Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Monday, May 03, 2021

May should be National Train Month as a way to market and promote passenger rail

May 1st was the 50th anniversary of the first operating day for Amtrak, the National Rail Passenger Corporation.  

President Biden speaking in Philadelphia at an event honoring Amtrak's 50th anniversary
Photo: Voice of America

Amtrak was created to absorb from railroad companies increasingly focused on freight the obligations of providing passenger rail service.

The reality was that the long distance passenger services that the railroad companies pioneered became much less viable in the face of air travel and the automobile.

Amtrak was provided with privileged access to freight rail trackage and lower rates (neither was extended to commuter rail services independent of Amtrak), although freight rail service continued to be prioritized in a way that makes Amtrak service unreliable.

Joe Biden: a president who is pro rail.  With rail proponent and now President Joe Biden in office, Amtrak's prospects look a lot better after decades of being batted around by a Congress dominated by fossil fuel and automobile  interests, a overarching belief in the market over government action and little faith in the idea of public transit ("America's Amtrak moment could finally be here," CNN, "U.S. passenger railroad Amtrak asks Congress for $5.4 billion," Reuters).

National Train Day, a defunct promotion for rail passenger service.  For a few years (2008 - 2015), Amtrak sponsored National Train Day, but dropped it for budget reasons.

Originally, I didn't realize the significance of when it was celebrated, why they selected around May 10th, but it's because that is the anniversary day of the hammering of the Golden Spike in Promontory Summit, Utah, which marks the creation of a transcontinental railroad in the US, by creating a railroad line in the west, from Omaha and ending in Sacramento, which in turn connected to rail lines emanating from the Eastern US to Omaha.   

There is the Golden Spike National Historical Park in Promontory Summit, and the Utah State Railroad Museum at Union Station in Ogden.  There were big anniversary events in 1969, the 100th anniversary, and 2019, the 150th anniversary.

-- Spike150 anniversary website
-- 150th Anniversary Golden Spike special supplement, Ogden Standard-Examiner

In my in process set of articles on rearticulating passenger rail service in the United States, the third piece is about National Train Day as an element of marketing.  There are two main points.

1.  "Train Day" should be brought back, but as "Train Month" because one weekend is too difficult and too compressed to be able to promote passenger rail all across the US.

So National Train Day should be repositioned as National Train Month.

2.  Train Month should involve all sectors of the train industry, focused on passenger rail service but not exclusively.  But it should be much more expansive.  Not just national rail services by Amtrak, but regional commuter rail services, tourist railroads, train stations, railroad and transit museums, and related organizations and transit and trade media.  And freight railroads too.

This would provide lots of opportunities for events, and a lot of promotion.  It'd be a great time for advocacy groups to draw attention to their initiatives, etc.

And by involving multiple organizations, including the for profit freight rail industry -- which could use the opportunity to promote the energy savings value of freight railroad transportation as opposed to truck-based freight -- would ease the financial and organizational burden on Amtrak.

Many organizations are already doing events: leverage existing initiatives and add to them with a national calendar.  The recent post on tourist trains as an element of railroad transportation planning mentioned the B&O Railroad Museum, the Virginia Transportation Museum, Railway Heritage Days in Manassas, Virginia, and Clifton (Virginia) Day and various railroad transportation events.

There are plenty of similar activities across the country, such as Railroad Days at the Fullerton Train Museum in California, various events throughout the summer at the Illinois Railway Museum, tourism excursion trains, etc.

It may be like herding cats to get them to coordinate, but the wide array of organizations and assets makes a Train Month possible, and expands it far beyond Amtrak.


Including transportation history as an element of transportation plans.  More than 10 years ago I saw a presentation by the planning director for Passaic County, New Jersey and what stuck out for me was how their transportation plan was transformational in that it included an element on transportation infrastructure, historical interpretation and tourism (Section 8: Scenic and Historic Byways), designed to integrate with the County's future heritage and tourism element of the Master Plan.  

Mostly "scenic and historic byways" are mostly thought of as roads ("Just in time for summer: 49 new National Scenic Byways and All-American Roads," Washington Post).  Passaic County expanded the definition to include transportation corridors more generally including rivers, canals, railroads, and historic trails and other transportation routes. 

Coming across that document definitely influenced my thinking about how the DC's State Rail should include a similar element (which didn't happen), focused on the place of Union Station and its potential as a real-life museum for the interpretation of DC, regional, and national transportation history.

And Ride Philadelphia, the transportation history display program in Center City Philadelphia, along with other displays I've seen in Walla Walla, Washington, Portland, San Francisco on their heritage streetcar line, and the display outside Queen Street Station in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Folks walking through the James R. Thompson Center in downtown Chicago Tuesday, Sept. 2, 2014, pause to view the “Terminal Town: Celebrating 75 Years of Travel to the Windy City,” exhibit on display. DePaul University’s Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development is launching a six-month community program to explore Chicago’s history and future as the epicenter of U.S. passenger transportation. “Terminal Town: Celebrating 75 Years of Travel to the Windy City,” opens a traveling exhibit Sept. 1-5 at the James R. Thompson Center, 100 W. Randolph St., and continues through the fall with tours, events and a new 300-page illustrated guide by transportation expert Joseph Schwieterman. (DePaul University/Jamie Moncrief)

I've also argued that transit stations and shelters should be used as touchpoints for delivering cultural history interpretation on local transportation history.  

In DC, it's been an issue about the preservation of an old trolley bridge in Northwest DC that was for the old 20 Streetcar line to Glen Echo Park ("Major setback in effort to save historic DC trolley bridge," WTOP).  

I argue that the bridge should be preserved, but it shouldn't be the responsibility of WMATA, since it isn't part of their active infrastructure portfolio.  Instead, the city should take it on.  But unlike Passaic County, DC's Department of Transportation doesn't think it's important.

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At 12:39 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

TIME: Amtrak's Boss Has a Plan to Make You Love Trains Again. Will it Work?.


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