Posted by: Steve Marr on Jun 25, 2012
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The Durango & Silverton Railroad was constructed during the 1880’s to accommodate passengers and service the gold and silver mines in the Silverton, Colorado area. Today, over 170,000 passengers ride the train for scenic views and themed excursions. Few are simply trying to get from Durango to Silverton.
Nothing is 21st century about this train experience. Passengers enter the original train station constructed in 1882. Attention to detail takes them back to days that brought the silver and gold miners to Durango by train. They ride on tracks constructed that same year and follow the same Animas River and view the same block-edged rock walls of the canyon. The steam engines that pull the cars date from the 1920’s and the passenger cars go back to 1879.
Businesses understand that change can happen very fast. For the Durango & Silverton Railroad to survive and thrive for 130 years required adapting. If we take a look at how the railroad addressed change and adapted to it, perhaps we can use the lessons to help us know how to adapt to change in our businesses.
While the railroad began by providing crucial transportation for people and supplies, it must find a new purpose for its existence today. Over the past 70 years, the railroad has existed to provide historic and scenic trips for passengers. However, changing its purpose has required other changes as well.
Even the way people buy tickets for this historic train ride has evolved. CEO Allen Harper says, “Fifty percent of our customers have no interaction with us until they arrive to take the trip. They learn about the trip and buy tickets on line.” Even a decade ago most customers booked by phone. Today, only 10% of the railroad’s riders are walk-in customers who have made no advance arrangements for tickets. And that number is up only one percent.
For the Durango & Silverton Railroad this means that website transactions are increasingly critical. Since web-based sales create half of all ticket purchases, the customer’s web experience needs to be good. Check out the website for yourself. From the brown-toned color scheme to the underlying parchment-like map, the site shares a historical feel that initiates your trip back in time. There you can read an interesting summary of the changing uses for the railroad. You can find a trip from simple to themed and read a complete description. You can reserve your ticket using the easy online reservation system.
Addressing environmental responsibility is another big change our 21st century requires. This is no small matter for steam engines that run on wood-fired boilers. Because of the long time needed to fire these boilers, workers stoke the fire all night so that they will be ready for use the next day. The roundhouse behind the station houses the locomotives overnight. You can imagine the smoke they produce in this fired up state. To limit air pollution the railroad has invested over $500,000 for smoke scrubbers. This mechanism helps remove the sulfur oxides in the smokestacks that emit the harmful particles into the atmosphere. In addition, the railroad has purchased diesel engines to switch to when running through town. Diesel engines limit the smoke in and near business and residential areas. Residents used to complain about smoke on regular basis. Now, complaints are rare.
Another environmental challenge occurs when wood-fired boilers spit sparks that can result in fires. The Durango & Silverton Railroad pays for a firefighting team to follow every train, ready to dowse any start-up blaze. Only once has the forest service been called in to help. While these crews are expensive, they represent the railroad’s strong commitment to protect the environment.
Marketing is another ongoing challenge. In our get-there-quick travel mind set, few people have experienced train travel. Today, children have computers, Game Boys, I-pads and no longer grow up with electric trains. The railroad must cultivate the fun and adventure factor as they market train travel to families. CEO Allen Harper has a passion for developing special trips to build a new generation of riders. After the popular movie “Polar Express” came out; he licensed the idea now used by 45 other railroads. The railroad recreates the movie experience for passengers. Children ride wearing their pajamas while sipping hot chocolate as in the well-loved story. Over 500,000 “Polar Express” bells have been sold as mementos of this book-themed trip. Other special kid-focused trips include the fall Pumpkin Patch Train, an Easter themed ride, and the Dinosaur Train.
Children aren’t the only ones themed trips market to. The railroad offers a Bluegrass ride for lovers of this music genre. A Cowboy Poet Train makes the journey to the Durango Cowboy Poetry Gathering worth the trip. These special trips have offset the traditional ridership decline and provided a steady growth of income.
Training staff follows a somewhat traditional path. Since there are few, if any railroaders available to run and maintain the trains, employees do most of their learning on the job. Engineers start as brakemen and move up to firemen before being considered to drive a train. The average length of service is 17 years which creates an experienced crew.
The entire team must focus on maintenance issues. Old equipment can break and tracks need constant attention. To keep the trains in good operating condition, train parts are hand-fashioned in a machine shop, another on-the-job training experience. While a fire crew follows every train, an advance crew precedes each train to insure the track is clear and undamaged. Allan Harper believes that the railroad can maintain safety as long as they commit to maintaining every piece of equipment. One accident could sink the entire operation.
Allen Harper and the team at the Durango & Silverton Railroad have navigated the very narrow path to bring this 19th century business into the 21st century, something few can do. While the train remains faithful to its history, business practices must meet 21st century standards. Not every business leader is able to change and adapt. However, taking a careful look at the Durango & Silverton Railroad can help business leaders realize how to link the past to present. The call is to adapt in a way that allows our businesses to accept the conductor’s invitation to join them on a similar journey. All aboard!