Eye on Tourism
Most policymakers understand the need for intercity passenger rail service in congested metropolitan corridors. The vital role of Amtrak intercity passenger trains to the economic health and quality of life of hundreds of small cities and rural communities across the country is appreciated less.More than 25 million passengers rode Amtrak trains in the last fiscal year, a ridership record and 4 percent increase over the prior year, which also set a record. The gains are not confined to trains serving congested corridors, but are also on long-distance trains that carry passengers hundreds of miles. Ridership rose 4 percent on the Chicago-Denver-San Francisco California Zephyr and 6 percent on the Chicago-Albuquerque-Los Angeles Southwest Chief. In Colorado, 200,700 people boarded or got off the train in fiscal year 2004.For Glenwood Springs, Granby, La Junta and other cities, Amtrak trains are an essential link to other parts of the country. Many rural communities lack convenient, affordable air service. Others no longer have convenient intercity bus service. In Colorado, snow and ice can make winter highway travel hazardous, and trains are an all-weather and safe means of transportation. Yet these communities with few if any alternatives are the ones most at risk of losing their rail service.The California Zephyr brings skiers to Winter Park in winter and visitors who come to hike and camp in Rocky Mountain National Park throughout the year. Over 30,000 people boarded or got off the train at Glenwood Springs, a destination for many and the nearest stop to Aspen, renowned for skiing in winter and its music festival in summer. The train ride from Denver to Glenwood Springs provides spectacular views of Glenwood Canyon that can’t be seen from the highway. In 2004, Denver-based tour operator RMA Tours booked nearly 5,300 packages that comprised a two-night stay and a pass to the Hot Springs Pool. RMA experienced a tremendous loss when the train tracks were closed for two weeks due to rock slides in January 2005. Tourist spending on hotels, food and recreation supports the regional economy. Local businesses provide food and other services for the trains, generating jobs and revenues. Amtrak spent nearly $19 million in Colorado for goods and services.Over 150 communities nationwide have restored their historic train stations and found that in addition to enhancing rail travel, the stations are catalysts for economic development and a source of shared community history and pride. Restoration of Denver Union Terminal has anchored substantial retail and commercial development, upscale condominiums and other investments in the once neglected area around the station. Plans for start-up of regional commuter rail service that would use Denver Union Terminal are being discussed.Long-distance trains are essential connectors that hold the national Amtrak system together. They are the basis for development of improved passenger rail service along more densely populated rail corridors. If these trains were eliminated, as some in Congress have proposed, the impacts would cascade through the Amtrak network as travelers find themselves unable to make connections from one train to another and unable to reach the places they need to go. Relatively little money would be saved by eliminating long-distance trains because their cost is not a large part of Amtrak’s budget. Yet the loss of these trains would impact the economies and lives of citizens in states across the nation. It would be wiser for Congress to provide the funding Amtrak needs to operate the national rail system and continue to improve its aging infrastructure. The result would undoubtedly be an upward spiral of increased ridership and economic benefit.Lori Hogan is vice president of tourism marketing for the Glenwood Springs Chamber Resort Association and Harriet Parcells is executive director.
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