Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Three Great Canadian Train Rides.

I have logged many thousands of miles across Canada on more than a dozen VIA Rail trains and can honestly say I've enjoyed every one. Furthermore, I can really recommend several of them to anyone with a bucket list for train rides.

I've taken VIA's premiere train, the Canadian, no less than five times over the years and it is one of the world's great rail experiences. It runs between Toronto in the East and Vancouver on the Pacific shore. On one of those occasions, I broke the trip in Winnipeg and rode VIA's twice weekly train 1100 miles farther north to the town of Churchill on the shores of Hudson Bay. Polar bears are the great attraction there. They spend the summer months on land, but for the entire winter they're out on the frozen surface of the bay, hunting seals. Toward the end of October, they come into the Churchill area waiting for the bay to freeze over. And that's when you have a chance to see these magnificent beasts in the wild and up close. If there's such a thing as a once-in-a-lifetime experience, this is it.
 Still, for spectacular scenery, the Canadian, really cannot be topped. The westbound train takes you through miles of forested wilderness above Lake Superior, then across the great plains of Manitoba and Saskatchewan, where vast quantities of grain are grown and shipped all over the world. And, of course, from there you enter the amazing Canadian Rockies. On the final day of that journey, the train follows the Fraser River down through the incredibly beautiful valleys of British Columbia to the Pacific Ocean.
Here's one more Canadian rail itinerary for you and I'd be hard pressed not to rate it on a par with the other two: Start in Vancouver and take the eastbound Canadian through the Rockies to Jasper, Alberta. Spend a couple of days touring the area, then take the Skeena for the two-day trip back to the town of Prince Rupert, some 900 miles north of Vancouver on the Pacific Coast. Most of the time, this is a very small train. When I rode it, the consist was a locomotive, a baggage car, one coach, and one first class car. (Ah, but the first class car has a dome for incredible viewing and a lounge on the lower level!)

There is no sleeping car on the Skeena so the train stops for the night in Prince George, where everyone heads off to their own hotel accommodations. The trip resumes the next morning.

From Prince Rupert, you can take a ferry down an inland waterway to Port Hardy on Vancouver Island. When my wife and I took this trip three years ago, we rented a car in Port Hardy and took two days for a leisurely drive to Victoria at the southern end of the island. From there, you can catch a ferry back to Vancouver. There's even a high-speed ferry that will take you to Seattle.

Finally, let me note that if you are a member of the National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP), you will get a 10-percent discount not only on the basic rail fare, but also on the sleeping car supplement. That's a big deal because the VIA Rail sleeping cars are quite wonderful and your excellent dining car meals are included in the fare on both the Canadian and the Skeena. Meals on the Winnipeg-Churchill train are extra. 

OK, there you have three absolutely wonderful train rides, all on Canada's VIA Rail. If you're serious about any of these trips and would like additional information, feel free to email me at I'm happy to help.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Amtrak's On-Time Performance Heads for the Supreme Court.

The fright railroads own the track over which most of Amtrak's long-distance trains operate and if they had the choice, they would refuse to accommodate any passenger trains. The thing is, they don't have a choice. Back around 1970, when the government permitted the privately-owned railroads to get out of the passenger business, they agreed to allow Amtrak trains over their track and to give them priority.

But over the past year, Amtrak's on-time performance has declined from mostly-OK to not-OK to lousy. There are a number of reasons for that, but mostly it's because the host railroads have apparently adopted much more of a don't-give-a-damn attitude than they've had in the past.

OK, so why the change? 

For years, on-time standards for Amtrak trains have been established by the Federal Railroad Administration and Amtrak working together. But a year ago, a federal court ruled that arrangement unconstitutional, saying one private corporation (Amtrak) could not determine rules affecting another private corporation (a freight railroad). That ruling, in effect, meant that the on-time performance standards established under the old arrangement were no longer valid and the freight railroads have apparently taken that to mean there are no longer any on-time standards which they are required to observe. You can imagine the result.

For the last few months of 2012 and for the first half of 2013, about 85-percent of Amtrak trains were running on time. (Click on the chart to enlarge), but look what happened halfway through 2013 when the appeals court made its ruling. On-time performance dropped and hit a low of about 67-percent for the first two months of this year. Yes, yes … I know it was an awful winter and bad weather was certainly a contributing factor, but the trend is clearly there and it all began with that court decision.
But here's the latest news: The Department of Justice has appealed the lower court decision and the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case. And the National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP) is going to submit an amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief in support of the government's position. NARP's brief will be prepared and presented to the Supreme Court on a pro bono basis by the Environmental Law and Policy Center (ELPC). In the interest of full disclosure, I'm a member of NARP and serve on the Board of Directors.

