Railroad Museums

Making the Old New Again

How railroad museums are staying fresh and relevant in a rapidly changing culture
by Adam Sandy

It is no secret museums have struggled in the past decade. Hit by a combination of aging exhibits, reduced funding, and families having more entertainment options than ever, museums are faced with tough competition. One unique group of attractions that has weathered the storm is railroad museums and scenic railroads. This collection of attractions has worked hard to become recognized by family decision makers as a viable option for entertainment. These attractions, which feature historical machines, offer insight into growing guest engagement and increasing repeat visits.

“I feel that children have an innate train interest in them and it is our job to bring it out,” says Courtney Wilson, director of the B&O Railroad Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. “We have found that children drive parents to the museum.”

Hope Banner, spokesperson for the Strasburg Railroad located near Lancaster, Pennsylvania, agrees: “When many kids think of trains, they have either never been on one or only ridden Amtrak. Children love coming here because a real working steam train lets them see [how] things work. They love seeing it alive with the pistons, rods, and steam.”

Many rail museums have distinct market demographics: families with children under 12, senior citizens (on their own or with grandchildren), heritage (historical) tourists, and rail fans (railroad enthusiasts). The B&O Museum keeps children in mind when planning special exhibits and the overall guest experience.

“We incorporate children into everything,” Wilson says. “We have kids-learning stations throughout adult exhibits, and a spy game and scavenger hunt for older children. In fact, one of our most popular children’s activities has been the Civil War Tea, which was part of our ‘The War Came by Train’ exhibit. Here kids were offered cookies and tea, and encountered re-enactors in period dress. We had hundreds of children show up at each story time.”

In addition to integrating kids into special exhibits, B&O spent the past decade working on program development. For instance, every Wednesday is toddler story time in the museum, and the marketing team is in constant communication with school systems and parent groups about developing programming. By hosting regular children’s activities the museum has become a community anchor and serves a much larger purpose than just an equipment repository. Parents purchase annual passes and come with their children on a regular basis. They now seek out the story time and look to spend time and money at the museum.

These museums also provide a wide range of formal education programs. For instance, The National Railway Museum in the United Kingdom offers a full range of curriculum, from preschool through college classes. The topics cover every educational aspect of disciplines the museum can teach, from history to the science behind the railroads to public relations. Steve Davies, the museum’s director, says, “For our educational groups we will start with a question such as how does a steam engine work and how can we explain that in a fun way? Let’s fire a doll out of a steam cannon to explain pressure! The children remember the exciting demonstration and we then link to the real objects in our collection, and explain the science concept behind [it].”

Social Media
Many rail-oriented experiences believe social media plays a vital role in their communication with visitors. The Strasburg Railroad feels social media allows for a personal look at the visitors’ experiences. “We find it to be a very authentic guest response and often online [is where] the best endorsements we get from our customers,” Banner says. Strasburg utilizes the most popular social media sites (Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Flickr) because the majority of the time, a positive guest experience is relayed to people considering visiting the railroad for the first time.

Davies concurs that the online presence has helped the National Railway Museum share its experience in a positive way. “TripAdvisor has been a huge boost for us. In the York area we get rave reviews,” he says. The museum also invests a lot of manpower and money into its online presence. The website receives more than 1.5 million visits annually, and the museum views these hits as the first customer engagement.

“The website is a key to our success,” says Davies. “We are very cognizant of our online presence and work to make a lot of content available. We even have our ‘social media ninjas’ who will jump into railroad enthusiasts’ web discussions and correct any false statements about the museum. We have a strict social media protocol, but having railroad enthusiasts on staff allows us to ensure that the right message is shared, even in niche groups. Our growth here has been so strong that I feel in a few years we will be completely driven by e-media.” 

Special Events
Special events have also proven to be key at traditional railroad experiences. Strasburg developed a full range of special trains: the Great Train Robbery, Santa’s Paradise Express, and a Wine and Cheese Train (adapted from a similar experience in Napa Valley), which has a different market for the railroad: adults only. Banner says, “Special events bring guests back. It offers visitors something new and [a] way for us to get them to return for an event other than the annual family train ride.”

Davies agrees, saying National Railroad is always looking for events that are family oriented. “We have regularly changing programs. We recently opened an art gallery and have themed events and gatherings. For a few years we had ‘Wizard Week,’ where the heritage steam engine Alton Hall, which was shown in the Harry Potter films, was featured.” Throughout the week guests enjoyed “wizard duels,” owl displays, walk-around wizard entertainment, and a talk on the “science behind Harry Potter.”

While the focus of these attractions is often large transportation devices from decades ago, there is a conscious desire at these facilities to not offer essentially the same guest experience each year. “It is important that the museum is not static,” Wilson says. “We constantly evaluate our exhibits and children’s services through surveys.” While the theme of these museums is a classic form of transportation, the train theme has served as a unique way for the museums to distinguish themselves and stand out from the competition. 

Adam Sandy is sales director at Ride Entertainment Group. He parlayed a childhood interest in amusement parks into a career that has extended more than a decade in the industry.