Thursday, June 21, 2018

Patriotism on the rails

I’ve just finished nearly two years in a marketing role for a government agency and it’s provided me with some interesting insight on branding. Of course, this experience motivated some thoughts about how railways brand themselves. At work, I was put in charge of marketing a certain project, but soon found myself at odds with the decision makers. The reason was they didn’t want to use the actual name of the project we were asked to promote. Instead, they insisted we use a more general word “Modernization” in all of the documents and ads we produced. It made little sense to me that the actual name of what we were promoting took a back seat to the word “modernization,” which seemed overly long and a little bland as a brand name.

Oh well. On to more interesting topics. Here are a few branding insights I have gained in my time in communications and marketing that I think railways should consider.

1. A country is not your brand. I have seen this trend in the last decade or more, where railways wrap themselves in a flag, as a way of promoting themselves to be patriotic companies in it for the good of their country. While I do not have a problem with a company expressing its pride in country, I think several railways have begun to lose brand power because their own name often plays second fiddle to their country.

Whose railway is it anyway? Well, to the casual observer, you wouldn't know the yellow engine is a UP engine. Thanks to my brother for grabbing this shot in San Luis Obispo, Calif. recently.

The best example I can find is Union Pacific. My brother recently found himself in San Luis Obispo, where two UP engines were tied up at the station. When he shared his photo with me, I was immediately struck by the prominence of the American flag on the side of the power. I don’t have any problem with UP using patriotism as part of its corporate image, since its roots stretch back into the very founding of the modern west of the United States. The critique I have is that the flag is so prominent, it drowns out the actual company’s identity. That’s a shame because UP has a great, patriotic logo that has stood the test of time. The railway also has an outstanding slogan “Building America” which really does sum up what a railway should be doing on a daily basis. On some locomotives, you see a small UP logo near the rear of the long hood with the company slogan, but it’s the flag that is the dominant image. Given my experience in government in the last years, I think UP’s branding needs more balance.

I’ve noticed Amtrak is beginning to use this flag approach on the sides of its new electric locomotives in the Northeast Corridor. The stakes are much higher for Amtrak than they are for Union Pacific and here’s why.

2. Patriotism has a dark side, too. I don’t want to get into the political divisions in the United States. That’s not my point at all. From a marketing point of view, I think Amtrak, and Via Rail Canada, have a very fine line they need to walk. Why? Well, in Amtrak’s case, it is forever fighting an uphill battle to maintain a good reputation and many of the factors that are working against it are out of the railway’s control. We all know about the battles it faces to maintain proper operating and capital budgets in order to provide service that passengers want to use. This is not always easy when you must go cap in hand to the government for funds each year. That is why wrapping yourself in the flag is dangerous. Passengers often associate Amtrak, and Via Rail Canada, as wards of the state, for better or for worse. And most people do not relate the government with quick, efficient service. I don’t know why Amtrak or Via Rail would want to invite those comparisons.

3. Government branding should be avoided at all costs. This is, in my opinion, a branding challenge Via Rail needs to address. At one point, Via Rail consists did not have any maple leaf flags or Government of Canada wordmark on any of their locomotives or rolling stock. I’m not sure when the flags first began to appear, or the Canada wordmark, but I’ve always found these additions to be visual distractions to what was once a very clean, modern and effective look.

When Via Rail began wrapping its cars for Canada 150 and for the railway’s 4oth anniversary, the Canada wordmark and the by now faded Canada flags were removed. I thought this was a good move. Again, I want to stress that I don’t have a problem with a company expressing its patriotism, but I do think there needs to be a balance. In the case of Via, I found the fluttering Canada flags to be a tad too large and also at odds with the more two-dimensional Via Rail logo. I also found the Canada wordmark to be far too large. The brand is Via Rail, not the Government of Canada. The company’s logo should always be the biggest, most prominent feature. This is why I think Via Rail can learn from its years of wrapping cars. While you might not like this scheme, it at least makes one thing clear: the brand is Via Rail.

Just like I don’t think Amtrak wants to associate itself with the U.S. federal government, I don’t think Via Rail has done itself any favours by associating itself so closely with the Canadian government, especially given the ever-changing political whims of those in power. I don’t know how much of the Canada wordmark placement and size was mandated, but if there was no directive, I think at the very least the wordmark should be minimized and placed elsewhere in the future. Same with the flag. If the flag is bigger than the Via logo, then there’s a branding problem.

Does anyone remember when Via replaced its logo at the bottom of the F40PH-2 hoods and replaced with the wordmark? The railway was then forced to jam their company’s logo above the headlights on the hood. That was a marketing disaster.


