The Heber Creeper chugged out of the station at 12:02 p.m. Saturday, carrying nearly 200 passengers on what may be the antique train's last run.
"Do what you can to save this," called out passenger Lynn McGregor as the train pulled away. McGregor, who lives in Hawaii, is a old-time train buff. Her son, Bob McGregor, Salt Lake City, said shutting down the train would be shortsighted.Most passengers Saturday were aware of financial problems threatening to stall the 20-year-old tourist train route.
"We've been trying for 2 1/2 years to get the state to understand the problems that the train has faced," said train owner Lowell Ashton. "The future's pretty bleak."
While Wasatch County and Heber City officials huddled over the future of the Creeper on Friday, Ashton said he doesn't know what the future holds. His company owns more historical railroad equipment than any private company west of the Mississippi River, much of it a unique part of Utah's frontier history.
"You've got to realize that I'm dealing with every state agency known to man.
"I'm telling the state that unless they do something, they've forced us to leave, (to go) anyplace that wants us."
Ashton's company, the New London Railroad and Village, and state agencies are mired in an ongoing tax dispute. A last-minute reprieve worked out with the State Tax Commission allowed the Creeper to complete Saturday's 120-mile run down Provo Canyon, the last one scheduled for the season.
Ashton said his unpaid bill totals $137,000, a sum for taxes that technically aren't due until January. He's disputing 80 percent of that assessment, asking why the company should pay sales tax on the fares it collects, as well as property taxes and a franchise fee to use the right of way. The company also is required to maintain railroad crossings.
The cumulative effect is that operating costs for the Heber Creeper are 25 percent to 75 percent higher in Utah than for trains in other states, Ashton said. "There isn't a train that we can find in the United States that pays it (sales tax). We think it's a discriminatory action."
Earlier this week, a bid from the state to buy the recreational railroad and its terminal grounds for $1.13 million was rejected by Ashton, then withdrawn by the state.
Ashton contends the state changed its offer, since lawmakers last year appropriated $1.6 million to buy and fix the aging tourist attraction. He has since submitted a counter offer, but a spokesman for the Utah Department of Transportation said the deal is off.
UDOT spokesman Kim Morris said the state reduced its offer after it found Ashton didn't have clear title to one locomotive. The state also wanted New London responsible for any hazardous waste cleanup at the site and refused to forgive any tax debt.
"That's too cheap and too punitive," Ashton said. "We would walk away without anything." Ashton said the only sensible alternative is to close it down and sell the antique cars.
That's why the tax commission made a jeopardy seizure of rolling stock until Ashton settles his unpaid taxes. "It's a very punitive thing, very rarely done," Ashton said of the state seizure. He said while he has sold surplus equipment, he never intended to remove any of the stock the state is interested in.
Financial and ownership disputes aside, it was the romance of railroading that drew J. Bruce Smart of Bountiful to the Heber station on Saturday. Smart stood with his brother-in-law, Robert Jensen, a retired Union Pacific car inspector, watching as the train chugged away.
"I've coupled hundreds of air hoses like that," said Jensen, pointing to the connections adjoining train cars.
"There's nothing like an old steam train engine whistle off in the distance," Smart said. "There's no way to measure the tender feelings."