Monday, March 31, 2008

Don’t Ever Play Cards with These Guys!

After years of wrangling and two agonizing near-misses, it looks like there will finally be a mass transit system for Honolulu on the Island of Oahu. To fund most of the $3.7 billion project, the State Legislature added a half-percent surcharge to Hawaii’s equivalent of a sales tax, increasing it from 4 to 4½ percent.

Since the tax surcharge applies to Oahu residents only, the State government will keep 10% of that increase to cover the
“administrative costs” of computing and collecting that extra tax. The rest is turned over to the Honolulu city government because they’re going to build the transit system.

Here’s the rub: by the time the special half-percent surcharge lapses in 2022, it’s estimated that the State of Hawaii will have collected $300 million for their “administrative costs.” Their actual costs, however, will probably be in the $75 million range.

In other words, roughly 225 million dollars collected to pay for the City’s transit system will just be dumped into the State’s general fund instead.

Honolulu’s mayor, Mufi Hannemann, is griping, of course, but key legislators won’t give the extra money back. They need it, they say, for other things.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

This Is Not a Happy Day in Hawaii

In fact, it’s heartbreaking. After more than 60 years of providing air service among these islands and more recently to the U.S. mainland, Aloha Airlines will shut down.

It’s a long, sad story, but the short version is that a corporate raider, Mesa Air from Phoenix, Arizona, deliberately and unfairly drove Aloha out of business. They did it by coming into this market as go! Airlines and cutting fares to as little as $9.00 one-way interisland. For more of the gory details, take a look at my posts of March 17 (A Bizarre Development in Hawaii’s Airline War) and March 21 (Unfortunate News).

Aloha and Hawaiian Airlines, which began flying interisland way back in 1927, were both founded by local families. Sure, they had their occasional squabbles, but both companies were very much a part of our island ohana (family).

Now Aloha will cease operations and 1900 people will be out of work. It’s a damn shame, too, because the ruthless, greedy people running Mesa Air don’t give a rat’s ass about Hawaii or the people who live here. It’s all about the money.

Personally, I will never, ever fly go! Airlines. And if any of you have occasion to visit Hawaii, I hope you will make a point of flying Hawaiian Airlines to and from the West Coast and among these magnificent islands.

Mahalo! Thank you!

My Trans-Canada Rail Journey – Part 9

Anyone undertaking a rail journey -- especially one of some 4,000-miles through areas of which much is still wilderness -- soon begins to appreciate the massive infrastructure required to keep these trains moving: utility poles, wires, fences, switches, rails, wooden ties, bridges, storage sheds, trucks and much, much more. And all of it has to be brought in over great distances. Constant repairs and maintenance are being done. Every switch along this route is connected to a tank of propane gas which fires automatically and is used to prevent the switches from freezing in the winter.

Since leaving Toronto, the Canadian has had to wait several times on sidings for passing freights and it’s mid-day under grey skies when we arrive at Sioux Lookout, almost two hours behind schedule. With a population of just 3000 souls, this is nevertheless the largest community we’ve seen since leaving Sudbury 22 hours and 750 miles ago. Sioux Lookout is a refueling stop and, while the three locomotives are being serviced, passengers get out and stroll along the concrete platform. VIA Rail's trains are all non-smoking, so this is an opportunity for the smokers among us to puff away.

As soon as we’re underway again, I head to lunch in the dining car where I’m seated with another middle-aged couple from Scotland. As I gaze out the window at the rolling prairie, I notice the white contrail of a westbound jet high above us, a white chalk mark across the azure sky. I point it out and we all smugly agree that we would much rather be down here than up there. The conversation over lunch is animated, interesting and cordial and by the end of the meal we have exchanged addresses and promises to call if we ever get to the other’s neck-of-the-woods.

The Canadian is racing along at just over 70 mph as we head for Winnipeg. The countryside has flattened out noticeably now and we're beginning to see towering gain elevators for we’ve started across Canada’s vast breadbasket. Wheat, thousands of acres of it, extending to the horizon and beyond. Much of the grain from this area is shipped back east over these same tracks to Quebec, where it’s loaded on ships and sent to European destinations.

As we approach the Winnipeg station around 6:00 p.m., the Canadian rolls through a long arc passing the local baseball stadium where a Northern League game between the Winnipeg Goldeyes (that’s a popular food fish in these parts) and the Kansas City T-Bones has just ended. A large sign on the exterior stadium wall identifies the food concessionaire for the ballpark as Hu’s-on-First.

