March 11, 2009
SUNY Cortland students study idea of tourism train
State funds $100,000 study of whether train rides in the region would boost area tourism
The journey is more interesting than the destination, graduate students at SUNY Cortland have concluded from studying the feasibility of a tourism train along the region’s railways.
A route is viable between Cortland and Binghamton and would meet many community needs, the students said.
The 778 respondents in a survey conducted last year said overall they preferred short train rides with themes, such as fall foliage, theater or wine and cheese, over simply riding to an event such as the Central New York Maple Festival in Marathon.
The surveys were conducted last spring on a train between Marathon and Binghamton at the Maple Festival and by telephoning people in Tompkins, Cortland, Broome, Chenango, Onondaga and Tioga counties.
The study led to a report compiled in July by Sharon Todd, the professor who teaches the research and evaluation course, and the 19 students. Todd and this year’s students in that course are continuing the research.
“We wrote our report about our findings and thought that was it,” Todd said. “The study was extended. This spring should be the end.”
The study was funded by a $50,000 state Department of Economic Development grant obtained with the help of state Sen. Tom Libous (R-Binghamton) and SUNY Cortland President Erik Bitterbaum.
Todd received another $50,000 grant this year, so another class of graduate students is continuing the study, adding further research about tourism in the region and the operation of tourism trains in general.
Todd hopes the reports are used by the state in deciding whether the train would help tourism.
The train is owned by New York, Susquehanna and Western Railway, which is based in Cooperstown and has 400 miles of track between Syracuse, Utica and northern New Jersey.
Last spring, students explored whether a train would boost tourism in the region, as people rode it to other events such as Cortland’s Great Pumpkinfest or Binghamton Mets baseball games. Such trains usually travel slowly, at up to 30 mph, allowing passengers to view scenery and socialize.
Todd said the research focused on several aspects of the idea: perceived benefits of trains as transportation, constraints of riding, how much and how willing people were to pay to ride, best marketing strategy and who would ride.
“It was an incredible hands-on experience for the students,” Todd said. “Students in our department have done studies of the Tioughnioga River Trail, Lime Hollow Nature Center, town of Dryden recreation commission, the Cortland YWCA, the Cortland Youth Bureau.”
Jim Dempsey, director of the Cortland County Convention and Visitors Bureau, said he wonders what the students will find as they focus on tourism itself.
“I’ll be interested to see if the information they gather this year is different, considering the economy,” Dempsey said. “Will the public embrace this?”
Besides the surveys, the students conducted a literature review about tourism trains, which combined findings from other studies. They interviewed staff of 20 such tourism train lines, including trains in the Adirondacks and Tioga County, to learn best practices.
Todd said the students are interviewing management from more tourism train lines, extending their study to encompass the potential benefits of a train, and survey more people to get a larger sample.
The phone surveys yielded a low response rate of 34 percent. The respondents were 57 percent female, 41 percent male, 2 percent with sex not indicated.
People told the students last year that their reasons for not using such a train to travel to events included lack of time, lack of information about such trains, and lack of accessibility for people with physical disabilities or people with baby strollers.
Dempsey said the train could carry skiers to Greek Peak in Virgil.
“If you have kids who can’t drive yet, why not put them on a train and have it stop in Blodgett Mills, then have a shuttle bring them to Greek Peak?” he said.
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