Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Los Angeles to San Diego By Way of a 4-Ton Behemoth.

Amtrak #566 departed Los Angeles Union Station right on the dot. The bi-level car was new -- or appeared to be -- the seats were comfortable and there was a cafe/lounge on the lower level directly below me. What's not to like? I did find that, although I travel light and my rolling suitcase is not very big, it did not fit in the luggage rack above my seat. A minor issue.

This is clearly a popular mode of transportation, even here in the Land of the Freeway. My car was probably half full with people boarding and exiting at just about every stop along the way during my 2:20 ride. Many were business types, pecking away at their laptops as we rolled along.

I was met at the Solana Beach station by my daughter and her husband, and by my granddaughter. From there we went to Balboa Park, home of the justly famous San Diego Zoo. This was my second visit there. The first time included a stop at an incredible display of model trains that, as far as I can recall, essentially filled an entire building. It's a 'must-see' if you are at all into trains and train travel.

As expected there were throngs of people, but the crowds are managed quite well. It's no doubt a generational thing, but I'm always amazed (and occasionally even delighted) at the innovations modern techology makes possible in our daily lives. My daughter had the valets park her car -- a great idea because of the crowds -- then, several hours later, sent a text message to the valets 10 minutes before we returned to the zoo entrance. When we got there, her car was waiting for us.

She had arranged for a kind of insiders' tour, which included getting up close and personal with a number of interesting animals. For me, there was a three-way tie for the Most Interesting category: A cheetah (which mewed just like a house cat), a Siberian wolf (snow white with blue-green eyes which suddenly fixed on me like lasers), and a five-year-old rhinoceros (two-and-a-half tons and still growing).
The rhino eats 60 pounds of vegetables a day and I happened to be at the head of the line when the keeper asked for volunteers willing to hand feed the brute. Chicken out in front of my granddaughter? I think not. Feel the rather urgent need to wash hands? I think so.

Back to Los Angeles today and departing for Chicago on the Southwest Chief at 6:40 this evening … just in time for a flatiron steak and a half bottle of merlot in the dining car. I'll have a full report on the Chief next time.

Monday, April 21, 2014

First Class Ain't What It Used To Be. But Neither Is Coach.

Over the years, I suppose I've made the Hawaii-U.S. mainland flight 200 times. It's five hours heading east, usually about 20 minutes more than that going the other way.

Thanks to some accumulated miles, I was in first class last night on my American Airlines flight from Maui to Los Angeles. We had a pretty stiff tail wind and touched down at LAX a full half-hour ahead of schedule. And then we sat on the taxiway for 45 minutes waiting for a gate. Of course, that was annoying, but it was an opportunity to think about the flight and about the service.

There were two flight attendants assigned to first class. Both guys. Both well into their 50s. They were pleasant enough, but neither one was particularly attentive. Just doing their job.

The food … well, we were started off with a decent salad and there was complimentary wine. For entrees, there was a choice between a steak or lasagna. The guy sitting next to me ordered the steak; I went the italian route. The steak was done to smithereens, and he remarked that he should have ordered the lasagna. He was wrong. The lasagna would not have passed muster as a Stouffers frozen dinner. 

I must say I scored with dessert: an ice cream sundae - vanilla, topped with strawberries and a sprinkle of nuts. My seat mate opted for the "cheese tray", which proved to be a 6-inch diameter paper plate with three pieces of cheese on it … handed to him still wrapped in Saranwrap. That's first class?  

Basically, what we got in first class last night was not that much better than what coach passengers routinely got to that many years ago. And there's no comparison to what was served up to first class passengers back then. I clearly remember a Western Airlines flight attendant wheeling a cart up to my seat and slicing off a thick filet mignon from a sizzling slab of prime beef. And it was certainly a treat being invited up to the second deck on one of the PanAm 747s where three tables for four had been set up … complete with table cloths, silverware, and chinaware.

