U.S., Paul Theroux – ‘Anything is possible on a train: a great meal, a binge, a visit from card players, an intrigue, a good night’s sleep, and strangers’ monologues framed like Russian short stories’

The Amtrak Superliner California Zephyr at Denver Union Station. This magnificent late 19th Century/early 20th Century architectural masterpiece was renovated and updated in 2014 and is once again thriving in the middle of Denver. Amtrak publicity photo.

By J. Bruce Richardson, Corridor Rail Development Corporation; June 30, 2022

There are moments in time defined by unexpected events which provide an opportunity to take a broad look at any particular industry. This is the moment for passenger rail service in North America.

Because of the horrid tragedy in Missouri this week with the derailment of Amtrak’s Southwest Chief more people likely have heard of passenger train service than even knew there were passenger trains in the United States.

The problem for the past half a century has been Amtrak has been America’s best kept secret.

Go to any burg or city and ask the first dozen people if they are aware their locality is served by passenger train service. The likely answer is first one of bewilderment because a huge group of people in this country have never seen a passenger train up close and most likely passenger trains are their least likely choice for transportation.

Novelist and travel writer Paul Theroux famously said, “Anything is possible on a train: a great meal, a binge, a visit from card players, an intrigue, a good night’s sleep, and strangers’ monologues framed like Russian short stories.” New passenger train riders of all ages are eager to learn about riding their first passenger train. Brightline publicity photo.

It’s always amusing for us life-long passenger train riders to see the innocent questions and comments on social media by train newbies asking what to expect when they excitedly take their first train trip. These people don’t know what to expect, how to act, or even know what they will find when they board a train. It’s a combination of amusing and depressing.

California Pacific Surfliners moving south on right-of-way which gave them their name. Amtrak publicity photo.

It’s unusual, outside of the Northeast Corridor or California to see any news coverage of intercity passenger trains when it comes to holiday travel. Broadcasters position film crews (Remember newspapers? Many people still do; fewer people still read them, tragically.) in airports all day on heavy holiday travel days to report on the crush of flyers in airports. At times, there is even the occasional report from an intercity bus terminal about holiday travelers. But, train stations? Perish the thought. Most newsrooms don’t even know passenger trains exist. That needs to change through an aggressive public relations program reaching the news media and letting them know the railroad is here.

One thing Amtrak does well is making available its media file resources on its website. Amtrak makes available a myriad of high-quality color photographs and video for use by various media outlets. (See the Pacific Surfliner photo above and the Denver Union Station photo at the top of this article.) When companies provide these types of resources they are taking charge of telling their own story instead of relying on outside photographers or videographers.

These media resources help generate what is known as “earned media.”

The term for stories about, or mentions in, news media regarding a company or politician or product is “earned media.” That means “free media” or, media coverage which has been gained from methods other than paid media. That includes news stories, social media, or other mentions, such as perhaps an unplanned photograph of a product which may appear as part of some other presentation.

To have a better understanding, as you are reading this, you are reading earned media because this is not presented through paid advertising.

Social media “influencers” drive sales, changes in culture and product promotion as part of an industry worth billions of dollars. Wikimedia Commons photo.

The advent of social media has put marketers and publicity departments into overdrive, thinking of ways to have product placement in a variety of settings which don’t appear to be blatant attempts of exposure. Success is when you have your product casually mentioned as part of dialogue or shown in the background in a television show or movie. Sometimes those appearances are planned and paid, other times they are simply earned media.

For the older folks, many will remember the dozens of movies starring Bob Hope. Whether you realized it or not, every car which he drove in one of his movies was a Chrysler product. Why? Because Chrysler was the primary sponsor of his television shows. Loyalty was being rewarded in both directions.

Canadian influencer Michael Downie runs a popular YouTube channel called Downie Live which focuses heavily on passenger train travel in Canada and the United States. His bubbling personality keeps viewers coming back for more because his video presentations are honest and intriguing. While the majority of his presentations have a positive spin, there are times he is completely honest if something doesn’t go right. He recently graduated to a national television series in Canada featuring his transcontinental travels on VIA Rail Canada in addition to the YouTube channel. The channel is his full time job. Internet photo.

The relatively modern term of “influencers” is part of this; influencers often receive free gifts, hotel stays, cruises, air flights and other perks so products/hotels/airlines, etc. look like they are endorsed by an influencer.

Don’t’ think that is a big deal? Think about this: it’s not unusual for a semi-popular influencer you may never have heard of to have perhaps a couple of hundred thousand or many more followers on a social media account.

