Saturday, November 22, 2014

Here a Shark, There a Shark, Everywhere a Shark Shark.

This morning over coffee, my wife mentioned a conversation she had the other day with one of her lady friends. The woman, who is a relative newcomer to these islands, was saying that she loves snorkeling a couple of hundred yards out from the beach off Kihei on Maui's south shore because that's where the sea turtles hang out. They're not particularly afraid of humans and she gets a thrill swimming amongst them.

My wife asked her friend if she knew the other name for those turtles … and got a blank look in response.

"Bait!", said my wife. "Sharks love to feed on those turtles and you're swimming right out there with shark bait."

The woman seemed to shrug it off and it's quite true that, statistically, your chances of being bitten by a shark in Hawaiian waters are very low. Nevertheless, there were 14 confirmed shark "incidents" in 2013, eight of which occurred in waters off Maui and two of those were fatal. It's hard to know for sure, but the assumption is that tiger sharks, known to be more aggressive than other sharks, were responsible for most, and maybe even all, of those incidents. 

Marine experts at the University of Hawaii have detected "heavy clusters" of sharks in waters off Kihei and Makena here on Maui, especially where the coastal shelf drops off into extremely deep water. So far, there are a couple of dozen tiger sharks swimming in Maui waters that have been tagged with satellite tracking devices. This kind of shark is of great interest to these scientists who are in the middle of an interesting two-year study. Among other things, it involves catching tiger sharks and attaching a small camera - apparently about the size of a hotdog bun -- to the dorsal fin. For about 10 hours, the camera will record essentially whatever the shark sees, then it drops off and floats to the surface to be retrieved by the scientists. 

Let's hope, when they're checking the video from one of those cameras, they don't find a close-up of my wife's friend.

Friday, November 21, 2014

What's a Fair Fare, Anyway?

There are any number of web sites that will help you find the lowest air fares, and to some extent they do. But there are other factors affecting the price of your ticket and, unless you travel constantly and learn the hard way, it's almost impossible to figure all the angles. The airlines all have their reasons, of course, but the more you try to find some logic to the fares, the less sense it all seems to make to rational minds.

For example, I've been considering alternatives for returning to the U.S. next July from Paris. Or perhaps from London. You can literally spend hours pouring over the various web sites, plugging in different departure cities … different arrival cities … fudging by a couple of days in hopes of stumbling on a hidden lower fare.

And when you do find a really cheap fare, you notice that the total flight time is … twenty-two hours and 35 minutes?? Well, yeah … it's Turkish Airlines and you're flying from Paris to New York by way of Istanbul!

Finally out of patience and staring dumbly at pages of notes which no longer make any sense at all, I decided to keep it simple and go back to the basics: (1) an economy seat … (2) Paris to New York … (3) on July 2nd. That's it. Plug that in and go for whatever is the cheapest fare that pops up.

Sounds good, but wait!

The lowest fare is $550 on Icelandair. But there's a stop in Reykjavik.

Damn! Well, let's filter results and search only for "non-stop" flights. Up pops American Airlines: 

CDG-JFK - $2900 

Twenty-nine hundred bucks!! On second thought, Reykjavik isn't really that far out of the way. And we'll only be on the ground there for 50 minutes. And I'm fed up with …  Wait a minute! Maybe I have enough miles!

Thursday, November 20, 2014

New Trains. Night Trains. No Trains.

 Comes now Eurostar announcing that they're ordering a whole new fleet of trainsets which will go into service at the end of next year. The new equipment will run at sustained speeds of 320 km/hr (200 mph) which is almost 20 mph faster than trains they're now operating. The design work, inside and out, was done by Pininfarina, an Italian firm with a big reputation earned for their design work on high-end automobiles. The new equipment will allow Eurostar to expand service to a number of French cities including several in the south of France. (And, by the way, can you believe it's been 20 years since the Chunnel was opened?)

In the meantime, here in the U.S. of A, Amtrak has filed a complaint with the Surface Transportation Board because the on-time performance of the Capitol Limited … uh … Oh, never mind. It's too depressing.
 I've written about this before, but there are new reports from Europe about more of the so-called "night trains" perhaps being phased out. There are plenty of trains operating at night, of course, but this term refers to trains configured with berths for people to actually sleep in. These trains also -- typically and traditionally -- have had restaurant cars. Clearly, they're more expensive to operate and that is certainly a big factor in the considerations. But it does seem to me -- a focus group of one -- that there are still a lot of people who would be willing to pay, and pay well, for this kind of service. I certainly am.

