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 Post subject: So how does IRM do it?
PostPosted: Wed Sep 18, 2019 3:06 pm 

Joined: Wed Jan 20, 2016 1:15 pm
Posts: 530
Some of the topics that have been recently posted have got me thinking... how does Illinois Railway Museum do it and why aren't more organizations copying them?

I just returned from a visit at the Illinois Railway Museum over their Museum Showcase Weekend. For starters... you pay $15 and you get admission to the museum and unlimited rides on anything that is operating that day. Since it was "museum showcase weekend" that meant I could ride -
#1630 steam powered coach train (with a combine, and 2 coaches).
Shay #5 pulling a caboose train (no extra charge for cupolas, first come first serve)
Nebraska Zephyr Streamline Train (no extra charge for observation lounge, first come).
a 3-car wooden interurban set that had a lead motor that was built by Pullman in 1898.
a 2 car interurban set from the 1920's.

On the trolley loop they had a CTA traditional streetcar, a PCC streetcar, and an open air excursion trolley operating.

They also had a trolley bus operating on the bus loop.

In addition to all of this.. they were operating a mail car on the Zephyr train (a Burlington RPO car of course...) and each trip you could watch the mail be dropped and hooked as the train passed.

The entire property is clean and well maintained. Signs around the property light up at night (they were dedicating a new Union Pacific sign and lighting it for the first time on Saturday night).

All of this is done by volunteers! And yes there were many young volunteers. Also ladies were working too in train and engine service.

The place just seems to be the perfect example of what a railway / transportation museum should be.

So how do they do it? What's the magic formula?

(Naturally I don't think IRM is perfect in every way... I'm sure they have internal issues just like everyone else does... but they are restoring and operating a wide variety of equipment, maintaining signaled track good for 40mph, keeping admission prices reasonable and not nickel and diming guests with upcharges, and they are attracting volunteers of all ages and walks of life.)


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 Post subject: Re: So how does IRM do it?
PostPosted: Wed Sep 18, 2019 4:01 pm 

Joined: Sun Mar 05, 2017 3:05 pm
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Crescent-Zephyr wrote:
All of this is done by volunteers! And yes there were many young volunteers. Also ladies were working too in train and engine service.

-they are restoring and operating a wide variety of equipment, maintaining signaled track good for 40mph, keeping admission prices reasonable and not nickel and diming guests with upcharges, and they are attracting volunteers of all ages and walks of life.)


You answered your own question.


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 Post subject: Re: So how does IRM do it?
PostPosted: Wed Sep 18, 2019 4:06 pm 
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Joined: Fri Oct 24, 2008 9:05 pm
Posts: 837
Location: MA
Location, location, location. Unless you've been living under a rock must realize that Chicago is a nation's railroad hub there for a lot of people have connection to the railroad and there are a lot of railroad resources. I also think they have some weird setup were there a lot of separate organizations all running under the umbrella of IRM.


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 Post subject: Re: So how does IRM do it?
PostPosted: Wed Sep 18, 2019 4:17 pm 

Joined: Wed Jan 20, 2016 1:15 pm
Posts: 530
Have you been to Union? I would think the location is a negative. I had to drive about 30 minutes just to get to a hotel!


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 Post subject: Re: So how does IRM do it?
PostPosted: Wed Sep 18, 2019 5:00 pm 

Joined: Wed Aug 25, 2004 9:44 am
Posts: 154
RCD wrote:
I also think they have some weird setup were there a lot of separate organizations all running under the umbrella of IRM.


That's completely wrong. There are no separate organizations. There are departments, of course, to provide a reasonable amount of focus and control. But the various departments help each other out when needed, and volunteers are free to work in whichever departments they wish.


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 Post subject: Re: So how does IRM do it?
PostPosted: Wed Sep 18, 2019 5:10 pm 

Joined: Tue Aug 24, 2004 10:34 pm
Posts: 755
A 30 mile drive, that could be a detractor I guess? But seriously I think the location is a positive not a negative. You have several million people who do not think the drive is too much. You have lots of entertainment to compete with in the Chicago area true but millions of people who might potentially come. Obviously not all of them but even a fractional amount of them came could support a museum.

Have never personally been involved at IRM and I do know like all volunteer organizations they have had ups and downs. I would think with all the different factions operating together it at times must be like herding cats or backing up a rope. In the big picture they have done very well that is for sure. Their investment in buildings to house the collections is one of them. At times I am sure there was opposition for so much expenditure to go for buildings. But the collection they have is not deteriorating like other collections whose equipment lives outside. Lots of good things to take note of.

I think that one of the most neglected aspects of museums and tourist RR is in marketing. Worked as a contractor for a "for profit" steam RR that had 4 full time people working in "The Marketing Dept". What a concept to have a dept who's job it is to do marketing. "All it takes is money" is said at a lot of places to this thought. But aggressive marketing to an area that responds is worth it in my book. I see a different museum failing at its mission that refuses to think out of the box unless forced into it. Very sad to watch. Competition is tough these days and people have lots of choices how and where to spend there money and time. So if a dinner train, pumpkin special and wine tasting works, so be it. But marketing to bring people too your museum or to volunteer is a no brainer that needs to be addressed with an open mind. I would bet that IRM has a marketing dept of sorts either paid of volunteer? Also agree with CZ it is a good idea to see what is working for others and see if you can't improve your own operation.

