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Marketing Amtrak's rails

AMTRAK'S Lake Shore Limited, which links New York, Boston, and Chicago, recently celebrated its 10th anniversary. That may not sound like big news -- and it isn't. A half century ago, the Twentieth Century Limited connected the Windy City and New York in 16 hours, a schedule that Amtrak's Lake Shore is unlikely to match in the near future. Yet Amtrak is touting the Lake Shore's birthday, in large part because the passenger system has little else to cheer. As a result of Gramm-Rudman, budget cuts have been imposed, and although Amtrak's ridership is up, so is the worry over the red ink. After 15 years of operation, Amtrak is a classic illustration of a business that has failed to find a marketing hook.

Significant improvements in speed, as illustrated by the Lake Shore Limited, have been shunned except for the Metroliner connecting Washington and New York. Price competition has been poor, with airline deregulation providing low fares and faster service. The safety of trains vs. airlines has not been stressed, in large part because the evidence looks to the skies rather than the rails. Special arrangements between car-leasing firms are few because many Amtrak stations are out of the way and run-down.

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So what does Amtrak tout in its marketing? Freedom to move about, which has been true of trains since the Baltimore & Ohio was launched 150 years ago. Good meals, which unfortunately bear little relation to the home-cooked version of some passenger trains, such as the Southern Crescent, before Amtrak's creation. An unlimited view of America, which is probably the worst feature Amtrak could market in the East where many of its lines run through deteriorated sections of cities and towns. And friendly service -- also questionable to anyone who has had the opportunity to compare dealing with an airline ticket agent and an Amtrak agent. The former knows there are competitor airlines, whereas the rail agent knows that Amtrak is the only train game in town.

One final unmarketable claim is what might be called ``little things'' -- too little to really matter to most prospective passengers. It's illustrated in a recent article on the Lake Shore Limited in Amtrak's Express Magazine: ``Slumbercoach sleeping cars, and first-class passengers receive complimentary coffee, tea, or milk and orange juice in the morning with their morning newspaper.''

To be sure, Americans don't expect the passenger train system to do everything well, but unless it uses its resources to do some significant things well -- and to market them effectively -- then Amtrak will find that it will come to the end of the line with more and more travelers and congressmen.

Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at the American University, Washington.

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