Winnipeg is a good-sized city with a population of almost 700,000. Three rivers converge here – the Red River the Assiniboine and the Seine – and for that reason this has been a gathering place for indigenous people long before the whites arrived. Winnipeg is as close as we’ll get to the U.S. border, which is about 100 miles to the south.

The Canadian is scheduled for an hour’s stop here and while we’re all stretching our legs, the locomotives are refueled, great quantities of food and drink restock the dining cars and lounges, and all the windows are washed. While that’s going on, many of the passengers visit The Forks Market just a hundred yards or so from the station. I come away from a 30-minute stroll through the sprawling treasure trove with a loaf of fresh bread, some local cheese, a bottle of wine and a full measure of guilt since I’m already dining very well indeed on the Canadian and all those excellent meals are included in my rail fare. Fear not. I shall persevere.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Traveling in Style!

I have an interesting train trip coming up. It’s built around the Spring meeting of the board of directors of NARP, the National Association of Railroad Passengers, to be held at the end of April in Washington, DC.

My plan is to fly straight to Washington, attend the NARP meetings, then take the train back across the country to the West Coast – Washington to Chicago to Los Angeles – catching a flight back to Maui from there.

What makes this particular train trip especially interesting is the overnight ride from Washington to Chicago. I’ll be aboard one of two vintage rail cars attached to the rear of Amtrak’s regularly scheduled Capitol Limited.

The Royal Street, is a classic bullet-shaped observation car, the kind that was always the last car of the train. It has five double bedrooms, a buffet area and a lounge.

The other, named the Pacific Union, is what’s known as a 10-6 sleeper, meaning it’s configured with 10 roomettes designed for a single passenger, and six larger bedrooms which accommodate two people. Both of these wonderful cars are being provided by American Rail Excursions.

You know what? If there’s a better way to travel, I haven’t found it!

An Addition to the Family

Six or eight months ago, my wife came across a stray dog on the road. He was skinny, scared and hurt – limping badly – so she stopped, coaxed him into the car and took him to the Maui Humane Society.

It was a short ride, but by the time they arrived she had decided we would add this new guy to our family. It was the pitiful looks he gave her, I’m sure.

The Humane Society checked him out and we took him home a couple of days later and named him Aikane, Hawaiian for “friend”.

A trip to the vet confirmed that he had a fractured hip … nothing that a few dollars couldn’t fix … and today he leaps and bounds around as good as new.

By now he’s settled in very nicely and, as you can see, has made himself quite at home.

One small problem: he’s become very protective of “his” turf and tries to eat strangers. We’re working on that.

Friday, March 28, 2008

The Case for Rail: A No-Brainer

As of April 6, Colgan Air will no longer be flying from Harrisburg, PA to New York City. As far as I can tell, that leaves only U.S. Airways with non-stop flights between those cities – three a day. The one-way fare is $194.

Flight time from Harrisburg to New York’s LaGuardia is an hour and fifteen minutes. Add to that the time it takes to go to and from the two airports, plus all the standing in line for check-in and security, and you can’t possible go from downtown Harrisburg to mid-town Manhattan in less than three hours.

Amtrak offers ten trains a day from Harrisburg to Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan. Depending on the number of stops, the trip takes anywhere from 3 hours to just under 4 hours. The one-way fare is $47.

Given those two options, why would you fly?

And, since this same scenario occurs in many other areas across this country, why isn’t the federal government putting serious money into more and better inter-city train service?

Thursday, March 27, 2008

VIA Sure Knows How to Say 'Thank You'

As a gesture of appreciation for their service, VIA Rail is offering free travel to members of the Canadian Armed Forces, including veterans, for the month of July. Wow! That's some gesture!

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

My Trans-Canada Rail Journey – Part 8

After returning to my compartment and spending an hour with a good book, I notice that the landscape is more barren now, almost desolate, with fewer trees struggling up out of the rocky ground. We are, in fact, approaching Sudbury, a town of some 160,000 people located in the middle of a large area rich in minerals, the result, some say, of a meteor-strike millions of years ago.

The first visible sign that we’re approaching Sudbury is, far in the distance, a 1250-foot high smoke stack, still standing on the site of a smelter which contaminated much of this area in the 50s and 60s.

