The transportation construction world has been aware for some time now that it needs to stop “preaching to the choir” and get out there to educate the public about the importance of infrastructure investment. Yet the daunting challenge is that the public tends to view infrastructure as “unsexy,” mundane and dry.
The veteran IMAX filmmaker Stephen Low intends to change that. And his film, Rocky Mountain Express, an hour-long documentary about the building of the transcontinental Canadian Pacific Railway that began in the late 1800s, is romantic, breathtaking and riveting. Watch the trailer here:
Connie Crawford, a senior vice president with the Louis Berger Group, a supporter of the venture, invited me and editor-in-chief Jan Tuchman to a screening May 23 in Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The film isn’t 3D, nor does it need to be; the shots of a train rumbling through jaw-dropping, incredible scenery are so vivid that you can almost smell the steel, mountain air and smoke.
Aimed at a mainstream audience, the film left this construction journalist curious to know more about the tremendous trestles, colossal columns and gritty granite excavations through treacherous mountains that killed so many laborers. Engineers would surely want to know more about the spiral tunnels that helped reduce steep gradients and vulnerability to avalanches. Mechanical engineers would want to know more about why one particular locomotive derailed upon debut, and exploded on the second try before working for 30 years with a terrified crew.
The point here is that the general public—especially young viewers—will want to know more, too. Released last fall, the film is playing in a dozen museums or science centers, with 9 more sites to come (not yet, alas, in New York). Low told the audience that the company gets mail every day, many from kids now entranced by the building of railroads. Low’s company plans two more films—one about trolleys and other forms of urban electrified rail, and the other about high-speed rail around the world.
Low is firmly pro-transit and not quite so enamored of highways, but I couldn’t help thinking that films like these, about the building of great bridges or the Interstate system or other major public works could all go a long way in helping industry—as a whole—in making its case to the general public about how important infrastructure is. And how sexy it can be.
As Low’s team says, it is about high-level advocacy wrapped in the package of entertainment. And the transportation infrastructure world needs all the advocacy it can get.