U.S., ‘Currently, Amtrak operates a 42 passenger-car California Zephyr …’

By J. Bruce Richardson, Corridor Rail Development Corporation; April 12, 2021

Here is the headline in the Glenwood Springs (Colorado) Post Independent on April 7, 2021: “Amtrak announces plans to add service route connecting Cheyenne to the Front Range.”

Here is a quote from the local story: “Currently, Amtrak operates a 42 passenger-car California Zephyr which connects Colorado to Salt Lake City, Oakland, California; Emeryville, California; Omaha, Nebraska; and Chicago.”

Click here to link to the full story.

Really? A 42 car California Zephyr? Not in the wildest dream of the most over-enthusiastic railfan. In non-pandemic times the Zephyr usually operates with a consist of eight Superliner cars and a baggage car.

The headline itself is enough to give a competent journalist heartburn, saying Amtrak announces plans to add service.

Amtrak has actually announced it has a long-term plan to consider new service. Amtrak has not made any firm announcements of new service.

One thing Amtrak has is plenty of public affairs people to talk with the news media. Plus, so much open information is available on the internet it’s tough to justify a colossal error like that. It does nothing but mislead the public when stories like this are published.

What has caused this epidemic of misinformation about passenger trains? The answer is ignorance and little desire to check for accuracy.

Let’s start with the railroad industry. Railway Age and Progressive Railroading used to be large, weekly magazines full of independent reporting and advertisements. Today they are more known for short, daily railroad news digests via e-mail and podcasts with relatively small monthly print publications. Staffs of dozens have been reduced to staffs of just a small handful of full-time editors and writers and outside contributors.

Here’s a challenge for you: Find any recent graduate of a college school of journalism or someone with a “communications” degree and quiz them on how much they know about writing about the railroad industry. The most likely answer will be “none,” followed by the astonishing question, “there are still passenger trains?”.

Let’s review what the former process for handling a news or investigative story was at any newspaper not many years ago when accuracy reigned as king.

A reporter would be assigned a railroad story or would receive a tip.

The reporter would seek information sources, be it the public relations department of a railroad, someone who was locally known as an expert, or would seek information and comment from a railroad trade association. From there, the hunt would be on, seeking answers to questions. The telephone was the primary instrument of communication.

If the story was breaking news and a deadline was near, the reporter would write what information they had by deadline, and then the story would be updated for later editions of the paper. (This was in the days when daily newspapers published at least two editions; some as many as six or more a day.) As situations warranted, a second-day or follow-up story would appear the next day with fresh information.

Once the reporter handed the story to the editor – a city editor or business news editor – it would be reviewed and then handed-off to a copy editor. It was the responsibility of the copy editor to check for proper construction of the story, spelling (especially names) and proper grammar. If someone on “the desk” (city editor or business editor and copy editors) had a question about the story the reporter would be quizzed for clarification.

Then the story would be sent to the composing room where it would be set in type and placed on a page leading to the final printing of the paper. Between the reporter handing the story to the editor and the final printing the story would have been seen by at least five set of eyes who had the ability to question something.

Everyone was aware they were writing the first draft of history, no matter how consequential or non-consequential the story may be.

When writing for a newspaper or magazine it was unlike a fleeting moment on a television screen or website where mistakes can be made to disappear. The printed news media is forever (as some say the internet is now for unfortunate gaffes) and a hard copy will always exist. Mistakes don’t go away.

Today, anyone with a keyboard and internet connection can be a “journalist,” and it shows. Rarely has so much information been presented to the public with so little accountability for right or wrong or accuracy. Press releases are treated as gospel to be printed without question.

For printed news media, because of the cavalcade of advancements in technology in the last 40 years, many production layers have simply been eliminated. Where stories used to have multiple sets of eyes reviewing them, now it may be as few as one or two other sets of eyes after the reporter files the story. Newsrooms used to have legions of writers and editors sitting in rows of desks; today, reporters and editors most likely are not in the same building, much less the same city.

Newspapers today have consolidated production facilities where editors and designers may not even be in the same time zone as the local newspaper they are producing; everything is transmitted electronically. It’s common for a very reduced-in-size newsroom to be in one city, the final editing and composition being in another time zone, and the few newspaper printing presses left are in a third city close enough for the single edition of the paper to be trucked to its “home city” for distribution.

For the railroad industry this has become a difficult situation. The city/town where the newspaper is located may have an Amtrak station, but that means nothing to the remote editors and composition departments. Those selecting which stories to feature in the paper on the front page and on the newspaper’s website may have no idea the impact an Amtrak train has on the city/town in question.

Also, most newspapers have eliminated their local business news pages. In their place are generic business pages produced remotely with generic business topics, not local topics and used in several regional newspapers. Usually anything substantial about passenger train service is left to the big city newspapers, of which very few still have dedicated transportation writers. These few dedicated writers usually spend their time covering commuter issues, airlines, and as an after-thought, railroads.

Press releases, once considered a “starting point” for stories now are printed in full with no challenging the validity of the information offered. This is one of the reasons why Amtrak has been successful convincing the public and elected leaders the canard that the Northeast Corridor is profitable while the rest of the system is a drag on Amtrak’s finances.

The fact of Amtrak being America’s Best Kept Secret doesn’t help. Because so few nationwide know Amtrak or the concept of passenger trains even exists leads to the general level of ignorance, reflected in sparse and often incorrect reporting and inept mangling of railroad terminology.

All of this is a problem crying out for a solution. There is a need for better information, more information and an educational process for the news media. The Association of American Railroads (www.aar.org) is a well-funded, well-led group based in Washington. Amtrak is a member, but the primary focus is on the freight rail industry. There are other, smaller associations in Washington for various passenger rail areas of development, but they are primarily lobbying organizations versus educational organizations. The railfan organizations have historically followed the lead of Amtrak and challenged little about what Amtrak does. We have seen some positive movement in recent years from these organizations, but much more needs to be done.

The movement away from local control of news isn’t just reserved for newspapers. The broadcast industry long ago “nationalized” its offering, particularly in radio. As one distinguished retired college professor of communications has said for years, “when was the last time you heard a DJ say what time it was on the radio?” Radio stations, too, are often just local managers and sales forces. Content is syndicated regionally or nationally by format.

There is no question internet news sites are the future, even with poor reporting and few resources. It takes years for news websites to gain broad credibility as honest brokers of the news versus some sort of opinion website masquerading as a news outlet. Little “straight news” reporting remains; most reporting is geared towards the political or cultural tribe the website identifies with. “Clicks” leading to advertising placement have become more important than honest information.

YouTube serves a useful purpose; people like to watch moving images of big pieces of equipment. But, if the traveling public doesn’t know to look on YouTube, the opportunity is lost. Even with the miraculous advancements of video technology, a commercial grade YouTube presentation isn’t cheap and takes great effort to produce.

Those of us who have spent our lives in the railroad industry or closely aligned with it know the new age of the passenger train is dawning. What we don’t know is how that message is going to be disseminated to the traveling public.

Following the successful lead of Europe and elsewhere, night trains are the “next big thing.” How do you explain to a young reporter who has never seen a passenger train other than in the movies what a night train is, how it operates, and what benefits it has for travelers, railroads, and everyone else?

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