Posts Tagged ‘education’

So What is a Tourist Train if Not Transportation?

October 26, 2019

Several years ago I was interviewing Wheeling & Lake Erie CEO Larry Parsons for a magazine article I was writing when the subject of excursion trains came up.

At the time the Wheeling hosted excursions sponsored by the Orrville Railroad Heritage Society and the Midwest Railway Preservation Society among others.

Parsons made it clear that he disliked passenger trains, particularly excursion trains.

“I mean, there’s no transportation function here,” he said about them.

That comment came to mind recently when I read about a fight in Pennsylvania involving the Reading & Northern and the borough of Jim Thorpe.

The R&N announced it would cease operating its Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway tourist train out of Jim Thorpe in the wake of a dispute over an amusement tax the municipality insists the railroad must charge per ticket.

R&N owner Andy Muller Jr. argues that the Lehigh Gorge is not an amusement and he refuses to collect the tax.

The mayor of Jim Thorpe, though, says the Lehigh Gorge is an amusement. “You go out and you come back,” said Mayor Michael Sofranko.

As the mayor sees it, that is entertainment and not transportation.

The news stories reporting on the dispute, which includes a lawsuit filed against the railroad by the borough and local school district to force collection of the tax, have not explicitly said what purpose Muller believes his tourist railroad serves. But a quotation from Muller offers a clue.

“I have offered passenger excursion rides to local communities as a way of thanking them for support over the years and to educate young and old in the glorious role railroads in this region played in our country’s industrial revolution,” Muller said.

Based on that, Muller thinks the purpose of his tourist trains is education and public relations.

As is often the case in any dispute, the way that the disputants frame what is at stake is not necessarily a complete picture of what led to the conflict.

There probably are underlying agendas and without knowing the participants I won’t speculate on their motives.

Whenever there is a dispute over taxes, though, it is because someone doesn’t want to pay it because it will result in less money in their pocket. Tax disputes also have roots in differing philosophies about the roles and purposes of government.

Yet the dispute in Pennsylvania also raises a question of what constitutes transportation and how it overlaps with such other functions as entertainment and education.

Closer to Northeast Ohio, we have the example of the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad, which would not exist today were it not for public money.

Public money purchased the tracks when CSX abandoned them; public money has rebuilt the tracks and established an infrastructure of stations and repair facilities, and public money has rebuilt the tracks when flooding washed them out.

And where did that public money come from? Taxes.

The CVSR doesn’t receive a direct stream of public funding to pay for operations as does Amtrak, but it is a private-public venture that is supported by the National Park Service, which does receive such a funding stream.

But does the CVSR provide transportation, entertainment or education?

If we adopt the viewpoint of W&LE CEO Parsons and Jim Thorpe Mayor Sofranko, the CVSR is not transportation because its transportation function is ancillary to its other purposes. It is transportation as a form of enjoyable consumption.

Most CVSR passengers just happen to be riding a means of transportation, a railroad, as they view the passing wonders of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

They depart from point A and return there at the end of their ride even if they might get off at Peninsula for a layover to have lunch, browse some shops, or take a hike on the Towpath Trail.

But what about Bike Aboard? Much of the time, bicyclists are using the train to move from Point A , where they stopped or are started their bike trip, to Point B where they are ending or starting their bike trip.

That would seem to be a pure transportation function.

Yet, arguably, biking in the CVNP is still entertainment even if many would argue that it’s recreation.

Even if the CVSR provides a sort of transportation function, it differs greatly from hauling, say, raw steel, minerals, food products or containers with packages of auto parts that are used in business and commerce.

I haven’t seen any statistics about the matter, but I would expect the percentage of bicyclists who use Bike Aboard is a small slice of those who ride bikes in the park.

People would still ride their bikes in the CVNP even if the CVSR didn’t exist to give them a lift back to their cars.

But if railroads were to stop hauling raw steel, minerals, food products and containers of auto parts the economy of the United States would take a major hit that all of us would feel.

The transportation function that railroads provide is significant whereas by comparison the transportation provided by tourist railroads is minuscule. That is not to say it is meaningless.

Entertainment is significant, too, and provides its own substantial share of the U.S. economy. And entertainment makes our lives better although some would argue that it is subordinate to our purpose in life as worker bees.

Not all entertainment is the same, but that’s an argument for a different day.

Tourist railroads are a tiny fraction of the entertainment industry or for that matter the education industry.

Tourist railroads such as the Lehigh Gorge or CVSR do provide education. But is education their primary purpose? I rather doubt it.

I can understand why tourist railroads might want to emphasize their role in providing education. It comes across as serving a larger and more important purpose than entertainment. That could matter a lot when you have to argue for continued public money for support.

If the lawsuit against the R&N over its refusal to collect and pay the amusement tax in Jim Thorpe goes to trial, Andy Muller will have his day in court at explaining why his tourist railroad is not an amusement.

That might be a tough one to get a judge to accept.