One railway operation that has it right is Metrolinx. The GO Train operator does have an Ontario flag on the hoods of its locomotives, but it’s subtle. If you were to plaster a large Ontario flag on the side of the green and white commuter trains, it would create an inconsistent look at the very least. At worst, it could create an unnecessarily visceral reaction. After all, I’m not sure that many in the province are terribly enamored with the provincial government, no matter who is in charge.

I guess my message is simplicity is always the best solution. I’ve read a lot on marketing recently and that message seems to be the central theme to any successful branding exercise or marketing campaign. Railways need to be railways first and foremost. Being patriotic is a good way to create goodwill, but it can’t replace your central message. And that message should always be: We are a darn good railway.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Spring observations in Ottawa

As the city’s Confederation Line light rail system lumbers toward completion, there remains a flurry of activity at a number of points along the line. I recently took a stroll along the tracks just west of the downtown, to see what was happening.

The first site I saw was the exposed western tunnel entrance. This is the first time I saw the tunnel entrance, which has been covered until very recently. Over the course of the early spring, the final tie clips were fastened into place, thus completing the Confederation Line from Blair Station in the east with Tunney’s Pasture Station in the west.
At Bayview Station, where the Confederation Line crosses over the existing Trillium Line, workers were busy with a number of tasks, including extending the Trillium Line beneath the Confederation Line flyover. This is an interesting job, since Bayview Station remains at the centre of a dispute between the City of Ottawa and the group calling itself the Moose Consortium.

As you have read here before, Moose has been battling the city over use of the Prince of Wales Bridge, which once connected the old Canadian Pacific Ellwood Subdivision with the CP trackage in Quebec, including the Maniwaki and Lachute Subs. The Trillium Line has been disconnected from the bridge for several years, as you saw in this photo I took in 2013.
More recently, when work began on Bayview Station, a portion of the trackage leading the the bridge was covered over by consruction. Moose, which has goals of establishing some sort of regional commuter rail service in Eastern Ontario and Western Quebec, challenged the city before federal authorities. Moose has long argued that the city cannot simply sever this trackage from the O-Train line without proceeding with discontinuance of service paperwork with the Canadian Transportation Agency. The city has argued that has long-term plans for the old rail bridge.

Whatever the outcome, the city cannot deny that, even recently, it had money set aside to convert the bridge into a recreational pathway. The city also cannot claim that has done much to maintain the bridge. The CTA recently sided with Moose, meaning it agreed with the group’s position that the city cannot sever the rail line over the Ottawa River from its Trillium Line without going through a discontuance process. The city is appealing that decision. At the very least, it appears that the tracks laid beneath the Confederation Line could very easily link back up with the trackage leading the bridge. I doubt that was the reason why the tracks were laid there, but it at least raises the possibility that the city might finally get serious about using the bridge for commuter rail.
Speaking of the Prince of Wales Bridge, the rusting old relic found itself as the centre of attention briefly during the early days of the Ontario provincial election. A group of local Liberals made an announcement that they would support any efforts to extend the city’s light rail system over the bridge. This announcement made me roll my eyes for several reasons. First, it seems strange to me pledge support for an extension of this system over the river at a time when this potential part of the light rail system is not an immediate priority. I also laugh whenever the city begins the trumpet the fact that the province is chipping in on the light rail system, as if the money is coming from some other taxpayer. Message to politicians: the city taxpayer, the provincial taxpayer and the federal taxpayer are all the same people.
For those who are following the progress of the Confederation Line, you may have noticed that a complete trainset has been sitting on the tracks near Tunney’s Pasture Station for weeks. The trainset is being guarded around the clock, even though the tracks at this point are in a deep cut. I suspect that those living near this end of the line will soon be seeing test runs. Most of the testing that has happened so far is happening near Belfast Yard on the east end of the line.
I did manage to take some time to get a few shots of the Trillium Line recently, including this meet between two diesel powered trainsets near Somerset Street. As anyone who takes the bus in Ottawa knows, the Trillium Line has been numbered “Line 2” while the Confederation has been numbered “Line 1.” I find this a bit odd, since the city went to great trouble to rebrand the original O-Train line as the Trillium Line. Now, if you are on a city bus nearing Bayview Station, you will hear the automated public address system announce “Bayview Station, O-Train Line 2.” I wonder if this will confuse anyone who have come to know the original O-Train line as the Trillium Line.

Oh well, at least all this activity has given us something to talk about.