Case Study: Taking the Right Track
By Brendan Read
Museums are a train of exhibits and events, with dedicated crews in the locomotives to move them forward and in the passenger cars to look after the customers. And they require the fuel and water of financing and funding to keep them going.
The Toronto Railway Museum (TRM) offers a literal example. Opened in 2010, the TRM tells the story of Toronto’s railways through a display showcasing its collection of artifacts, preserved locomotives, rolling stock and buildings, including a local railway station that serves as its gift shop, to over 50,000 visitors annually. It also offers guided tours, sophisticated diesel locomotive simulators and as well it features a miniature train ride.
The TRM occupies the building and site of the preserved ex-Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) John Street Roundhouse in downtown Toronto, ON now in a park. Opened in 1929 it was where locomotives, passenger cars and work equipment were maintained until its closure in 1985. The TRM shares the roundhouse with the Steam Whistle Brewery and Cineplex’s The Rec Room entertainment and eating experience.
The centrepiece of the roundhouse is an operating turntable, Canada’s largest. The TRM uses it to move its equipment and also to provide turntable rides on Saturdays: to the delight of park visitors and Steam Whistle and Rec Room patrons.
Located adjacent to the CN Tower and the Rogers Centre, and close to Union Station, the John Street Roundhouse is one of the last remnants of a sprawling network of railway yards and maintenance facilities, known as Toronto’s Railway Lands. The Rogers Centre itself is located on the site of the former Canadian National (CN) Spadina roundhouse. Development has landlocked the museum from the railway network; all exhibits are trucked in. While most of the rail yards and facilities are away from the downtown, the museum is a few steps from the rail corridor that serves Union Station, Canada’s busiest transportation terminal.
But as the TRM approaches its tenth anniversary it is faced with moving from a start-up to a sustained operation in order to stay relevant with visitors. It is planning to improve existing rails and lay down new tracks in operations, marketing and revenues.
“TRM has established good programming, visitor experience and value for admission,” says Phil Spencer, who is chair of the TRM’s board of directors. “We have accomplished a lot and now want the museum experience in the park and in the museum display to be upgraded with new attractions and more interactive displays and activities and events on a year-round basis.”
At the controls
The TRM is a working partnership between the not-for-profit charitable organization Toronto Railway Historical Association (TRHA) and the City of Toronto. The city owns the John Street Roundhouse, accompanying buildings and the rail equipment stock collection. The TRHA was established to operate a railway museum in the roundhouse and the surrounding park in accordance with a resolution of Toronto City Council requiring it to interpret Toronto’s railway heritage.
Under an operating agreement with the city, the TRM occupies three stalls of the 32-stall roundhouse for artifact display, interactive exhibits, locomotive and rolling stock restoration and working space for its management. The city’s Economic Development and Culture department is responsible for the roundhouse, along with all other city cultural assets while the Parks, Forestry and Recreation department handles park development, maintenance and upkeep.
The TRM is governed by a 10-member board who are responsible for museum organization, operation and development. The board is elected by TRHA members.
Taking care of the TRM’s day-to-day work are three teams. An executive team, made up of board members, senior volunteers and management staff, is responsible for operations. The Attractions Evolution Planning Group advises on exhibits and programming for volunteers and staff to develop. The restoration team works two days a week year-round restoring, maintaining and improving TRM’s locomotive and rolling stock exhibits and the miniature railway cars and locomotives.
The TRM also has a marketing committee. It is focused on driving paid traffic to the museum by increasing awareness and on opportunities to enhance visitor engagement.
The museum is open year-round; in winter months the display portion, located inside the roundhouse, is open to the public. The largest portion of the exhibits: an array of locomotives, railcars and buildings are outside and have interpretive plaques.
The TRM has three full-time staff, including the museum’s manager who is a professionally trained curator. They maintain the collection, develop exhibits, organize attractions and events, handle social media and external relations and manage a summer staff team of 11. Seasonal staff are responsible for operations of the museum, including driving the miniature train, selling tickets and providing tours to visitors.
Making the TRM move is a team of approximately 120 volunteers. They are involved with restoration and support the TRM’s programming and the visitor experience. The museum also has internship programs with universities locally and nationally.
