Monday, October 20, 2014

More on Amtrak's Continuing Problem with Late Trains.

DAVIS, CALIFORNIA -- It seems as though everyone is talking about Amtrak's on-time performance (OTP), and most of them have an opinion as to the reason it's gotten so bad over the past year or so.

The Empire Builder (Chicago-Seattle/Portland) has been Tail-End-Charlie when it comes to consistent and lengthy delays and everyone pretty much agrees that the main reason is the huge increase in the number of oil trains carrying crude oil from the new fields in North Dakota to refineries around the country.

But there has also been a long-standing bottle-neck problem at Chicago and it's been getting worse. Since most of Amtrak's long-distance trains terminate in that city, the impact of this choke-point has clearly had an impact on all those trains.

I've recently traveled on the California Zephyr from Chicago to Salt Lake City and, after a four day meeting of the National Association of Railroad Passengers there, continued on that same train to this nice college town (it's dominated by the University of California's Davis branch). 

The Zephyr has also had on-time problems, although for the past several days it has run spot on-time or close to it. In fact, we arrived here at Davis this afternoon a full 54 minutes early. 

One of our NARP members opined it could hardly be a coincidence that the Zephyr suddenly became punctual at the same time Joe Szabo, administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, was in Salt Lake City to speak to our NARP gathering. 

That seems like a stretch to me, especially since the OTP problem started getting worse right around the time a lower court decision said Amtrak should not be working with the FRA to set on-time standards for Amtrak trains. That decision has been seen by some as a green light for the freight railroads to stop giving priority to Amtrak trains. (That decision has been appealed and that appeal will be considered by the United States Supreme Court, probably early next year. NARP has filed an amicus brief with the court pertaining to this case.)

Regardless, people are really starting to pay attention to this issue. In fact, our car attendant on the Zephyr had some very firm opinions as to the cause of the worsening OTP problem. What about the increase in freight traffic, I asked.

"Bullshit", he said. "The freight railroads don't want us running on their track and they're trying to get rid of us."

After having recently sat for hours on the Lake Shore Limited as freight after freight rumbled past, it's hard not to see at least a little truth in that.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Meetings Over. Now It's California Here We Come!

SALT LAKE CITY -- The annual Fall meeting of the National Association of Railroad Passengers has ended and Jim Mathews, our new president and CEO, has met the membership and has impressed one and all. As indeed he should. He's personable, experienced, smart as a whip, and brimming with ideas. 

In his first six weeks, Jim has been getting to know the staff, meeting with government officials and Amtrak executives, familiarizing himself with office systems and procedures, and preparing for these past several days here in Salt Lake City.

 Our meetings have been held at the DoubleTree hotel near the center of town and it has been an excellent experience. The rooms are comfortable, the restaurant very good, and the staff exceptional. I needed some pages printed out for a report I had to present to the meeting and called the front desk to ask about access to their business center.  "Oh, no need to do that, Mr. Loomis," said the young man at reception, "just email it to me and I'll be glad to print it out for you."

I just checked the TRAIN STATUS link on the NARP web site and was pleased to find that the westbound Zephyr is essentially running on time. That's good news, because it's due here at 11:05 p.m. with departure a half hour later. The concern, of course, is that the train could be hours late. Waiting to board on the open platform at 11:00 p.m. is one thing; waiting to board at 3:00 or 4:00 a.m. is quite another.

The Zephyr's run tomorrow, and the scenery it provides, is pretty much equal to what we saw after leaving Denver and passing through all those canyons. We'll cross a long stretch of Nevada desert, then, as we leave Truckee, California, the train begins the climb up and over the Sierra Nevada mountains by way of Donner Pass. (That's the Zephyr passing above Donner Lake in the photo above.) The descent into the Sacramento area is quite lovely and, by 3:00 or 3:15 tomorrow afternoon -- assuming once again that the train will still be running more or less on time -- I should be in my hotel room in Davis, California.

Bright and early the following morning, the Coast Starlight arrives in Davis headed for Los Angeles and that's when I get to enjoy my very favorite train experience: traveling down the California coast in the Coast Starlight's parlor car, comfortably installed in an overstuffed swiveling arm chair and sipping a Bloody Mary. Let's see the airlines try to duplicate that!

