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Attendance Shortfalls at Steamtown National Historic Site Prompt Calls for Privatization


Steam engine and two passenger cars at Steamtown National Historic Site, August 2005. Background buildings are (left to right) locomotive repair shops, 1902/1937 roundhouse section, and museum.
Photo by Ruhrfisch via Wikipedia.

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.


As a Steamtown volunteer, I posted the following comment to the article in the Scranton Times:

Mr. Singleton:

It was some days ago that I learned of your article on Steamtown through an announcement of its impending publication posted on a website devoted to the railroad preservation community interests, by Ross Rowland, one of the “critics” airing their views in the article. I expected that if Mr. Rowland was “hyping” the article in advance, its tenor or conclusions would match his well known negative attitude toward Steamtown.

Whatever the conclusions, I would have expected that you would have vetted your sources better. Unfortunately, you did not. Unlike those critics, I have been an active volunteer at Steamtown since 1995 in various capacities, but primarily in train and engine service. From that lasting affiliation, I know Steamtown very well, and both its positive and negative attributes. Because of that, I think we should examine a few positive aspects of Steamtown and the motivations and qualifications of its critics.

First, let consider three positive aspects of Steamtown.

First, Steamtown is still operating long distance excursions when others, most notably the Grand Canyon Railroad (who just shut down their steam operations this month) and the Ohio Central have given up on regularly scheduled steam excursions. The only exception to this rule has been the new excursions on the nearby Reading and Northern Railroad, who returned their No. 425 to service this year. In a testament to the difficulties of operating Steam, the 425 was inactive for over a decade and they have announced no plans to restore their other and larger locomotive- the Reading 2102 (a sister to Steamtown’s 2124) to service.

Secondly, Steamtown is currently and successfully operating excursions on the Canadian Pacific Railroad, no small accomplishment. Most large, publicly owned railroads want nothing to do with public excursions (especially steam), as they perceive enormous operational and legal risks in order to be associated with passengers and older equipment. These concerns have sidelined numerous locomotives in recent years and caused the end of the Norfolk Southern’s steam program in 1994.

Third, Steamtown has managed to attract and retain one of the most active, vigorous and dedicated volunteer groups in the country. Some volunteers now have over twenty years of service and one provided over 10,000 hours of volunteer service.

Finally let’s examine the qualifications of two of your “critics”, Mr. Donald L. Pevsner and Ross Rowland.

Mr. Pevsner is indeed a “transportation lawyer” but his legal background appears to be confined to commercial aviation. There is no suggestion that he has any special knowledge of railroading in general, or heritage operations in particular other than as an author of opinion pieces. It’s quite a different matter to fly an aircraft in the public airspace than it is to operate a train over privately owned rights-of-way.

Secondly, while Ross Rowland has operated showcase operations such as the American Freedom train, inside the preservation community and in the railroad industry in general, he is something of a pariah. I have personally spoken to a retired railroad manager who was a trainmaster on a railroad Ross operated on in the 1960’s who expressed concerns over Ross’ ability to subordinate his showmanship to the “prime directive” of railroading-safety.

With the possible exception of some limited success in the late 1960’s, (now a lifetime ago) Ross has never been able to operate steam on a sustained basis. Typical of his operations were trips run in the late 1990’s on New Jersey Transit from Port Jervis to Hoboken. The trips were run until the locomotive; former C&O No. 614 needed the heavy mechanical work all steam engines require. Unable to fund that rehabilitation, he had the locomotive taken to the Reading & Northern’s Port Clinton headquarters where it remains today parked and cold in an inoperative condition.

I suspect part of his campaign against Steamtown is in part due to his inability to reach an agreement to move that locomotive to Steamtown. It’s also clear that he regards Steamtown more as an amusement park than a government operated historic site and doesn’t seem to understand that there are mission-driven constraints on the nature and extent of the operation.

Sell this white elephant----lock, stock and barrel!

It was obvious pork in '86 and is now nothing more than $176 million down the drain that was unwisely allocated to revitalize an area of Pennsylvania that ain't comin' back no matter how much more wealth is redistributed from federal taxpayers residing in other parts of the country.

The real question should be: who's going to want to buy this collection of junk from the government and run a "tourist" attraction in a thoroughly dead area of the old "Rust Belt"?

This federally sponsored disaster deserves to wither and die just like Fannie, Freddie and the crooked Lehman Brothers but, I'm afraid, will also receive more of our ill-gotten tax dollars before the inevitable forces of economic gravity drag it down into the black hole of bad ideas, that somehow manage to get Congressional funding, where it most deservedly belongs.

My family and I go out of our way to ride in steam powered trains. For example, we never miss the Durango Silverton line when passing through Colorado. It is like stepping back in time, just magical. Bottom line: If my family can't ride the train -any train- for a awesome excursion, we are not going to make the trip. If privatization would bring more rides for families, then in this particular case, I am all for it. Looking at old trains is one thing, but riding the train is the total experience.