“Volunteers are the heart of TRM,” says Spencer. “They have built the museum and they work in areas of their choosing.”
Paying the freight
The TRM is in an enviable position where 90 percent of its current revenue is generated through admission fees, miniature train rides and gift shop sales. The balance is through a combination of individual donations, fundraising and government grants.
“Because of our location in the heart of the downtown entertainment centre, we benefit from piggybacking on visitors that come before or after events or visiting other attractions in the neighbourhood,” says Spencer. “These include the Blue Jays games, the CN Tower, Ripley’s Aquarium, the Metro Convention Centre, Harbourfront Centre and the many city festivals in Toronto, as well as park visitors who see the museum exhibits and visit our artifacts display.”
The TRM partners with Metrolinx, the provincial government agency that manages the GO Transit commuter rail and bus network. GO Transit donated and restored a first-generation commuter passenger car to mark its 50th anniversary in 2017. A snapshot of the 1960s it is displayed a few footsteps away from later-generation GO trains rumbling on the nearby tracks.
The museum also works closely with adjacent businesses. “Our neighbours, including Steam Whistle, The Rec Room, CN Tower, Ripley’s Aquarium and Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment have all been very supportive of the museum,” says Spencer. “They have provided us with promotion for our events, space for our own activities, giveaways to our visitors and much more. We are actively planning joint events and promotions with Steam Whistle and will be doing so with The Rec Room as well.”
To bring visitors aboard the TRM has a strong marketing program focusing on the web, social media and signage. It has built active social media channels: Facebook, Twitter and Instagram (@torailwaymuseum). It has public web sites to attract their attention. It also issues regular bulletins through a large public mailing list and exhibits at model train shows.
As one of nearly two dozen railway museums in Canada, the TRM is a member of HeritageRail Alliance. For example, it has been cross-promoting fall and winter events with the Halton County Radial Railway, which is a streetcar and electric railway museum located west of Toronto. The TRM also belongs to the Toronto Attractions Council, Tourism Toronto, Attractions Ontario, Toronto Historical Association, Ontario Museum Association, Toronto Entertainment District BIA and Heritage Toronto.
With the Fairmont Royal York, originally a CPR hotel that also opened in 1929, the TRM tapped their shared histories and promoted the special anniversaries for both sites.
“As both a heritage site and a tourist attraction we can leverage our membership in tourism, museum and heritage associations,” says Spencer.
Yellow cautionary signals
On railways yellow signals indicate caution. As the TRM moves forward it is observing trends and issues that may slow it down.
As programming, exhibit display expansion and restoration have increased in scope to attract more visitors the museum is seeking additional revenue from rentals and events. But here it faces unique and not-so-unique challenges.
The TRM’s highly visible downtown location in a major city like Toronto is atypical for railway museums, which tend to be located in the suburbs and in rural communities and smaller cities. But while this is a blessing in terms of visibility and appeal — the TRM draws from a wider audience than just railway enthusiasts — it too sometimes struggles to make itself heard and seen amongst the other attractions.
For example, there are few signs telling visitors there is a railway museum in the area. The TRM is seeking better signage from the park entrances on Bremner Boulevard, which connects the Rogers Centre and Scotiabank Arena, and on Lower Simcoe Street, which leads from the downtown to the waterfront, as well as wayfinding in the park itself.
“As with most museums, we are also challenged to get our value proposition out there with a small marketing budget amongst significant competition for the leisure time of Canadians,” says Spencer.
Getting to the TRM can be difficult for particularly car-using families as there is limited parking availability and high prices. On the other hand, the museum is easily reachable by Toronto’s extensive mass transit and network and VIA Rail intercity trains. A covered walkway system leads from Union Station to the museum. But there is no signage in it informing people about the TRM and how to get there.
The TRM is also being braked by having to find ways to stay relevant to a changing population and country. Railways have shrunk in visibility and importance thanks to the rise of automobiles, trucking and air travel. According to members of the TRM’s marketing committee, when people say “I’m off to THE museum” most think its Royal Ontario Museum or the Textile Museum of Canada.
At the same time the museum has limited space, which restricts what it can offer. There is no room to house additional exhibits and there is no event or meeting space.
