Perspective: Just Look at That

Be it 1955 or 2011, passenger trains have advertised the one thing the airplane doesn't have: a really decent view

Sometimes, the true beauty of a marketing campaign is not so much that it spotlights one of a brand's many dazzling attributes, but makes the best of the only one it's got. That, at any rate, has been the case with American passenger railroading since the end of World War II.

In 1955, the market dominance that railroads enjoyed for a century in moving Americans between cities was starting to crumble. Taking advantage of the surplus of planes and flight technologies perfected during the war, passenger airlines were growing fast. They were also picking railroad passengers like ripe fruit with promises of quick trips and low prices. For example, a cross-country rail passenger of 1954 could expect an $85.57 fare and a two-and-a-half-day journey–in a coach seat. A United Airlines DC-7, however, could whisk him across the country in eight hours for $99. As though that wasn't bad enough news for the railroads, President Eisenhower would soon sign the Interstate Highway Act of 1956, which would cause millions of Americans to buy cars and abandon trains for good.

What to do? Aware that passengers at 28,000 feet could see little more than clouds outside the window, savvy marketers at the Northern Pacific Railway decided to make the only boast they had left: an amazing view of the mountains. Like many of the western railroads, the Northern Pacific had purchased a fleet of new "Vista Dome" cars after the war, and, as the 1955 ad at right shows in Norman Rockwell-like splendor, passengers of all ages could marvel at a 360-degree view from inside the dome of the North Coast Limited. "The dome cars were new, and they were lovely," notes Karl Zimmermann, a teacher, historian, and author of 23 books on railroading history, "and the Northern Pacific was focusing on the ineffable pleasure of train travel–that endless panorama." In this ad, the panorama seems particularly fascinating to that bow-tied lad and his sister, but more on that in a moment.

Unfortunately, beautiful views didn't save the passenger railroads, which were all gone by 1971, prompting Congress to create Amtrak. But today, Amtrak trains like the Heartland Flyer, competing with the airlines and the interstates, just like its forebears, is using nearly the exact same marketing tactic–not just the view, but those kids who can't seem to get enough of it.

"The ads are remarkably similar," Zimmermann says. "But I think both are projecting the way adults hope their children will respond." Most kids like trains, he adds, because they "think it's a cool experience to travel in this tiny room and sleep in a berth rather than, 'Wow, look at those mountains.'"

But never mind. A good view is a good view–and, as a marketing tool, it's never gone out of style.