How to go boots up in the passenger train business

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Jim Justice, you need to meet Randy Parten and Ed Ellis. Parten is the rich Texas oil man who, in the late 1980s, assembled 50 passenger cars for luxury trains to move vacationers from the Denver airport to the resort town of Aspen, Colo. Parten made one mistake fatal to his cause, however: He committed his capital and talked up his idea before getting the support of the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railway, which owned the tracks. No such support came through. So much for his Roaring Fork Railroad.

In more recent times, Ed Ellis, the founder of the Iowa Pacific Holdings group of shortline railroads, believed he was coming to the rescue of Denver skiers when he agreed in 2009 to assemble cars and locomotives to replace the Denver-Winter Park, Colo., Ski Train that Philip Anschutz had sold to Canadian National. He, too, committed his money (and sold tickets) before he had a signed contract with Amtrak to provide a crew, insurance, and indemnity for the operation. Days before inauguration, Ellis was humiliated when Amtrak, rightly or wrongly, pulled the rug from under him. Ed at least had the satisfaction of winning $1.1 million in damages from Amtrak in a civil suit tried before a jury in federal district court.

Do you see a pattern here?

Now comes Jim Justice, owner of the Greenbrier Resort, a failing business he rescued after CSX, the West Virginia hotel’s former owner, put it into bankruptcy in 2009. Justice, who made fortunes in farming and coal mining, is possibly the richest man in West Virginia. He, too, was bitten by the dream of running luxury passenger trains, in this instance between Washington and White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., initially one day a week in each direction. So bitten, in fact, that he and his partners, Ross E. Rowland Jr. and Paul Nichini, committed $15 million of Justice’s money to buying and rebuilding 15 passenger cars once used by the American OrientExpress and GrandLuxe Express.

Once again, where’s the signed agreement? Nowhere in sight, unfortunately. The three partners, doing business as Greenbrier Express Co., are part of a complete and utter mess involving Amtrak, Buckingham Branch Railroad, CSX, and Norfolk Southern, the latter three being railroads that the Greenbrier Presidential Express would traverse.

In a nutshell, here’s how matters stand. Greenbrier Express thought it had Amtrak’s agreement to operate the train under its existing contracts with the three railroads, as an “extra,” albeit one running on a weekly schedule. As part of that agreement, Amtrak would provide insurance and indemnity coverage. But Greenbrier doesn’t have a contract, after some 15 months of waiting for one. Besides, not so fast, say Buckingham Branch and CSX. Buckingham Branch wants longer sidings so freight trains won’t suffer long delays waiting for the Greenbrier train. CSX believes the Federal Railroad Administration has ordered Greenbrier to negotiate separate terms for the operation of the train with each railroad. Through a spokesman, FRA insists it made no such order and disavows what CSX is saying. But Amtrak, at least as late as Sept. 27, believed the CSX nonsense about the nonexistent FRA edict. To its credit, NS appears to be observing all this from the sidelines. So do you believe me when I call this a complete and utter mess?

Today, I got Randy Parten on the phone from Texas. Randy is now many years older and wiser. His fleet of passenger cars is but a memory, except for two cars residing on his ranch. He confirms that he never got to first base with Rio Grande’s president at the time, Bill Holtman. “He never would see me. He never answered a letter I wrote. Yet he badmouthed me all over Denver as someone who would never pay his bills.” But Parten insists he did not err by buying the cars before getting the railroad on his side. “If you don’t spend money up front,” he says, “nobody believes you’re serious.”

Parten has some advice for Jim Justice and his partners: “What you have to do is decide whether your service is really causing a railroad problems, or whether a railroad is just throwing red herrings at you. If you are causing real problems, you have to fix them or nothing will get done. Then you’ve got to unruffle the feathers and get everyone singing from the same hymn book.”

Good words, those. Randy’s last remark to me: “I miss the railroad business, but I’m never going back in it.” — Fred W. Frailey

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