It's hard to over-state either the importance of this case or the significance of NARP's role. And as far as we know, this will be the first time that the interests of the American railroad passenger will be brought before the highest court in the land. And that is a very good thing indeed!

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Who's the Best Writer You Know?

By that I don't mean you have actually made their acquaintance. But that's the thing about our favorite writers, isn't it? We really do feel that we know them. And we'd give just about anything to sit and talk with them for an hour … even for a few minutes.

I have several writers whom I particularly enjoy. They write about interesting topics; they have insightful views; or they make me laugh or reduce me to tears. But there's really only one who just stuns me with his miraculous ability to just write … to select exactly the right word to complete exactly the right phrase to convey exactly what he wants to say. 

The best writer I know is Roger Angell. On Sunday, he was given the most prestigious award the Baseball Hall of Fame can bestow. And here's what's so unusual about this: Roger Angell writes just one baseball story a year. It runs in The New Yorker magazine sometime during the winter. It's a review of the past baseball season and some thoughts on the coming campaign, and devoted baseball fans everywhere, those who truly appreciate the endlessly fascinating complexities of the game, wait for it impatiently and they savor every word.

It takes a while to read one of Angell's baseball pieces. They'e long and you frequently stop and marvel at his insights to the game. And even more often, you stop on a paragraph or phrase that is so absolutely perfect that you read it again and you think to yourself, "Goddammit, if I'd written that, I could die a happy man!" 

And then you look up and call your wife and say, "Honey, I've got to read you something." She knows nothing about baseball, but when you finish, she looks at you for several seconds, then says, "Wow!"

So here's just one paragraph from a Roger Angell piece that appeared this past February in The New Yorker. It's called This Old Man and it's about old age … his old age. Because Roger Angell is now 93 years old. 

. . . I’ve not yet forgotten Keats or Dick Cheney or what’s waiting for me at the dry cleaner’s today. As of right now, I’m not Christopher Hitchens or Tony Judt or Nora Ephron; I’m not dead and not yet mindless in a reliable upstate facility. Decline and disaster impend, but my thoughts don’t linger there. It shouldn’t surprise me if at this time next week I’m surrounded by family, gathered on short notice—they’re sad and shocked but also a little pissed off to be here—to help decide, after what’s happened, what’s to be done with me now. It must be this hovering knowledge, that two-ton safe swaying on a frayed rope just over my head, that makes everyone so glad to see me again. “How great you’re looking! Wow, tell me your secret!” they kindly cry when they happen upon me crossing the street or exiting a dinghy or departing an X-ray room, while the little balloon over their heads reads, “Holy shit—he’s still vertical!”

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Interesting Feedback from a Recent Long-Distance Rail Journey.

Almost everyone knows that, to save money, Amtrak has been cutting back on the little extras that sleeping car passengers have come to expect over the years. The token gifts were Amtrak's way of saying thank you and welcome aboard to the people paying top dollar for their accommodations and I, for one, appreciated it.

Most of the amenities are gone now … the little bottle of champagne waiting in your room when you board, the chocolate mint wrapped in gold foil on your pillow before you retire, the newspaper slipped under your door during the night, and -- alack and alas! -- the wine tastings on the Coast Starlight and the Empire Builder.
Sleeping car attendants have even been instructed to turn off the coffee urns in their cars at 9:30 in the morning. A car attendant on one of my recent trips was contemptuous of that little edict and vowed to make coffee available throughout the day until he was personally ordered to stop.

"Passengers know what to call that," he said. "It's chicken shit!"
Another area where cutbacks are taking place is in the dining car. There are fewer options on the menu and the Amtrak computer is tightening up on the number of portions being allotted to each chef on each train. As a result, dining cars are running out of items and passengers are more and more beginning to hear that their preferred choice for dinner is not available. Indeed, on a recent trip aboard the California Zephyr, the diner literally ran out of food and passengers went unfed from breakfast until our arrival in Chicago close to 7:00 p.m., four hours late.  

