Thursday, October 30, 2014

Planning A Trip Is Half the Fun.

For me, planning a trip is almost as much fun as the actual travel itself.  I enjoy putting together itineraries, coming up with interesting routings for the train portions, looking over hotel options, and considering what attractions I should visit once I get to wherever it is I'm going.

 There are three trips under consideration at the moment. The first is one I've wanted to do for several years: take the trans-Canada trip on VIA Rail in the depths of winter. It's a much smaller consist than VIA runs in the the milder seasons, and I'm sure the passengers will be quite different … more locals, I've been told, as opposed to the elderly couples from the U.S. sun-belt that seem to fill the train during the rest of the year. Of course I'm well aware that there could be delays and unforeseen problems the operating crew will have to deal with, but that's what I think will be interesting and whatever happens, I'll write about it here. And who knows? Maybe I can peddle a story or two about the experience.

Next will be my trip in April to attend NARP's annual meeting in Washington. I've worked up a tentative itinerary that includes stops along the way in two places that have been on my wish list for a long time. 

 The first is Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's home in Charlottesville, Virginia, and I plan to get there on Amtrak's Crescent out of New Orleans. The second is San Antonio. I've heard it's a very nice city and I'd like to see some of it and also visit the Alamo. That will be on my way back to the West Coast aboard the Sunset Limited.

And, finally, I'd like to see something of Italy before I get too old and creaky to travel for such a distance and for so long. Right now, the tentative plan is to take a couple of weeks there prior to NARP's Fall meeting in Indianapolis. In recent years, I have asked two native Italians what was the one place in Italy that should not be missed. Both said "Siena" without the slightest hesitation.

I've already worked out a wonderful routing to get there … one that includes some very special train rides. How does this sound: Fly to Paris. Take a TGV to Zurich, connecting with a local train to Chur. The next morning, take the Bernina Express (photo above) from Chur, through the Swiss Alps to Tirano in Italy and from there, an Italian train to Siena. Wow! Then after 10 days or so in Siena, with side trips to Florence and maybe Pisa, it's train again to Aix-en-Provence or perhaps Avignon, then on to Paris … and fly back to the U.S. from there.

Of course, I have no idea how much of this will actually happen, but it's fun already!

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Paying a Little More for a Little Less …

 People hate to be chiseled … nickel-and-dimed … squeezed for an extra dollar or so … especially when there is an element of deception to it. And that's what many of the airlines are doing to us. Well, not ALL of us. People flying up front in first or business class … they're getting more and more perks by the day.

I recently came across an interesting and incisive observation about a fairly recent practice by the airlines. They squeeze the space in economy class and then offer a new class of service. It's still economy, but with a little extra leg room … and of course there's an extra fee attached. The writer put it this way: the airlines, he said, have taken away some of our legroom and are now trying to sell it back to us. Yes! Exactly! And they wonder why we're pissed.

 There is some good news: The wine tastings are back on Amtrak's Coast Starlight. There is now a $7.50 charge, however, taking us full circle-and-a-half. When first instituted a number of years ago, the wine and cheese tastings were free. Then there was a $5.00 charge. Then they were free again. Then  they were discontinued as a cost-cutting measure. And now they're back, but for an additional two-and-a-half bucks … but there's no cheese this time around. I don't know how successful this new iteration is going to be. I was on the Coast Starlight last week, riding from Davis, California, down to Los Angeles, and only three of us showed up in the parlor car for the wine tasting, despite several P.A. announcements. 

 … and Getting a Lot More for Free.

And, finally, I don't know how it's possible that I had never seen this wonderful photo of Johnny Pesky before today, but I can't resist posting it. Pesky played eight years for the Boston Red Sox, not including a three-year hiatus from 1943 to 1945 when he served in World War II. He played in all seven games of the 1946 World Series, which the Red Sox lost, and he managed the team for two years in the early 60s. Johnny Pesky was a fixture in the Red Sox clubhouse on almost a daily basis until his death in 2012 at the age of 93. 

This photo of Pesky embracing Red Sox pitcher, Curt Schilling, was taken the night the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004, their first championship since 1918 after several heart-breaking near misses. If you want to know what winning the World Series after an 86-year drought meant to Red Sox fans everywhere, the expression on Johnny Pesky's face tells you.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Relentless Volcano Is About to Start Consuming Hawaii Homes.

Kilauea volcano on the Island of Hawaii -- referred to here simply as The Big Island --  continues to pump out lava, is now about a third of a mile from the little town of Pahoa, and there's not a damn thing anyone can do about it. This volcano has been erupting continuously since 1983.

