A Brief History of TrainWeb.com
By Stephen Grande
Saturday, December 9, 2006
I'm not real good at public speaking, but I'm not too bad at writing. So, I thought I'd jot down a little about how TrainWeb.com came to be, what it is doing today, and why it is located where it is today. This seems appropriate for today being the 10th Anniversary of TrainWeb.com and a day that we are cutting the ribbon on our new building in Missouri.
When I was little in the 1950s and growing up in a suburb of Boston, Massachusetts, I was amazed by the electric streetcars, subway trains and elevated trains that seemed to be able to take people anywhere they wanted to go. They connected the city that we lived in with downtown Boston and with all the other cities around us. I loved riding in the trolleys and trains when we went visiting or shopping.
When I got to Junior High School age, about 12, I started to explore the Boston transit system on my own. One thin dime was all that was needed to spend an entire afternoon exploring the trolley, subway and elevated railway lines of Boston. Surprisingly at that time, there were no maps of the system posted in the buses or trains, even though everyone seemed to know where they were going. For me, it was like exploring caves. I had to get off at every station and see if I could board any connecting lines from that station. I got to embark on an entire adventure every time I found a new line and rode it to explore where it went. Over time, I learned every line and knew their schedules and stations like the back of my hand.
I continued to enjoy occasional fun rides on the Boston transit system all the way until the end of my first year at college when I purchased my first car. After that, I seem to have forgotten my love for trains for quite a period of my life. I didn't step foot into another train for almost 25 years! Amtrak started in the same year that I stopped riding trains, 1971, so I missed any first hand experience of the history and evolution of the early years of Amtrak.
Let's leave the "trains" aspect of TrainWeb.com behind for the moment and turn to the computer history of TrainWeb. Actually, the first couple of years that I started to be interested in computers were the last couple of years that I was still riding trains: 1969 and 1970. While at college I also worked at a job programming computers and continued in programming related jobs from 1970 to 1980. During that time, I became fascinated with connecting computers to each other and everything related to computer networks and dial-up access to computers. Keep in mind this was long before the internet became available to the public. It was even before the invention of Personal Computers!
Around 1982, Ray Burns, my wife Barbara Cepinko and I started a computer timeshare service. We obtained a couple of computer systems that were considered relatively powerful in those days and started selling dial-up computer access to companies throughout the nation. As we moved into the 1990s, PCs were getting so powerful that we started to see a drastic drop-off in our client base. Our clients could do on their own desktop PCs what once required a room full of air-conditioned computer resources!
We knew we needed a new client base for our dial-up computer services and turned to home computer users. With their home computers and dial-up modems, they were just beginning to discover services like AOL, CompuServe and Prodigy among others. For a few years, we ran one of the largest only Bulletin Board Services named the Liberty BBS featuring online chat, games, news, shareware downloads, online shopping and more.
Then, a new animal hit the block, the internet. Although the internet had been around for many years between government, universities and research institutions, it hadn't been made available to the general public until the early 1990s. Home computer users started losing interest in BBS systems and started showing more interest in visiting the rapidly growing number of websites. Once again, we transformed our online computer service company and became an Internet Service Provider (ISP).
However, it didn't take long before we found ourselves in a sea of competition as the number of ISPs grew rapidly, from both small local providers and major national companies. It was in 1995 that we realized that we were going to have to do something different on the web to differentiate ourselves from the rapidly growing number of internet companies.
Here, in 1995, is where we need to briefly return to the trains part of our history.
Over the years, I had heard that it was possible to travel to various places in the nation in your own private room in a passenger train. I don't recall ever having seen a passenger train in my life other than a streetcar, subway, or tourist railway. But, I assumed that they existed. If you had mentioned "Amtrak" to me in early 1995, I would have had no idea what you were talking about unless you told me it had something to do with trains.
The idea of travel in a private room in a train had intrigued me from time to time, but I didn't bother to investigate until I heard a radio ad for Amtrak in 1995 while I was exploring where to go for an extended weekend with my family.
I called the toll-free number for "Amtrak Vacations" and told them what days I had available for travel and my desire to travel in a private room on a train. They suggested that I fly with my family to Seattle, spend a couple of days there, and then take the overnight trip back in the Family Room on the Amtrak Coast Starlight. They said I should especially like this journey since they had just introduced a first class lounge car to the train that year called the Pacific Parlour Car.
To make a long story short, from that overnight trip on the Amtrak Coast Starlight, my love of train travel was re-kindled and I was hooked on Amtrak travel! After that, I just had to explore everywhere that Amtrak served throughout the entire nation. Ten years and a quarter of a million Amtrak miles later, I have managed to explore all of Amtrak's routes many times over.
