Trains may not figure as prominently in the popular imagination as they did in the 1950s, when every American boy seemed to have an electric train set, but the railroad industry is, to be sure, still chugging along.
Union Pacific, for example, earned revenue of $19.6 billion in 2011, an increase of 15 percent over 2010 and a record for the company, which dates to President Abraham Lincoln's signing of the Pacific Railway Act in 1862.
Now, to mark its 150th anniversary, along with rolling out a vintage steam engine for events from Louisiana to California, Union Pacific is rolling out a national advertising campaign.
Print ads feature Union Pacific trains winding through sweeping American landscapes, while copy emphasizes the railroad's role in the country's history — and future.
“In 1862, President Lincoln said start,” says one ad where a train bisects a panoramic mountain setting in California. “He never said stop.” Another, with a train near silos on a Minnesota farm, says, “Connecting shining sea to fruited plain.” And another, as a train traces the California coast at sunset, says, “Today we celebrate the most important day in the history of our company. Tomorrow.”
Donna Kush, assistant vice president for corporate communications at Omaha-based U.P., said the ads were meant to call attention to the industry's role in the economy.
“The railroad industry does have a very American type of image with it, but I think people have lost touch a little bit with how integral we are to the economy,” Kush said. “Some people say if the railroads stopped running, the country would shut down in a few days.”
For the ads, “First and foremost we did want to use what we call hero shots,” Kush said. “We wanted to show our locomotives especially because they have an American flag on them, which just adds to the Americana feel,” she said, referring to requests from employees to feature a flag on engines after 9/11.
The ads are by Bailey Lauerman, a Nebraska agency with offices in Lincoln and Omaha. The main photographer is Chris Gordaneer of Toronto.
Many of the ads will go where the railroad, operating primarily west of the Mississippi River, does not, namely in East Coast publications like the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. Within those newspapers' readerships, Kush said, are “opinion leaders and key stakeholders.”
U.P. also is placing the ads locally in The World-Herald, including one Sunday ad featuring the Omaha skyline with a specially lit headquarters building that was shot by local photographer Jim Scholz.
Ads also will appear in Time magazine, and the effort includes a microsite, UP150.com.
The railroad, which declined to reveal the cost of the campaign, spent $10.1 million on advertising in 2011, according to Kantar Media, a unit of WPP.
Isaac Pino, a transportation analyst at the Motley Fool, an investment website, reviewed the new ad campaign and said it could resonate with investors, who in a downturn are drawn to companies like Union Pacific that not only consistently pay dividends but also have staying power.
"The Great West Illustrated"
Andrew J. Russell's work chronicling the construction of America's first transcontinental railroad goes on display Saturday in an exhibition marking Omaha-based Union Pacific's 150th anniversary. Learn more about the Joslyn Art Museum exhibit and see more of Russell's work here.
“The ads in a sense convey the message that this is a company that has been around for a long time and you can put it in your portfolio without worrying too much,” Pino said.
For the new ads, which feature contemporary engines and cars, Marty Amsler, a creative director at Bailey Lauerman, said the tone was meant to be more a celebration than a sales pitch.
“We were trying to capture the power of the railroad and the majesty of the landscape that Union Pacific has been part of for 150 years,” Amsler said.
Gordaneer did have an advantage over a typical train enthusiast with a camera: he was working for the company that owned the tracks and trains.
“In this case,” Amsler said, “we had a special train show up and stop just long enough for us to take the shot.”
Celebrating Union Pacific
Click here for more on U.P.'s impact and upcoming events.
If you're looking to get in on Union Pacific's 150th anniversary celebration, you'll have plenty of opportunities over the next few weeks.
U.P.'s steam locomotive — rail buffs know it as No. 844 — has been on the move this spring and summer. On June 27 it will travel back to Council Bluffs after a stay at TD Ameritrade Park during the College World Series. Fans between Council Bluffs and North Platte, Neb., can spot No. 844 as it passes through on June 29.
For updates on the locomotive's location, click here.
Meanwhile, the Durham Museum has scheduled a special exhibit of part of the document that started the railroad. From July 1 through July 31, visitors to the museum can view three pages of the Pacific Railway Act of 1862. The exhibit will also include railroad-related materials from the museum's collection from Byron Reed, an influential businessman and collector in 19th century Omaha.
June 30-Sept. 16: The Great West Illustrated, an exhibition of A.J. Russell photographs, on view at the Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha
July 2: New York Stock Exchange closing bell ringing
July 13-19: “Union Pacific” movie screening, Film Streams, Omaha
July 14-15: Railroad Days, Omaha
Aug. 8-12: Iowa State Fair, Des Moines
Aug. 31-Sept. 3: Nebraska State Fair, Grand Island
Sept. 13-16: North Platte Railfest, North Platte, Neb.
Union Pacific's impact on Nebraska
Retired Union Pacific employees and an historian talk about the importance of the railroad.