David L. Durbano is the president and C.E.O. of The Western Group, a conglomerate of shortline railroads including Verde Canyon Railroad.

Starting in the early 1970s, Dave started a company engaged in all facets of railroad construction and maintenance. As his reputation for fine workmanship grew, he was poised to enter the shortline operating side of the business. The acquisition of Verde Canyon Railroad personified his entrepreneurial spirit.

Dave bought this line in 1988, sight unseen, based on freight figures alone. After the purchase, he brought his management team to Arizona to review the line and could not believe the scenic wonderland through which they traveled. He was awestruck at the natural beauty and undisturbed wilderness through which they passed. He knew others would want to see the Verde Canyon where history was only a part of the journey. It was inevitable that on Friday, November 23, 1990, the first Verde Canyon Railroad excursion train would pull out of the station.

Dave is originally from Utah but now resides in Wyoming with his wife Linda. He has six children, 11 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. Other than railroads, Dave enjoys time in airplanes and on top of horses. He has always been a proud American and patriot; strongly believing that we are privileged to experience this magnificent country under the freedoms we enjoy. His message? Never take anything for granted and savor every minute of life’s journey.

David Durbano
David Durbano

How does the experience of riding the Verde Canyon Railroad give guests a unique perspective on the history and culture of your region of Arizona?

The perception of Arizona by most tourists is a coyote howling at the moon in an arid desert landscape that supports only the hardiest of cacti (or cactuses). The particular sliver of Arizona in which Verde Canyon Railroad travels, centralized in the State near Sedona, meshes that Southwestern perception with a little-known zone that occupies only one percent of Arizona’s land mass known as “riparian.” We are fortunate to have the life-giving waters of the Verde River flow next to the tracks of Verde Canyon Railroad which is grandfathered between two national forest lands and adjacent to a wilderness area. This swath of fertile land, which supports a plethora of flora and fauna, is not seen in such detail and density anywhere else within the State’s boundaries and it is very rare in the Southwest.

The striking red rock precipices, vibrant in the depth of the canyon, hug the track bed, and railroad history thrives as guests aboard the rails are introduced to a variety of distinctive railroad bridges and structures, including a 680-foot manmade tunnel blasted through solid rock over a century ago. Not only is the legacy of railroading in the State a huge part of Verde Canyon Railroad’s allure, but the remnants of Native American cultures dating back as far as 600 B.C. are still evidenced along the rails and in surrounding communities.

I purchased the line in 1988, sight unseen, and when I made the first trip through the Canyon on the front of a GP7 locomotive, I knew that this was a place which would captivate others as it had me. We put our passenger service into full swing on Friday following Thanksgiving Day in 1990 and 44,000 people rode that next year without one ounce of advertising except “word of mouth.” After 25 years, and nearly two million riders, we can’t be all wrong.

How has the experience of traveling through the Verde Canyon changed over the years?

Fortunately for our customers, the stunning scenery and monumental antiquity has remained intact along the Verde Canyon Railroad track from the time the rails were first laid over a century ago. What has changed drastically is our loading area and train car quality. In 1990, we bought retired Pullman-Standard Metroliner cars that had run along the Eastern Seaboard and put generators under each car for interior electric power. We created one first-class car and two coach-class cars pulled by that same GP7 locomotive from which I first experienced the Verde Canyon. What set us apart, even from the inception, was the outdoor viewing car constructed from a retired flatcar (gondola) which allowed passengers passage from the indoor cars to the outside with the price of one ticket. It was within weeks that we were computerized because a log book and one reservationist/manager weren’t going to keep up with demand.

The quick rise in ridership allowed us to introduce a series of Budd Chair Cars and two vintage FP7 locomotives to the consist over the next six years. Finally a power car was added to produce the essential electricity to keep up with the demand for heat, air conditioning and refrigeration necessary for customer comfort. Whenever a new passenger car was added, an outdoor viewing car was added as well. Finally, a fully-renovated caboose was attached to the train for a personal party of six or less who wanted to experience the rails in the privacy of their own luxurious car.

We have never stopped adding new dimensions to the Verde Canyon Railroad experience. We built a Southwestern-style depot in 1997 which houses the Copper Spike Café and Boxcar Gift Store. Shortly thereafter, we turned a boxcar into the John Bell Museum which accommodates a hardy collection of railroad memorabilia and historical data about the railroad and its locale. We added the Whistlestop at Milepost 38 shop to sell our private-label wines and beers, and in 2015 we enhanced the length of our loading platform with storyboards about “everything Verde Canyon.” We just keep improving the experience while keeping our pricing inclusive of the embellishments.

What is one detail of the train ride that may go unnoticed by guests but which you feel is important?

When we first added the open-air viewing cars (gondolas) they just looked like flatcars with railings on them. The walkway between the passenger coaches and flatcars was a piece of steel that slid across the flatcar base as the train made the tight turns in the Verde Canyon. Eventually we added canopies which allowed enjoyment on the open-air cars in all kinds of weather, but the coup de gras came when a talented young welder from Laramie, Wyoming did some iron work for me on our ranch. I told him about the safety concern I had for passengers accessing the open-air cars from the indoor cars. He traveled to Arizona and pioneered a turntable-style walkway allowing safe passage from car to car. This innovative walkway has allowed passengers the ability to move from the comfort of an indoor seat to the outdoors in a leisurely fashion and we know they’re doing it safely.

