For four years, Prineville’s Crooked River Dinner Train treated thousand of riders to a dinner-theater experience complete with a taste of the Wild West.
But now, according to city officials, the Western-themed dinner train is another victim of the slumping economy.
Last January, city officials decided to close the dinner train for the winter and re-open it in spring. This time — after the Prineville City Council’s 5-0 vote Tuesday night — the train service is shutting down permanently at the end of this month.
City officials said ridership has been steadily decreasing since the fall, and the train was operating in the red.
Since 2004, the city has owned and operated the dinner train. It was purchased to provide revenue to the city’s railway. In its heyday, the train ran year-round, five days a week, and was profitable.
In January, after the train was temporarily closed, city officials decided to pull out all the stops to get the train back on the rails. The city hired an experienced manager, improved the performances and built relationships with resorts throughout the region.
“The experience on that dinner train is one of the best you’ve ever had. Our comment cards raved about how good it was,” Railway Manager Dan Lovelady said.
But it wasn’t enough.
Wayne Van Matre, Prineville’s interim city manager, said the decision was a tough one. “Everyone realized that in these economic times, and that’s really what it is, people don’t have the disposable income,” Van Matre said.
During the train’s busiest months, July and August, it typically brought in about $60,000 in profit. But in the winter, ridership drops. With the cost of food and fuel, and with one full-time and about 15 part-time workers, the profit hasn’t been enough to continue operating.
This month, the situation was exacerbated when two fully booked weekends had to be canceled because of icy weather.
“It’s unfortunate because it’s a great event, but it’s not a necessary service for the taxpayers,” said City Councilor Steve Uffelman. “We saw it as a means to sustain the streams of revenue for the railroad. And initially we did make money with it, but with increasing food costs and other expenses …”
Tickets for the train cost between $20 for young children and $70 for adults. The cost included a meal, an interactive performance by actors that simulated a train robbery or a murder mystery, and a scenic ride along the Crooked River, under jagged rimrock cliffs.
The dinner train is just one part of the city’s railway operations. There is also a freight depot and industrial rail services for businesses. Les Schwab Tire Centers is one of the railway’s most frequent customers. With the slowdown of the housing market and with businesses closing, the railway has also been hit hard.
Although city officials don’t see the dinner train operating under the city umbrella again, Lovelady hopes the train still has a future.
“The City Council and the railroad commission would really like to find a private party to lease the train and continue to operate it,” he said. “It would take someone that could see the up side that it has in the future, and someone able to withstand tough times. We have a great staff and a great product. It’s well-known throughout the entire Pacific Northwest. It’s a great opportunity for someone.”