Have you voted? Route a steam engine through your town

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Sunday, January 9, 2011

Kudos to Union Pacific and its senior VP for corporate relations, Bob Turner, for a genuinely good and fun idea: Let the fans and others who enjoy steam locomotives decide where one of UP’s big brutes will travel this summer, the 50th anniversary of its legendary steam program. I am probably the last train lover on earth to know about this contest. Two months ago, Turner himself tried to get me interested in the campaign but I was too distracted to pay attention.

So for those who don’t know, here’s the deal: In round one, during November, people could go to www.upexcursion.com and vote the town they’d like either 4-8-4 engine 844 or 4-6-6-4 engine 3985 to visit. In round two, Union Pacific’s staff took the most-voted locales and fashioned four possible routes from them. Now in round three, which ends January 17, you can vote early and often (as many times as you please, basically) on the route of your choice.

I’ve voted. It was a no-brainer. I live in Virginia, far from Union Pacific. But I grew up in a little town called Sulphur Springs, Texas, and one of the nominated routes (what UP calls the “The Baton Rouge Rambler”) would pass through Mineola, 35 miles south of fly-bitten Sulphur Springs. Run that train, and I’ll be there.

As interesting to me as the contest is how it came about. I’ll let Turner tell the story: “A year ago I read an article about crowdsourcing. It’s a form of social networking, in which a large, undefined group of people, a crowd, helps determine an outcome. I asked our web guy at UP about it. He said the best example of crowdsourcing is Starbucks, which built a network on Facebook for people to give it advice on products. That got me to thinking. If we wanted to take a group predisposed to love trains and build a more sustained relationship, how could we do it?

“Five guys from our public affairs shop did some thinking and at a staff meeting last May reported on it. One idea tossed around was to use crowdsourcing to direct where our steam train ought to go. After all, the engines will be out there, and personally, I’m indifferent where they go so long as they are spreading the relationship between the public and Union Pacific. The steam team liked the idea, because the more we use them strategically, the happier they are. Jim Young, our CEO, was supportive as well.”

So UP hired a four-person web-development company in Omaha, What Cheer, named after a little town in southeast Iowa where I once spent a rainy afternoon in a bar, interviewing unemployed men. But getting back to Turner: “What Cheer worked out the technology and came up with the idea of a video, which I thought was brilliant. So we launched it. In the first round we ended up with 22,000 distinct email addresses. One of our goals was to compile such a list of people who want a relationship with this company. And we got 48,000 votes, because you could vote for a town more than once. A lot of little towns embraced this contest. In Tuscola, Ill., signs appealing for votes were nailed to telephone poles.”

The third round began this past week. “We almost crashed the computer on January 4, when we put the finalist routes online; there were 72,000 page views that first day, or twice as many as we got on our corporate web site. Now we’re looking at 75,000 votes from almost 40,000 people. This is a cool deal.” Indeed it is.

So the four finalists, listed in order of their popularity as of the time I wrote this screed, are:

The Tuscola Turn. Yes, this little Illinois town (population 4,448) would be the terminus of a trip starting in Boone, Iowa, on the former Chicago & North Western, looping through Chicago and heading south along the former Chicago & Eastern Illinois to Tuscola in east central Illinois.

The Little Rock Express. Beginning in Kansas City, it would follow a Missouri Pacific routing to St. Louis and then south to Poplar Bluff, Mo., and Bald Knob, Ark., before ending up in his namesake city.

The Baton Rouge Rambler. That’s my train, of course. This tribute to the Texas & Pacific would run from Dallas across East Texas to Shreveport and Alexandria, La., and tie up in the Louisiana capital.

The Boise Limited. A waltz down a classic Union Pacific route, it would begin in Salt Lake City and continue north to Pocatello, Idaho, before calling it quits in Boise.

I just want to say that railroads really do have a big problem relating to the public. People react emotionally to both passenger trains and steam locomotives. I’m sorry, but diesel locomotives and freight trains leave folks cold. This is a political problem, essentially. But Union Pacific has two real crowd-pleasers in 844 and 3985, and events like “Union Pacific’s Great Excursion Adventure—You Route The Trains” is a wonderful way to involve people who care and warm up the hearts of the general public at the same time.

Right now, “The Tuscola Turn” is the train to beat. So cast your vote, and that means you, too, Jim Young. Meanwhile, Bob Turner and his people have to think of another way to build relationships via crowdsourcing. Good luck, Bob. Maybe rename the railroad?—Fred W. Frailey

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