SANTA FE, N.M. — Citing difficulty working with the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad Commission, operators of the tourist train that runs between Chama in northern New Mexico and Antonito, Colo., have terminated their agreement after just eight months.
On Thursday, the C&TSR Commission accepted termination of the contract with American Heritage Railways, owners of the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad and several other tourist railroads. The commission governs the railroad, which is jointly owned by the states of New Mexico and Colorado.
In the termination letter, Allen Harper, chairman and CEO of American Heritage Railroad, said the company’s business approach didn’t work well in conjunction with government-controlled agencies.
“Originally, the C&TSR seemed like a great railroad to apply our policies and technologies. I no longer believe this is true,” he wrote.
Harper went on to say the company wasn’t allowed to operate the railroad the way it wanted, due to the intrusive nature of the commission, made up of two commissioners from each state and an executive director.
“We must be given the responsibility and authority to do things without constant second-guessing and micromanagement of an authority or commission,” he wrote. “The governmental and political realities of the C&TSR do not lend themselves well for my company to be successful at that railroad.”
In a phone interview Friday, Harper said some of the things he wrote may have come out of frustration, and he didn’t mean for them to come off as being overly harsh. The decision to terminate the agreement was more a matter of his own business approach, he said.
“My style of management, and I’m learning the hard way, is not compatible with railroads being tied with government entities,” he said, adding that he considered himself an innovator and one willing to take risks with capital. “Government-owned properties and properties guided by commissioners or boards cannot act as quickly and with as much innovation as a private company.”
Harper, who is staying on as a consultant until Oct. 31, said both he and the commission share the same goal.
“I totally believe in the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad,” he said. “It’s a tremendous piece of history, and it needs to be saved.”
Randy Randall of Santa Fe, one of New Mexico’s representatives on the commission, said that the break in the agreement would not send the railroad off its tracks.
“It means at least in the near future, we’ll continue to operate the railroad without interjection from a third-party management company,” he said. “All the employees who make the railroad run are still in place and will continue to be there when we open again next spring. We’ll come back next year bigger and better than ever.”
The train runs regularly from late May to late October, with a limited schedule during the winter.
Randall said the commission has already made arrangements to accommodate the change in operation. He said Ken Matzick, who came on board as interim general manager in April and was appointed to the position on a permanent basis in June, reconsidered his own resignation last month.
Randall said Matzick will be given more authority over the railroad’s day-to-day operation.
“So it’s a little bit of a different business model,” he said.
Asked to respond to Harper’s comments about being second-guessed and micromanaged by the commission, Randall said that’s nothing more than a difference in opinion.
“The commission doesn’t feel it had any more involvement in the operation as an owner would,” he said.
“I think the relationship between us is fine. The actual implementation was more of the issue.”
Harper praised the commission for the direction it’s now taking in hiring Matzick.
“Sitting down and talking, it’s come out very good,” he said. “It’s better for them, and it’s better for me. Now the opportunity is there to make good progress toward preserving a great American treasure.”
The Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad was built in 1880 as part of the Rio Grande Railroad’s extension to serve the silver mining industry in the San Juan mountains of southwestern Colorado. After operations dwindled in the 1960s, the Interstate Commerce Commission granted the railroad’s request to abandon the line in 1969. Doing so marked the end of general use of steam locomotives to transport freight in the United States.
Colorado and New Mexico then jointly purchased the track and structures along the route. In 1974 Congress authorized the formation of an interstate commission to manage the railroad’s assets.
Last year, the railroad’s season got off to a late start because of repairs to the Lobato Trestle outside Chama, damaged by a fire the previous year. Randall said he expected this year’s ridership totals would about match the figures of 2011 by season’s end.
Randall attributed lagging ridership to economic factors. He noted, however, that more New Mexicans had taken the train this year, and it was ridership from Colorado and Texas residents that brought the numbers down.
Randall also noted that right now is one of the best times of year to take the train.
“The fall colors are beautiful, and the trains are going out. People are having a wonderful time seeing the beautiful colors of New Mexico and Colorado, and if they want to experience that, they should book a trip,” he said.