Happening Now

Passenger Rail Is Attracting Industry Allies

April 19, 2024

By Jim Mathews / President & CEO

Eyeing huge new train orders in the offing for both Amtrak and VIA Rail, leading-edge suppliers from around the world came together in Montreal this week to share their best ideas for making great passenger amenities. But by Thursday afternoon as the meeting was winding up, they all found they were sharing something much bigger – a shared purpose in helping all of us as passenger-rail advocates keep our North American rail renaissance moving.

The Railway Interior Innovation Summit, organized by Germany-based Red Cabin, attracted high-level delegates from across the rail industry. I was excited and honored when Red Cabin asked me to Chair the event and guide the three days of tours and sessions. A large fraction of those executives came from outside the U.S. and Canada, and to be sure the gathered delegates – among them many CEOs, executive VPs, and even a Chair or two – were here to do serious business.

But as the conversations unfolded beginning Monday night, one by one the executives also discovered that if they really WANT to do business here and want to see the North American market grow to meet its incredible potential, they’ll have to do a lot more than just refining specifications for coatings or streamlining ways of responding to requests-for-proposal.

They discovered that they have a real stake in our work. They need our Association’s reauthorization strategy to succeed in preventing the historic Bipartisan Infrastructure Law from becoming a “one-and-done.” They need YOU!

They represented truly leading suppliers of everything from innovative lighting to better seats, from lightweight wall panels to innovative color processes, from textiles to make better blankets for sleeper rooms to films and components that look like opulent Orient Express mirrors, lamps, and furniture but meet modern safety and weight standards.

The products, designs, and concepts were exciting to see and touch. Passengers will soon find a better experience on board in dozens of ways thanks to these companies’ creative approaches to solving design problems. And thanks to the attendance of your volunteer Board Member Dick Bruss, a retired Amtrak design engineer who worked on several Amtrak procurements, we were able to ask good questions about these products and how they’ll make our journeys better.

Across each day’s sessions, excitement built up around the tantalizing possibilities presented. Brightline wowed the crowd with its relentless focus on the passenger experience. The California High-Speed Rail program highlighted real progress and talked at length about the ways that future passengers’ ideas for what they want are being incorporated right now in the bidding stage for new trainsets. We saw incredibly flexible designs for seat foams, coverings, lighting systems, information systems, leather made from recovered hides, wayfinding video towers for rail stations in which hearing-impaired passengers can get information in sign language.

And both Amtrak and VIA Rail shared their visions for a better on-board experience for every passenger at every fare.

But as one of the VIA Rail managers pointed out during Thursday’s sessions, in Europe trains are a fact of life while in North America “cars are a fact of life.” In his view, which I share, industry entering the North American market has a special responsibility to help us show policymakers, legislators, and elected and appointed officials why it makes sense to keep investing in passenger rail, how passenger-rail can make a difference in economic and climate goals, and where those investments could prove to be the most transformative.

These are points I highlighted in my closing remarks, and several delegates spoke to me afterwards asking how they might get more involved in our movement and what they can do to help sustain the exciting momentum we have built for more trains, to more places, for more people, everywhere in North America. That was incredibly gratifying and encouraging! Manufacturers and suppliers will be important allies in our work as we look ahead to the 2026 expiration of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. And if their excitement is as infectious in the halls of legislatures as it was in Montreal, I think we’re all looking at a much brighter future.