1995 is where the trains and computers finally come together. Ray and I were trying to decide how to target a specific sector of the public to differentiate our web services. We thought about planes, yachts, trains and more. We both really liked trains and I had already started posting travelogues and photos of my train trips just as a hobby by that time. So, we decided to just build upon what I had already posted to the web about trains and train travel.
For a while, we just operated our train oriented website as a subset of our original Liberty.com ISP. It wasn't until December 6, 1996, that we registered the Domain Name TrainWeb.com and started operating it as its own independent website dedicated to trains. Hence, that is why we are celebrating today as the 10th Anniversary of TrainWeb.com .
From the beginning, we believed there were enough people interested in trains to make the website successful. But it wasn't until we really got into operating the website and established our four major sections of Rail Travel, Railfanning, Model Railroading and the Rail Industry, that we realized just how many people are interested and involved with trains!
Early in the days of our company we started a parallel website called TrainWeb.org where we offer free web hosting for any individuals or clubs or organizations that want to operate a not-for-profit railroad related website. Today, we are hosting way over 1000 independent railroad related websites at TrainWeb.org. All together, the websites that we run or host receive more than 5,000,000 page visits per month! That certainly does show that there are a lot of people interested in one aspect of trains or another!
Shivam Surve joined TrainWeb in 1999, just shortly after our return from promoting our website for 10 days at Railfare'99 at the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento. He has become an integral part of TrainWeb designing, managing and supporting most of the features of our web servers and websites. Shivam has recently become a full partner in TrainWeb along with Ray Burns, my wife and my self.
If you hadn't guessed already, the main source of revenue for TrainWeb over the past ten years has been the advertising revenue generated by our sponsors. More recently, the ability to place railroad related Google Ads on our websites has helped to boost our revenue stream. But in all honesty, the operation of the TrainWeb websites is a labor of love. Over the years, the revenue generated by all web advertising has been barely enough to cover the costs to provide the websites, if that.
For years, we knew we would not be able to generate adequate income to keep the company running until we were able to start selling online. We went through a number of dead end attempts with either using poorly designed online shopping software from 3rd party vendors, or not quite finding the right railroad related products to sell online.
All that time, the right products to sell online may have been staring us in the face! For years, people had been calling us asking if we could recommend where they could purchase party supplies with a railroad theme. Most often, they were parents of small children. But sometimes it would be someone from a railroad museum that wanted partyware for an event at the museum, or the family of a retiring railroad employee that wanted to throw them a railroad themed retirement party.
We've seen railroad themed party supplies at party supply stores as well as Wal-Mart, K-Mart, and other big department stores. We asked people if they had tried those places. The response always came back the same. Those were the first places they had checked, but those stores either didn't have an adequate selection or they didn't have enough of what they did carry.
We got so many requests of this type that we decided to try selling a few railroad themed party supplies as a test market. Our sales in this area grew pretty quickly. We kept running out of inventory about as fast as we were getting it in! Ray and Shivam started to spend almost full-time on this new party supply venture of TrainWeb in order to keep up with the orders coming in online and by phone. We set up a separate website for this effort that we named "TrainParty.com" for our online store of railroad themed party supplies.
Many of you know that our office was located in a small space above the Amtrak Ticket Office in Fullerton, California, from 1996 through 2005. We were sad when we had to move out of there and away from our bird's eye view of the tracks and the platform in order to find a facility large enough for our entire TrainParty.com inventory.
In less than a year, our need for more space for inventory had grown beyond even our new larger facility. We could already see that our need for more and more inventory space was going to continue growing for the next few years. At the same time, we realized that we could save a lot on shipping costs and the speed of delivery if we were more centrally located in the nation. Thus began a search for a new larger facility centrally located in the nation that would handle our growth needs for the next several years.
La Plata, Missouri
Our first choice was Liberty, Missouri, a suburb of Kansas City. But fate had other plans in store for us. Tom Marshall called Ray Burns with an order for a large number of train whistles to celebrate the grand opening of his new railroad themed hotel, The Depot Inn. Tom and Ray hit it off right off the bat as both certainly understood the concept of operating a business around a railroad theme.
Tom wanted TrainWeb to consider moving to La Plata instead of Liberty, as long as we were considering moving to Missouri anyway. Shivam was already in Liberty, Missouri, looking for a new facility for TrainWeb. It seemed it might be worth having Ray fly out and Shivam drive up to take a look at La Plata as long as we were considering Missouri anyway.
