With the increase in the price of gasoline and long waits in airline security lines, more and more people are taking the train. Many more passengers seem to be coming into Flagstaff, and they are spending money. Some visit our community and then travel on to other destinations like Los Angeles and Chicago.
Al Brown of Flagstaff is a frequent train rider. Recently, he was boarding the Amtrak in Flagstaff to take a long trip throughout the west and then on to Rochester, New York. “I’ve been taking the train for 10 years, and recently more than ever. If I want to fly to Spokane to visit my friends, I have to drive to Phoenix, then have several flight changes and it would be horribly expensive. This entire (train) trip is costing me only $600,” he said.
“If I want to fly to cities along the west coast, I have to drive to Phoenix, rent a hotel room for the night since many of the flights leave early in the morning, and it’s just a hassle,” he added.
John Pitt, author of USA by Rail Guide Book, says, “Trains are less stressful, can save you money and have many other advantages. They pollute less, don’t cause traffic congestion and allow you to work comfortably en route. You can travel right into the city center instead of commuting miles away to an airport where you may face long and tedious security checks,” Pitt said.
Heather Ainardi, director of the Flagstaff Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB), said her employees are heavily promoting Amtrak, particularly now with high gas prices and summer just around the corner. “The Southwest Chief line, which runs through Flagstaff, is one of the busiest in the west. We value our relationship with Amtrak and believe we have an amazing partnership with them,” Ainardi said.
While the bureau does not keep statistics specific to the visitors who come to Flagstaff on Amtrak, she did acknowledge that it seems there are more train travelers coming in compared to last year. Data from the CVB shows the average party of three travelers spends approximately $646 a day when they visit Flagstaff. That includes lodging, food and beverages, transportation, shopping, recreation and other spending. “Amtrak boosts our tourism market,” she said.
Many Flagstaff businesses report that they are seeing an increase in tourists coming to Flagstaff on the train, but they don’t keep records on whether the guest came by train, car, or air.
Fred Wong, owner of Grand Canyon Café, said, “We’ve had quite a few train customers recently. One night there were at least three sets of visitors from the UK, some from India and many Asians. It seems we’re seeing more than before. Some people don’t tell us if they’re train travelers, but it seems we have more of them. They are boosting our business and we welcome them until 9:00 p.m.” he said.
Justin Connors, who works the counter at Amtrak’s Flagstaff ticket counter, smiled brightly when asked if ridership is up. “Definitely, I think we’ve had a big increase in the last few months. Look how crowded this depot is right now. Plus, taking the train is so convenient. You can bring on your own water, food and three bags. You can’t do that on a plane anymore,” he said.
Carol Perez has worked for Amtrak for 20 years, and she agrees the Flagstaff depot is busier these days. She noted that during the big snowstorm in 2010, many flights were canceled and roads were closed. “We were still able to get people in and out of Flagstaff, even with the five feet of snow. Our trains may have been a bit late, but we shoveled paths and got passengers on their trains,” she said.
Indeed, Amtrak marketing statistics show Flagstaff ridership up slightly over the same time last year. “For international travelers, the [Flagstaff] station is central for visiting regional tourist attractions. Nationwide, Amtrak has experienced 18 consecutive months of ridership growth year-over-year, “ Vernae Graham, marketing relations spokesperson with Amtrak, said.
Louise Hosking from the UK has been traveling the United States via train for nearly a year. “It’s a lot cheaper than flying, plus I get to see the scenery. The train is fun,” she said, “I meet all kinds of interesting people, one person and I talked nearly non-stop for an entire day!” FBN