Just like old times

Posted by John Hankey
on Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Cars from the Union Pacific business train fleet were on display in Sacramento for the 150th anniversary event. John P. Hankey photo. 

It was how things used to be, and may never be again. Over the last weekend in September, the Union Pacific Railroad and the California State Railroad Museum celebrated UP’s 150th anniversary in Sacramento with equipment exhibits, performances, free museum admission, and old-fashioned railroad spectacle. We rarely see traditional railroad celebrations like this nowadays. According to the official count, more than 25,000 people showed up.

When was the last time you heard of 25,000 people in a major U.S. city turning up for a party to celebrate the history and heritage of the pharmaceutical, oil and gas, or financial services industries? At this point, are there 25,000 people in the entire United States who would willingly come together to celebrate any anniversary of Congress?

Plenty of folks who attended UP’s Sacramento celebration wouldn’t call themselves railfans. But they were curious enough to contend with traffic, find parking, and deal with unseasonably hot weather for the chance to see an iconic steam locomotive, 4-8-4 No. 844, UP’s fine exhibit car with its anniversary presentation, and another dozen or so railroad-themed entertainments. It was especially nice to see so many parents who brought their kids to see real railroading up close.

Railroading still has great appeal to the American public, and UP clearly understands its place in our nation’s history.

It doesn’t matter how much money a new corporation spends; you cannot buy 150 years of presence in the public consciousness, or purchase a role like the one UP (and railroading in general) played in making us one nation, indivisible. It’s earned. Even today, people understand that.

The rest of the railroad industry might take note: People are still predisposed to like trains, if for no other reason than railroading became part of our shared experience over 180 years.

For the past 20 years, my colleagues at business schools and in other industries have wondered why railroads seemed willing to squander one of the most precious assets an industry could possess: A deep reservoir of public goodwill.

“Why,” they would ask, “does the railroad industry seem so intent on ignoring and alienating the American public?” These colleagues understood that the railroads operated in a public sphere, and were always just one catastrophic accident or government action away from being cast in a harsh light. Accumulated goodwill can help deal with those unforeseen events.

UP understands that. At the least, it deeply respects its heritage. Its Sacramento anniversary party was just one stop on its extensive, rolling 150th anniversary celebration for 2012.

Over the past three decades, UP has had more than its share of corporate drama, growth and change, and pressure to produce shareholder returns. Still, the steam locomotives, classic diesels, and bright yellow passenger cars remained in our viewfinders and offered a remarkable link to the big-time railroading of a half century ago. We assumed that because it always had been so, it always would be so.

Nothing could be further than the truth. UP’s program of special trains and heritage operations is a rare treat. See it while you can, and do not take it for granted. It is a gift. Contemporary railroading is a cold, hard business. With a few notable exceptions (such as UP, the NS efforts, and the CP steam operations), the folks in charge of major railroads have little use for the industry’s heritage.

Which brings me back to Sacramento in late September. That party didn’t just happen. It represented a great deal of commitment, effort, and sacrifice. I don’t think we give the folks who make them possible the thanks they deserve.

This was a meticulously planned, major public presentation in the manner of traditional railroad industry events from the past 100 years. It took thousands of hours of UP and railroad museum staffers’ time, a great deal of skill and dedication, and the work of hundreds of volunteers to make the weekend unfold so successfully.

The dozen or so members of the railroad museum track crew who labored mightily in coordination with UP crews to finish critical track work and safely usher No. 844 into position are “exhibit A.” Few visitors saw their work, but, without their efforts, the weekend could not have unfolded as it did.

In my view, it was an ideal partnership. UP knows how to make big-time railroading happen. The California State Railroad Museum knows how to connect with people, share railroad heritage, and put on a show. Together, they created a kind of old-fashioned magic. I watched the crowds. It worked.

There were snags and things that didn’t unfold as planned. But UP responded in ways we hope all major corporations would: It honored its commitments, and put on a classic — and classy — exposition that made the entire railroad industry look good.

I also saw the toll the event took on the California State Railroad Museum staff. This was like a small “Railfair” event, layering complex obligations on top of the everyday grind of operating a major museum in the face of diminishing resources and increasing expectations. Cathy Taylor, then the district superintendent for the Capitol District of California State Parks; Paul Hammond, the railroad museum’s director; and the entire museum staff dealt with a bewildering — and dynamic — series of challenges.

Union Pacific — especially Ed Dickens Jr. and UP’s steam and special-operations crews — deserves our gratitude. It’s clear that UP understands its unique position in American history, and doesn’t hesitate to embrace it.

UP’s history and heritage are part of its corporate presence. Defending that position in today’s cutthroat business environment takes a level of vision and courage that is now rare in any U.S. industry. UP is proud of its past, and willing to assert that its history is part of its future. Few U.S. corporations have any claim to such stature in American history, much less so pivotal a role in the expansion of the country.

UP runs a splendid railroad. It partnered with the California State Railroad Museum to present an enjoyable celebration of traditional railroad heritage, and made at least 24,900 new friends at a time when railroading needs every friend it can get. No one can predict what the outcomes might be, but the event will pay dividends.

UP deserves our sincere, collective thanks. It was UP’s birthday — but our party. On behalf of the many thousands of people who may not have the means to say it: thanks, Union Pacific.

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