Friday, October 17, 2014

What Will It Take to Fix America's Infrastructure?

For some time now, we've been hearing about the sorry state of this country's infrastructure. That's become an impressive sounding, almost vogue word that politicians and media now use all the time, often casually. But infrastructure means bridges, roads and tunnels … at least those are the categories most often mentioned. Those of us concerned with passenger rail would add that there is a great deal of work needing to be done on railroad infrastructure, too.

 The state of America's transportation infrastructure was suddenly brought to our attention seven years ago following the tragic collapse of a bridge spanning the Mississippi River on Interstate 35 in Minneapolis. Thirteen people were killed and 145 injured, many seriously. Quite appropriately, alarm bells started clanging and a lot of inspectors went scurrying off to check on other bridges all around the country. In due course, back came word that some 60,000 bridges in this country have potential structural problems.

But repairing and strengthening and doing whatever the hell it is the engineers do to make bridges safe? Not much of that has been done because it takes money, and a lot of it. As we all know, getting money for anything takes agreement from and between politicians in Washington. And these days, agreement isn't happening.

 Here's a photograph of the interior of the Hudson River tunnel taken recently and just released by Amtrak. This tunnel connects New York City and New Jersey, and literally hundreds of commuter and Amtrak trains pass through it every day. The tunnel, which is more than 100 years old, was flooded and damaged by heavy rains that accompanied Hurricane Sandy. It is, of course sheer folly to rely on one 100-year-old tunnel in a questionable state of repair. New tunnels are needed. But new tunnels will cost billions. And getting money like that takes agreement. And agreement? Well … you know.

Two days ago, while the California Zephyr was stopped in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, I looked out the window of my sleeping car and saw this pillar. It supports a bridge carrying automobile traffic across the Colorado River from the railway station to another part of the town. Cause or concern? Probably not … at least not yet. Probably.

What's it going to take for the politicians to actually confront the problem and take proper care of our transportation infrastructure … to be sure that it's truly safe?

Aw, come on, now … you know what it's going to take. 

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Amtrak's California Zephyr Offers Incomparable Scenery.

When pressed to pick Amtrak's most scenic train, I'll talk about the Cardinal and the Adirondack and the Empire Builder or the Coast Starlight. But I always end up picking the California Zephyr. Amtrak runs the Zephyr every day in both directions between Chicago and the San Francisco Bay Area. 

Assuming the train is running on time, it leaves Denver around 8:00 in the morning and it's really a special experience from there. (Click on any photo to enlarge it.)

 Climbing steadily up into the Flatirons, the train passes through something like 28 tunnels and often runs right along precipitous drops of many hundreds of feet. But all the while, the view back in the direction of Denver just keeps getting better and better. 

 After stopping at the ski resort of Winter Park and then the little town of Granby, the Zephyr follows the Colorado River through a series of valleys and canyons for 110 miles to Glenwood Springs.

Over the next four hours, the Zephyr stops at Grand Junction, then crosses into Utah and you'll go through canyons with sheer walls of multi-tones of red rock. Our timing was perfect the other day, because those cliffs were really lit up by the setting sun.

Pretty special … but the next day, the Zephyr crosses the Sierra Nevada mountains over Donner Pass, and that's an equally amazing ride.

Amtrak's most scenic train ride? For my money, you really cannot beat the California Zephyr. Just don't ask me to decide whether it's the first day or the second that offers the better viewing.

Chicago to Salt Lake City … On the Zephyr!

SALT LAKE CITY -- Isn't it funny how things can suddenly turn around. I woke up in my Chicago hotel room on Tuesday morning fully prepared to have breakfast, go on line and find the cheapest flight to Salt Lake City, and head on out to O'Hare.

But then, in one last what-the-hell moment, and knowing for sure it would be a waste of time, I called Amtrak's Customer Relations just to see if by any chance there had been a last-minute cancellation of something in a sleeping car on that afternoon's Zephyr. 

After working my way past Julie, Amtrak's automated reservationist, I ended up with a very nice lady in Customer Relations, who sounded genuinely distressed at my Lake Shore experience. She even asked if I had had any further news about the poor guy back there in Erie who deliberately drove his pickup in front of our locomotive. (I have been able to find nothing on line.)

