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have been abused by the major freight railroads so badly that public opinion has turned against Amtrak, now seen as an outdated and redundant money pit...AND THAT'S EXACTLY WHAT THE FREIGHT RAILROADS WANT YOU TO THINK!!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. …

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Mexican Elephants Are Hard to Find.

Some years ago, I took one of the more memorable train rides in the world – El Chepe, which is the affectionate name locals have given to both the Chihuahua al Pacifico Railroad and to the train itself. It runs across half of Mexico, from Chihuahua to Los Mochis, and through the Copper Canyon. Actually, it’s a series of four canyons, which are as a much as 1,000 feet deeper than the Grand Canyon in Arizona.
 At any rate, I stopped halfway through the trip and spent a night in the town of Creel and arranged for a tour of the local area the next day. At the appointed hour, a battered van arrived in the parking lot of the little hotel and the driver hopped out. He introduced himself as Polo and, since I was the only passenger, he ushered me into the front seat next to him.

The streets of Creel are paved intermittently, but Polo took off at a bone-jarring pace, expounding all the while about the thrilling sights that were in store. Mercifully, we soon reached a major road, where Polo gleefully stomped on the accelerator and sent us rocketing off toward what he assured me would be the highlight of my entire trip.

Ten minutes later we slid to a halt at the side of the road and Polo leapt from the van. As I climbed out, I saw a look of triumph on his face as he pointed dramatically across the road.

I stared, but saw nothing but boulders and pine trees. Finally, I turned to Polo for help.

He was still pointing, but his expression had faded to one of some anxiety. “An elephant!” he said. “An elephant of rock. Just there!”

I looked again and . . . sure enough, one of the larger boulders gradually assumed the form of an elephant.

I dutifully snapped a photo, and after what seemed an appropriately respectful amount of time, we climbed back into the van to continue our tour of Creel and environs.

It consisted of several more rock formations and a brief stop at the home of one of Polo’s friends for “a beer”. It was a hot day and that had sounded wonderful, but the beverage turned out to be a pale brown liquid extracted from corn and ladled into a stained glass from a plastic bucket.

Polo got me back to the hotel in time to catch that day’s train and the remainder of the journey, all the way to Los Mochis, was . . . well, spectacular doesn’t adequately cover it. I absolutely recommend it, but would urge going through an experienced company specializing in that train and in that area. Most especially, let them recommend any side tours. But skip the elephants.


Saturday, April 12, 2014

Selling Big Ideas With Little Words.

Promoting the benefits of passenger trains is the mission of NARP, the National Association of Railroad Passengers, and it ain’t easy.

There’s a huge amount of misinformation, ignorance and apathy out there, and it’s hard to overcome all that.  Most people are just too busy to put in the time and effort to absorb the information, to understand all the implications, and to reach conclusions, especially if that means abandoning a previous conviction.
And that’s why it’s a mistake for those of us advocating more and better and faster trains to get bogged down in the minutia, lapsing into lengthy arguments about “rolling stock” and “passenger miles” and such.

The best way to present complicated ideas in a way that has an impact on public opinion is to reduce those ideas to simple, easy-to-understand “factoids”.

That’s what NARP is trying to do in its communication with the general public: get away from the scholarly essays on transportation doctrine and theory, and start letting people know in simple terms – bullet points, if you will – why passenger rail is important and why it should be expanded and improved. For instance

* Amtrak carries three times as many people between New York and Washington as all the airlines combined.

*  With one person per car, it would take a 16-lane highway to move the same number of people as a two-track railroad.

West of the Mississippi River, 173 million Americans live within 25 miles of an Amtrak station.

* Amtrak removes 8 million cars from the highways and eliminates the need for 50,000 full-loaded airplanes.

NARP is producing a poster that’s full of interesting and colorful art and text that presents those and a lot of other facts about passenger trains and the benefits they bring to society as a whole as well as the traveling public. 

I’m not sure when the poster will be available, but will report that when I do and let you know how to get one.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

It’s a Dog’s Life … Well, For A Third of Them, Anyway.

Over the years, we’ve always had a dog. And they all came from the local Humane Society. No, wait there was that little black one we called Doglet. She wandered into our yard and stayed. But all the rest were mutts from the shelter.
This is our latest, Cookie. Six months ago, she was simply dropped off at the Maui HumaneSociety by her former owners who were moving back to the mainland and couldn’t take her with them for whatever reason. Their loss, our gain.

Lately, the Maui Humane Society has come under criticism in a letters-to-the-editor campaign for not adopting a “no kill” policy. After all, these folks say, other shelters have no-kill policies and the Maui Humane Society should, too.

Just changing the policy sounds simple, doesn’t it? But here’s the thing: Those other shelters don’t accept animals once there’s no more room. So it’s pretty damn easy to brag about your no-kill policy if your capacity is 25 animals and you turn away number 26.

Our Cookie is a lucky dog, because the odds were heavily weighed against her. The Maui Humane Society takes in an average of 22 animals a day, every day, 365 days a year. For each dog or cat that’s adopted, three more arrive to take its place. As an unfortunate and numbingly sad consequence of that math, the other two-thirds are euthanized. And it’s not just here. My guess is that it’s probably pretty much the same where you live.

So the message for today is (1) spay or neuter your pets; (2) contribute to and (3) adopt from your local Humane Society shelter.

I thank you. And so does Cookie.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Paris to New York on American Airlines – Twice Removed.

I’ve been making plans for another visit to Europe, using a combination of American and Hawaiian Airlines miles and cash for the over-water segments, depending on which is more advantageous.

The other night, I was working on my return and, according to the American Airlines web site, could get a Paris-New York flight for 30,000 miles. Not an American Airlines flight, but on British Airways, one of American’s partner airlines. It’s a major airline and the flight times were fine, so I booked it.

A half hour or so later, comes an email from American with all the confirming information. But it was then I noticed something on the itinerary they included: OPERATED BY OPENSKIES.

OPENSKIES – all one word – what the hell is that, anyway?
It didn’t take long to determine that OPENSKIES is an airline a subsidiary of British Airways. Further checking revealed that the OPENSKIES “fleet” consists of three – That’s right: three! – Boeing 757s.

Further checking – Ain’t the internet grand, folks? – uncovered a lot of reviews of OPENSKIES by former passengers, some praising the airline, others trashing it. A common complaint was the last-minute cancellation of flights with planes-full of passengers left stranded. (With a three-plane fleet, why are we not surprised?)

By now I had serious reservations, as you would imagine, but the tipping point came when I discovered it would cost 35 euros (that’s 48 bucks!) to reserve a seat.

This morning I called American’s Aadvantage desk and a very nice lady switched me to an American Airlines flight. I will be leaving Paris a day early, but at least it will be in the open skies and not the OPENSKIES.