Bikes aboard

August 02, 2016

Kimberly Kinchen, business network writer


Image courtesy of Amtrak

“I’m a cranky old man, but this really works!” That’s Ed Quigley, a Golden Triangle bike tour guide in Pittsburgh, gushing about Amtrak’s new carry-on bike service on its Capitol Limited route, which launched last fall. Thanks to carry-on service, more than ever, Quigley and his fellow riders are riding the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) and C&O Canal towpath, which together form a 334-mile trail that roughly follows the Washington, D.C. to Pittsburgh leg of the train route.

For $20, riders can make a reservation for their bike and carry it on board a specially redesigned baggage car, eliminating the need for boxing bikes or making complicated shuttle and rental car arrangements. (Depending on the train, this may require a little lift, as shown above.) “Taking a bike on these wonderful trails has gone from Herculean effort to painless,” says Quigley.

The GAP and C&O twist and turn from D.C. to Pittsburgh, along the scenic Potomac, through Appalachia and into the Alleghenies, and are dotted with many once-prosperous towns that saw deep declines with the collapse of the coal and steel industries. Now, bicycling tourists who came to eat, drink, and sleep in the towns make up 30 to 40 percent of revenue for many businesses in along the route. “We are creating a trail-based economy and the [train] carry-on service is a needed one that helps these communities’ economies,” explains Linda Boxx of the Allegheny Trail Alliance (ATA), which has long pushed for the service and considers it a great success.

Local users outnumber tourists, but tourists spend considerably more money. On the GAP, for example, about 80 percent1 of people touring by bicycle stay in bed and breakfasts or other hotel-like accommodations (the other 20 percent camp). The average group of two or more bicyclists spends $117 on food, beverages, and miscellaneous and another $124 on lodging. It’s too early for a formal analysis of carry-on service, but those numbers make it clear how much long-distance travelers contribute to small trail town businesses—even if only a fraction of riders that carry-on bike service attracts are those who would not have otherwise made the trip.

“Our local bed and breakfasts have reported more bookings and earlier in the season bookings this year,” says Brooke Deason of the Connellsville, Pa., Chamber of Commerce. Deason says a local business owner just began converting a once-blighted site to new townhouses near the Amtrak station that will include two rentals for travelers, and that the Chamber hopes to see Amtrak expand the service from its current capacity of eight bikes per train.

Linda Boxx gives the lion’s share of credit to Adventure Cycling Association for its central role in coordinating and leading trail advocates to lobby and make recommendations to Amtrak for developing and expanding better bike services. “Our push included presenting the business case to Amtrak, showing how cyclists spend money, and that they like to travel slower and by train,”  says Ginny Sullivan,  Director of Travel Initiatives at ACA.

Amtrak has called the Capitol Limited service “a success from day one.”  The rail line has offered carry-on and similar services on some routes for years, and looks poised to expand it. With more service planned for all long-distance routes, Amtrak may soon be bringing more bike tourists to burgeoning trail towns all over the country.

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1. https://gaptrail.org/system/resources/W1siZiIsIjIwMTYvMDMvMTcvMTgvMDMvMzIvNDY2LzIwMTVfR0FQX1JlcG9ydC5wZGYiXV0/2015-GAP-Report.pdf

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