Thursday, April 25, 2013

Amtrak magic: RIP, Richie Havens

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When singer Richie Havens passed away April 22, many people who knew of him immediately remembered Woodstock. Me, too, but I also thought "Amtrak."

AMTK Heartland FlyerFor it was the voice of Richie Havens that, for me at least, personified Amtrak's All Aboard America ad push, beginning in 1983, and in a way also signaling to the American public that the entity called Amtrak, at the time a pre-teen at 12 years old, wasn't going away quietly, David Stockman or no David Stockman.

Havens, to be sure, had a slogan worthy of his talent. Earlier Amtrak tag lines ranged from apologetic ("We've Been Working on the Railroad") to beseeching ("See America at See Level"). To its credit, Amtrak kept trying new slogans, and while "America's Getting into Training (Training the Amtrak Way)" smacked of youthful and nervous naivete, I liked the theme well enough. At least the message showed Amtrak was taking ownership of passenger rail travel (the Amtrak way, whether you believed in same or not).

Then came "All Aboard America"—observation? Recommendation? Command? The voice of Richie Havens made it all of those things, or something else entirely, but it was an assured message. Amtrak, through Havens' singing voice, simply asserted "there's something about a train that's magic," and defied the passenger rail naysayers to retort petulantly, "No, there's not." Advantage: Amtrak.

Former Amtrak CEO David Gunn reportedly scorned most Amtrak marketing efforts, saying they emphasized the relative comfort of train travel but neglected basic informational needs such as cities served, schedules, or costs. True for the most part, and something other rail advocates agreed with, though when most of your skeletal geographic network is held down by one train per day, one might hesitate to harp on schedules.

A YouTube video capturing Amtrak's Coast Starlight subcampaign does indeed show how nice the train was supposed to be, and how intriguing the geography is, and does indeed neglect fare or scheduling information. I agree that more attention should have been given to local tie-ins, but I'm still not convinced the overall emphasis was misplaced. In the grand political game of the time, I may not have known where the heck Amtrak went, but at least I knew it was out there somewhere.

Mr. Gunn's preferred focus surely was in play when the All Aboard America ads featured the Northeast Corridor. One NEC ad shows shots of Amtrak crew and equipment that invoke airline professionalism, slowly letting the viewer realize we're talkin' trains, while the (non-singing) voiceover noted "11 trips per day between New York and Washington, D.C." with Metroliner service, along with average travel time. Cue Richie Havens: "All Aboard America." Did the ads help as Amtrak slowly established itself as the dominant NEC carrier, surpassing Eastern Airlines? Who knows for sure? But the tone had been set: Amtrak was for real, at least in one air/rail market.

Now as then, the NEC has been Amtrak's "low-beta" investment: less volatile and less vulnerable to congressional savagery than other Amtrak routes, with the tradeoff of less potential for future growth. Amtrak still gets flogged for taking this approach in the past (when it's not still accused of leveraging same to this day), but when it comes to advertising your product, you like to lead with your strength.

Richie Havens added to that strength, giving pro-passenger rail advocates and riders a rallying cry that in print appears prosaic, but in song said a whole lot more. I still hum the theme now and again, and certainly have done so more often this week, remembering the power of a folk voice urging the use of passenger rail transportation.

I head for the centennial meeting of the American Short Line & Regional Railroad Association (ASLRRA) this weekend, fortunate enough to go via Amtrak's Crescent. I expect to wake up early in the morning, with the train somewhere in the South Carolina hills, and if I do I'll look out the window, and say to myself: "That's magic." Thanks, Mr. Havens.

Douglas John Bowen

Douglas John Bowen is Managing Editor of RAILWAY AGE. He also served as Editor of Intermodal Age from 1989 to 1991, and has held various positions at Inbound Logistics magazine, High Speed Transport News, The Journal of Commerce, and CNN/Money. Bowen began his journalism career at the Asbury Park Press, a New Jersey daily newspaper. A graduate of Rutgers University, Bowen resides in Hoboken, N.J. He served as president of the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers (NJ-ARP) from 1987 to 2000 and again from 2004 to 2010, serving on the NJ-ARP board from 1984 until 2012; he remains a member of the statewide organization.