares the cost to visiting Discovery Kingdom in Vallejo. And it’s true, you can get tickets to that park, with their 7 roller coasters, for $30. Add in the cost of gas to get there, parking, food and souvenirs, and you might break even with a trip on the V&T. And it might turn out to be a more memorable day.
But if you’re looking for a train you’re looking for a train, and steam excursions are in short supply in the West. So I hope this works out, I hope the V&T is able to attract and keep a stable base of ridership. I hope the prices do drop a little bit, so I can get a ticket for it, but I’m hopeful and optimistic for the V&T’s success. With rides starting this weekend, soon we’ll know the truth.