Wednesday, July 6, 2011

True stories of a real Mad Man: How I invented a train.

True Stories of a real Mad Man:  How I invented a train.  ©Joel Baumwoll

More than a few times in my life as a Mad Man, crises turned my world upside down.

Not long after I became President of Needham, Harper and Steers, a smallish New York branch of a large Chicago agency, our largest and most profitable client faced a huge threat.

Eastern Airlines decided to drop the fares on their shuttle flights from New York to Washington and Boston.  Pan Am decided to do the same and an airline price war broke out. (Neither airline exists today, which might tell us something).

Amtrak feared that the low airline prices would lure away the meager handful of riders that used their northeast corridor trains.  Graham Clayter, Amtrak's President, and Bill Norman, Executive Vice President asked the agency for ideas.

The combined budgets of the airline shuttles was more than ten times the available money to advertise Amtrak's service.  The stakes for us and Amtrak were big.  More than 50% 0f the ag4ncy's profit came from Amtrak's account.

We assembled creative teams and planners for brainstorming sessions.  A sense of urgency pervaded the meetings. The walls quickly filled with ideas for new services, train "stewardesses," computer service, fancy meals, more booze, movies and music.

Through it all, I was unconvinced that any of this would work.  Nothing on the wall made me think we had the answer.  I felt the solution was to solve a different problem than airline service.  The issue, I believed, was time.

"How long does it take to get to DC by train?" I asked an account executive who didn't work on Amtrak.  "Five hours, I think. And how long if you took the shuttle? I guess 45 minutes, an hour at most," came the reply.

There you have it, I thought.  I don't care if we had topless stewardesses and free booze.  Nothing will convince a business traveler to spend five hours on a train when he can get there in less than an hour.

I dispatched a camera crew to the airport to interview people getting off the shuttle.  I told them to ask three questions:  One, how long did this flight take?  Two, how long would it have taken by train?  Three, If the train took two and a half to three hours, would they consider it?

The answers, of course were preordained.  "Forty-five minutes."  "Five hours." "Yes."

I called Bill Norman and said I wanted to talk to him about a wild idea.  Ever the adventurer, he said come on train.

The case I made started with the statement that if all things were equal, many people would prefer the train to the plane.  More room, easier to get to and from and, the unspoken real reason, fear of flying.

"Your problem is time.  You need a TGV, a bullet train.  That's years off, I knew, so we needed a solution for tomorrow.

"Suppose," I said, "we could shave time off the trip between New York and Washington and New York and Boston.  Enough time to bring the DC trip under three hours.  If we could offer two hours and change, the equation vs. the plane doesn't look nearly as bad."

To endorse our case, we showed Norman the video tapes of shuttle fliers who said they would take the train if it were under three hours.  After all, they calculated, it takes at least half an hour to get to the airport and half an hour to get to town after landing.  The flights are often delayed, so the difference door to door is more like 30-45 minutes.  "Isn't it?"

Far be it from me to contradict their math.

"If you can create a quicker service, I propose that we brand it Amtrak Metroliner Express Service, resurrecting the Metroliner name that had been abandoned several years earlier."

Norman was a gutsy and creative guy.  He figured out how to do it, at least for one test train in the morning and one in the evening.  They were sellouts.  Three more test trains were added, and they too sold out.  So the service grew, offering four, then five and six express trains daily.  Boston was added to the service.

New York to Washington in 
2 hours and 59 civilized minutes! 

promised our ads from every taxi top, TDI display, billboard and traffic alert in drive time.

Civilized was a code word to fliers who were used to being crammed into the sardine-can planes and squeezed in and out like toothpaste in a tube.

Washington to New York in 2 hours and 59 civilized minutes! was the promise to congressmen who wanted to escape the beltway for a little R&R.

People responded in droves.  The Metroliner service sold out every trip.  

In a short time, the Metroliner service became the largest revenue producer in the system.

In 2000, sixteen years later, Amtrak announced a true TGV, the ACELA service, that makes the trip in just over 2 hours.  It is now the largest revenue source in Amtrak's system. And a symbol for America's ability to offer reliable intercity rail services that people like to use.

I may have created some new products before, but that's the first and only time I invented a train.

Even so, I pay full fare whenever I use it.