There are many factors that entered into the decision to go with La Plata, Missouri, but a large amount of credit has to go to how welcome both Tom Marshall and his wife Kelly, City Administrator Ray Ivy, as well as the town of La Plata itself made us feel about moving here. They did a lot to help make this a good move for TrainWeb. It also didn't hurt that we were able to purchase a building right next to the BNSF mainline and once again have a clear view and webcam view of the tracks!
Museum of Amtrak History
Like many of you, TrainWeb has been collecting Amtrak souvenirs and memorabilia for years. In 1997 we joined the Amtrak Historical Society and started attending their annual conferences. The Amtrak Historical Society had also been collecting items of Amtrak history for a number of years. Both TrainWeb and the Amtrak Historical Society hoped that one day a museum could be established devoted to the history of Amtrak. Compared to other railroad companies, Amtrak doesn't have a very long history, but we both felt that now is the time to start preserving that history while equipment and memorabilia are still more readily available.
The primary challenge of starting a museum devoted to the history of Amtrak was locating a building where the historical items could be placed on public display and enough land to store historic Amtrak locomotives and railcars. The possibility of such a museum was rekindled when we saw the land that was available near our new TrainWeb building in La Plata. We have obtained that land and have even acquired a couple of ex-Amtrak railcars that we expect to have delivered in the next few weeks.
Our plan is to eventually have a number of Amtrak locomotives and passenger cars on the land that we have acquired right by the La Plata Amtrak Station and have the Amtrak historical items on display in those cars that visitors will be able to walk-through and view. Temporarily, we have placed the Amtrak historical items on display in a section of the new TrainWeb building as we have quite a bit of extra room in our building for now. We are also exploring with the City of La Plata and Amtrak the possibility of placing the Amtrak historical collection on display in the former baggage section of the La Plata Amtrak Station. In any case, we do expect the collection of Amtrak locomotives, railcars and historical items on display on the museum land in La Plata to grow over time.
The Rail Resort
You are here at the very beginning of the plans for a grand Rail Resort here in La Plata that will stretch from this TrainWeb building and the Amtrak Station, all the way over to The Depot Inn. The land to build this resort has already been acquired.
The Rail Resort is envisioned to be a vacation Valhalla not just to train fans, but also for their families regardless of their level of interest in trains. Many of you are probably familiar with golf resorts, beach resorts, ski resorts or spa resorts. The Rail Resort will have many features in common with other hotel resorts, but with the difference that it will feature a railroad theme throughout!
The existing Depot Inn & Suites will be the starting core of this resort, which will initially be expanded to about 100 rooms with banquet and meeting facilities. For those of you that have not yet had a chance to see the genuine railroad theme carried throughout the Depot Inn as well as the quality of the hotel, you will understand what I am talking about after you have taken a tour of the Depot Inn. This same attention to detail and quality will be extended throughout the construction of The Rail Resort.
Some of the possible features that have been proposed for The Rail Resort include an elevated sheltered Train Watching tower with a great view high above the mainline through La Plata, a set of caboose cabins where guests can spend the night in a genuine historic caboose, an elaborate indoor water park with a railroad theme, a miniature golf course with a railroad theme, a children's play area with a railroad theme, as well as numerous other features that you would expect to find at any vacation resort. An area will also be set aside where outdoor Garden Railroads and indoor Model Railroads can be viewed.
A narrow gauge railroad will be built to transport guests throughout the resort park, including to the Train Watching Tower, the Amtrak Station, the museum of Amtrak history, the caboose cabins, the Depot Inn hotel rooms and suites and all other areas of The Rail Resort. Transportation will also be provided to La Plata's quality golf course as well as daily tours offered to attractions in nearby towns and countryside.
The bottom line is that The Rail Resort will be a vacation destination where one can spend days or weeks enjoying all the expected features of a top quality holiday resort while enveloped in a railroad motif throughout.
We hope that all of you will return to La Plata, Missouri, from time to time to stay at The Depot Inn, to visit with us at TrainWeb.com, and to watch the progress as the museum of Amtrak history and The Rail Resort are constructed and continue to grow!
For More Information, Contact:
TrainWeb.com 660-332-4133 / TrainParty.com 800-761-4294
Ray Burns (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Shivam Surve (email@example.com)
Steve Grande (firstname.lastname@example.org)
DEPOT INN & SUITES / SILVER RAILS RESORT / LA PLATA, MISSOURI
More Photos: Exterior / Interior / Rooms / Train Watching / Amtrak Exhibition / Event Center
For Travel Arrangements & Info e-mail: travel@SilverRails.net or call: 877-459-5900 (toll-free).
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