September 9, 2012 by seradt
I had the privilege to admire Cascades train 506 rolling effortlessly into Georgetown a few days ago, on its way to its terminus at King Street Station in Seattle. From the interstate, where I was riding in a passenger-side seat, the swift-moving train glistened in the sunlight before I glanced at the speedometer. It was racing at well over 70mph, for we were traveling at least that quickly.
I was immediately impressed with the striking appearance of the train from our vantage, sporting a unified Cascade green, tree trunk brown and egg white paint scheme, colors so strongly emblematic of our home turf that it should need no further explanation (though, for the purposes of the blog, I will indeed). The Pacific Northwest, with its widespread coniferous forests, deep brown soils and grey, opaque skies, has been manifested in the colors of its premier intercity passenger rail system. So natural is the color selection that as a Cascades train passes, it is as seamlessly integrated into our region’s environment as any bird of prey over the waterways, or one of the ferries skirting the Puget Sound’s choppy waters. There is no fooling anyone; this is our train.
With the swooping paint scheme paralleling Cesar Vergara designed ornamental fins that arch from the height of the passenger cars to the top of the locomotives buttressing each end, the train is flawlessly streamlined and simply sexy. Built into its architecture is the implication of speed, and while the states of Washington and Oregon—the former in particular—are working toward achieving far greater speeds of travel, it sure looks and feels swift as it hurtles passed you at nearly 80 miles an hour. Even from a distance, the trainsets look as though they are only delicately romancing their rails. The Cascades are just itching to roll faster.
The linear Cascades Corridor, stretching in a line from Vancouver, Canada, to the university town of Eugene, Oregon, is as-of-now funded primarily by the states of Washington and Oregon, with a little less than a quarter of the remaining costs covered by Amtrak, the operator of services. Though served, British Columbia is not a funding partner for the service, to its detriment. It is inarguably a government planned, maintained and operated enterprise, with little to no private sector involvement, which, you will come to understand through future posts, is a fact I do not feel is necessarily deserving of a critique. I am no anti-government, anti-public sector passenger rail ideologue, by no means. In any case, the Cascades should be run as efficiently and effectively as any successful private company, and the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) is certainly suggesting it is taking the lead in this respect by aggressively marketing the service to the public, investing in capital projects for the improvement of railroad infrastructure, and intending to add more frequent and reliable service.
The first point of the three WSDOT efforts, specifically, is of great interest to this post. The paint scheme, architecture and even the name of our regional intercity rail service—the Cascades, for goodness sakes!—are all components of the larger project to create a desirable brand for the trains. Billboards are placed intelligently around Seattle in prominent vistas, or on Metro bus sides, declaring in bold, youthful print the arrival of the next, more preferable method of travel to Portland. Why drive when you can surf your way into Union Station, it quizzes Northwest techies who might be planning their next visit to our southern neighbors.
The billboards and advertisements, featuring deep, regionally prominent green and brown hues that paint mountainous landscapes, grasses and, of course, the trains in a stylized, yet cartoonish manner, are clearly intended to appeal to an educated, middle-class and tech-savvy crowd who are not afraid of the idea of either trains or cities. The signs take it for granted that both of those ideas are cool again, even popular. I am writing about hipsters here. The marketing, in all of its vivaciousness, is even fun. The website maintains this relaxed impression, featuring the familiar colors of the ads and incorporating words like “gussied up” as it notifies clients of a lack of wifi service while a trainset is refurbished and replaced by older equipment unable to provide an internet connection. This playful approach to selling the service is similar to that of France’s national railway company SNCF and their websites, which incorporate sporty, professionally shot videos documenting their services and feature the dance-track focused SNCF Radio as background music. Internationally popular dance beats enforce rhythmic body movements as you accept the credit charge for a TGV trip from Paris to Marseilles. Sure, SNCF does it far better, but for an isolated system in the corner of the United States that has only periodic service on a few daily round trips, it does the job well.
We have a corridor train system that has developed a look and personality that is unabashedly Pacific Northwestern. While relaxing in a comfortable, professional environment as you are whisked across the linear shelf between the Olympic, Coast and Cascade mountain ranges, scenes of extraordinary natural splendor, simply surf the net or walk through cars that are themed with the spirit of your home region. With its designed suggestion of speed and the high quality of its marketing, you understand that this service is popular and reliable, and that it will get you to your destination on time and in style. Green, brown and creamy white, this is your train system, the equivalent of the seductive red of Benelux and France’s Thalys, or the Netherland’s blue and yellow Nederlandse Spoorwegen, and just as deserving—even demanding—of the high quality of service with which those providers endear their clients.
With a branding idea that is so clearly focused on keeping it professional, cool, urbane and fast, it’s now time to build a Cascades system that lives up to its cultivated ideals. This will allow it to continue to secure the ridership increases it has experienced since its inception in 1993. Absolutely, it will cost a lot of money, take years to bring to fruition and require the collective effort of dozens of municipalities and legal jurisdictions, but the effort will have proved worthwhile when the Cascades system–our very own–is as world class as the systems it should endeavor to model itself after.