Inevitably, the quality of both the food and the service in dining cars is beginning to slide, and I think that has to be, at least in part, because of sagging morale among the dining car crews. 

But here's the point: all of these little things are starting to add up and affect how passengers -- especially first-timers in sleeping cars -- respond to the overall experience. From my own personal observations, and based on conversations with a number of passengers, I think it's starting to cost Amtrak future business.

Here's an excerpt from an email I just got from a friend of mine following his first experience on an extended long-distance train itinerary:

"We probably won’t do another long trip on AMTRAK [my emphasis] because, of all things, the food - if you want to call it that. I felt the food was only a step above microwaved vending machine food. As a kid, I remember the excitement of going to the dining car with my grandmother. You are right that often the best part of the meal is conversation with some strangers. But, the food was the biggest disappointment of the trip."

Isn't it ironic that the little minds in Congress, demanding that Amtrak keep cutting costs in a futile effort to break even, could actually be causing Amtrak to lose revenue because passengers are now being disappointed in their train travel experience. 

Ironic, yes. But a surprise? No.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Interesting Feedback from a Recent Long-Distance Train Journey.

I just received an email from an old prep school classmate with a couple of interesting observations about an extended trip he and his wife recently took on Amtrak. They enjoyed it, but came away with some interesting comments. We'll talk about the first one today, and save the other for the next time.

These folks live in Colorado so they started by catching the Southwest Chief for the overnight ride to Los Angeles. That's where they connected with the Coast Starlight to the Bay Area, then back home to Denver on the California Zephyr.
He did his ticketing through a local travel agent, who assured him, when asked, that she could "do trains". Apparently not, because he was able to spot a couple of things that didn't seem right and it took one of the Amtrak reservations people to get it all straightened out.

(I do want to say here that in my experience the Amtrak reservations agents really do an excellent job. I personally wouldn't hesitate to go that route.)

There are any number of travel agencies, both large and small, that specialize in rail travel, but the plain fact is, many travel agents don't know very much about booking Amtrak, especially if it involves overnight travel in sleeping car accommodations. If you're planning an extended rail trip and don't want to book it yourself, make sure you use a rail savvy travel agent. You can find out quite easily who is and who isn't. Just play dumb and ask a simple question:

What's the difference between a Superliner roomette and a roomette in a Viewliner?

Answer: A Viewliner roomette includes a wash basin and a toilet, plus there's a second window for the upper berth; the Superliner roomette has no window for the upper berth and the lavatory is "down the hall".

If the travel agent comes right back at you with that answer, you can probably assume he or she can book your rail itinerary and get it right. If you don't get the right answer right away, find someone else or book direct with Amtrak.

That said, working with someone who knows her stuff can make a big difference. For example, a knowledgeable travel agent should make a point of booking you into the sleeping car that's right next to the dining car. That's a nice touch, because it can be a long and difficult walk if you have to pass through two or three cars going to and from meals and the train is passing over some rough track. Or he'll make sure your roomette is on the upper level in the middle of the car because the view is better and there's less track noise.

If your rail itinerary involves more than one train … if there are connections … if you want sleeping car accommodations, but are unfamiliar with Amtrak's equipment … and if you just don't want to deal with it yourself, by all means use a travel agent, especially if there are other details that need to be handled: hotels and tours, for example. A good one, who has experience booking rail travel, is worth the money and can often find ways to reduce the cost to you.

Finally -- shameless plug coming -- there's a lot more about all of this in my book, ALL ABOARD-The Complete North American Train Travel Guide.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

More and Better and Faster Trains? Here's How to Get Them.

As mentioned here a few posts back, the Highway Trust Fund is about to run out of money and, as a result, an effort is being mounted to come up with a comprehensive bill to fund all modes of transportation. The question then becomes which mode gets how much?

NARP is part of a new effort to provide an answer to that: Five billion a year for rail. Click HERE to visit the web site. 

Truly, that is what's needed. Amtrak has been bumping along with federal support of roughly $1.4 to $1.5 billion a year. That works … but only if some maintenance on infrastructure is deferred, if no orders for new equipment are placed, and if coffee pots in sleeping cars are turned off at 9:30 in the morning instead of going all day. (Indulge me a little sarcasm, will you?)
But five billion a year would make a huge difference! For one thing, Amtrak would know what was coming in and could actually plan ahead. For the past 40 years, Amtrak has had to go before Congress every year and ask for funds for the following year. Putting that another way, our national passenger rail system never has any idea of how much money they will have to operate on for the following year. That's just ridiculous!

