American rail travel has long been the final transport option.
Suddenly, it's de rigueur. Anita Chabria looks at how Amtrak is grabbing
the spotlight since the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York and
Fear of flying has left the airlines with empty seats. But the events of
September 11 renewed interest in the nation's publicly funded rail
system. As well as dealing with the events of that day, Amtrak's PR
department has been struggling to keep up with media calls.
When the planes struck, Karina Van Veene, manager of communications at
Amtrak's corporate office in Washington, DC, was working on an
early-morning promotion at Penn Station to celebrate the start of the
New York Rangers' training camp.
The communications team immediately boarded the next outbound train, and
headed to the company's national operations center in Wilmington, DE.
They were on one of the last trains out of New York before the schedule
was suspended. "Once service continued (later that day), we immediately
saw an increase in passengers because we were the only way in and out of
New York," says Van Veene.
Out of the danger zone, Amtrak's PR pros faced a trial of another kind,
as a torrent of media calls flooded the office. Transport became a huge
story, with reporters asking how much train travel had increased (17%
the first week). There were also the inevitable questions about
Regional PR operation
The regional PR office closest to the incident normally handles Amtrak's
crisis communications. This time, the 16-person corporate office got
It normally concentrates on supporting marketing and communications
efforts, but will also handle major accidents such as a train wreck.
Amtrak's non-corporate PR is organized into three "business units"
nationwide, serving the West Coast, the "inner-city" routes in the
middle of the country, and the Northeast corridor, says West Coast
director of media relations Vernae Graham.
But job titles and responsibilities at all three points differ hugely,
and it's hard for an outsider to figure out a discernible hierarchy.
Amtrak also keeps a PR person on 24-7 call for one-week rotations to be
the point person if there's an emergency.
The magnitude of the events on September 11 prompted a more coordinated
effort, with all offices forwarding calls to special lines at a "war
room" that was quickly established at the operations center in Delaware.
Amtrak's communications staff began rotating three-person teams to
handle the influx of calls for 20 hours a day.
The company's PR executives briefed the media about all kinds of issues
related to the disaster, such as security and safety. A train derailment
in Utah a few days later only added to the chaos. The special office
closed on September 17, though Van Veene says the media calls have not
Indeed, Amtrak is attempting to keep itself in the news as much as
Amtrak was featured on NBC's Today show in a story about "aide trains"
that brought supplies to relief workers. The PR team has tried to stay
proactive, gaining three major editorials as a result of media
However, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The New York Times, and The
Washington Post all put the spotlight on Amtrak's funding issues.
Amtrak's most difficult challenge
Recent events have given the PR team its most intense challenge since
the government helped create the National Railroad Passenger Corporation
(Amtrak's official name) in 1971.
"You end up doing everything as a PR person," says former Amtrak
director of communications for the Northeast corridor, Isabel Kaldenbach
(who left four years ago to start her own firm). "You're challenged,
because in addition to running a railroad, you have to address such a
variety of audiences."
Kaldenbach adds, "Your number-one audience is your customers, but on top
of that you have a huge labor force that is mostly unionized. Then you
also have federal, state, and local politicians that want to know where
their money is going. Then finally you have the financial community -
investment bankers that are lending you money," she explains.
In the past, many of Amtrak's key PR issues have revolved around
Operating in the red for years, the company is reliant on government
subsidies, and devotes a great deal of time and effort to lobbying at
federal, state, and local levels. However, Amtrak's lobbying efforts are
conducted in-house, and not by an outside agency. One government
relations initiative involved transporting a trainload of senators to
Ground Zero to show the value of the service.
Amtrak has been in a constant battle to convince Congress that it
deserves more cash, while at the same time convince the public it is a
viable and attractive means of travel.
Immediately following the attacks, Amtrak began lobbying Congress for
$3.2 billion over 18 months in emergency funds to beef up
security and fix tunnels and equipment, says Graham. The company also
began an internal communications initiative to train some of the
company's 25,000 employees on new security measures being
Amtrak is currently under a congressional order to begin operating
without government assistance by 2002, or be subject to restructuring or
liquidation. A variety of funding packages is currently under
Trouble ahead, trouble behind
Critics complain that Amtrak fails to service important cities such as
Columbus, OH, and is too slow in other markets because of the necessity
of carrying freight. Amtrak reaches 500 destinations in 45 states, and
averages 61,000 travelers a day, not counting commuters. Amtrak doesn't
operate in Alaska, Hawaii, Maine, South Dakota, or Wyoming, though the
organization counters that there simply isn't the funding to service
However, problems such as an aging infrastructure, the need for new
equipment, and limited routes have given the transportation giant a
tarnished reputation both on Capitol Hill and with consumers. While
Amtrak has introduced new services, such as the high-speed service Acela
in the Northeast, the project was not without its PR hiccups.
First, there were practical problems. "You had to introduce this concept
(of high-speed trains) to Americans, and you had to completely rebuild
the rails to handle the trains" says Kaldenbach. The Acela advertising
campaign featured a cool-looking guy in dark sun glasses, leaving some
wondering about both the name and the product.
In addition, Amtrak's senior management and its PR team needed to
convince policy makers, financial backers, skeptical media, and local
governments impacted by construction that the project was beneficial -
knowing that a working high-speed train was years away. Even the launch
was delayed a year, starting in December 2000.
On the consumer side, Amtrak is trying to raise its image through
branding and promotional campaigns. Working with Herndon, VA-based E.
James White Communications, Amtrak is currently promoting its Acela Club
executive seating at the MCI Center in Washington, DC, as well as
working with Madison Square Garden.
The events of September 11 have created the greatest of PR challenges
for Amtrak. "We've not had a chance to sit down and debrief," says Van
Veene. She adds that "things are only just starting to calm down."
VP of corporate communications: William Schultz
Manager of corporate communications: Karina Van Veene
Acting general manager, Northeast corridor: Lynn Bowersox
VP of communications, inner-city: Cheryle Jackson Senior director of
government and public affairs, West Coast: Elizabeth O'Donoghue
Director of public affairs and media relations, West Coast: Vernae
PR Budget: undisclosed
Agencies: consults with E. James White (ad agency with public relations
department), and Chisholm Mingo (multicultural marketing)