Amtrak debuts new marketing campaign amid years of flat ridership levels

Key Points
  • Amtrak's new "Break the travel quo" campaign highlights its competitor's travel headaches, like baggage fees and traffic.
  • The rail service reported just above 30 million passengers for the last six years.
  • But "you can't squeeze any more trains on the existing infrastructure," says Robert Puentes, CEO of the Eno Center for Transportation.
Amtrak CEO: Penn Station repairs 'summer of renewal'

Amtrak debuted a video ad campaign Thursday, hoping to attract air and road travelers to the rails.

Titled "Break the travel quo," the four 30-second videos created by FCB Global focus on the headaches of traveling with Amtrak's competitors, from highway traffic to Wi-Fi to baggage. The campaign launches amid flat national rail ridership, with Amtrak reporting just above 30 million passengers for the last six years.

"As soon as you say 'train' people shut down," FCB Chief Creative Office Ari Halper said in a statement. "We had to find a Trojan Horse through their defenses, which is why we masqueraded as the perfect airline. In many ways, that's exactly what we are, just without the wings."

The agency was also behind Amtrak's TV campaign in 2015, building a series of videos and a social media presence around the hashtag "AmtrakStories." That push featured spots during the fall television season, as well as digital distribution on video services such as YouTube and Hulu.

"This is much more overtly asking people to consider the train, over car or air travel," an FCB representative told CNBC when comparing the two ad campaigns.

Robert Puentes, CEO of the Eno Center for Transportation, a think tank in Washington, said the campaign appears to be aimed at discretionary travelers in the Northeast, where Amtrak has its strongest presence.

"But without huge upgrades it's hard to think about an increase in ridership because you can't squeeze any more trains on the existing infrastructure," Puentes said. He added that the recent "summer of hell" repairs at New York's Penn Station was a step in the right direction, but that more "improvement to Penn Station and the surrounding Hudson River area" are seriously needed.

Amtrak's vice president of marketing, Kerry McKelvey, told CNBC the 2015 "500 Destinations" campaign made more people aware of the company's brand. Now, he said, the most recent effort "is to put Amtrak at the top of the choice set" when people are thinking about domestic travel.

"We do well in the Northeast Corridor in the peak times, but we have a lot of trains that run off peak, which is an opportunity for people traveling on leisure," McKelvey said.

Amtrak reported a $1.1 billion loss in fiscal year 2016, which ended Sept. 30. The company said it earned $3.2 billion from ticket sales and other revenue while incurring $4.3 billion in expenses. In November, Amtrak reported its smallest operating loss in decades, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Former Delta Air Lines CEO Richard Anderson succeeded Wick Moorman as Amtrak CEO in June. Anderson was touted as someone who can help the company step forward because he helped lead Delta out of bankruptcy. Amtrak considers itself to be a private company, although it continues to receive heavy government subsidies.