While most North Americans today have a limited experience with trains, often confined to journeys between the suburban home and downtown office, the train is embedded deep within our collective (continental) consciousness. Our history lessons taught us that it was trains that built political alliances and links of commerce, and later allowed hundreds of thousands of settlers to make their way westward. Cultural references abound, from the Underground Railroad that brought freedom-starved slaves northward, to the music of our youth such as Arlo Guthrie’s iconic “City of New Orleans” to the O’Jays’ monster hit of the disco era, “Love Train.”
Canadian railroad companies have followed global trends and become continental engines of commerce that continue – in spite of dire predictions – to play a significant role in the transport of goods across the continent, often in elaborate partnerships with their American counterparts. In the passenger realm, Via Rail continues to make progress in seducing Canadians of all ages back to the charm of seeing Canada from the ground, letting its beauty unfold before the awestruck eyes of those accustomed only to travel at 30,000 feet.
As Canada watches its neighbour to the south go through some of the hardest economic and social issues it has faced in a generation, there is a new role for the train that will bring our two countries closer together than they have been in a long time…that of travelling diplomat and marketing agent, a kind of Henry Kissinger of the rails. We could dub this initiative “The Friendship Train.” Like the Confederation Train that rolled across Canada to help celebrate our centennial year in 1967, it would visit each major city in the continental United States over a period of two years (northern states in the summers, southern states in the colder months) to promote Canada to our friends and neighbours like we have never done (or even tried to do) before.
Canadians are all too aware of America’s seemingly endless ignorance our nation and this no doubt explains in part the reaction of glee of some of our citizens to the numerous pitfalls that have greeted America over the past five years. But every Canadian has also known since the fifth grade that our economy is inexorably linked to that of our neighbour to the south, and that we are joined at the hip to the extent that the future performance of the U.S. economy will largely shape our own. While some will endlessly repeat that our economic indicators are so much stronger than those in the U.S. that we have become an island, this is David and Goliath thinking that fails to recognize how important the American market is for everything from oil and gas to tourism.
While Canada may not have experienced the subprime mortgage meltdown, this unfortunate occurrence has had – like everything else – an enormous impact on American consumerism, which in turn affects our trade levels with this huge consumer base. In short, America may be in the doldrums and may even be in permanent decline, but Canada ignores this market at its peril. This is a time to find opportunity in a downturn market, a time to capitalize on the many advantages of being a close neighbour and friend, a time to reinforce strong economic and cultural ties that in many cases go back well over a century. In short, it is a time to sell the advantages offered by Canada – a nearby safe haven – to the many layers and facets of the U.S. marketplace.
The concept of a “Friendship Train” is to sell and promote Canada to literally thousands of markets that rarely think about Canada, except when listening to winter weather warnings on the news. The train would consist of at least twelve cars: one for each province, one for the territories and one for the national entity.
To understand how it would work, picture yourself living in Louisville, Kentucky and being sufficiently curious about this visiting mobile exhibit from Canada (due to a strong public relations campaign) to take your family down to visit the Friendship Train. While in the Newfoundland car, you realize that you could drive up and vacation in this postcard-like setting for a fraction of the cost of taking the family to the Caribbean. Investors visiting the Alberta car are enthused enough about Fort McMurray to plan a trip up there, and learn from the agent working in the car how best to do this. Finally, an independent filmmaker prices out film studios in the Ontario car and concludes that Toronto would be a cheaper and more agreeable option for his next picture than using the studios he has traditionally rented in North Carolina.
In short, each car is manned by agents offering a wealth of advice on tourism and investment opportunities and, just as important, pointing out the numerous links between that province or territory and the region in the U.S. that the Friendship Train is visiting.
Would this be an expensive venture? Yes, particularly if it were to be properly sold to ensure its success. Perhaps a good theme song performed by Celine Dion on the major U.S. networks would get the ball rolling, but the local efforts in the cities visited by the Friendship Train would make or break this initiative.
Would the payback make it worthwhile? This is the real question of importance, and all research on the subject indicates that Americans respond very well to publicity and advertising, so there is no reason why this venture would not pay off in newly generated tourism alone. Costs could also be significantly alleviated through sponsorships, beginning with the railroad companies themselves.
The biggest payoff, however, may be of a more profound nature: for the first time ever, Canada would actually be actively and aggressively selling itself on Main Street America, speaking the language of hyperbole and self promotion that America has excelled at around the world. This is an un-Canadian venture, from that perspective, since aggressive bragging does not come naturally to most of our countrymen, but – as the wisdom of old dictates – extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures.
The Friendship Train could change our relationship with millions of Americans forever, and help dispel once and for all, the view held by many south of the border that we are kinder, gentler, and…alas…just a little bit dull. We all know this is not the case, and most of us believe the time has come to bring back American tourists and investors and renew a friendship that has been through some hard times over the past