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Dinner train trims down

As a cost-cutting measure, the Crooked River Dinner Train lays off staff, cuts back schedule

   One of Central Oregon's most popular tourist attractions will now be parked during the off-season due to high overhead and low ridership, according to Dan Lovelady, manager of the City of Prineville Railroad.
   Instead of its usual year-round runs, the Crooked River Dinner Train will shut down from January until the peak tourist season, which begins in the spring and lasts until September.
   "We'd looked at our historical ridership and we saw that in the off-season months, the ridership dropped dramatically. We had to rely on local riders, and we just weren't able to put as many people on the train in the off-season," Lovelady explained. "So in an effort to increase our profitability, we decided we should probably shut down for the month of November, run December, and then shut down again from January until spring."
   Lovelady also cited high insurance costs as a reason for the decision. The Dinner Train has to use Burlington Northern/Santa Fe Railroad track on two occasions during its trip to Redmond, and to continue doing this, the railroad may have to pay $100 million in insurance, or another $100,000 per year.
   "They were unaware that we were doing that - and have been for years - and told us we could no longer do it," Lovelady said. "I am in the process of working with them and their risk management people to see if there isn't a way that we can work around that."
   The Crooked River Dinner Train is owned and operated by the city as a stand-alone enterprise fund, which means it has to produce its own revenue to cover its expenses.
   "The whole idea in the city ownership is for it to generate profits for the city, and even though it's been profitable, it hasn't generated the kind of profits that we would like to see," Lovelady said.
   During the peak tourist season last year, the train saw profits of around $15,000 to $20,000 per month and averaged around 90 passengers per train. The train has made 56 runs since July 1, when the fiscal year began.
   "What we've found out is if we don't run a fixed number of trains to cover the fixed cost, then it loses money, and we're unable to run that amount of trains in the off-season," Lovelady said. "If we don't run a minimum of 12 dinner trains a month, then we're not breaking even."
   As of Dec. 31, 2007, total revenue for the train, minus expenses, was $16,768.36.
   Lovelady plans to discuss the issue with the railroad commission, as well as City Manager Robb Corbett, to decide upon the best solution for the future of the dinner train. Right now, leasing the train to a private operator seems the best choice.
   "We'll make some recommendations to the city council as far as which way we think that we should go with it, but the final decision will be that of the council," Lovelady said.
   The decision to run seasonally came at the expense of some of the dinner train's employees, including Jillian Seaweard, the train's only full-time employee, who was laid off in the process.
   "I don't think it's a very smart decision," she said. "Because we've always been central Oregon's number one tourist attraction-year-round actually."
   She feels the best idea would be to sell the train and keep it running full time.
   She also doesn't know if she will have her job back in the spring.
   Many employees, including Seaweard, were not initially notified of the decision, and Lovelady said it was a "misunderstanding" and they now know that the train will run seasonally. He mentioned that they will be re-hired when the train starts up again.
   The issue of the dinner train will be discussed at the next city council meeting on Jan. 22 at 6:30 p.m.