Monday, September 1, 2014

You Don't Have to Speak the Language to Love Boston.

Boston is my favorite city on the U.S. mainland. It's a big city that doesn't FEEL like a big city. That's probably because there aren't a lot of high-rise apartment buildings. People live in comfortable four-and five-story walk-ups built a century or more ago of brick and stone. 

 One of those, a block off Kenmore Square at 135 Bay State Road, was once my fraternity house when I attended Boston University. Another, just down the street at number 73, is Abigayle's Bed & Breakfast. That's where I stay when I visit Boston after the April NARP meetings conclude in Washington.   It feels like home and it's just off Kenmore Square and a short ten minute walk to Fenway Park.

Getting around is quick and easy on the transit system -- underground in the central part of the city -- which Bostonians refer to simply as "The T." From the Kenmore Square station it's just 10-15 minutes to the stop at Haymarket Square. Come up to street level and you're in Boston's North End. It's the Italian part of town and is justifiably famous for its Italian restaurants and bakeries and coffee shops. Hanover Street is the main drag, but there are wonderful places to eat and drink all over that section of town. (The original and beautifully preserved home of Paul Revere is right in the same neighborhood, too.)

Anyway, many years ago, my wife and I were in Boston for a night or two on the way back home from New Hampshire where our daughter was in college. Of course, that meant a visit to the North End and dinner at one of the restaurants. As we were paying the bill, the waiter -- who was decked out in a tuxedo and bore a resemblance to the Clemenza character in The Godfather -- noticed my Bank off Hawaii credit card and we struck up a brief conversation.

I told him that, coincidentally, a new pizza joint had opened several months earlier where we lived in the town of Kailua on the windward side of Oahu and had instantly become a huge hit. I said it was called Boston's North End Pizza Bakery and that the guy running it was a fellow named Tom Ricco.

"Do you, by any chance, know the guy?" I asked.

"Clemenza" scowled and shook his head. "Nevah heard a him," he snorted disdainfully. "He's probably from Worcester!" (He pronounced those words Praw-blee from WUSS-tuh.) 

I guess, to really appreciate that story, you have to be from New England … and able to hear those words being uttered with a thick Boston accent. I ran into a lady the other day at our little post office and spotted her Boston accent right away. She's been here a few years but she teared up -- half laughing, half crying -- when I told her that story. So did I.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Continuing Plot to Kill Amtrak … One Train at a Time.

I have a hard time figuring out the people in Congress who have it in for Amtrak. What is it that drives them? Ideology? Spite? Ignorance? Stupidity? Maybe even all of the above? Why, for instance, would a Congressman from Texas introduce a bill that would kill a long-distance train that crosses the entire width of his own state? 

Whatever motivated him, that's exactly what Republican Congressman Pete Sessions has done. Of course, it should be noted that the train does not go through his district.

The bill Sessions has introduced would require Amtrak to shut down whichever of their long-distance trains is losing the most money per passenger. Of course we all know that he's really talking about the Sunset Limited, which runs three days a week in each direction between Los Angeles and New Orleans. And, yes, it's quite true that on paper the Sunset Limited loses a lot of money. But there's much more to that than meets the eye.

First, as noted, the train only runs three days a week, which means it's often inconvenient to book and that has a negative effect on ridership. (There has been agitation for years to have the Sunset operate as a daily train, but so far, because of opposition from the Union Pacific railroad -- they own the tracks, you see -- that hasn't happened.)

 Second, the Sunset's route originally extended beyond New Orleans all the way to Florida, but that segment of some 650 miles was discontinued following Hurricane Katrina and, despite pressure from NARP and communities along the abandoned portion of the route, neither the service nor the revenue it generated has been restored. 

Third, three days a week, the Sunset Limited connects in San Antonio with the daily Texas Eagle, which operates between Chicago and L.A. The two trains operate as one long consist between San Antonio and the West Coast. And here's the thing: all the revenue generated between San Antonio and L.A. for the combined train is credited to the Eagle. Don't ask me why … that's just the way the Amtrak Accounting Department does it. But it sure as hell explains why the Sunset Limited appears to be losing a lot of money!