But if Amtrak knew that they would get five billion this year … and next year … and the year after that … Well! Order new equipment, including locomotives. Then add a second daily train on the Lakeshore Limited's route, run the Cardinal seven days a week, and reinstate the New Orleans-Orlando segment for the Sunset Limited. And that would be just for openers.

Make the mouth water? If we're believers in train travel, it should. It should also make us angry, because $5 billion a year, in the grand scheme of things, is still a pitifully small amount of money. 

It's up to Congress to provide meaningful support for passenger rail. Check out this web site for good information and to learn how you can help. Thanks!

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Only Round Pegs in Round Holes Moved Up.

My first full-time job after college was working for The Hartford Fire Insurance Company. It was then, and still is, one of the several big insurance companies located in Hartford, Connecticut. It's just called "The Hartford" now, but back in the early 1960s, and for probably a hundred years before that, there were three separate companies under the one Hartford banner: the Hartford Fire Insurance Company, the Hartford Accident & Indemnity Company, and the Hartford Life Insurance Company. No one in Hartford ever used the full names. If someone asked where you worked, you could simply say "at the H, A and I". That would be enough.

 Anyway, I was hired as assistant to the editor of The Hartford Agent, a monthly magazine for agents and employees of the Hartford Fire. I'd been there for only a couple of months when the editor, a 60ish woman named Ernestine Robin, fell ill and went on an extended leave of absence. And there I was: a 24-year-old kid responsible for putting out what was, for its day, a very classy publication.

The Hartford, at that time, was considered one of the more progressive insurance companies and treated employees comparatively well. Other companies in town were a lot tougher. The Aetna for example, was notoriously hard-nosed. Rank and file employees right up to company officers punched in and out with time cards. And at 8:30 every morning, a loud bell rang and uniformed guards appeared at every entrance recording the names of employees arriving late.
Back at the Hartford, there was a very clear hierarchy for the company officers and you knew exactly where each man stood by the decor of his office. Ordinary employees sat at one of a hundred or more desks in a huge room -- one of many such rooms. As men slowly worked their way up the management ladder, they went from one of those desks to a private enclosure and from there to a private office. 

At that point, rank was discerned by the office's furnishings and accessories: an assistant secretary (of the company) rated a carpet on the floor. When he was promoted to a full secretary, came a nice credenza placed against the wall behind his desk. When he was bumped up to assistant vice president, the credenza was ceremonially adorned with a silver water decanter plus an ornate silver tray with a couple of glasses. From there, it was up to the rarified air on the fourth floor. That's where the several vice presidents, the two senior vice presidents and, finally, the one and only president were ensconced in their individually decorated offices. 

(You will note the consistent use of the masculine pronoun; there were no female officers in those days. In fact, I would guess that Ernestine Robin had been the most prominent female in the entire company … and she was gone.)

There was an unwritten-but-strict dress code for all officers of true company: dark suits, white shirts, conservative ties, black or dark brown shoes. There was one guy, however, who was the exception to the rule. He faithfully observed the dress code, but with one exception: every day without exception, he wore bright-colored socks: green, blue, yellow and even red. He was a very bright actuary, was highly regarded and had been with the Hartford for several years. In all that time, no one in upper management had ever been so petty as to speak to him about the color of his socks. 

I asked him about that one day. He grinned at me and said, "It's just my way of letting them know they're not going to get all of me into one of their goddam little boxes." 

As it turned out, Ernestine Robin never returned to work and, before long, I had been the de facto editor of the magazine for a full year, although still at an assistant's  salary of $6,000 a year. About that time I was offered another job at $7500, a sizable increase. I thoroughly enjoyed what I was doing, however, and sought out the appropriate vice president one day. I told him about my job offer, but said I loved my work and recognized the value of working for the Hartford. If, I said, the company could match the other offer, I would like very much to stay on as editor of The Hartford Agent. The man stared at me for a moment, then shook my hand and said -- I remember his exact words -- "Let me be the first to wish you success in your new career." I learned later that he had taken my approach as an ultimatum … and that was just not done.

I left the Hartford and, a year later, moved to Hawaii. And I never had a chance to thank him.