Switching to (and with) green
To move forward the TRM’s board is the process of refining for greenlighting a 10-year strategic plan to expand facilities, exhibits and programs. It has a target to grow visitors by 30 percent over the next few years.
The TRM is exploring the feasibility and cost of expanding the museum exhibit space, increasing display areas for artifact and interactive experiences as well as providing visitor washrooms, a meeting and a small event area and management office space. In the short term, the museum is reorganizing its exhibit space to create a more coherent path for visitors exploring the museum. New exhibits include an interactive model of the Railway Lands, which will help visitors imagine what the area looked like at the height of railway development.
These expansions and programs will be enabled by a strategic focus on marketing to heighten attention and relevance. To make them happen the plan focuses on fundraising in order to diversify revenue streams away from receipts. The fundraising plan calls for seeking more income from government, foundation, corporation and individual sources. The TRM has developed a “Case for Support” that board members will use to approach individuals and corporations interested in and aligned with the work the museum is doing.
The TRM is already moving to these goals. In 2019 it piloted a very successful docent program which allowed it to the museum to open its artifacts in Roundhouse Park to thousands of visitors in the 2019 summer season. It is now planning to expand the number of programming volunteer roles for 2020 and beyond.
The TRM has also developed and has been piloting an audio guide app. Trialed first for the outdoor exhibits in late 2019 it is now being refined and looked at for use inside the museum.
The TRM is also surrounded by a large residential community who live in adjacent high-rise buildings. To strengthen those ties, it supported the launch of the Friends of Roundhouse Park in October 2019. This program will foster connections between residents and their neighbourhood park, which is also the home of the museum.
On October 5, 2019, the TRM celebrated the 90th anniversary of the opening of the John Street Roundhouse that served to market the museum and as a fundraiser. This event was promoted through its social media channels and its neighbours and partners. Tickets of $20 per person allowed visitors to participate in many exclusive activities for the day, such as turntable and hand car rides, a scavenger hunt, behind the scenes tours, live music and crafts.
The TRM will be having a major fundraising event in spring 2020 celebrating TRHA and TRM’s 10th anniversary. The museum will be hosting other events for the public on a regular basis as well as continuing children’s programs and activities.
“The Toronto Railway Museum is entering into a phase of growth,” says Spencer. “To make this happen we want to feature our special collection of artifacts and experiences in different ways, expand our promotional calendar for year-round activities and create the Toronto Railway Museum as a destination for local and out of town visitors to connect with Toronto’s railway heritage.“
Brendan Read is the Editor of DM Magazine and an enthusiastic supporter of the Toronto Railway Museum.
Talking with Phil Spencer, Chair of the TRHA Board of Directors
Q&A with TRM’s Phil Spencer
Phil Spencer is chair of the board of directors of the TRHA and its Toronto Railway Museum. He recently completed six and a half years as volunteer president of TRHA and TRM. Foundation Magazine wanted to find out more about Phil and his involvement.
Foundation: What got you interested in railway history?
Phil Spencer (PS): This has been my principal hobby since my early teenage years. I was fortunate enough to develop the interest as the Canadian railways transitioned from steam locomotives to diesel motive power in the mid to late 1950s. It was a time to see hear and experience the last years of the steam locomotive. That strengthened my interest and it has continued since that time. Interest in railways, both Canadian and U.S. necessarily requires gaining knowledge of railway history as well as railways.
Foundation: Outline your involvement with the TRM. What has given you the most satisfaction? Provided you with the most challenges?
PS: I started as a member of the TRHA Founding Committee by invitation in 2004 and continued my involvement from then to the present. The opportunity to work on the establishment of a new railway museum was what drove me to get increasingly involved.
The opening of the museum in 2010 and its development and the continued progress in evolution with more visitors and families enjoying the museum’s displays in the roundhouse as well as significant restoration of major artifacts by a large group of volunteers has given me the most satisfaction. Developing a downtown museum ensuring that all the moving pieces area still there and change and improvement continues is the most challenging.
Foundation: Where do you see your role going?
PS: I have enjoyed the challenges and opportunity to contribute. We have a skilled and effective Museum Manager and Curator who has taken on much of the administrative management role I have fulfilled. With our welcome focus on growth, marketing and fundraising my role now is Chair working with the Board. We are striving and succeeding in taking TRM to the next level as a museum.