Monday, November 13, 2006

On Time and On The Advertised

Would advertising by freight railroads, and better advertising by Amtrak and commuter railroads really help the cause of Passenger Rail?

Some of our readers and some readers of Trains think so. We are not so sure.

If you are old enough to remember the days when intercity Passenger Rail advertised (we are), you will remember that it was always in conjunction with freight. Santa Fe was "Ship and Travel Santa Fe." Amtrak still does advertise, but it doesn't do a very good job of telling anyone where it goes.

The good old advertising leaned heavily on destination. Take the Broadway Limited to New York, the Super Chief to Los Angeles, the Hiawatha's, the 400's or the Twin Cities Zephyr to Minneapolis. (You can guess we lived in Chicago in those days.) Amtrak's advertising leans on price, and that's probably all they have going for them.

We don't know if present-day ad agencies are ready for advertising passenger rail. We would guess that the average ad exec doesn't know Tallahassee from Timbuctu, let alone where they are or how to spell them. (There are three spellings for the latter, all correct.) Would it help if the advertising told us where the freight railroads went? We doubt it.

Then there is the need for graphics. (Exception: Radio spot announcements.) For print ads, do you show the destination? Or do you show the passenger train speeding along the high iron at seventy per? (Few US passenger trains do seventy per, by the way.) We have seen some TV spots from Europe that are quite disarming, charming, witty and just as likely to spark an interest in riding as are any airline ads you may have seen in the United States.

Should the advertising lie and never show an Amtrak train threading its way past freight traffic? Or would the public be better off to realize that Amtrak has to use the already overloaded freight railroad system?

Or should the railroads (all railroads) put their heads together to develop an all new approach to getting people interested in trains? Maybe take a cue from the negative campaign ads. "Did you know that Tarmac Airlines uses stinky jet fuel? You can smell the kerosene during those nasty 90-minute waits for terminal space. Tarmac Airlines is soft on the war in Iraq. It hasn't carried nearly as many of our Armed Forces as has rail. Amtrak. Whay wait to fall out of the sky?"

Railroads used to issue promotional films by the hundreds. These thinly disguised "educational" films were shown in thousands of classrooms all over the country and made school-age children aware of how railroads fit into the politics and industry of the country. We haven't seen any for Amtrak or Passenger Rail in general, and we wouldn't be surprised if films that are decades old are still shown in classrooms.

We would like to see a general council called together for the sole purpose of making the public aware of rail's part in the American economy. Perhaps one composed of representatives of Class 1 and Shortline railroads as well as of commuter agencies and Amtrak. But please add representatives of the shipping and riding public, and of the non-educated public.

Although this blog has advocated separating Passenger Rail from Freight right of way, this will separate it from one of it's greatest educational benefits. As long as Passenger Rail must share the way with freight, the rider can be educated and see for him/herself how freight rail serves the country.

As specialization becomes the norm, education becomes more narrow. If we lose the ability to educate the public on this subject dear to our hearts and vital to the country, pity us for more than just our damnable hubris.

© 2006 - C. A. Turek -

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