If you are a hotel marketer you would happily offer a couple of free nights stay in your best suite, food at your restaurants and all sorts of other amenities for an influencer to glowingly feature your hotel on their social media account. By doing that you have probably reached an entire new audience your traditional media ads would not have reached. Plus, you write off the minimal cost of giving someone a room and meals and a few other things as a marketing cost. It’s a win-win for everyone.

Pre-pandemic Amtrak had a program for social media influencers; it was moderately successful. Hopefully it will come back as things settle down.

The need for troop transport was so great during World War II that Pullman built unique Troop Sleeper cars which more closely resembled box cars than passenger cars. Railroads used every available piece of equipment to transport huge troop movements in addition to the war-time crush of non-military passengers and freight. Internet photo.

What needs to happen for passenger rail in the United States is to have a social media campaign by influencers to convince other influencers to be interested in passenger train travel and therefore bring along their legions of social media followers as passenger rail is featured. If you think social media is a waste of time, well, in actuality, social media fueled by influencers and others is a multi-billion dollar industry that creates trends, buying sprees and changes in culture.

Debuted in 1954, the workhorse Boeing 707 became a worldwide sensation for both airlines and airline passengers, creating a new, luxurious way of travel World War II veterans had never believed available when on troop trains. Wikipedia photo.

Passenger trains played major roles in winning World War I, World War II and Korea. Fleets of troop trains required every piece of nearly-servicable rolling stock the railroads could muster. Think of the poor recruits who made transcontinental trips in commuter cars pressed into wartime service. Ugh.

After the millions of the Greatest Generation servicemen left the military at the end of World War II and Korea they swore never again to set foot on a train, and most of them kept that promise.

Despite the best efforts of the Budd Company and Pullman-Standard with slick designs and creating the best amenities of the post-war day (perhaps, the greatest was the creation of dome cars), much of the Greatest Generation took to the highways and the skies. The siren song of the Boeing 707 jet, along with the Johnson Administrations 1967 death blow to passenger trains arbitrarily giving U.S. Mail contracts to the airlines and truckers and removing critical revenue railroads had for over a century made passenger trains untenable to railroad management.

The U.S. Mail Railway Post Office. This unique passenger train car and equally unique Post Office workers who staffed the cars for decades delivered the mails to large and small towns alike. Efficient Postal workers sorted the mail as the cars rocked down the tracks over jointed rail. It was a well-oiled system which survived for over a century. Congress officially designated all railroads as postal routes on July 7, 1838. RPO cars were introduced in 1862 and survived until September 1967. Internet photo.

Not only did the Johnson Administration kill the passenger train, they killed the Railway Express Agency along with it. Without passenger train baggage cars to carry their packages, REA simply went out of business. As mentioned here before, the federal operating right for REA found a new life later as the operating right to create FedEX.

The familiar Railway Express Agency historic logo which is available today for REA fans in many forms. This one is featured at the former Northern Pacific Railroad depot museum in Ritzville, Washington. Internet photo.

So, Amtrak was created and began operations on May 1, 1971. Even though Amtrak was created under the Republican Administration of Richard Nixon, thus began the great divide between conservatives and liberals over the wisdom of government financing of a previous private industry business.

Unfortunately, much of that great divide is still in place.

As a matter of philosophy, the two sides still are duking it out about the future of passenger trains.

The DNA of Railway Express Agency lives on in a new life as the federal operating authority for FedEX. FedEX publicity photo.

The amusing part is many conservative states with staunchly conservative residents of governors’ mansions and leadership in state legislatures have somewhat quietly began to embrace the wonders of passenger trains.

Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex 2019 back-of-timetable map of various commuter rail and light rail transit services available to residents which also provides first and last mile transportation for Amtrak’s Heartland Flyer and Texas Eagle as well as the very busy DFW international airport. Internet image.

Why? Because someone took the time to make the real argument to them: passenger trains make economic sense. There is an amusing, time-worn argument which is indisputable: An entire statewide annual passenger train program often costs less than the cost of building one new interchange on a major interstate highway.

For conservatives, the “green” and environmental argument is just window-dressing. Conservatives want a result they can measure, be it in ridership and load factors, efficiency or economic benefit and development.

Places like the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex have been enjoying the dividends of a growing commuter rail system for decades. Well-divorced from the legacy mass transit systems of places such as Chicago and the Northeast Corridor which have their own, unique embedded problems both political and financial, the Texas programs have been put together and executed with care and good results.