I didn't realize it was so bad. I visited there a couple of years ago, and didn't feel disappointed. Yes, I was disappointed there weren't more visitors, but I didn't visit during the peak season anyway.

I do disagree with Beamis, however, that Scranton doesn't deserve an attraction simply because it's an economically depressed area. We shouldn't abandon parts of the country that aren't doing well simply because the money is elsewhere.

Just because it's not convenient doesn't mean it's not important.


My travels through the National Park System:

So what you're saying is that it makes perfect sense to extract money from federal taxpayers across the nation to subsidize attractions in economically depressed areas? I don't know about its relative convenience but I never knew that any region or city "deserved" anything, especially the hard earned wealth of folks from other regions of the country.

If manufacturers and employers have abandoned heavily unionized places like Pennsylvania and Michigan to set up shop in South Carolina and Sonora it is not the responsibility of the citizens of Arizona and Florida to cough up the dough to create half-baked tourist attractions in the Rust Belt. It was clear from the beginning that this was what the local Congressman had in mind and now the free market has responded. Steamtown and Scranton are duds! No offense but not every place can be Aspen or Martha's Vineyard. What was it I recently heard about putting lipstick on a pig? Oh, never mind.....

Your logic just illustrates how deeply ingrained national socialism has become in our formerly great and grand republic.

"Every election is a sort of advance auction sale of stolen goods." ------ H.L. Mencken


I have a considerable affiliation with your interest in historical steam and railroad operations, and empathy for the preservation effort you support. I cringe a bit, that so many aspects of our 'progress' 'discredit' formerly outstanding technologies.

I know what a "superheater" is & does: I am a (turbine) steam plant operator ... and nuclear power plant operator, and submariner. The hull of my Thresher-class boat, the USS Drum SSN 677 lies tied in the Sacramento River at Mare Island (the now-closed Navy base, where I attended nuclear power school) awaiting funds to turn it into a museum and sole surviving example of the quiet machines that substantially enabled us to retire the Soviet Union. I imagine it's a forlorn project.

I like that piston steam can run on a campfire. That valve-boxes can be fabricated with a hacksaw & file. At the remote resort where I live, we pulled a vertical boiler out of a septic tank: it now decorates the yard of the cabin next door. I grew up with the giant stumps logged by 5 or 10 horsepower steam donkeys. My grandfather stands with a crew of dozens on one.

So ... yeah, I have a pretty good idea where you're coming from, why you do what you do, and what you get out of it.

Unfortunately, it may well be that the US National Park System/Service was not really the organization that can best see to our steam railroad heritage. My operational suspicion is, we've saddled the laudable idea of natural-wonder & King's-forest Parks with too many follow-on functionalities, at which it is basically ill-suited.

Right now, we are dancing around, anxious to restart the 19% of our national refinery capacity that was shut down as hurricane Ike passed over. This is likely a foretaste of an increasingly common predicament ... hoping we don't start seeing NO GAS signs cropping up, or (groan) prices breaking $5 ... etc.

I'm not sticking my economic neck out anywhere these days, and I expect coming Presidents & Congress' are going to be following suit. In this climate, people with a passion such as yours will find their efforts complicated by stark economic realities.

... So if it's not going to be the NPS, how else might Steamtown hold it together?

Hey, you're looking at a new Vice President who was born in Scranton -- so don't expect that Steamtown will wither on the vine and die. Eight more years to get its act together...

I've previously visited this Park, and while I enjoyed my experience here - I also felt like it missed the mark.

Railroads have unquestionably had a profound effect on the history, culture, and development of this Nation. This story definitely seems like it should be told in part through the National Park System. However, unlike many other stories in this Nation's history, such as the story of Jazz in New Orleans, the Industrial Revolution in Lowell, or Lewis & Clark at Fort Clatsop - I don't know that there is any one "essential place" to this story.

Where Steamtown misses the mark is that it tells the story of railroading in Scranton, Pennsylvania in exquisite detail - it is nevertheless the story of railroading in Scranton, Pennsylvania.... not exactly life-changing or Earth-shattering stuff.

I think there is a proper role for a *true* "Railroading National Historic Site" in the National Park System, and I don't know that any place has a necessarily better claim to being the most-appropriate place for a Railroading NHS than Scranton does. O.k., maybe Promontory, Utah and the existing Golden Spike NHS - but if that place told the story of railroading in terms of Westward Expansion and the Trans-Continental Railroad and another place told the story of Railroading in the context of Urban Development on the Eastern Seabord, I don't think that would necessarily be overkill.

Thus, I am somewhat sympathetic to the levied charge that the existing management of Steamtown NHS lacks imagination. I think it would only take a little imagination to extend the virtual boundaries of Steamtown beyond the story of Scranton, PA and tell a truly National story of railroading and the development of country - a story that might have much broader appeal.

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