Updated: March 7, 2014 at 6:06 pm
Less than a year after a summer wildfire took a big bite out of Canon City's tourism business, the Royal Gorge Route Railroad reopens Saturday, and its owner believes that upgrades in service, strong advertising and an improving economy will bring visitors back to pre-fire levels.
While neither the rail line nor railcars sustained damage, the number of riders dropped by nearly 50 percent last summer, hurtling the railroad toward financial derailment until owner Mark Greksa took action.
He hired a production crew, spent about $100,000 on production and air time, and ran a commercial saying his railroad and the town of Canon City were open for business. Within 72 hours, many tourists showed up to ride the train, he said.
The ad worked so well, Greksa said he will run it again this summer.
"The fire crushed us in the beginning," Greksa said, "but the business came back, so that by the end of the year, we were only down single digits."
Greksa said he expects tourism in the Royal Gorge/Canon City area this summer to hit or even surpass pre-fire levels, because the train has become a destination attraction, people are traveling again, and heavy snowfall will fill rivers and attract rafting tourists.
Another boost to his business could come from the partial reopening of the Royal Gorge Bridge on March 15, even though tourists will only be able to walk onto the first few feet of the bridge to take photos, according to sales manager Dona Basham.
"The Royal Gorge Bridge is a major attraction, and the train is a major attraction, and we have done well because both have become destination attractions," said Greksa, whose business has about 100 employees.
Greksa bought the railroad tracks from Union Pacific in 1998 and ran his first train along the line in May 1999. The train runs along 24 miles of track and takes about two hours for the round trip. Greksa said the railroad carries about 100,000 people per year; about 16,000 of those ride in November and December during the train's special Christmas run.
Greksa believes his yearly passenger counts will increase as he continues to add amenities. Last year, he let passengers pay to ride in the locomotive next to the engineer. He also eliminated the train's "concession car," which offered only vended foods to coach customers, and created a dining car where they can order hot food, and a "bar car" with bistro-styled tables. Food offerings include beef and buffalo items, organic chicken and a crafted pale ale, Royal Gorge Route Rogue, Greksa said. In the summer, the train will offer dishes made from rattlesnake, antelope and ostrich.
Greksa also has added more murder mystery events to his evening trains.
"In the evening, we also slow the train a bit and spend more time on seeing the 1879 hanging bridge where the gorge narrows to 30 feet," he said.
At the Royal Gorge Bridge, none of the 50 buildings lost to the 2013 fire have been rebuilt, Basham said. While construction is underway, weather and other factors have delayed construction.
Contact Ned Hunter: 636-0275