The various Dallas/Fort Worth commuter and transit systems provide first and last mile service for passengers of the Heartland Flyer and Texas Eagle.

To the west, in California, passenger rail has become a way of life embraced by people of every political bent. The three joint powers boards in Southern California and up to the San Francisco Bay area are both well-run and ambitious. In California the three joint powers boards are run more like a well-operated business than a government bureaucracy. It’s refreshing.

There are numerous other examples such as the well-run Downeaster service in Northern New England which provides a good blueprint for other start-ups to follow.

Amtrak Downeaster, Boston, North Station. The Downeaster is a 145-mile regional passenger train service, managed by the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, and operated under contract by Amtrak. Amtrak publicity photo.

Here in Florida, Brightline is pioneering a completely different concept: For the first time in over 50 years, a new private company is pioneering creating a new passenger train service over a combination of existing right-of-way and new-build right-of-way. Just the beginning portion of the service, from downtown Miami to West Palm Beach managed to attract over two million riders from inauguration day in January 2018 to today, including an unplanned hiatus for the pandemic.

The first Siemens-built Brightline consist which went into service in January 2018 poses for an official photo. Brightline publicity photo.

Brightline is on schedule to complete their new line to Orlando International Airport by the end of the year and service from terminal to terminal will commence with 16 roundtrips a day.

What has happened in select places is the grandchildren – not the children, but grandchildren – of the Greatest Generation have no prejudices about riding a passenger train and have eagerly embraced the idea and voted with their wallets and electronic tickets.

Brightline has taken bold steps towards innovation and convenience by solving the first and last mile problems for easy access to their stations as well as created a new generation of stations which are both exciting and inviting. Brightline’s onboard experience has been completely re-imagined by hospitality industry professionals who were tasked with being more interested in pleasing passengers than pleasing corporate bean-counters.

As the Florida part of Brightline moves ahead, the company is also moving forward at a less brisk pace with Brightline West, a completely new line from Las Vegas to Southern California where it will connect to Southern California’s Metrolink service and eventually into Los Angeles Union Station.

And, don’t forget Brightline’s two media-savvy commuter cousins in Florida: Central Florida’s SunRail service and South Florida’s Tri-Rail service. Both are successful and are overall provide a good service.

What, you may ask, has made Brightline, the Downeaster service and the various Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex services successful?

• One, they are filling a need.

• Two, they make their trains passenger-friendly.

• And, three, they shout to the rooftops about their service in a non-partisan way. They all have successful public relations and marketing programs. They have presentations which appeal to all generations. To match that, passengers from all generations ride their trains.

What to do, now? The first thing is to continue to bridge the great divide on passenger trains.

Stop throwing invectives from ideological one side to the other.

Figure out what works for each side and embrace that. Everyone has a point of view; help bolster that point of view with real facts, not partisan talking points.

Point out and embrace successes. “Because it’s always been done that way” is always the poorest excuse for moving towards the future.

Respect passengers and their needs. One small example is the need of current passengers – of all ages – to have easy and convenient access to electric outlets both on the train and in stations. There is no longer a need for ashtrays everywhere, but now a need for electrical outlets. Embrace that and deal with it.

Every Brightline passenger has easy access to electrical outlets of all types. Brightline publicity photo.

Food and beverage service on all services other than commuter services is critical, and it must be appetizing to all generations. Teenagers and college students may be the future, but the grandparents are the ones with money to spend and they don’t want to spend it on after-meal antacids.

Keep in mind, too, more than one of the big city legacy commuter carriers used to, and some still do, operate very popular bar cars on their evening rush hour trains. They figured out a way to make passengers happy and open their wallets, providing an additional source of positive revenue.

To see how other common carriers show some respect and humbleness for their passengers, see the email from Delta Air Lines which went out today from the company president. It’s how offering an explanation and comfort to passengers in a time of service interruption should be done.

Understand there is more than the universe of Stephen Gardner’s Amtrak. What measures success for the acceptance of propaganda is achieved through constant repetition. For half a century we have been told there are no passenger train services in the world which operate at a profit. That is a great surprise to systems in Europe and Asia which are profitable. For too long it has been a talking point crutch for Amtrak when it has its annual begging session to Congress. Those days are over; many in Congress now have a better understanding of the need to fund Amtrak and the company is receiving record amounts of annual federal monies.