Does Congressman Sessions know this? Of course he does! 

Does Congressman Sessions know that the Sunset is really necessary public transportation for the more than 80 percent of the train's passengers who are traveling to or from one of the intermediate stops along the route?             Of course he does! 

And what advice does the congressman have for those folks who would no longer be able to take the Sunset Limited to where they want to go? "Take a plane", he says.

Does Congressman Sessions know that the airlines have cut back drastically on flights to and from small towns and cities all across the West? And does he know that air fares for those remaining flights have increased dramatically? And does he know that most of the flights still operating are heavily subsidized by the federal government? Of course he does! 

The National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP) is preparing a white paper that explains in detail the importance of the Sunset Limited and what can be done to increase its ridership and dramatically improve its service. Once it has been sent to key members of Congress and their staff people, it will be released to the general public and posted on the NARP web site. I'll have a link for you here, of course.

Speaking of links, here's one to Congressman Sessions' office. As we say here in Hawaii, "Geev 'um!!"

Saturday, August 30, 2014

My Top Three Reasons for Preferring Long-Distance Amtrak Travel.

Most Americans focus on time when they travel … how long it takes to reach their destination. Here's a conversation I've probably had a hundred times over the years when someone learns that I've just traveled halfway across the country by train:

Them: Really?  By train? From L.A. to Chicago?

Me: That's right.

Them: Wow! (pause) How long did it take?

Me: Two nights. I left L.A. Tuesday at dinnertime and got here Thursday afternoon.

Them: (pause) But you could have flown in four hours!

"Them" doesn't get it. There are any number of reasons for choosing to take a long-distance train instead of flying. First and foremost, flying has become an ordeal. Security hassles, cramped space, lousy service, no food, and it's expensive. Furthermore, you really don't see anything when you fly, while the best thing about long-distance train travel is what's passing by right outside your window.

 How about this, for example. This photo was was taken by Mike Danneman. That's the eastbound California Zephyr descending through the Flatirons with Denver off in the distance. Folks on this train have spent the past three hours gazing out the windows as the Zephyr followed the Colorado River through a series of spectacular canyons.

(By the way, this photo will be on the front cover of the 4th edition of my book, ALL ABOARD--The Complete North American Train Travel Guide. The last I heard, it's due to land on bookstore shelves around the middle of December.)

The Zephyr departs the Bay Area in the morning and spends several hours in the afternoon crossing the Sierra Nevada range in California, passing  above Donner Lake. This beautiful winter scene photo was taken by Steven Welch.

I also find travel by long-distance train to be very relaxing. I like the privacy of being in my own roomette. I read, I come up with ideas for this blog, I think about what went wrong with the Red Sox this year, and I look forward to my next meal in the dining car, which is when you meet and get to know a little about some of the other passengers. 

But my top three reasons for preferring long-distance train travel? 

1- The scenery. 

2- The scenery. 

3- The scenery.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Now You Can Defend Your Right to In-Flight Comfort. But …

The old adage that there are two sides to every story just doesn't always hold water. Every so often we come across an issue for which there is a totally rational and justifiable argument on both sides: everyone is right; no one is wrong. Resolving an issue like that is tricky at best. And sometimes just impossible.

So it is with the Knee Defender. This ingenious device -- I'm not sure something can be called a "device" if there are no moving parts -- slips over each of the two supports of the tray tables in seat backs on a jetliner. And it can literally be locked in place. 

 Once installed, the person seated in front of you cannot recline their seat … thus safeguarding the pathetic amount of leg room with which the airline has grudgingly provided to you. 

I have a personal interest in this. In a few weeks I'll be on flights of six hours, seven-and-a-half hours, and four hours as I go from Maui to Seattle and Seattle to Paris by way of Reykjavik. Employing a Knee Defender on those flights could make a huge difference during the 18 hours I'm going to be spending in the air. It would be $21.95 well spent and I'm really tempted.