After a 30-minute stop in Sudbury, the Canadian resumes its journey swinging more to the west now, heading across a vast expanse of level ground in the early stages of reforestation and almost directly toward the setting sun then, suddenly, plunging back into the wilderness. There are more lakes here, some just 30-40 feet across, others the size of several football fields, but all with a variety of waterfowl, which can be seen by the chevron-shaped wakes spreading out behind as they paddle across the mirrored surface.

As we rumble along beside one of these lakes, I spot movement up ahead along the far shore: three yellow, silver and blue locomotives. It’s the head end of our train … 22 cars and more than a third of a mile ahead.

The length of the train causes problems en route: we often have to make 2 or 3 stops at stations with small platforms and it’s difficult in the larger towns where dining and lounge cars need to take on additional supplies, plus water for the passenger cars and fuel for the engines.

After another excellent meal in the dining car, I stroll back to my compartment, collect my toiletry kit and a towel, and walk to the head of the car for a delightful hot shower. My bed has been made up when I return and, after an hour or so with a good book, I drift off to sleep as the Canadian passes above Lake Superior.

My tablemates at breakfast the next morning are a husband and wife from Victoria, British Columbia. They’re returning from an annual month-long visit with their daughter’s family near Toronto. “This is the sixth time we’ve made this trip and we always take the train,” the woman says emphatically. “I’d much rather spend three days here than three hours in a plane.”

After breakfast, I walk up to the front of the train occupied by the coach passengers – three coaches and a dome/lounge car from which they can purchase pre-packaged meals, snacks and drinks. The coaches are for the most part occupied by younger, more budget-conscious passengers and people traveling shorter distances. Most of the sleeping car passengers, on the other hand, are older and are either traveling the entire distance or are getting off at Winnipeg or Jasper.

Most of the rail line on this stretch is single track, first hacked out of the wilderness in the late 1800s by chipping, chiseling and blasting through some of the hardest rock on the planet. Periodically, the Canadian pulls off onto a siding to let one of the many Canadian National Railway freights rumble past. By rights, the freights should be the ones to pull over, but in many cases they are simply too long for the sidings.

At one point, our train slows and passengers stare at the stark evidence of a recent derailment: a half dozen auto carrier cars scattered haphazardly beside the track and down a 50-foot embankment.

Maybe Federal Authority SHOULD Be Stepped On!

NEWS ITEM: (AP) A federal appeals court Tuesday struck down a [New York] state law requiring airlines to give food, water, clean toilets and fresh air to passengers stuck in delayed planes, saying the measure was well-intentioned but stepped on federal authority.

A couple of years ago, my wife was traveling back here to Maui from the East Coast. Her flight out of Chicago was delayed by weather and they sat on the tarmac at O’Hare for five hours before finally being cleared to depart. And every time one of us has occasion to tell that story, the other person invariably says, “You think that’s bad? I was on a flight six months ago … ”

Go ahead, ask around. Everyone has at least one horror story like that. And if you think it’s bad now, just wait. Several of the major airlines have announced reductions in the number of flights they’ll offer because of the high cost of fuel. That means planes will soon be even more crowded.

It’s really astonishing that the Pooh-Bahs in Washington haven’t seen the handwriting on the wall and launched a crash program to expand and improve intercity rail service in this country. Instead, President Bush has submitted a budget that would reduce the federal government’s support of Amtrak by 40 percent.

And if you think that’s short-sighted, you should know that John McCain is on record as wanting to shut Amtrak down completely. That idiotic position, says Mr. Straight-Talk, is “non-negotiable.”

It really makes you wonder how these people manage to get elected, doesn’t it.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Roger Clemens: Why Is It a Case of Red or Blue?

Am I the only one puzzled about the way response to the trials and tribulations of Roger Clemens seems to be split along party lines? The issue, of course, is whether or not he used steroids and human growth hormones. He swore under oath that he didn't and, for the most part, Republican politicians have been vocal in their support of Clemens. Democrats, on the other hand, seem to believe he lied under oath and did use those substances. (So do a very large majority of baseball fans, by the way ... most Yankee fans being the exceptions.) That aside, I can't for the life of me figure out why this has become a partisan issue. Anyone got any ideas?