By the way the event CZ talks about at Union sounded awesome. Would of liked to be there for that. Regards, John.


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 Post subject: Re: So how does IRM do it?
PostPosted: Wed Sep 18, 2019 6:45 pm 

Joined: Thu Aug 26, 2004 2:50 pm
Posts: 2490
Location: Northern Illinois
Long time IRM member here, quickly closing in on fifty years; first made the trip out to Union and joined in February 1970, while still in high school.

First off, I was out there with my grandsons last Saturday also. The three car train was Chicago "L" cars, Northwestern Elevated Railroad 24 (Pullman, 1898) and Chicago Rapid Transit 1797 and trailer 1268, (both AC&F 1907). The open platform 24 is nice and breezy at 40 MPH. The two car train was Chicago Aurora & Elgin wood cars from the first decade of the twentieth century.

The Illinois Railway Museum has always had a culture of being run by the ACTIVE members. Old timers are honored for their past contributions, but when they start with the "... the way we USED to do it..." people tend to nod, politely smile, and then follow the guy who has a track record of CURRENTLY getting things done. There is a long time tradition of bringing policy questions to vote at membership meetings, even though under Illinois law those questions only require BOD action.

The membership jealously guards this tradition. One of the requirements for regular membership is active participation on the property, or other functions such as fund raising or bookkeeping. Back in my younger days, when it became apparent that we had a dynasty in the making, the membership amended the bylaws to impose term limits on the BOD; two three year terms. When we started to have "proxy wars", with people soliciting proxies from inactive members, the membership voted a change to the proxy policy; you can now only proxy if you attended the previous membership meeting. The intent is to keep those members now in nursing homes from still trying to run the organization.

Is it perfect governance? Not hardly, but it has certainly stood the test of time, and the organization is reasonably successful.

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 Post subject: Re: So how does IRM do it?
PostPosted: Wed Sep 18, 2019 6:56 pm 

Joined: Wed Jan 20, 2016 1:15 pm
Posts: 530
Thanks so much for the information Dennis! It was a bit overwhelming keeping track of the equipment running!

That answers a lot of questions regarding the voting, term limits, etc. That is indeeed VERY different from how it works at the museum I have been apart of. The same people have been on the BOD for decades now I think.


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 Post subject: Re: So how does IRM do it?
PostPosted: Wed Sep 18, 2019 6:57 pm 

Joined: Sat Nov 28, 2015 7:28 pm
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Location: Northern WV
A corollary might be "So how does the WW&F in Maine do it?" I have been following their progress from afar for several years and I am AMAZED at what this all-volunteer organization has done. They are rebuilding a ROW that has been abandoned for over 80 years, repurposed an historic bridge, restored a rare Portland basket-case engine, built a turntable, etc. etc. etc. In a few weeks they plan to extend their ROW around 2000 feet. They obviously are doing something right--and they're pretty much out in the middle of nowhere.

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 Post subject: Re: So how does IRM do it?
PostPosted: Wed Sep 18, 2019 7:20 pm 

Joined: Wed Jan 20, 2016 1:15 pm
Posts: 530
So true! I haven’t been up to see WW&F yet but I agree. I’m also impressed with my visits to Nevada State in Carson City. Again... so much is operating on event weekends and they have volunteers young and old. While not as big of an operations as IRM...they still manage to fill that property with operating trains!


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 Post subject: Re: So how does IRM do it?
PostPosted: Wed Sep 18, 2019 10:51 pm 

Joined: Wed Dec 24, 2014 3:15 pm
Posts: 205
Location absolutely is the main reason why railroad museums would be successful. Unless you create a unique operation that’s marketed very well (prime example being the Nevada Northern in Ely), chances are the museum won’t be as successful as one in a much more convenient area: take other examples like in Baltimore, Scranton, Sacramento, St. Louis, and Strasburg which are either within an urban center or are not too far from an urban center.


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 Post subject: Re: So how does IRM do it?
PostPosted: Wed Sep 18, 2019 11:25 pm 

Joined: Thu Mar 13, 2014 2:34 am
Posts: 473
Location: Boston, MA, but formerly Port Jefferson, NY (LIRR MP 57.5)
I would actually argue that the WW&F's location has been a big part of its success. Yes it's in a rural community (Alna, ME), but far from being in "the middle of nowhere" it's a mere 3-hour drive from Boston and in the popular Mid-Coast Maine tourism belt. This helps to drive not just visitor numbers but also access to human capital in the form of members and volunteers. Other railroad museums in the state, such as the SR&RL in Phillips for example, are not so fortunately situated and suffer as a result.