After lots of tap-tapping on her keyboard, she announced that there was indeed a roomette available, that she had booked it for me, and that there would be no additional charge. (I'm most grateful for that since I have no doubt that Amtrak's heartless computer had put a premium price on this suddenly-available and highy-coveted roomette.)

Several of my fellow passengers from the previous day's debacle were also on the Zephyr Tuesday afternoon. Some had wisely built in an overnight just-in-case stay in Chicago, but others had settled for an Amtrak voucher and coach seats on this train. 

And so, at two o'clock on the dot, the California Zephyr departed Chicago's Union Station … and came to an abrupt stop literally ten seconds later. Of course, I feared the worst, but a conductor cracked the PA moments later and informed us that the Lake Shore Limited had just arrived -- a mere 4:15 late -- and there were almost 50 passengers on that train who had space booked on ours. You may be sure that not one of us who had been aboard the Lake Shore the previous day uttered one syllable of complaint.

Twenty-eight minutes later (and, therefore, already 28 minutes late), the California Zephyr departed Chicago. We had lost an additional hour by the time we reach Fort Morgan, Colorado, just before dawn the next morning, but the miracles kept coming. Our scheduled arrival time in Salt Lake City was 11:05 p.m. We actually came to a stop at 11:31, just 26 minutes behind schedule. 

And so, let the annual Fall meeting of the National Association of Railroad Passengers begin. Well … first a hot shower, a good night's sleep, and a nice breakfast. 

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Late Trains: Only the Passengers Seem to Care.

This on-time problem of Amtrak's cannot go on. No rational, civilized society should allow it. 

The thing is -- and I plead guilty to this -- it's really not possible to fully appreciate how infuriating these unconscionable delays are until you have experienced one yourself ... in person, not in the abstract. I just did.
*   *   *
At 2:30 this morning, the Lake Shore Limited had just departed Erie, Pennsylvania, when some guy tried to kill himself by driving his pickup out onto the tracks right in front of our locomotive. Bam! 

Three hours later, barely alive, he has been extracted from what was left of his truck and carted off to a hospital. The cops have finished whatever it is they do, and we are underway again, but almost four hours behind schedule. We have 523 miles behind us, 436 miles to go and if we can stay close to our scheduled running time from here to Chicago, I may still be able to make my connection to the Zephyr.
*   *   *
That was a pipe dream. What was I thinking? We have stopped at least a half dozen times since leaving Erie. The routine is the same every time and it really begins to wear on you:  Your train has stopped. You wait. Nothing happens. It's quiet in the Viewliner, just the hum of the air conditioning and once in a while you catch a fragment of conversation between other passengers. 

After perhaps 20 minutes, there's a rumbling, then the ear-shattering blast of a train whistle, and a Norfolk Southern freight train passes next to you on the main line. Slowly. It takes several minutes. And then it's gone. But you don't move. You're still sitting there … not moving. And you realize, now you're waiting for another freight train.
*   *   *
I had breakfast this morning with an older gentleman, the editor of a poetry magazine who is to be the featured speaker at a four-day conference in Seattle. He cannot fly because of a medical conduction, but he had already missed his connection to the Empire Builder. So he's going to spend the next two nights sitting up in a coach seat on tomorrow's train because, of course, the sleepers have long since been sold out.
*   *   *
The Lake Shore has resumed it's journey, but we have spent the past hour and ten minutes sitting in the middle of an Ohio cornfield because someone somewhere has made the decision that people are less important than crude oil and toaster ovens. I have missed my connection to the Zephyr. It left an hour ago on its way to Salt Lake City and beyond. We are still no where near Chicago and Jay, our veteran car attendant, says "the worst stretch is up ahead of us". Swell.
*   *   *
I have no idea what the hell I'm going to do. Amtrak Reservations says what I already assumed to be true … that Tuesday's Zephyr is sold out. I'll probably spend the night in a hotel in Chicago and fly direct to Salt Lake City on Tuesday. 
*   *   *
Here's my view of all this: It's bullshit. The government hasn't done anything. Every single day, thousands of taxpaying American citizens are being seriously inconvenienced and put to additional personal expense because containers full of Hello Kitty dolls from Japan have priority over people. 