The imminent threat is to an anthurium farm directly in the path of the lava flow. According to officials on the scene, the lava is moving slowly but steadily. It's most rapid pace is estimated to be some 20 yards per hour, but the flow also slows to just two yards per hour. It may slow down, but it doesn't stop. Authorities have placed everyone in the areas on "evacuation notice", but they will allow homeowners to watch when and if their homes are destroyed if they wish to do so.

Here are some photos pulled from various Big Island sources and the Honolulu newspaper. Curious, isn't it. The creeping flow isn't frightening, but there is nothing whatsoever that can be done to stop it.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Will the Supreme Court Help Fix Amtrak's Awful On-Time Performance?

We all know that over the past several years Amtrak's On-Time Performance (OTP) has gone from pretty-good to not-so-good to just-plain-awful. The usual reason given for all these late trains is "freight traffic", but there's a lot more to it than that. Here's the short version:

For some time, and as prescribed by law, Amtrak has been working in an advisory capacity with the Federal Railroad Administration, the government agency regulating America's railroads. After considering Amtrak's input, the FRA then sets on-time standards the freight railroads must meet when handling the Amtrak trains that run over their tracks. But the freights went to federal court claiming Amtrak is a private corporation and, as such, cannot tell another private corporation how to run it's business. The court agreed with that argument and ruled accordingly. Clearly, the freight railroads took that as license to stop giving priority to passenger trains running on their tracks. 

The lower court's decision was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court and, to the great surprise of many, the court agreed to hear the case. I couldn't be more proud that the National Association of Railroad Passengers has filed an amicus brief with the court supporting the argument that Amtrak is NOT a private corporation because it was created by an Act of Congress, the Amtrak board of directors is appointed by the president, and it receives subsidies from both federal and state governments.

Meanwhile, it will be interesting to see how the almost system-wide deterioration of Amtrak's On-Time Performance is going to affect ridership. Latest figures indicate that demand is still up, but the concern is over the longer haul. OTP was a big issue on two of my most recent train trips and I overheard more than a few "never-agains" from other passengers as we sat on sidings waiting for two or three freights to go by.

I have to wonder if it ever occurs to those obsessive proponents of cost-cutting in Congress that increasing revenue is another and much better way for Amtrak to reduce the amount of annual subsidy it gets from the federal government. If those lawmakers truly care about that, why aren't they bird-dogging the on-time issue which is costing Amtrak ridership and revenue?  And what about all the money Amtrak keeps shelling out because of passengers' missed connections? Hotel rooms. Meals. Charter buses to get them where they have to go. 

Three years ago, an Amtrak official told me missed connections were costing the railroad $140 million a year. I asked the same person for an updated number a few months ago and he said the number hadn't changed. That was nonsense, of course. If misconnects were costing Amtrak $140 million a year when their OTP was over 70 percent, what do you suppose it is now when Amtrak trains are on time 35 percent of the time? 

It's a big mess … and it means there's a great deal riding on the forthcoming Supreme Court's review of that lower court decision.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Political Ads: Some Good, Some Bad, Some Ugly.

There's just over a week to go until Election Day and once again much of the campaigning is negative. It's discouraging. It's unpleasant. But who can we blame for it? The political consultants who recommend it? The politicians who agree to it? Or the voters who respond to it? All three, I guess. 

Two years ago, a former Hawaii governor, Ben Cayetano, ran for mayor of Honolulu with a one-issue campaign: he was opposed to Honolulu's about-to-be-built transit system and, if elected, he promised to kill it. A coalition of business interests and labor unions ran a vicious anti-Cayetano campaign attacking Ben personally, accusing him of corruption among other things. Cayetano lost and, thankfully, the long-overdue transit system is finally under construction. Ben Cayetano was 100% wrong on the transit issue, but he is a decent guy and was quite a good governor.  And that ad campaign was a disgrace.

In my professional career, my firm created advertising for quite a few political campaigns and I'm proud to say that none of my politician-clients ever asked us to produce anything like the ugly stuff that's being run in so many of the campaigns on the mainland.  Yes, from time to time we did produce TV and radio spots critical of the opponents, but we always tried to do it with humor.
For example, a big aggressive guy named Orson Swindle ran for the U.S. House against my good friend, Neil Abercrombie, then the incumbent congressman. Swindle was a newcomer to Hawaii with no sensitivity for the local culture and we exploited that in our TV spot. It opened on the sweet, cherubic faces of pre-school kids … kids of all the various races living in this melting pot of ours. As the camera passed slowly from one child to another, a soft gentle female voice told viewers that ". . . as different as these beautiful keiki (children) may be, they all have one thing in common. They have all lived in Hawaii longer than Orson Swindle."  And the kids all burst into raucous laughter and began chanting "Abercrombie back to Congress!" The spot made the point, people loved it, and Neil won re-election by a wide margin. Negative? Sure … but not mean spirited.