But wait. What about the person in that seat in front of me? Doesn't paying for that seat include the right to recline it? Seems to me a strong case can be made for that. It's a quandary. And it could lead to trouble.

In fact, it did. About a week ago, the Knee Defender was the cause of a confrontation on a United Airlines flight from Newark to Denver. A male passenger had employed the gadgets on his tray table and, in so doing, prevented the women seated in front of him from reclining her seat. She took exception, words were exchanged, and things escalated to the point that she doused him with a cup of water. That was enough for the captain, who diverted to Chicago where both passengers were ushered off the plane. 

(How could they not tell us what happened next? Were there shouted recriminations in the passenger lounge at O'Hare? Or did the man and woman sort it all out and end up having dinner together? Somewhere in Hollywood, a writer has already incorporated this incident into a treatment for a film. It's a romantic comedy starring George Clooney.)

Anyway, I sympathize with those two people. They were both right. The fault, dear reader, is not in their stars. It's the damn airlines, who mercilessly cram as many of us as possible into their aluminum tubes.

That does not mean I'm excusing the way that particular incident escalated, causing at the very least, minor inconvenience for more than 250 people. Had it been me, I would have removed the Knee Defenders or, even more likely, not used them in the first place. Besides, with my luck, the person in the seat in front of me would turn out to be a guy … and an Olympic weightlifter.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Lots of Politicians; Damn Few Leaders.

It was early in 1970 and Frank Fasi had been mayor of Honolulu for about two years when the crisis hit: bus drivers for the privately owned Honolulu Rapid Transit company went out on strike. Public transportation on the Island of Oahu came to a virtual standstill.

The shutdown had, in fact, been engineered by the owner of HRT, Harry Weinberg. Essentially, he provoked the strike, then refused to negotiate with the union drivers. With no possibility of a resolution, Weinberg expected the City of Honolulu to eventually step in, buy HRT, and take over the operation … allowing him to walk away clean and with a satchel full of tax dollars.

 It probably would have worked if anyone but Frank Fasi had been mayor of Honolulu. Frank was a former Marine officer -- tough, smart and certainly up to doing battle with Harry Weinberg. For one thing, Frank knew that the HRT equipment was old and would soon need replacing. Instead of negotiating the purchase of HRT with Weinberg, Frank set out to start a brand new transit system owned and operated by the City of Honolulu.

Within a few weeks, he learned that Dallas, Texas, was about to start replacing a large number of the buses in its system. With the city attorney, Frank flew to Dallas to negotiate the purchase, only to find himself in the middle of a labor dispute between the transit workers and the City of Dallas. That was a problem, because Dallas couldn't get a commitment for federal funds to buy new buses to replace the ones being sold to Honolulu as long as there was a pending labor dispute.

Pointing out that no one could be more impartial than the Mayor of Honolulu, Frank wound up helping to mediate the dispute in Dallas. Then he flew to Washington to expedite the release of funds to the City of Dallas so they could, in turn, release their buses for Honolulu.

There were some 35 buses in all and they left Dallas in a caravan headed for the west coast where they were loaded onto a container ship. I've often wondered what motorists on highways in Texas and New Mexico and Arizona thought when they passed a string of 30-some buses, each with "HONOLULU" showing as a destination.

It was around the first of March when that container ship arrived in Honolulu harbor. Helicopters hovered above as TV cameramen filmed the arrival. Once the ship had docked, a giant crane lifted the first bus off the deck, swung it over the side, and set it down on the pier. That's when Frank, wearing a cowboy hat presented to him by Dallas officials, gleefully climbed into the driver's seat, fired it up the engine, and drove the bus in figure eights around the terminal parking lot. The media went nuts.

That was halfway through his first term as our mayor and was pretty much the start of an amazing political career. When he finally left office, Frank Fasi had served as Mayor of Honolulu for a total of 22 years. Today, he is remembered as the best mayor Honolulu ever had. Nobody's a close second. You can ask anyone.

First the Airlines, Now the Hotels Are Nicking Us.

