This is the third in a three-part series of posts to do with the misleading use of the term “High Speed Rail”. The first post — HSR — showed that average train speeds after the project is complete will be a mere 52.5 mph — hardly “high speed”. Moreover, it will still be quicker to drive than to take the train when traveling from Richmond to Washington, D.C.
In the second post, Controlling the Narrative, we introduced a business lady who regularly travels from Richmond to Washington D.C.. She was excited to learn that the new High Speed Railway would whisk her along, reducing her journey time to less than an hour compared to the current 2 hr 20 min. When she then found out that the journey time will not actually be much different from now (just a 20 minutes saving) and that the train remains slower than driving she is regretful, even annoyed, at this missed opportunity. And the fact that the cost of the train journey would be nearly double that of driving crystallizes her opinion, especially when she has to add the time and expense associated with local travel at each end of the journey.
But then she sees the following sign and says to herself,
I hear that freight trains use much less fuel per ton of cargo than 18-wheelers. That’s good for the environment and it cuts back on our imports of oil from unfriendly nations. It also eases the traffic problems on I-95. I was disappointed to learn that the “High Speed Railway” is not actually a high speed railway but I still support the project. I’m sorry that people are losing their homes to this project but you can’t stand in the way of progress. You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs, you know.
The lady’s reaction is likely representative of the feelings of a typical citizen of Virginia who has very little knowledge of this project (which means virtually all the citizens). The new sign continues to cede the project narrative. It tells people that freight train service will be improving; that’s something that they want to hear.
Just Say Yes
The prominence given to the word ‘Stop’ in the sign raises two additional concerns. The first is that the action command goes nowhere. Our business woman has no involvement in or control of the project — there is no action for her to take. The second difficulty is that the message of the sign suggests conflict and dispute. By contrast, virtually all advertisements on television are positive in tone. They say,
Buy our product or service and something good will happen to you.
They could say,
If you don’t buy our product or service then your life will not be as good.
The two messages are, of course, flip sides of the same coin. But the response that they generate is totally different. The first succeeds as a narrative, the second fails.
The opponents of the project face a dilemma: they are ‘Selling Nothing’ (actually the ‘No Build’ option). They need to create a positive message that is cast in terms of the customer, not of the residents who will be affected by the new rail. How this could be done regarding “high speed” passenger travel has already been illustrated. Basically the narrative was changed from “Look at our exciting new means of transport that will change your business life” to “Nothing much has changed after all”.
The challenge that the opponents now face is how to create a new freight train narrative.
Codes and Standards
Next week in Not Your Grandfather’s Railroad we will take a first look at the Basis of Design that the project managers have chosen to adopt. It appears as if adding a third track through the center of Ashland will do more than add the width of the new track to what is present already; it will presumably mean that existing tracks will have to be brought up to today’s code. If this assumption is correct then the addition of a third track and the associated upgrade will probably have a greater impact than originally anticipated.