My Trans-Canada Rail Journey – Part 7

The next morning is a beautiful day – clear blue skies and bright sun – and after checking out of the Royal York Hotel, I cross the street to the massive Union Station, ready to begin the last and longest leg of my trans-continental journey – the three-night trip across two-thirds of the continent to Vancouver on the Pacific Coast aboard VIA Rail’s premier train, the Canadian, otherwise and appropriately known as Train #1.

An hour before our scheduled departure time of 9:30, passengers begin gathering in and around the first class lounge, nibbling on the free pastries, checking in with the conductors, and securing luncheon reservations in one of the two dining cars. At 9:00, we begin filing through a glass door and up an escalator to the platform.

The Canadian is there waiting for us – a long line of gleaming stainless steel cars, windows sparkling clean and car attendants waiting at the stairs to welcome us aboard. We’re not yet in the peak travel season, but this is nevertheless a very long train: three diesel locomotives pulling a baggage car, two coaches and a lounge/food service car for the coach passengers. Then come twelve sleeping cars for the first class passengers whose creature comforts are looked after with two lounge cars, each with a glass dome, two dining cars and a lounge/dome car with the classic rounded end, the very last car on the train.

I’m in car 120, three cars from the rear of the train. Waiting there to greet me is car attendant Bob Brown, who says that in peak season – July and August – the train often has 30-31 cars with three diners. Bob, along with the rest of the car attendants and dining car crews, will be with us as far as Winnipeg where a whole new crew will take over for the remainder of the trip to Vancouver.

I climb aboard and step into bedroom 3, my home away from home for the next three nights. After stowing my carry-on bag in an overhead rack, I head back through the train to the observation car at the very rear.

Even before our scheduled departure, a gaggle of passengers has filled the lower level of the Park car at the end of the train and every seat in the dome is taken. Our scheduled departure time of 9:00 comes and goes, and a woman in lounge area asks, “When are we going to leave?” Her husband shrugs, then pointing forward, says, “Whenever. At least we know it’ll be in that direction.” Not 30 seconds later, the Canadian starts moving, but is backing up and the woman gives her husband a withering look. There's good-natured laughter all around and he looks sheepish, but it’s an effective ice-breaker and within seconds there are several conversations underway.

We soon come to a stop and, after a brief pause, begin moving forward. For the next few minutes the Canadian threads its way through a maze of switches. Then, sliding out onto the main line, we gather speed and it really feels as though we’re on our way.

About four hours after leaving Toronto, I’m having lunch in the diner with a Scotish couple, one of several on board. During the meal, a conductor comes onto the PA system and says there is a bear on the left side of the train. There are 15-16 cars ahead of us and by the time the diner reaches the spot the bear has disappeared. With a twinkle, the man -- whose name, believe it or not, is Angus -- observes that dead tree stumps look a lot like bears.

We’re passing through real wilderness now. Thick woods - oak, maple, spruce, birch, with saplings, many bent from heavy snows - plus fallen trees, all causing a thick tangle. Every few minutes we pass a lake and almost every one seems to have a resident loon paddling around on it. We pass occasional small frame houses and conversation turns to wondering aloud about the people living in these homes. Who are they? What brought them here? How do they make a living?

At least some appear to be catering to outdoors people from the cities – campers, hunters and fishermen. Indeed, just during the course of lunch we spot several signs for “outfitters.” The terrain is uneven, rising and falling outside the window of our diner. The train slows and changes direction periodically to pass between great masses of reddish rock.

We cross a modest-sized river that bisects a small town, then burrow back into the Canadian wilderness. The visual pattern continues for miles: thick forest, then a sudden gap revealing a lake or a small house and providing a poster-quality snapshot of this incredible near-pristine wilderness.

I wander three cars back to the Park car where, as usual the dome is near to capacity and, on the lower level, a half dozen people are relaxing with soft drinks and polite conversation. I find myself seated next to a couple from North Carolina. He’s a chemistry professor and a model railroad enthusiast who nods periodically as his wife describes the elaborate set-up that has taken over their garage back home. “It keeps me occupied,” he says a bit defensively. “And out of my hair,” the woman says firmly.

Monday, March 24, 2008

How to Cope with Trains Running Late

I've been told -- and I believe it -- that the question most frequently asked by Amtrak passengers is "Why are we stopped?"

