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Anatomy of a Busy Day on the Trains

by Darrell Hookey

A Guide to the White Pass & Yukon Route

    "Gary? I think we are going to break it."

    Gary Danielson, the executive vice-president of the White Pass & Yukon Route, knew exactly what Beth Cline was talking about over the phone.

    It was early evening and Cline, the director of passenger sales and service, would be working the email, the cell phones and radios to find out how many passengers the railroad would be handling the next day.

    Four cruise ships were plowing through the Inside Passage on June 24, 2003, still 150 kilometers away, and each had either sold out its block of tickets for the next dayís train excursions or were close. Having broken the old record just 10 days before by carrying 4,888 passengers in one day, the gold rush era company was poised to meet the next goal: 5,000 passengers.

    "I was very nervous, but excited," says Cline. Exceeding the goal "would push every piece of equipment to 90 percent of capacity."

    An electricity shot through the terminal and rail yard. Everybody would have to perfect the next day.

    Michael Brandt, the assistant vice-president, marketing and planning, marches down the platform with his arms gesturing wildly as he describes what has to happen when the passengers start coming. He says issues and problems and tasks are "punted" from one person to the next, who can better handle it.

    The person doing the punting needs to know it will be taken care of and then forget it to concentrate on the next thing. The person receiving the punt needs to receive the punt perfectly.

    Stopping often to shout a greeting to the train crews and platform workers, Brandt goes on to explain, "The railroad business is linear. Everything and everybody is handed off."

    The ticket window needs to process the walk-in passengers, the stationmaster needs to tell them which train to get on, the conductors and brakemen need to get the steps laid out and the train agent needs to make the appropriate announcements.

    And the coach cleaners are crucial: "If you donít have clean coaches itís game over," says Brandt. "They are forever cleaning windows; finger prints, nose prints and makeup." With an understanding laugh, he points out the windows on the valley side need the most cleaning.

    On the day they set a new record, there was a "buzz," says Brandt. "We do busy well." Cline says the buzz extended to each of the ships even as their approaches continued. The Shore Excursion Officers on each heard White Pass was closing in on a new record. Even though their passengers were still asleep, they managed to sell the remaining 30 seats by the time the passengers disembarked.

    Meanwhile, back on shore, the yard crews "made up the train sets" by mixing sound parlor cars and wheelchair accessible cars for each excursion according to Clineís spreadsheet.

    "I had a hard time sleeping that night," she says. "I knew we could do it unless something happens out of our control." Something as simple as a hot day could have thrown a wrench into things.

    Lori Landers is the dispatcher. She sits in front of a desktop-sized schedule entering times that each train reaches the next station. She has to keep each train at least one station apart and, if it is a hot day, the trains will overheat and have to slow down.

    She remembers that record-breaking day as "busy". Yet she did nothing different as she applied all of her concentration to the radio and the times on her sheet. "I just started in May and Iím starting to get the hang of it," she says with a derisive laugh.

    Danielson is the big-picture guy in the operation and he knows lots of other things that can go wrong. For instance, if one of the engines breaks down the mechanics wonít get the replacement part in two days. There is no narrow-gauge equipment being manufactured today so the part would have to be made from scratch.

    But he also knows of all the things that had to go right, from years earlier, to make this record possible.

    Meeting with cruise lines and attending tourism shows and working out pricing scenarios is a year-round job.

    The $3.5 million (US) extension of the Railroad Dock allowed WP&YR to handle more and larger ships.

    Then there is the train to Fraser that meets up with the motorcoaches to Whitehorse that can add 1,500 passengers to the numbers in a day.

    And the evening excursions, that have become part of the "package" after being tested last year, are doing well. As more cruise lines are convinced to stay longer, there will be even more seats sold.

    The railroad has always done well. It has carried 300,000 passengers over each of the past three years, making it the most popular of Alaskaís shore excursions.

    That is a good chunk of business in Skagway that sees it competing with 36 other tours that are promoted on the cruise ships.

    Sitting in his corner office, windows filling an entire wall showing the rail platform, Danielson said he knew the railroad would handle 5,000 on that day. "I was really pumped that day, let me tell you."

    He watched as his staff helped disembark passengers, clean, fuel and reload within 25 minutes.

    He watched Cline scamper back and forth along the platform with two radios and a cell phone co-ordinating the frantic ballet.

    "Everything turned around in 25 minutes. Thatís bloody amazing," says Danielson. "That can-do heritage is still there."

    Cline says even the customs agents were excited and offered congratulations when it was learned the railroad handled 5,384 passengers that day.

    It helps make up for a soft May, Danielson says. With SARS, Mad Cow Disease, the war and lingering effects of Sept. 11, tourism numbers were falling everywhere.

    But breaking a record that stood two years, and again 10 days later, tells Danielsonís bosses in Toronto "they made a wise investment." It is especially welcome news as eight more parlor cars are on the way for next year that will help break more records.

    Danielson already knows there will be more ships coming next year as the extended dock figures into the plans of more cruise lines.

    Meanwhile, Cline says the new goal is 6,000 in one day. The best shot at that will be July 16 as the Island Princess calls on the port. It will have 2,600 passengers on board.

    "That is the day the stars will line up again," says Brandt with a confident smile.