Yes, the first class service is better -- a lot better -- on the international flights, but for a $12,000 fare on a LAX-to-London flight, it damn well ought to be better! The actual first class fare on my flight last night was a lot less than that -- about $2200. I used Aadvantage miles and was disappointed. If I had paid cash, I would have been pissed! 

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Up, Up, and Away!

I’m leaving in about an hour on a three week trip that includes (1) a brief visit with my daughter and her family in the San Diego area, (2) the semi-annual meeting of the National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP) in Washington, DC, (3) and a three-game series between the Boston Red Sox and the Oakland A’s at Fenway Park in Boston.

Once I get to the mainland, it will be Amtrak all the way: from Los Angeles to San Diego and back to L.A. on the Pacific Surfliner; then the Southwest Chief from L.A. to Chicago, connecting there to the Capitol Limited to Washington.  At the conclusion of the NARP meetings, I’m taking an Acela to Boston, stopping en route in New London, Connecticut for a dinner with old friends.

From Boston, I’m taking the Lake Shore Limited back to Chicago and the California Zephyr from there to Davis, California, with a 24-hour stop in Galesburg, Ilinois, for a visit with my younger brother and his wife.

I’ve made the stop in Davis several times. The Zephyr arrives there in the late afternoon, and I spend the night in a nice hotel literally 100 yards from the station. The southbound Coast Starlight arrives at about 7:00 the next morning. It’s perfect: I board, stash my gear in my roomette and head straight for the Pacific Parlour Car where I order a Bloody Mary and sink back into one of those plush chairs enjoying life for a half hour or so. Then I got into the dining car and have a nice breakfast. What is not to like about that?

At any rate, I will try to keep up with postings during these coming days. Some will probably take more of a travelogue form, but I’ll also try to report on some of the interesting things that will be happening during the NARP meetings. One will no doubt have to do with a reception I’ll be attending in a beautifully restored private rail car. There will be some “blackout” periods when I’m on the overnight trains, but I’ll do my best to keep current.

So stay tuned . . .

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Amtrak Conductors Have Low Tolerance for Problem Passengers.

Over more than 20 years, I’ve racked up a lot of miles on Amtrak. And I can think of just four incidents where I personally witnessed a passenger causing trouble. That’s not to say there aren’t people on board many trains that are potential problems. It’s just that Amtrak conductors are very, very good at nipping trouble in the bud.

I was reminded of all this when I came across a news story yesterday about some bozo who apparently assaulted an Amtrak conductor on the Empire Builder. Big mistake!

I’d guess that booze was involved in this case. Liquor and cigarettes are the two most common problems people bringing their own booze on board or sneaking smokes in the lavatories or in the vestibules between cars.

When they occur, the conductors deal with those problems very directly: they look the perpetrators right in the eye and say, “Once more, and our very next stop will be yours.”

If they sense the problem passenger will act up again or even become violent, the conductors ask the engineer to get on the radio and request the dispatcher to contact the state police. A couple of officers are sent to meet the train at someplace where the tracks cross a state highway.

A veteran conductor told me that once they make that decision, they never tell the passenger he’s going to be removed from the train. That’s just asking for trouble. So the train makes what appears to be a routine stop in the middle of nowhere, possibly to let a freight pass, and suddenly the troublemaker looks up to find two big state cops standing there, handcuffs at the ready.

It all happens quickly, almost always quietly, and usually unbeknownst to all but a very few of the other passengers.

The moral of the story is: He who provokes an Amtrak conductor will soon discover there’s not a lot going on in Wolf Point, Montana, at 1:30 in the morning.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Planning to Forget Something Important.

Here it is, end-of-day-Friday, and I’m leaving on Sunday for the NARP meetings in Washington, so I’m in the last-minute drill for a trip that will keep me away for three weeks.

Basically, it’s a question of getting organized. The problem is, I always forget something. Always.

Business cards. Power cord for my laptop. Spare batteries for my camera and scanner. The scanner itself! Every trip it’s something.
I’ve never forgotten my passport, but I did lose it in the Seoul airport. And isn’t that every traveler’s worst nightmare!

