America by rail tour

Last October, I had the privilege of driving a bus tour around New England for America By Rail, the country’s largest purveyor of rail tours. I picked the group up at the Albany Amtrak station and drove them for 7 days to various scenic railroad attractions in Vermont and New Hampshire. The tour group was composed of a cross section of American and foreign travelers. So- called “Railroad Buffs” constituted less than a quarter of the group ( I took a survey at the end of the trip). The rest were just sightseers, in search of fall foliage and views of the lakes and the mountains. They were men and women of various ages and back grounds. For most of them, it was not their first excursion with America By Rail. Some had also traveled with other rail/tour companies. We had a few European and Oriental tourist on board, too.

Upon leaving Albany, we headed to Rutland, Vermont, were we stayed overnight, touring Manchester, and Woodstock. They visited farms, maple syrup stands, museums, and county stores. Most of the meals were not included in the price of the trip, so they spent their own money at restaurants and coffee shops. On the evening of the second day, we arrived at Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire for a lakeside dinner train ride. From there we headed Conway. The following day, after a few hours of shopping, they rode the Crawford Notch train for the afternoon, before dispersing for dinner in Conway.

One of the highlights of the tour, for me, was riding the cog railroad to the top of Mount Washington. My daughter had spent several summers working and living above the tree line on that mountain, and although it was a dreary and overcast day, I enjoyed the scenic trip to the top and an hour or two spent at the summit. The desolate rocky peak, where the highest sustained wind speed on earth were recorded is an experience not to be missed. Each train has a tour guide who interprets the trip for the passengers. The group spent an hour or so in the gift shop before departing for the von Trapp Family Lodge near Stowe, Vermont.

The von Trapp family, of “The Sound of Music” fame, runs an exquisite resort. Friendly Austrian architecture, home grown food and European service are its hallmarks. There is an organic farm and many trails to hike. I’d been there several times before to cross country ski, but this was the first time I had stayed there overnight. I had my guitar along, and after playing for my group, I was asked to perform for all the guests the next night, which was quite a blast, given the setting. Their restaurant provides fine dining, and the breakfast buffet is first class.

On our final day, we did some shopping around Burlington before winding along the shores of Lake George and returning to the Albany Station. From there, the group rode all night back to Chicago. The cost of the tour was about $2,500 per person, which included transportation and lodging, entrance to attractions, and train rides and a few meals.

The passengers were on their own for most meals and, of course, their shopping. They came back with a lot more baggage than they left with. I believe we had 46 passengers on that trip. Each day, we met up with seven or eight other buses that were doing the same basic tour that we were.

Every day, during the tour season, another seven or eight buses embark on a similar tour. I later spoke with a gentleman at the office of America By Rail. He didn’t want to give me his company’s profit margin, but he did tell me that other than the U.S. Army, America By Rail pumps the most money into Amtrak of any entity in America. Their tours run year round, and carry close to capacity.

Assuming a 15 percent profit margin, and that they took in about $115,000 for the tour, I would venture a guess that the tour put about $80,000 into the local economy. He said my guess was close. Add to that meals and shopping, besides the included bus cost, hotels, fuel, and train fares. Then multiply it by 7 other buses doing the same thing, times about 45 days just in September and early October. I come up with about $23 million. Never mind the busy summer tourist season, or the light spring or Thanksgiving and Christmas tours. I wouldn’t even venture a guess about the total revenue brought to these areas each year, with the train rides as the central attraction. What the gentleman from America By Rail did share with me is that train based tourism is growing steadily every year, and projects to continue to grow for the foreseeable future.

In my travels around the country, (I’ve been in about 30 states in the past two years) I get to see a lot of rail/trail conversions. I talk to people who use them. Most are local to the trail area. There are some dog walkers and some tourists, but most are local people looking for a little safe exercise. I have no doubt that there would be some tourists who would come to bike or ski the trails if the Adirondack Railroad tracks were ripped up, but from my observation, nothing that would compare with the influx of tourists and their wallets that could be seen if the tracks were restored all the way through the Adirondacks. I wish that local politicians and movers and shakers could see what I’ve seen; I think they would think a little clearer on this subject.