Analysis: Rare 'City of New Orleans' promotion a product of CN actions, local support

Amtrak fare sale attempts to boost route after lengthy bus disruption leads to drop in ridership
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Amtrak_Jackson_Johnston
Passengers line up to board southbound City of New Orleans coaches at Jackson, Miss., on Dec. 8, 2018. The train has not operated south of Jackson regularly since last winter.

NEW ORLEANS Amtrak announced a  “buy one, get one” fare deal this week after the City of New Orleans again started serving its namesake destination following months of track closures [see “Full City of New Orleans service restored,” Trains News Wire, Aug. 22, 2019]. This represents one of the few promotions of any individual national-network route since Amtrak cut its regional marketing staff two years.

Previously, only the Lorton, Va., to Sanford, Fla., Auto Train had been singled out for specific ridership and revenue promotions. Its potential clientele is more easily reachable by targeting former customers. But all other discounted “flash sales” without a state-supported component have been systemwide and never told travelers which markets Amtrak serves.

Getting the word out that the City of New Orleans was again traveling over its entire route, however, became an increasing necessity because of conditions imposed by Canadian National after the Army Corps of Engineers opened the Bonnet Carre Spillway in April to prevent Mississippi River flooding in New Orleans.

The waterway is south of Hammond, La., and both the host railroad and Amtrak have a standing agreement that trains can only deadhead with employees until the aging trestle is rebuilt. But this time CN also prohibited Amtrak from turning the train on the wye at Hammond. So instead of a 50-mile bus ride to and from New Orleans, travelers had to endure a 185-mile, 5-hour trip to and from Jackson, Miss.

Yet after the Army Corps closed the spillway, CN scheduled track maintenance both north and south of Jackson, so the Chicago-New Orleans train occasionally turned at Memphis, Tenn.

Not surprisingly, City of New Orleans revenue and ridership losses deepened each month. Particularly hard hit was sleeping car revenue, which had been flat for the first half of fiscal 2019, but then slid 16% in May, 29% in June, and 36% in July from the same months in 2018. The lost revenue represented almost $500,000 for the three months.

“We knew we had to develop a plan to counter the idea that there were only buses south of Jackson,” Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari tells Trains News Wire. Amtrak Long Distance Service Line Director Nick Genevish, Senior Government Affairs Manager Todd Stennis, Magliari, and representatives in other departments hatched a plan to get the word out through a targeted local promotional campaign once CN opened the route.

Also contributing were members of the Southern Rail Commission, the Gulf Coast organization actively pushing for two daily round trips on the former route of the Sunset Limited east of New Orleans to Mobile, Ala. The group spearheaded efforts with well-connected politicians like U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) that resulted in obtaining federal grants and continuing active discussions with the Federal Railroad Administration and Amtrak about restarting service with which the City of New Orleans would connect.

The commission’s Knox Ross and John Spain helped explain the reason for the “buy one, get one” fare at press events in Jackson and New Orleans, respectively, as evidenced by this coverage on CBS-TV affiliate WJTV.

The story was also picked up by the Associated Press from the McComb, Miss., Enterprise-Journal.

“It was important for us to get some earned media to publicize the sale,” says Magliari. He also notes that on-board and station employees have received special recognition pins for their service under a very difficult situation.

Returns aren’t in, of course, since the sale goes through Aug. 31 for September travel, but the promotion illustrates what can be done to call attention to a train that the traveling public may not be aware of. It certainly provides the type of shot in the arm other routes could benefit from if Amtrak management directed the resources to make that happen.  

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