Each new political cycle seems to yield TV ads that are more extreme than the previous election year … accusing the target candidate of such callous and egregious actions that to discerning voters the ads are simply not credible. But they also work, because they are deliberately feeding bad information to uninformed voters. And that may be the biggest sin of all.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Highlights of the NARP Meeting in Salt Lake City

 The annual Fall meeting of the National Association of Railroad Passengers was held last weekend in Salt Lake City.  I should say first of all that it's an impressive city, wide streets, nicely maintained, and wonderful new light rail and TRAX transit systems. The city itself is set in a broad valley surrounded by spectacular snow-capped mountains. (Be warned, however: when a native tells you the restaurant you're looking for is seven blocks that-a-way, a "block" in Salt Lake City is two or three times longer than in any city I've ever visited.)

Featured speakers at the meeting were Joseph Szabo, Administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration and Thomas Hall, Amtrak's Chief of Customer Service. These are two heavyweights in their respective arenas and it was gratifying that they felt the NARP meeting of sufficient importance to travel that distance to be with us.
For me, however, the star of the show was Ralph Becker, Salt Lake City's mayor. Most mayors show up, thank us for visiting their city, and leave …. but Mayor Becker spoke to us extemporaneously for more than 30 minutes. He is intelligent, articulate, witty and extremely well informed on transportation issues. He is also extremely popular with the electorate. Consider this: in an otherwise solidly conservative Republican state, Mayor Becker is a Democrat who was re-elected two years ago with more than 70-percent of the vote. Believe me, these days, that is a very big Wow!

There was the usual amount of internal business with which to contend, and it was the first opportunity for NARP members to see and hear our new President and CEO, Jim Mathews. Jim is a thorough professional … experienced, competent, decisive … and he articulated his vision for NARP in the future. Trust me on this: NARP is on the move!

Also of interest, I think, the NARP Council voted to approve a set of standards which we will provide to any communities building new railway stations or renovating existing facilities. Not every community will need stations that incorporate all the recommended standards, but the approved NARP list will certainly be helpful and, in the long run, rail passengers will benefit.

NARP's next meeting will be in Washington beginning Monday, April 20th, and concluding on the 23rd. Details to come.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Tipping: Yes? No? When? How Much?

The tipping issue when I travel drives me crazy. I am never sure what's expected, and I don't ever seem to have the right denomination of bills or any change. It's a constant hassle.

Almost everywhere else in the world, of course, they have it figured out. Certainly that's pretty much universally true in restaurants. In France, for instance, "Le service est compris" … the gratuity is included in the bill. Then, if you have had really good service, you drop a little extra change on the tray … a euro or so, depending on the cost of the meal. It's just an extra little acknowledgement of a job well done.

By the way, trust the French to tell it like it is: their word for a "tip" is "pourboire", the literal translation for which is "for drink".

The service people certainly like having the gratuity included on the bill and, as far as I've been able to determine, so do the patrons. It certainly simplifies the whole business and it keeps the cheapskates from stiffing the help. (Ask any server in an American restaurant: that happens a lot more than you would imagine.)

I do confess to what some people would consider over-tipping in the case of housekeeping staff in hotels. These are invariably low-wage people doing menial work. If I can afford a couple of hundred dollars a night for a hotel room, I can certainly afford five bucks a night for the person who makes my bed and tidies up after me in the bathroom.

Tipping -- or, rather the frequent lack thereof -- is a problem for the servers in Amtrak dining cars, however. Many passengers traveling in the sleeping cars somehow think that they're not expected to tip because the cost of their meals is included in their fare. Not so. Sleeping car passengers on Amtrak trains should tip as they would in any restaurant: based on the menu prices.

I'm also frequently asked about tipping the sleeping car attendant. My rule of thumb is a minimum of $5.00 per night per passenger. That's assuming the attendant is usually available, assists with you bags, and offers an orientation of you accommodations when you board. If you have any additional requests -- perhaps having one or more of your meals brought to your room -- the tip should go up accordingly. 

My acid test for a good sleeping car attendant? If he comes by your room 10 or 15 minutes before your stop and offers to help you with any bags. By the same token, if I happen to get one of the rare "invisible" car attendants, or if there's an obvious bad attitude, I have no hesitation in not tipping at all. 

But how ' bout we solve this whole problem by eliminating the practice of tipping altogether and just pay these hard-working people a living wage?