Mad Men Back High-Speed Rail

by Phineas Baxandall, US PIRG on March 23, 2011

U.S. PIRG worked with the popular website Funny or Die and two actors from the TV show Mad Men to produce a video in support of high-speed rail. Funny or Die sent out notice of the video to their Twitter list of two million people, and U.S. PIRG notified hundreds of thousands of our email activists. Since its release March 9th, more than 150,000 people have watched “Mad Men on Trains,” starring Vincent Kartheiser and Richard Sommer via Funny or Die, and more than 27,000 additional viewers have watched the video through U.S. PIRG’s YouTube link. The video has more than 4,000 “likes” on Facebook and has been covered by approximately 100 new media outlets as well as traditional media across the globe.

The video is set in the offices of a fictitious 1960’s-era advertising agency, as the actors make their best pitch for high-speed rail. As “Harry” tells “Pete” in the video, “America always makes the right investments. Trains are the most efficient, most economical, best investment. But, honestly,” he adds, “I think you can relax on this whole thing. I read that in 40 years, gas is going to be almost a dollar a gallon.”

The actors, Funny or Die, and U.S. PIRG teamed up to develop the video as a way to reach new audiences and build excitement for high-speed rail projects around the country. The video directs viewers to MadFastTrains.com, a site where they can contact their senators and urge them to support high-speed rail. Thus far, almost two thousand viewers from around the country have sent messages to their senators through this site, and hundreds requested U.S. PIRG’s “I’d rather be riding high-speed rail” bumper stickers.

Widespread coverage of “Mad Men on Trains,” particularly among online media outlets, has helped increase viewership and traffic to the campaign website. CBS News used Twitter to publicize a behind-the-scenes piece about the video, Huffington Post discussed the video in a front page article, PBS included the video on its “Need to Know List,” a variety of local news outlets, such as NBC Los Angeles, covered the video on their websites. And the New York Times included a paragraph quoting the video in a long piece about the future of high-speed rail.

We circulated news of the fun video to aides in Congress as a way to additionally generate a “buzz” and momentum supporting high-speed rail. Some key D.C. leaders are already taking note, and helping to spread the word. For instance, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood mentioned the video on his Fast Lane blog on March 16, complete with quotes from the video and a link to the Huffington Post article, and is allowing readers to view the video directly through his blog. The White House Office of Engagement has also recently informed us that it will mention the video in the White House’s upcoming youth newsletter.

The release of the video comes at a time when the debate over high-speed rail is heating up throughout the country and in Congress. President Obama recently pledged more than $50 billion in federal funding over the next six years and announced a goal in his State of the Union to connect 80 percent of the country with high-speed rail in the next 25 years. House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman John Mica (R-FL) has been a supporter of high-speed rail, while his governor in Florida and the Governors of Ohio and Wisconsin have rejected billions in federal funds for projects in their states.

As part of our broader program for more and better public transit, U.S. PIRG, the federation of State PIRGs, has been working at the state and federal level to make the case for investing in high-speed rail as an economically viable alternative to car and airplane travel that will reduce congestion and our dependence on oil. Our research, media outreach, and organizing informs and engages the public, and demonstrates to decision-makers the broad support that high-speed rail enjoys.

For instance, U.S. PIRG has written three reports over the last year to outline the benefits of high-speed rail to specific regions and to the country as a whole, releasing each report to the media in order to elevate the issue within the public debate.

In June, CALPIRG Education Fund released Next Stop: California. Benefits of High-Speed Rail Around the World and What’s in Store for California at Union Station, with Los Angeles Councilman Richard Alarcon, Councilmember Terry O’Day and representatives from Breathe LA and the Iron Workers, Local 416.
In September we released Connecting the Midwest: How a Faster Passenger Rail Network Could Speed Travel and Boost the Economy in six Midwestern states, garnering 75 media hits, including 25 in Ohio.

And this November, we released a national research report titled, A Track Record of Success: High Speed Rail Around the World and Its Promise for America, generating more than 50 media hits across 10 states, including 16 television hits.
This spring we plan to release a report on the proper role of public-private partnerships in high-speed rail. U.S. PIRG has been a leading watchdog in the alarming trend toward private tollroads and will use our knowledge of those pitfalls along with international lessons to lay out basic principles for best practice.

However, research alone is not sufficient. U.S. PIRG has also been working to build constituencies in support of high-speed rail, both in strongholds like California where approximately 120 miles of track will be laid beginning in 2012, and in states like Wisconsin and Florida where misguided governors have refused to accept federal funding for regional high-speed rail lines. Specifically:

We have organized students in multiple states to use their spring or summer breaks to take trips along proposed high-speed rail lines, meeting with elected officials and generating media attention at each stop.

We have dispatched teams of professional organizers to engage hundreds of small business owners, dozens of elected officials, and thousands of individuals to voice their support for high-speed rail.

More recently we generated dozens of letters from small businesses on Orlando calling for high-speed rail and approximately three dozen media stories in support of the Florida rail project.

We have used online outreach tools such as email actions and Facebook to quickly respond to developments, such as Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s decision to return federal funding for high-speed rail in the state.

I hope you will take a couple minutes to view the video, and I look forward to keeping you apprised of our progress in promoting high-speed rail as an important and necessary component of America’s transportation future.

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