What do you wish every guest knew as they consider buying a ticket for the Verde Canyon Railroad?

Our research tells us that most people ride our train for the “train” experience. Other than metropolitan subway systems, train travel has all but become obsolete except for the entrepreneurial efforts of many shortline railroad owners. I think it is a surprise to most passengers that they can actually move from their inside seats onto an outdoor car, that they are pampered by several skilled car attendants throughout the trip, and that as the train moves deeper into the Verde Canyon the scenery becomes exquisite. Most surprising is how much relaxation occurs during the excursion … no phones, no Internet, no traffic, no television … just nature at her grandest.

What is one travel trend that really excites you?

I would be crazy if I didn’t acknowledge how much the Internet has impacted tourism especially over the past 10 years. The ability to easily translate your product literature into multiple languages and have it delivered in a matter of minutes, if not seconds, is a phenomenal form of communication. A diverse foreign market is just discovering us and we look forward to having them ride with us.

SOB Bridge
SOB Bridge

What sets a ride on the Verde Canyon Railroad apart from other heritage railroad experiences?

We have created a four-hour train ride aboard historic renovated cars, similar to many other heritage railroads, but what they don’t have are our innovative outdoor viewing cars which allow passengers 360-degree views of the extraordinary scenery through which our train passes at a leisurely 12 m.p.h.. Coupling the Verde Canyon scenery with premium libation and great food fare, an outstanding shopping experience and a multitude of complimentary depot amenities makes the experience much more than just a heritage train ride.

Unlike any other heritage railroad, Verde Canyon Railroad recurrently has a feathered friend onboard. Some years ago, we decided that because of our success the Railroad needed to “give back.” We wanted to donate to a cause that was close to what happened along our rails and in our canyon so we partnered with Liberty Wildlife, a nonprofit raptor rescue located in Scottsdale, Arizona. As part of their educational program, Liberty Wildlife often bring birds of prey, whose injuries are substantial enough to exclude their return to the wild, to the railroad for a depot appearance or a ride on the rails. To be able to ride the train with a bald eagle named Sonora, stroke her feathers and watch her interaction with her handler is an intimate indulgence just as monumental as the train ride itself.

What is one insider’s tip to getting the most out of an experiential travel excursion such as yours?

Come prepared to spend a great deal of time outside on an open-air viewing car. Bring binoculars, sunglasses, sunscreen and appropriate clothing for the weather (we have them for purchase if forgotten). To be able to experience this ride from the vantage point of an outdoor car in a canyon only accessible by rail is a rare experience. Also, either book passage in the caboose or aboard a first-class car. The comfort and amenities are worth the extra expense.

What is one strategy that has helped your organization to grow?

Fortunately, one thing that has never changed is our attention to “service.” The old adage, “the customer is always right” is our mantra and we have never deviated from putting customer satisfaction at the forefront of our business strategy. We have been very fortunate to have people working for us who love riding the rails every day and enjoy the interaction with visitors who end their journey loving the experience because of that interface.

We also have always invested in making sure that the two-millionth person riding the rails will have the same physical comfort and positive encounter as the first person did. We constantly upgrade our seating, décor, food fare, commentary, literature and Internet presence. Our grounds are as spotless as the day we opened and our team takes great pride in delivering a great product each and every day. We pride ourselves in consistency.

What is one personal habit that has helped you to be successful?

I believe in giving my management team a lot of latitude in achieving goals and performing daily tasks. Once we put a yearly plan in place, we generally don’t deviate from it. That isn’t to say that we aren’t constantly analyzing what works and doesn’t work but we stay focused on our ultimate goal of creating satisfied customers while implementing ulterior changes that will liven the experience.

Please share one instance where a guest had a moving or emotional reaction to the experience you provided to them.

One weekend I was onsite and a young couple arrived at the depot with a young boy dressed in railroad-ticking overalls and an engineer’s cap. The lad was probably three to four years old. His physical excitement when he saw the train was overwhelming as I approached the parents to ask about his obvious infatuation with trains. “He came out of the womb loving trains,” said his mother. His mom and dad both shared that they were totally perplexed about his fascination with trains because they didn’t live by tracks nor did their travels take them anywhere near railroad yards or rail lines. “I don’t know why he is so fascinated with trains,” said his father, “but everything in his life is about trains. We were so glad to be able to bring his fantasy to life with a ride on your railroad.”

I couldn’t resist. I took the family up to meet the engineer and brakeman and had the little boy hoisted up into the engine cab to actually see what the inside of a real locomotive looked like. He was ecstatic. A few weeks later I received a thank you note in the mail from the couple. Evidently, the little boy’s obsession with trains was now fixated on Verde Canyon Railroad. According to the note, “the sun now rose and set on us.” I think we have a future rider for many years to come.


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