In fact, I'm working out an itinerary for a trip to Italy in June and am going to include an overnight train from Venice back to Paris. The company operating the train is thello (not sure about the significance of the name). The ultimate authority on these things -- Mark Smith, the Man in Seat 61 -- gives it a kind of so-so review, but there is just something about having a meal in the dining car and traveling overnight on the train in a real bed that just can't be topped.
*   *   *
In February, I'm taking VIA Rail's wonderful trans-Canada train from Vancouver to Toronto because I have always thought it would be a totally different experience to take that ride in the middle of winter.  Once that part of the trip is over and I'm in Toronto, I'll take the Maple Leaf to Buffalo and connect there with the Lake Shore Limited back to Chicago. It has not escaped my notice that, two days ago, because of heavy snow, Amtrak temporarily stopped operating trains in New York State between Albany and Buffalo. Specifically which trains? Why, the Maple Leaf and the Lake Shore, of course! 

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Amtrak: No More Mister Nice Guy?

Everyone is aware of Amtrak's on-time problem. It's been going on for many months and has affected pretty much all of the long-distance trains. Significant increase in freight traffic has been given as the reason. But two trains, the Empire Builder and the Capitol Limited, have been hurt more than the others.

Of course in a perfect world, it makes sense for Amtrak to maintain good relationships with the various host railroads over whose tracks the passenger trains move. To put it another way, it's clearly not a good idea to antagonize the people who decide whether your train or their train goes onto the siding to let the other one go by.

I suppose it's conceivable that in private conversations between Amtrak executives and the people in charge at, say, BNSF, things might get a little testy at times. But as far as I can remember, all the concerned parties have been careful not to let that kind of stuff spill over into the media and become public.

Not any more.
Amtrak has formally complained to the Surface Transportation Board that the two freight railroads over whose tracks the Capitol Limited operates -- the Norfolk Southern and CSX -- are not giving preference to the Amtrak train as the law requires. According to the statute, Amtrak can only make a formal complaint if a train's on-time record falls below 80% for two consecutive quarters. Eighty percent? How does 27.8% and 20.4% sound? That's the on-time performance average for all stations served by the Capitol Limited for the third quarter of this year. (Click on the graph to enlarge.)

Of course, those numbers take into consideration cities and towns that come early in the train's schedule. Clearly, the westbound Capitol Limited will have a much better on-time record at Harpers Ferry, 55 miles into the route, than it will 500 miles farther on at Toledo.

OK … so bearing in mind that any arrival that's 30 minutes late or less is considered to be on-time, would you care to guess what the Capitol Limited's on-time arrival score was for the third quarter of this year at the two terminal stations? Would you believe 2.7? That's two-point-freakin'-seven-per-cent! 

Amtrak's complaining to the federal authorities? Well, it's about damn time!

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

NARP: Promoting Rail is an Uphill Challenge.

Improving our national passenger rail system is the mission of the National Association of Railroad Passengers. And, let me tell you, in this day and time, and under the current political conditions, it's a tough slog.

It's very difficult to gain any ground using rational arguments supported by facts and figures if you're trying to win over a member of Congress who is philosophically opposed to the idea that every citizen has a fundamental right of access to public transportation at an affordable cost. And as far as trying the "benefits to the environment" argument … well, best not to go there at all.
This country's transportation infrastructure is barely adequate now and could actually collapse under the weight of a constantly-increasing population. It's going to take many billions of dollars to address the problem, but when you point that out, they look at you and say, "But we can't afford it." 

Much of the problem is the result of the "dumbing down" of the general public from the sorry state of our news media. We rarely get any in-depth reporting of truly important issues. Instead, we're subjected to the If-It-Bleeds-It-Leads school of journalism. The news we do get is superficial, largely irrelevant, and there's a lot less of it. What the media does deliver in large, loud doses is opinion. No wonder the electorate is largely and woefully uninformed. And mis-informed.

In particular, it has become more and more difficult to move public opinion when it comes to transportation issues. It's a big, important and complicated subject, and that means it takes time to explain. There's a lot to understand, a lot to digest. People have to pay attention. And actually think

And so the challenge for those of us working through NARP for better and faster trains is finding a way to take a complex subject and present it in simple, easy-to-grasp bullet points. For example, critics keep referring to the annual $1.4 billion subsidy Amtrak gets from the federal government as though it were a massive, budget-busting amount. Here's how we might put that number into some reasonable perspective for people.

     - One-point-four billion? Just one major highway interchange in Milwaukee cost $1.7 billion.

     - One-point-four billion? The U.S. donates more than that every year to the World Bank so it can loan money to foreign governments.         

Still, it's a challenge. Try getting someone who has never been on an Amtrak train to understand why high-speed rail is much faster than higher-speed rail. These days, that's asking a lot.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Should You Use a Travel Agent for Booking a Rail Journey?

