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— by Pat Foran, Editor
For some rail realmers, the newness of the post-recession "new normal" is beginning to wear off. Not that their respective railroads or agencies have returned to pre-recession form, or that they themselves have absorbed all the nuances of this nascent era, but many appear to have settled in and buckled up for the ride back up. They're beginning to craft and execute era-appropriate growth strategies. Witness the mindset shift unfolding in some corners of the passenger-rail world, as Associate Editor Angela Cotey reports in this month's cover story.
Instead of taking a "build and operate a transit system, and the riders will come" approach to retaining existing customers and attracting new ones, some agencies are "becoming marketing-based companies" as they build (or rebuild) the brand that is passenger-rail service, as Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) Vice President of Planning and Development Todd Plesko told Cotey. To that end, they're stepping it up on the "know thy customer" front. They're checking presumptions at the door, or trying to, as they attempt to mind and keep pace with riders' changing needs and expectations. The aim: tailor service (and future marketing strategies) accordingly.
At DART, a soon-to-be-conducted customer segmentation study designed to provide "deeper than demographics" data will help the agency get a better handle on what motivates consumers to make the choices they make, VP of Marketing and Chief Marketing Officer Nevin Grinnell told Cotey. Grinnell, who in previous gigs has marketed the likes of Dr Pepper and Frito Lay, joined DART this past fall.
One thing transit marketing execs don't need a survey to tell them: Today's consumers — in this case, of passenger-rail service — expect more. As in more choices, more attention, more bang for their buck. And given the communication tools they've got at their disposal (i.e., social media, a key force in the new normal), consumers aren't hesitant to let agencies know when they believe their expectations aren't being met.
Such customer interaction and input can be invaluable as agencies attempt to check those aforementioned presumptions at the door and peel back the layers on customers' actual wants and needs. It's also possible to get bogged down in the details of said interaction and input. In addition to giving customers more love, passenger-rail marketers need to craft and send a bigger-picture message to riders (actually, to all their constituencies, including those who hold the purse strings). As part of the brand-building process, they need to articulate rail's place in this new normal and what it could be going forward. From the tone and tenor of the comments they shared with us, agency marketers seem to think they're off to a good start, message crafting and sending wise.
From our dead-on-arrival news files: On Feb. 2, the House Transportation and Infrastructure and Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs committees began to mark up major transportation legislation.
In the House, the debate centered on a five-year, $260 billion surface transportation funding bill featuring several provisions of particular interest to the rail universe. Among them: a call to extend the mandated positive train control deadline from Dec. 31, 2015, to Dec. 31, 2020; a measure to streamline the Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing program to encourage participation and accelerate the loan process; and a provision that would enable states to increase truck size and weight limits to 97,000 pounds, up from the current 80,000-pound limit. (Days before the bill was unveiled, rail advocates were gearing up to fight this provision, and hard.) At the same time, the Senate Banking Committee was marking up the Federal Public Transportation Act of 2012, a two-year, $109 billion reauthorization of federal public transportation programs.
Whether the House and Senate will come together and pass a long-term bill this year is anybody's guess. (Mine? No.) But as Chuck Baker, president of the National Railroad Construction & Maintenance Association Inc., and partner at government affairs firm Chambers, Conlon and Hartwell L.L.C., told Assistant Editor Julie Sneider on Feb. 1: "There is actually bipartisan agreement that we at least want a bill. There is a lot of pressure to get a bill done." That sets the stage for what should make for a most interesting "Railroad Day on Capitol Hill." To be held March 8, the annual event enables railroaders to be lobbyists for a day and deliver the rail message to their congressfolk. For more information, check out the "Meetings & Seminars" tab on the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association's website (www.aslrra.org).