An article about Steamtown National Historic Site in today’s [Scranton, PA] Times-Tribune caught my eye this morning. I’ve known for a long time that the famous railroad museum/heritage park is troubled, but the article detailed problems a lot more serious than I had been aware.
Chronic budget shortfalls have prevented the park from performing adequate maintenance and making improvements badly needed to bring attractions and services to the level of visitor expectations. Too many people are avoiding Steamtown. Too many who go there are leaving disappointed.
Dismayed and frustrated by these trends, some critics of Steamtown’s management are arguing that only privatization, whether partial or sweeping, can provide the capital and expertise needed to upgrade the park’s resources, improve the park’s image, and restore attendance to healthy levels.
The numbers tell the story. Last year only 70,726 people visited Steamtown. Though a slight increase from the year before, this tally is nearly 141,000 fewer than the 211,553 who showed up for the park’s inaugural year. Attendance fell below 100,000 in 2005 and hasn’t revisited that level since.
Back in 1986 when Steamtown was created, many critics complained that the park was a pork barrel project, had too many Canadian locomotives, and had other serious flaws. Regardless of these criticisms, most people – especially local tourism interests -- believed that the park would attract at least several hundred thousands visitors a year for the indefinite future. After all, railroad history and equipment are broadly appealing, Steamtown’s planners envisioned appealing exhibits and activities, and a big share of the U.S. population lives within a day’s drive of the park, which is situated in northeastern Pennsylvania close to densely populated Megalopolis.
The park opened to great fanfare in 1995, and things looked pretty good for a while. Now there is weeping and wailing. What went wrong?
To hear Steamtown’s harshest critics tell it, mismanagement is the central reason that the park hasn’t lived up to expectations. Railfan Donald L. Pevsner, a transportation lawyer and self-billed consumer advocate, has been fascinated – and frustrated – with Steamtown for a long, long time. In fact, he is quite familiar with the provenance of the railroading equipment gathered at Steamtown (tracing all the way back to the original collection at Bellows Falls, Vermont) as well as the key managerial issues and concerns at the park .
Pevsner insists that a disturbingly large of the estimated $176 million spent at Steamtown over the past 22 years has been wasted or misdirected. According to the Times-Tribune article, Pevsner points to three main problems:
■ Deterioration of dozens of locomotives, passenger cars and other pieces that are part of the site’s static collection. “They have been basically allowed to rot into the ground. ... A lot of visitors described it as a junkyard,” [Pevsner] said.
■ Minimal locomotive restoration work. The park’s state-of-the-art locomotive shop is a “near-moribund shadow” of what was originally envisioned.”
■ Reductions in the number and frequency of steam-powered mainline passenger excursions. At one time, Steamtown operated two excursions daily during the peak season; it is running a total of 20 in 2008, including just one each to Delaware Water Gap and Nicholson.
Another of Steamtown’s prominent critics is New Yorker Ross E. Rowland, Jr., a rail enthusiast whose involvement with steam powered rail projects goes back more than 40 years. Like Mr. Pevsner, Rowland is an unabashed supporter of privatization, at the very least for the mainline rail excursion part of the Steamtown operation.
Mr. Rowland argues that the National Park Service is incapable of managing Steamtown the way it should because the agency is suffocated by rules and severely lacking in imagination. Accordingly, the only sure way to put Steamtown back on the road to recovery is to turn it into a true business venture. There’s no basic reason, he says, why Steamtown could not attract a quarter million visitors a year if operation of the site were turned over to a proven commercial steam powered tourist railroad operator.
Steamtown superintendent Harold H. “Kip” Hagen, Jr. disagrees that Steamtown’s problems are as serious as critics contend, and argues that the park’s problems can be corrected in due time using taxpayer money and without resorting to an infusion of cash and managerial/promotional talent from the private sector.
Superintendent Hagen and other National Park Service officials also point out that the park was founded to tell the story of U.S. mainline steam railroading, not to operate tourist excursions in a theme park atmosphere. That said, Steamtown will offer a few more excursions next year and is developing a new business plan for the mainline excursion component of the park’s operation.
If you want to see what it’s like to ride a train at Steamtown, have a look at the video clip at this site.