The freight railroads certainly don't give a damn about Amtrak or the 300 or so human beings on this train who will be dumped out onto the streets of Chicago sometime tonight. In fact, they expect us to believe that with all their computers and their systems and their technology, they're unable to expedite passage of one damn train a day between Albany and Chicago. Seriously, guys? 
*   *   *
At the moment, we're still on the outskirts of the city and the Lake Shore conductors are gabbing in the empty dining car. Since we hit that pickup back in Erie some seventeen hours ago, only one announcement has been made over the public address system. It was, and I quote, "Ladies and gentlemen, we're stopped here waiting on freight traffic and will be underway again shortly."  Not enough. Not nearly enough. And, by the way, we have stopped again. Our operating crew "went dead" and we are waiting for replacements to take us the last six miles into Union Station.
*   *   *
Most of the passengers are a little dazed, have no clue as to why it's happening, but seem to be taking it all in stride. Most are on cell phones arranging for pick-up, canceling pick-ups, calling airlines … adjusting. There are a few of us, however -- veterans of Amtrak travel, including a couple of NARP members -- with a somewhat different view to today's experience: we're pissed.
*   *   *
Here's an idea! What if the government sends a totally unofficial message to the freight railroads: Start running Amtrak on time. If you don't, FRA inspectors are going to be all over you like flies on a cow pie. They'll inspect everything from your locomotives to your coffee pots and they'll find something wrong with every damn one of them! Sounds like a plan to me.
*   *   *
The Lake Shore Limited has arrived in Chicago Union Station approximately 10 hours and 15 minutes late. It may be 11 hours. Frankly, I'm too tired and too disgusted to care.
(The preceding was written throughout the day on Monday, and posted Tuesday morning from Chicago.)

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Welcome to New Yawk. You Got a Problem Widdat?

NEW YORK CITY -- I'm not sure how long a hike it was from our gate at JFK to Immigration and Customs, but it was a damn long way … and I was grateful for the three moving walkways that provided a bit of a respite along the route. (There was one not working, but three-out-of-four ain't bad and it beats the hell out of the Maui airport, where the walkways have been 0-for-3 for so long that the orange cones blocking access have turned yellow.)

I knew right away I was back in the U.S. and, more specifically, in New York. The young woman just ahead of me told the Customs inspector, a 40ish white guy, that she was returning from a two-week job for a video production company in the U.K.

"So," barked the inspector, "you an actress, or what?"

The girl said, no, and explained that she's a make-up artist.

"Oh, yeah?" said the man, waving a hand dismissively under his chin, "Could you do anything to help this mess?" 

She laughed and as she walked away, the inspector looked up at me and said, "What the hell. Got to have a little fun once in a while, right? Now … what's your story?"

Out on the curb, a short, stocky Latino woman -- bundled against the chill and wearing a Day-Glo vest, the unmistakable symbol of authority -- was marching back and forth barking instructions to travelers flowing out from the terminal building. Trust me: this lady was in charge! She took one glance at the dazed expression on the face of an elderly couple and somehow know how to direct them.

"YOU! Manhattan, right? OK! Stand over there, take the bus that says Group 2 … Got that? GROUP TWO. It goes to Federal Circle. Get off. The guy there will tell you what's next"

She spotted three people stepping off the curb and heading for a big glass building across the street.

"YOU!  Hold it! You want the AirTrain, right?" They froze, startled, then nodded. "It's not running here until Monday. C'mere! Where ya headed?"

Meanwhile, I was desperately trying to soak all this up because I had been instructed to take the Air Train to Federal Circle where I would catch the hotel shuttle. Then, from the left, a bus appearerd with GROUP 2 illuminated in the window above the windshield. It stopped at the curb, and people began clambering out, bag and baggage. I took a tentative step toward it, eyes fastened on the 
"GROUP TWO sign."

"YOU! … NO, NO, NO, NO!"  (It was, of course, the Latino woman and she was, of course, talking to me. "That's Group Two bringing people in. You want a Group Two that's takin' people out!  Then she pointed up the street. "There's one now, honey. Go for it. You can do it!"

Then she beamed at me. "And welcome to New York!"
*   *   *
(This afternoon, I will be on the Lake Shore Limited to Chicago, connecting there with the California Zephyr for Salt Lake City and the NARP meetings. More to come.)