By DAN FOX
On July 31, the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad was officially sold to new owners – a consortium including Ketchikan-based Survey Point Holdings and Carnival Corporation & plc.
Fifty days into the new ownership, The Skagway News sat down with new White Pass President Bob Berto to address the current state of the railroad and the future of the business in Skagway.
Skagway News – What has been going on with the railroad since TWC Enterprises sold it to Survey Point Holdings/Carnival Corp.?
Berto – “For the most part we’ve been evaluating everything from the safety programs, we’ve had teams come in and look at the [rock] slide area, the slope up here over the dock, we’ve had people look at the rail operations, we’ve had people look at the bridges…we’re looking at locomotives, we’re looking at the passenger cars, we’re looking at the docks – we’re working on the dolphin project for the Railroad Dock – it’s a lot of stuff.”
SN – What do you think the benefit is to have an Alaska company running things?
Berto – “Because we’re Alaskan, we grew up here, we know the community, we operate Temsco here, we operate Amak Towing here, we operate Cruise Line Agencies here, we employ people here from longshoremen to captains on tugboats, so I think just having a company that has a basic understanding of the community is valuable.”
SN – What concerns have you heard from the community regarding the change in ownership?
Berto – “Things from not understanding the purchase, to the relationship with the Holland America Group being a minority investor in the company.
“We’re [Survey Point] the majority owner with our partners, and I think there’s just a little bit of rumor that gets out. We’ve tried to reach out, especially to our employees and explain what the purchase means.”
SN – What would you say to assuage some of the community’s concerns?
Berto – “We’re pretty transparent about what’s going on and what needs to be done. We’re more than willing to sit down and start to deal with the number of issues, not only that we have on the White Pass side, but the community issues…we’re totally committed to moving forward, and I think hopefully so is the city.”
SN – Regarding contamination cleanup in the Ore Terminal Basin, will it be tied to a new lease deal, or does White Pass plan on moving forward without talks on a lease?
Berto – “We hope that they can all be addressed together…DEC [The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation] is encouraging discussions about infrastructure development in combination with some potential contamination cleanup. We certainly as White Pass understand the issue is very important to the community, it’s important to us, but we’re working as you know very closely with DEC and we put the pressure on Golder to get their report done, and then we encouraged DEC to have the meeting that took place on Sept. 5. The day after the meeting on Sept. 5 we sent out an invitation to all the parties with a number of dates to get together for a meeting.
“We want to work collaboratively on both of them. It doesn’t have to be a lease, it can be some kind of mutual arrangement going forward, but to make the large capital investments down there we need to explore ways to provide funding.”
SN – What innovation can Survey Point bring to White Pass operations?
Berto – “We’ve already started work on what’s called ‘The Loop.’ It’s an operating plan with a loop and sidings, and so what that does is it allows us to have more departures during the day.
“What we can do with the new loop is we can have departures every hour, every hour and a half or something, so what we’re doing is we’re moving those people out and then they don’t all come back at the same time like they do now…it will help the flow of traffic in the community, we think.”
SN – What other efficiencies are the new ownership looking to bring to the railroad?
Berto – “A couple things. One is we desperately need port improvements. We’ve got these large ships that cannot be accommodated.
“We’re already seeing the loss of passenger volumes to other ports, and that’s going to continue to grow if we don’t get some improvements made. We’re making improvements as well on the rail/locomotive side. These guys have been patching together some pretty old equipment over the years, and so our plan is to start to introduce some more modern, efficient equipment.”