The public-image value of special trains

Posted by Malcolm Kenton
on Tuesday, April 16, 2019

A friend in South Carolina on April 3 chased Norfolk Southern’s business car special bound to Augusta, Ga. for the Master’s tournament for about 300 miles. Along the way, he encountered and conversed with others who had also pulled over at grade crossings to photograph the train. He remarked to me that, based on their conversations, he would categorize almost none of these people as dyed-in-the-wool railfans. Some told him they just happened to be stopped at a grade crossing and saw the special pass and, not being in a hurry, decided to chase it for a ways. 

Norfolk Southern's Master's tournament special proceeds south on the R-Line through central South Carolina on Apr. 10, 2019. Photo by Jonathan Hinely.
I have had similar experiences riding passenger trains on tracks that don’t normally host them (a.k.a. ‘rare mileage’). Even when the equipment is nothing special, like a standard Amtrak set, the train draws interested crowds in the towns it passes through. People like passenger trains, even if they hardly ever travel by train. The idea of a passenger train has broad appeal in America, regardless of one’s level of experience with riding trains and regardless of whether one’s community is served by regularly scheduled passenger trains, or even by a tourist railroad. Perhaps this comes from a shared cultural memory from a time, only a couple of generations ago, when passenger trains were nearly ubiquitous in American life.

Nothing drums up interest in, and support for, passenger trains quite like having an actual train to ride, or at least to watch, photograph and share on social media. This is why special trains, particularly to places that don’t normally see passenger trains (or at least not during the day), are valuable as goodwill ambassadors for railroads. Railroad managers understood this for most of America’s railroading history, but this concept seems largely lost on most contemporary railroads: both Amtrak and freight carriers. Passenger specials, when they’re well-planned, well-marketed and well-managed, tend not only to sell out their ticket inventory (or come close to it), but also draw admiring throngs to trackside.

I have witnessed the same phenomenon in Germany, a country where passenger trains are much more ubiquitous and where almost every resident has first-hand experience with train travel. Special trains there still draw crowds made up far from exclusively of railfans. Trains with unique or historic equipment (particularly a main-line steam locomotive, of which dozens are preserved in operating condition), a special theme, or tied in to a popular event are a hit with many demographics, including families with kids, school groups, and retirees taking a relaxing holiday.

The railroad industry would benefit if more of the general public — not just rail passengers, railfans and people who do business with railroads — were not only aware of railroads’ vital role in the economy, but also had positive interactions with trains near where they live. The main message I’d venture to guess that most Americans get from railroads is to stay away from tracks. This is an important safety consideration, but it should be balanced with invitations to come close to (but still a safe distance from) the tracks every so often to witness, or perhaps ride, interesting trains. The more Americans have positive first-hand experiences with trains, the more political support and cultural recognition railroads will enjoy.

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