Thursday, October 23, 2014

Coming Home … and Going Again.

Travel is wonderful. It's the most mind expanding experience a person can have, in my opinion. But coming home to Maui always moves me.

The Hawaiians consider rain a blessing. If you're having a backyard birthday luau -- a tradition here for a child's first birthday -- a passing shower is gratefully received. A gentle rain was falling as my flight from Los Angeles touched down yesterday and that's certainly the way I felt.

Some months ago, I wrote about American Airlines' asinine policy of refusing to sell you an upgrade to first class if you had purchased your economy ticket with frequent flyer miles. Hawaiian Airlines has no such policy and so I splurged yesterday and flew home in style. It was, at the time, very much worth the extra cost. You don't start feeling guilty until after you land.

I sat next to a very nice, very interesting man on the flight. He was born in Italy, but has been in this country for almost 30 years. He's a airline captain for a regional airline and is based in Los Angeles. 

He told me he originally came to this country to learn to fly and then to get a job somewhere -- anywhere -- with an airline. Coming to the U.S. for flying lessons struck me as odd, until he gave me the explanation: It was, and still is, much cheaper. Student pilots pay for the use of the plane, for the instructor's time … and for the fuel. So when you're racking up hours and hours in the air, it makes a big difference if you're paying $2.50 a gallon for the aviation gas instead of more than $8.00.

He also said that jobs with Hawaiian Airlines are highly prized among pilots all around the country and that the airline gets many times more applications than available openings. He himself has applied, notwithstanding the fact that he's a captain with his current airline and his application to Hawaiian was for first officer. He pulled out his iPad and ruefully showed me his letter of rejection from Hawaiian Airlines.

I once asked another Italian friend who visits Maui regularly where he would recommend I go if I had to choose one place in Italy to visit. He said Siena. I mentioned that to the Italian pilot I sat next to yesterday and he agreed enthusiastically. Siena, he said, is not too big, but is historically significant and is in Tuscany, which is renown for the food and wine which comes from the surrounding area. I am, therefore, resolved to make Siena my next foreign destination. 

When might that take place? Ah, that is indeed the question. I have no idea, but thinking about something like that and even starting to look into some of the initial details . . .  well, that's a big part of the fun, isn't it?

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Sixteen Hours Lost - Waiting On or In a Train.

LOS ANGELES  -- I think it was a character in the Sunday Comics back in the days of my youth, who first said, "I shoulda stood in bed!" I've been away for a month and it's been an interesting and productive 30 days … certainly nothing happened that would cause me to wish I had done anything differently. (Well, it might have been better to have stayed in three French towns, each for four days, instead of two towns for six days each. I suppose almost any itinerary can be tweaked and improved in hindsight.)

But -- ironically for a train travel enthusiast -- it was the rail travel here in the U.S. that disappointed. Specifically, it was the late trains. Here is the unfortunate scorecard:

Lake Shore Limited - New York to Chicago: 11 hrs., 15 min. late.
California Zephyr - Chicago to Salt Lake City: 32 min. late.
California Zephyr - Salt Lake City to Davis, CA: 56 min. early.
Coast Starlight - Davis to Los Angeles: 4 hrs., 15 mins. late.

The three late trains combined for a total of 16 lost hours although, in truth, I probably shouldn't have included the Zephyr's 32-minute late arrival into Salt Lake City. That's "on time" by today's standards.

Photo: The Coast Starlight arriving in Davis, California … already four hours late.

And, in fairness, I do not want to blame Amtrak for most of those 16 lost hours. As regulars here know, the Lake Shore's troubles began in Erie, Pennsylvania, when a 33-year-old man deliberately drove his pickup in front of our locomotive. We were already running an hour later, but that set us back another three hours, From then on, it was a foregone conclusion that things would go from bad to worse to much worse and that we would be very, very late into Chicago … as indeed we were.

The cause of yesterday's debacle occurred before we boarded in Davis. ("We" meaning me and another NARP member who had been at the Salt Lake City meetings.) Somewhere north of Sacramento, our train had been stuck behind a freight that had broken down. My plan had been to board the Coast Starlight, have a Bloody Mary in the Pacific Parlour Car, followed by breakfast in the diner. That's almost how it worked out … except that the Bloody Mary was followed by lunch, not breakfast. Four hours lost … but if there is anything positive about tho whole saga, it's that we only lost another 15 minutes over the rest of the trip.

The implications to those four lost hours are several. First, the scenic highlight of the southbound Coast Starlight are the two or three hours running down the coast, often within a hundred feet of the ocean. But last night, it was completely dark before we reached San Luis Obispo, so we missed all the scenery that everyone had been looking forward to seeing.

Then, of course, there were all the resulting missed connections. There were several people on board who were to have connected with trains taking them farther south in the direction of San Diego. Their journeys would be completed by bus. Others would be put up in LA hotels and fed by Amtrak, and most of those folks went to bed not knowing for sure how they would be completing their journeys.

Again: Very little of this was Amtrak's fault. Car crash, freight traffic and stalled freight train. BUT most paying passengers don't care. It's has to be hurting ridership… and it's got to be fixed.

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.