There was a minor hassle deplaning in Seoul after my flight from Shanghai. The security people asked to see my passport and the boarding pass for my Hawaiian Airlines flight back to Honolulu. I handed them the passport and tried to explain I had been away a month and was going to get the boarding pass at the Hawaiian gate. I think they just forgot to hand the passport back to me and of course I was distracted by the boarding pass issue.

I didn’t discover the passport was missing until I was getting organized for the Hawaiian flight. After the panic subsided – Was I panicked? Your damn right I was! – I went to one of the Information booths and told the woman there my problem.

Of course, she realized immediately that the passport almost certainly was somewhere in the airport. Three or four phone calls was all it took, and a few minutes later, a young man in a dark suit came jogging up with my passport in hand.

That experience was enough. I’ll never forget my passport again. But I’ll forget something. It’s always something.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Change of Strategy for Using Airline Miles?

I recently came across an interesting column by Charlie Leocha in Consumer Traveler, an online travel-related web site, in which he writes what we all have probably suspected: the major airlines are screwing those of us who ride in the back of the plane.

We’re paying more and getting less. Meanwhile, the airlines are showering the folks in first and business class with all the goodies that were once just expected – meals, snacks, no fees for checked bags, etcetera and so forth.

For more than 20 years, I’ve used miles earned on American and Hawaiian Airlines for travel in economy class. The new strategy seems to be: pay cash for your economy seat and use your miles for upgrades.

I’m not sure this will prove to be a better deal. For one thing, a lot depends on where you live. Obviously, flights in and out of Hawaii – and Maui, in particular – are very popular and cost a lot, whether in miles or in cash. Just another extra cost that comes with living in paradise.

These days, when I get phone calls from people who live in the east or Midwest and are thoroughly sick of winter, the conversation always gets around to the caller asking about our weather here on Maui. As it happens, we’ve had days and days of unpleasant gusting winds and a lot of rain. The thing is, no one wants to hear that. They're disappojnted and some even get a bit short with me. So now, no matter what the weather is really like, I just say, “It’s 80 degrees, sunny, with gentle northeast trade winds.” (Of course, that’s usually the way it really is.)

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

A Conductor Comments on Empire Builder Delays.

Amtrak has added between 90 minutes and three hours to the schedule of the Empire Builder in an effort to regain some semblance of on-time performance. As we all know, that train has been running many hours late because of freight congestion occurring across North Dakota. On March 27, the St. Paul Star-Tribune ran a story reporting in the Empire Builder's new schedule. What follows is a comment that appeared in response to the online version of that article. The person responsible for the comment was identified only as "MNConductor". I don't necessarily endorse this point of view; I do find it provocative and worthy of consideration.
“Those of us who actually work in the railroad industry know what's really happening: The General Code of Operating Rules (GCOR) is recognized by all US railroads as the foundation of railroad operating rules. It's a basic rule that passenger trains have ABSOLUTE PRIORITY over freight and must not be delayed...period. If they are, the freight railroad over whose tracks Amtrak operates is fined by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA).

“What BNSF and all the other railroads have known for decades is that violating this rule to move their freight and taking the fine is still more profitable than obeying this GCOR rule! And that's IF there's an executive administration even willing to enforce it at all.

“AND WHAT'S MORE, this strategy by the freight railroads has another huge benefit. For decades, Amtrak trains have been abused by the major freight railroads so badly that public opinion has turned against Amtrak, now seen as an outdated and redundant money pit...AND THAT'S EXACTLY WHAT THE FREIGHT RAILROADS WANT YOU TO THINK!! And it's working.

“And now in the post-9/11 US that will see its population double (likely triple) by century's end, Amtrak is starting to show some profitability, but there's some sort of financial glass ceiling that is keeping Amtrak from buying new and more reliable equipment and increasing seat capacity past that ceiling - which is the key to profitability.

“And look what's happening now...Republicans continue to wage jihad on Amtrak while freight railroads delay trains even harder. Imagine that - Republicans and Big Business together against the public good. …