Playing devil’s advocate for signs and other icons

Posted by Hayley Enoch
on Tuesday, July 04, 2017


The white house along the tracks used by the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum isn't owned by the organization,
but is likely one of the most iconic structures in the entire hobby of railroad photography.


In my time as a railroad writer--and I am approaching the respectable point at which I can round upwards towards a decade--I have been consistent in espousing the belief that when it comes to historic equipment goes, train enthusiasts ought to ignore small changes made to locomotives and rolling stock and appreciate their good fortune that it still runs at all.
Time and time again, I have voiced this opinion in response to complaints about small mechanical changes and minor differences in opinion about best practices, molehills that armchair railroaders turn into six percent grades. Last week, though, one of these tizzies I found my thoughts giving some weight to the other side of the argument.


In summary: Some time earlier this month, Cass Scenic Railroad removed a structure at the entrance of the railroad that had stood for several decades and that many visitors to the place considered iconic. Railfans noticed, and some took to various internet outlets to express their outrage. This was met by the predictable response: Small issues should not be as important as keeping the locomotives that operate at the place, and railfans should not feel entitled to influence an organization’s business decisions. Employees of the Cass Scenic eventually showed up online to clarify that the sign was old enough that it had become a safety issue, but soon enough to nip the complaining in the bud.


(Now, before getting too far into this, I want to clarify that while the situation at Cass started me down the path of reconsidering some of my own views, the commentary in this blog should not be read as an indictment of or commentary on Cass itself. I am neither a frequent visitor who has formative memories associated with the place, nor an employee who has vested interest in quashing social media criticism, nor someone who has had a bone to pick with the railroad after some bad experience. I have not yet even managed to visit Cass in the first place, so I will not pretend that I can provide an opinion that has any validity about the goings-on at that railroad.)


What challenged me to reconsider a portion of my own views wasn’t a strong attachment to the Cass’ sign, but, instead, the frustration implicit in many of the comments decrying its removal. The Cass Scenic was changing, these people implied, and before their eyes was something that they no longer recognized. The value in the place and the what kept drawing them back, they said in various phrasings, wasn’t just functioning steam locomotives but a total, collected experience.


It’s easy to dismiss this sentiment as complaining or bias, but the question of what makes a tourist railroad unique and identifiable? is one worth considering as many organizations realize that they must begin to market themselves as full-service destinations. Train rides alone are not enough if they want to remain profitable in a changing market. As this change in business model becomes more complete, the traditional rebuttal--just be thankful the trains are running and ignore everything else--will not carry as much weight as it used to. If an organization is selling more than the trains, though, then it stands to reason that the opinions of guests and supporters should be taken into account for all aspects of the experience.


And, sometimes, those changes really do matter.


I’ll cite the first tourist railroad I was properly employed on here in North Texas as an example. The railroad that first operated the service spent a good amount of money and effort branding its steam locomotive with a unique name. Nearby buildings, businesses, and structures adopted that name and iconography. By the time I started working there, though, a different entity had purchased the operation and rebranded it with much less memorable title.  A name change is the sort of thing that railfans would be told not to complain about because the train still ran.

However, as an employee involved in the marketing department, I was on the frontlines of a constant fight to overcome the public’s assumption that the train no longer ran. Its original name had become so embedded in local memory that they did not believe the renamed train was the same equipment at all, or if they did doubted that it could deliver the same experience they had enjoyed before. To put it crudely, a change that many people might have dismissed as “railfan complaining” or “bias” resulted in fewer seats occupied by paying rear ends. These weren’t railfans--I want to emphasize that because I can already imagine some readers countering with “railfans don’t actually make up a very significant portion of an organization’s visitor base, it is casual, one-time vacationers that bring in the most money.” These were average members of the public who were hesitant to hand over their money because something that had once been iconic and identifiable about the railroad had disappeared.


Some changes will be unavoidable--safety issues, changing markets, and new or altered regulations may force change regardless of what the public wants. Perhaps the biggest lesson is that, as with many other aspects of business, communication is key. Several commenters wondered why the managers of the Cass Scenic Railroad did not get ahead of the gossip by taking a few moments to issue a press release or social media post explaining that while they understood that the sign was cherished, it had become a safety issue. They wanted to have some explanation as to why things are changing, instead of being left to speculate why they do.


Thinking more long-term, though, I can imagine that tourist railroads will begin to realize that identifying which aspects of their operation set them apart and then preserving them is an important component of long-term viability. Changing the character too much may turn into tangible business losses.In summary, this is not a defense of gossip for its own sake, nor a call to democratize the operation of the nation’s tourist railroads. I will still evangelize that the vast majority of time, the public ought to defer to the decisions of people actually managing a property or project.  However, as organizations find that they must market their entire operation to draw in new customers, it will be more important to consider how changing details formerly considered extraneous play into a guest’s experience.

 

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