October 21, 2011
What's In A Name: Branding Rail Travel
Don’t be too jealous, but as you read this I’m enjoying a rail adventure in Europe… almost two weeks of riding some of the fastest and best trains in the world… my idea of a real holiday.
As I prepare my itinerary, I’m struck by how well the Europeans “brand” their service. There is, of course, “Eurostar”, the popular train between London and Paris via “the Chunnel”. There’s also “Thalys” from Paris to Brussels and Amsterdam, and “Lyria”, a super-fast service from Paris to Switzerland using French TGV’s.
All of these trains sound a lot more exciting than “Acela”, Amtrak’s best effort at high speed rail. As one-time Amtrak President David Gunn once said, “Everyone knows what Acela is… it’s your basement.”
Amtrak still has some named trains though they are pale shadows of their historic namesakes: the Silver Meteor and Silver Star to Florida, The Lakeshore Limited to Chicago, The Adirondack to Montreal.
The New Haven Railroad used to name its trains: The Merchants Ltd., The Owl, The Patriot and Senator. When Amtrak inherited The Owl, a night train from Boston to Washington, they renamed it “The Night Owl”. But it was so slow and made so many stops, it was better known as “The Night Crawler”. It’s long gone.
It may well be that Acela will seem like a slow-poke if a new project takes wing: a maglev train linking New York and DC. Out of the blue this week I got an online survey from a company testing names for the proposed service.
Among the options I was asked to grade: “Maglev”, “Quicksilver”, “Aero” and “Magenta”. Really… magenta? But clearly these planners know that before they could even propose such a service, it needs an identity. (PS: I think this project has zero chance of ever being built, but it’s nice to know someone is thinking bigger and better than Amtrak).
Even stations’ names can evoke grandeur: Grand Central Terminal (not station!) says it all… big, NY Central and a dead-end. South Station and North Station in Boston give you a sense of location, like Paris’ Gare de Nord and Gare de L’Est. And Gare de Lyon tells you one of the big cities where the trains are coming from.
On Metro-North most of the station names align with the towns where they are located. But Westport residents insist on calling their station “Saugatuck”. And I wish I knew how Green’s Farms got its name. Coming this fall, “Fairfield Metro” will arrive.
Though it doesn’t name its trains, some Metro-North Bombardier-built cars carry names tied to Connecticut lore: The Danbury Hatter (alluding to the city’s old industry), The Ella Grasso (named after our former Governor) and my favorite, The Coast Watcher.
And even before Amtrak, America’s railroads similarly named many cars, especially sleepers, parlor cars and diners. The long-distance, double-deck Superliners carry the names of the states and such historic figures as A. Phillip Randolph, founder of the Pullman porters union.
So the next time you’re on some generic, 30+ year old Metro-North car known only by a number, think of how much more glamorous your commute could be on a car and train with a name like “The Silver Streak” or “The Weary Commuter”.