One of the questions about train travel that keeps popping up usually comes from someone who's planning a long-distance train trip and wants to know if it's better to use a travel agent.
My advice is usually to use a travel agent if you really don't want to try doing it yourself, and especially if your rail itinerary is in any way complicated … that is, if it involves several connections or if you need professional advice on hotels and activities.
The problem is, many travel agents -- maybe even most of them -- really don't know very much about booking long-distance trains in the U.S.

As an example, suppose you're going from St. Louis to a family wedding in Santa Fe. You don't like to fly, so you want to take the train. Take a look at this brief itinerary. No rail-savvy travel agent would suggest it. Can you figure out why?

          7:55 a.m. - depart St. Louis on the Texas Eagle
          1:52 p.m. - arrive Chicago

           3:00 p.m. - depart Chicago on the Southwest Chief
           2:24 p.m. (next day) arrive Lamy, NM (Santa Fe)
This itinerary allows just over one hour for your connection from the Eagle to the Chief in Chicago. Consider: by the time the Eagle gets to St. Louis, it will have traveled more than 2400 miles since leaving Los Angeles. What are the chances that it will be more than 90 minutes late by the time it gets to Chicago? Well, for the past year, the Eagle has been on time only 45-percent of the time. In other words, you should take an earlier train to Chicago. There's one that arrives at 10:00 a.m. and another that will get you there at 12:20.

Use a travel agent to book your rail itineraries if you wish, but to make sure you get someone who is rail savvy, ask him or her a simple question: 
What's the difference between a roomette in a Superliner and one in a Viewliner? 
If the travel agent knows that a Viewliner roomette has a sink and a toilet in the room, but those facilities are "down the hall" in a Superliner, he or she probably knows how to plan and book rail travel.
I still say, if you take your time, double check everything, and then run it by one of Amtrak's reservation agents, you can plan and book your own itineraries. Just take your time, read everything, and when in doubt about a rail connection, spend the night and take the next day's train. Besides, planning a rail adventure is half the fun!

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Whatever Happened to the "Can Do" Attitude?

 In October of 1975, Emperor Hirohito of Japan came to Honolulu on a state visit. Frank Fasi was Honolulu's mayor at that time and the governor was George Ariyoshi. He and Frank were intense political rivals and, as one of the mayor's department heads, I had a ringside seat. 

As part of the emperor's official itinerary, it had been agreed that both the governor and the mayor would host an official event of some kind. Ariyoshi and his advisors arranged a formal luncheon for the emperor and empress at Washington Place, the governor's official residence. And of course Ariyoshi invited all his political cronies and major supporters to attend. Unimaginative, but quite predictable.

Frank, on the other hand, decided to stage a program of entertainment for Hirohito, with local performers representing all the various ethnicities we have here in Hawaii. The Royal Hawaiian Band played the national anthems; there was Hawaiian music and hula, the Honolulu City Ballet, Filipino tinikling performers, a Samoan knife dancer, and several other ethnic groups entertained.

But as his guests, Mayor Fasi sent invitations to 5,000 Honolulu residents selected at random from the list of anyone with a Hawaii driver's license. And so, in addition to seeing a sample of Hawaii's various cultures, the emperor and his wife would see, and be seen, by an almost perfect cross section of Hawaii's multi-ethnic, multi-racial population.

The U.S. Secret Service was providing protection for the emperor while he was in this country and Frank's idea for a guest list was a security nightmare. In fact, we learned later that several of the people who attended our event had criminal records. As it happened, I was the one who informed the agent in charge that we were going to invite several thousand randomly selected local residents to the mayor's event. I can quote his response exactly: "Oh, shit!" But then he said, "Well, it's your party and we work for you. We'll deal with it."

The citizens of Vermont and Maine want to extend the route of Amtrak's daily train, the Vermonter, another 60-some miles north to Montreal. Obviously, it makes much more sense for a train coming from Washington and New York to terminate in Canada's second largest city instead of St. Albans, Vermont, a town of some 6,500 people. 

Everyone is for it: grassroots citizen groups, and civic and political leaders on both sides of the border, including Governor Peter Shumlin of Vermont and Quebec's Premier, Philippe Couillard. But there are "obstacles": The U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is dragging its feet and muttering about "pre-clearance issues" in Canada. Really? What issues? The Vermonter would stop at the border, U.S. officials would board the train, and passengers would show their passports. Just the way they do it when the Maple Leaf comes into the U.S. from Toronto. Or when the Adirondack crosses the border coming from -- yes! -- from Montreal.

It really would have been nice if the people from CBP had simply said, "Well, it's your train and we work for you. We'll deal with it."