Amtrak has had the playing field all to itself since the last privately funded passenger trains joined Amtrak in 1983. It’s time to look elsewhere with an open mind. Instead of falsely predicting Brightline will fail, predict it will be an innovation and template for other service.

Too many people wrongly believe “without Amtrak there will be no passenger trains.” Really? Why are the very smart people at Brightline spending billions for new service? Why are other systems being planned that most people are fully unaware of? The answer is this is a new century with new leadership and lack of many prejudices of the last century.

Embrace the change. Tell your friends, family and neighbors there are passenger trains where they live and they are ready to accept new passengers. Become your own influencer about passenger train service to those you know.

And, when you are in the process of that, tell all of the newbies what to expect: Trains really do have lights, potable water and something other than hard bench seats.

Here is the email Delta Air Lines sent to its passenger today, June 30, 2022:

Dear —–,

The summer travel season is well underway, and I share the excitement of so many of you who are returning to the skies as restrictions lift and entire regions of the world reopen. At the same time, I know many of you may have experienced disruptions, sometimes significant, in your travels as we build our operation back from the depths of 2020 while accommodating a record level of demand.

Internet image.

If you’ve encountered delays and cancellations recently, I apologize. We’ve spent years establishing Delta as the industry leader in reliability, and though the majority of our flights continue to operate on time, this level of disruption and uncertainty is unacceptable. You choose to invest your time, resources and loyalty with Delta and you’ve rightly come to expect a world-class experience on every flight, and that includes the best reliability in the business.

Despite the historic challenges facing our industry, Delta’s team of 75,000+ professionals around the globe remain focused on providing the very best care for you and your loved ones. I want to thank them for their continued professionalism, resilience and the truly outstanding service they continue to deliver on a daily basis. Thanks to their efforts, so far in June we’ve flown over 96% of our scheduled departures, with more than 80% of our flights arriving within 14 minutes of their scheduled arrival time. I’m proud of the work of our team in the face of the many obstacles we’re up against as air travel re-emerges and even prouder of our determination to reduce cancellations and further minimize delays.


Things won’t change overnight, but we’re on a path towards a steady recovery. Steps we’ve taken include offering more flexibility for your travel plans and adjusting our summer schedule so that when challenges do occur, we can bounce back faster. Crews are being scheduled with more buffer room to help us absorb and adjust when factors like summer thunderstorms disrupt the operation. And as always, we’re issuing travel waivers ahead of inclement weather, enabling you to easily rebook travel if needed without worry.

At the same time, airport procedures are being updated, including earlier boarding to help ensure on-time departures and schedule changes at our largest connecting hub in Atlanta to help manage the volume of customers at the airport. And we’ve activated our Peach Corps, a program that brings in hundreds of employees from our corporate offices to the airports in Atlanta and New York to assist with check-in, baggage drop-off, airport wayfinding, using kiosks, serving you at our Delta Sky Clubs and other helpful tasks.

We’ve accelerated our hiring as well, bringing on around 15,000 new employees since the start of 2021. That includes a record number of Reservations and Care specialists, pilots, flight attendants, aircraft maintenance technicians and more – overall we’re hiring several hundred new Delta team members every week to assist you and help ensure a reliable, comfortable experience on Delta when you fly.

And we’re continuing to engage with the Federal Aviation Administration on improving processes for air traffic management, which will help minimize delays and cancellations due to inclement weather.

The environment we’re navigating today is unlike anything we’ve ever faced, but Delta is no stranger to challenging times, and our commitment to you is as strong as ever. We won’t stop until we’ve made things right, and we’ll never stop improving for you.


Delta has also been investing in digital tools to help you conveniently manage your travel if plans change. You can save time by adjusting your flight directly in the Fly Delta app or on Delta.com, or by using our Messaging feature for more assistance.

The Fly Delta app is also a valuable, time-saving tool for checking in, tracking bags, navigating the airport and receiving real-time alerts for boarding as well as any changes to flight schedules.

And Delta’s airport transformation projects, which accelerated during the pandemic, are helping to ensure more convenient check-in and security, smoother connections, new and expanded Delta Sky Clubs, and an elevated experience in cities including Los Angeles, Seattle, New York and Salt Lake City.

We’re excited to see you returning to the skies, and every flight is an opportunity to earn your loyalty and trust anew. On behalf of our global team, I want to thank you for your patience and understanding as we work throughout the summer and beyond to get you to your destination safely and restore the world-class reliability that you deserve and have come to expect from Delta.


Ed Bastian

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