The late Senator Everett Dirkson of Illinois, famous for his deep voice and a manner of speaking that bordered on pomposity, is probably best remembered for a remark attributed to him, "A billion here and a billion there and pretty soon you're talking real money!"

Well, $2.25 billion is a significant chunk of change. That's the estimated amount of money hotels in this country are going to be raking in this year from add-on fees. They have taken a page from the airlines' book, you see, and are finding ways to extract a few extra bucks from us … after we've accepted the room rate.

 Check it out the next time you book a room on line. You settle on the standard room, then up pops a new page that says if you really MUST have two queen beds, they'll be happy to guarantee that's what you'll get … for an additional fee of $10 or $15 a night.

My pet peeve is finding out that the internet connection in the room is going to cost me an additional $17.95 a day. The  NARP board member responsible for, among many other things, negotiating with the hotels in the various cities where we hold our semi-annual meetings insists that there be no charge for accessing the internet.

Of course, there's also the notorious mini-bar, which has always been a rip-off with prices three or four time what the item would cost you at the neighborhood convenience store.  Ironically, the mini-bars are often a headache for the hotel, since they have to be checked every day and restocked as necessary. That all takes time and (all together now) time is money.

More and more of the mini-bars now come equipped with sensors. If an item is removed for more than 40 seconds -- ka-ching, ka-ching -- you'll find it on your bill when you check out. But, as always, the solution to one problem just creates another one: you'll be still charged if you remove an item, but change your mind and put it back more than 40 seconds later!

And don't try to buy some snacks or drinks outside the hotel and stick them in the minibar's fridge to keep them cold. A recent visitor to Las Vegas discovered when he was checking out that the hotel had charged him a "service fee" of $25 a day for stashing a couple of sandwiches in their little fridge!

Truthfully, I don't have a problem with businesses doing what they can to maximize income. But do it on the up-and-up, will you? Don't lure me in with what appears to be a fair and attractive price, then hammer me with a bunch off additional costs after I've committed. That smacks of deception and no one likes to be treated that way.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Amtrak's Cardinal Should Be A Daily Train.

This is one of my favorite rides. The Cardinal runs between New York and Chicago, but it takes a meandering southern route that makes it, without doubt, one of the two or three more scenic Amtrak rides in the eastern part of the country.  After the westbound train leaves New York's Penn Station, it heads down through the Northeast Corridor to Washington, then continues to the southwest. 

 One of its stops, about two-and-a-half hours after leaving Washington, is Charlottesville, Virginia, where Thomas Jefferson's Monticello is located. I have never been there, but it's moving up toward the top of my "must-see" list.

 Three hours later, the Cardinal reaches White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, which is where the famous Greenbrier resort is located. 

But it's really the scenery that makes this such a special ride. The Cardinal takes you across the Blue Ridge and Allegheny mountains, passes over the Appalachian Trail, runs through the Shenandoah Valley and then …

 … into the New River Gorge. This is the highlight of the trip for me. The train switches from one side of the river to the other several times, so I head for the lounge car to relax with a beverage and catch the view from both sides. 

I always try to work in a ride on the Cardinal when I travel to the east coast, but's not easy. This train only runs three days a week and, furthermore, it's a small train with usually only one Viewliner sleeping car, so space is limited. Somehow it always seems that either it's not running on the day I need to travel or there's no space left in the sleeper. Very frustrating! 

In fact, Amtrak runs two trains that operate only three days a week -- the Cardinal and the Sunset Limited, which runs between Los Angeles and New Orleans. Both are constantly under attack by anti-rail forces because less than stellar ridership results in a high cost-per-passenger. 

Yes, it sounds contradictory to say that, under the circumstances, those two trains should run daily, but the old railroad axiom Double the frequency, triple the ridership has been proven over and over. My difficulties in trying to ride one of my favorite trains is a good example and helps prove the point.

The good news is that within the past few years there has been increasing pressure from citizen groups to make both the Cardinal and the Sunset Limited daily trains. And indeed that ought to happen. Furthermore, NARP (the National Association of Railroad Passengers) is on record as supporting the increase in frequency for both trains. And we intend to keep the pressure on!