-Philip Marshall


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 Post subject: Re: So how does IRM do it?
PostPosted: Wed Sep 18, 2019 11:46 pm 

Joined: Thu Sep 29, 2011 10:17 am
Posts: 233
Location: New York
Dennis Storzek wrote:
The Illinois Railway Museum has always had a culture of being run by the ACTIVE members. Old timers are honored for their past contributions, but when they start with the "... the way we USED to do it..." people tend to nod, politely smile, and then follow the guy who has a track record of CURRENTLY getting things done.


Those past members built a solid foundation. A new generation comes in to build on top of that. I fully expect some younger generation to wheel me off into the sunset when the time comes. Healthy organizations evolve and grow. There's many things we could learn from IRM.

-otto-

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—Otto M. Vondrak
President, Rochester & Genesee Valley Railroad Museum
Rochester, N.Y.


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 Post subject: Re: So how does IRM do it?
PostPosted: Thu Sep 19, 2019 9:03 am 

Joined: Fri Jun 01, 2018 12:05 pm
Posts: 82
Crescent-Zephyr wrote:
Have you been to Union? I would think the location is a negative. I had to drive about 30 minutes just to get to a hotel!


Nearest hotel looks to be a Super 8 in Hampshire on US 20 by the Illinois Tollway exit which is 7.3 miles / 14 minutes from IRM. Yes, other hotels are further than this but thanks to development in the surrounding area (more on that later) there are many more hotel choices today than there were in the past. I remember when most all lodging was to the west in Rockford.

Here's the thing about IRM's location - it is what made the whole thing possible in the first place. Like the WW&F in Maine IRM started with an abandoned right of way (Elgin & Belvidere interurban) and had to build everything from scratch as part of their move from the original location in North Chicago.

The Elgin & Belvidere ROW was the right price (had to pay off the back taxes on it IIRC) and it was in the middle of cheap farmland. The other great thing was the C&NW (now UP) line from West Chicago to Rockford that paralleled the E&B ROW which is how IRM got/has a direct connection to the national RR network. Starting with this location meant they had to room to expand which took place over the years.

I first visited IRM in 1984 and back then it was generally in the middle of "nowhere" but in the years since suburban sprawl from both Chicago and Rockford has taken place. There are a number of housing developments near IRM's ROW now in places. When this started taking place IRM bought what land it could adjacent to their ROW as a 'buffer zone' which they lease out to farmers to preserve a "ride in the countryside" effect for the future. Strasburg RR has done the same in buying land along their ROW too.

Thanks to the foresight of past leaders at IRM the barns protect the vast majority of the collection. If there is a "negative" to the barns it is that it's hard to get photos of equipment stored in same. Much of this equipment rarely gets outside as a result but I can live with that knowing they are not outside decaying at a much faster rate in the weather. The oldest barns at IRM have had to be re-roofed and re-sided as they are already that old. MRM in Monticello has followed IRM's example and much of their collection is now housed inside barns too which is a major factor in why most of MRM's stuff looks so nice just like IRM's.

Part of the reason IRM has succeeded is that each piece of equipment acquired has to pay for it's track space which is ballast, rail, ties and barn structure. The cost is charged on a per foot basis - longer the piece is, the higher the track space cost is. The policy is to get track space paid off first then all monies earmarked for a particular piece go towards restoration and maintenance of same. Even if a piece is donated free of cost to IRM track space is not free - and this ignores any costs to transport said piece to Union by rail or truck which are separate charges.

I have been a member of IRM since 1984 and in the mid-1990's spent a few summers volunteering there. Like others have observed IRM is doing things right as the trend is always to keep improving the campus / visitor experience. Sure, it's nice to restore equipment but that is not the whole picture. IRM realized this years ago as I believe they were one of the first to do the Thomas events which turned out to be a big moneymaker. They have added other special events such as the 'Happy Holiday Railway' since then which have generated additional revenue. Like all museums IRM can always use more volunteers and money - nothing new there.

As others have pointed out IRM operates with term limits for the "management" (BOD, President, etc. but I'm not sure term limits extend to department heads) which keeps things fresh/forward looking. This is probably the biggest factor in their success after having a nice campus with restrooms and operating equipment which keeps the public coming thru the gates.


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 Post subject: Re: So how does IRM do it?
PostPosted: Thu Sep 19, 2019 10:42 am 
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Location: Frisco, TX
I think IRM does a brilliant job. I’ve wondered though why they haven’t bought up some cheap passenger cars or cabooseses that the shells are in good shape and turn the insides into overnight guest cabins to raise more money for the museum. They could easily charge $150 to $200 a night per car as I’ve seen this online before on sites like Airbnb. There was one place, I believe in Georgia that even had rehabbed some boxcars. Maybe the ROI isn’t there, but I think the idea itself is neat. Or a small locally owned and ran small 24 room or so motel. If it was kept up and cleaning standards were the same as big chains, again $75 to $100 a night wouldn’t be out of the question. I know I would much rather spend my money locally around or at museums when I visit. Plus the last time we stayed in Crystal Lake at the Comfort Inn the housekeeping staff stole our new iPad and the management called us liars and told us it probably fell out of our car when we told them exactly where it was setting had the serial numbers receipts etc.


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