Veteran rail travelers know that Amtrak trains often run late. Sometimes very late. That’s especially true for long-distance trains because they operate on track owned and controlled by the freight railroads. Those dispatchers frequently move Amtrak onto sidings, giving priority to their freight trains. Amtrak trains also lose time because they are often forced to follow slow, lumbering freights.

So here’s the Cardinal Rule when booking a rail itinerary on Amtrak: Allow plenty of time when making connections. In fact, I almost always arrange to stay overnight and catch the next day’s train.

If you find yourself a passenger on a train that's running late, here's my very best advice: Relax and enjoy the ride!

Some years back, I was on the Empire Builder en route from Chicago to Seattle. Halfway through the second day, I was enjoying a leisurely lunch in the dining car somewhere in Montana. My tablemate happened to be an English gentleman who was very much enjoying his tour of the US on Amtrak. As we were chatting, the conductor came through the car and stopped briefly at our table. He told us we would be reducing speed off and on for the rest of the day because BNSF (Burlington Northern Santa Fe) was doing a lot of track work up ahead. He apologized, saying we would likely be three or four hours late arriving in Seattle. The Brit positively beamed. “Jolly good!” he said. “Then we really are getting our money’s worth, aren’t we!”

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Packing Tips ... Ones I Learned the Hard Way

I think it was Rick Steves who said, “There are only two kinds of tourists: Those traveling light and those who wish they were.”

He’s dead right and I now travel with one small carry-on suitcase and a small zippered canvas bag that fits under my seat on the plane.

Traveling with fewer, smaller bags is absolutely the way to go on the train, too. There’s storage space for a couple of small bags -- and I mean small -- in the roomettes on Viewliners, which Amtrak uses on eastern trains. Not so with Superliner sleepers, which you’ll find on all the trains operating in the west. You can manage with one small carry-on in a roomette and maybe a couple of small bags in one of the bedrooms. But larger bags have to be stored in a luggage rack on the lower level and are not really at hand during your trip.

When I’m packing for a train trip, the magic word is shirts. (Ladies, think tops.) Why? Because shirts and tops are the only items of clothing you really have to change once a day.

I figure out how many days I’ll be gone and pack that many shirts, plus a couple of extras. I pack one pair of slacks and I make sure that every shirt will go with them. I wear my sport coat on the plane and I bring one pair of shoes … the ones on my feet. The rest of the clothing in my bag – basically that means underwear and socks – can be worn for more than one day in a pinch.

Obviously where you’re going and what you’ll be doing affects what you take with you. But if you’re ruthless about what goes into the bag and if you make sure everything is interchangeable, you'll be one of those folks "traveling light" ... and you'll be thankful for that every single day you’re away from home.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

My Trans-Canada Rail Journey – Part 6

The next morning, my itinerary calls for a train ride back through Montreal and on to Toronto. As VIA Rail's Train #23 departs the Quebec station, we pass a long row of huge grain elevators. Grain brought from Western Canada is stored here, then shipped out the St. Lawrence river and across the Atlantic to Eastern Europe.

Twenty minutes after leaving the Quebec station, and just after our first stop at Sainte-Foy, the train slows to cross the Saint Lawrence on a massive steel-girder bridge. Parallel to us a few hundred yards to the right is a graceful suspension bridge for automobile traffic.

The morning skies are clear and the trees are leafing out in the warm sun. Regaining speed, the train passes through neighborhoods of modest homes, painted in muted tones of brown and gray and white, but with brightly-colored trims of red or orange or blue. Many of the yards and fields here are ablaze with yellow dandelions, almost as though they are encouraged. In one backyard, a man is hoeing in a small garden. He looks up and waves as we pass.

Lunch is served at my seat and starts with a selection of cheeses, served with bread and rolls and a small salad of artichoke hearts on a bed of couscous. The main course is a choice of pasta, beef or Cornish hen. I opt for a glass of white wine which comes at no charge since I’m traveling in VIA-1 class on this leg. Following lunch, we’re offered coffee and a selection of small chocolates.

As we get closer to Montreal, the land flattens out again. Three wild turkeys are strutting in a field as we pass. A bit farther on, it’s clear we’ve entered dairy country – large farms surrounded by pastures with herds of black and white Holstein cattle lying in deep, lush grass.

I strike up a conversation with my seatmate over lunch and we discover a mutual enjoyment of train travel. I mention that I have always wanted to take the VIA train up to Churchill on the shores of Hudson Bay. (For several weeks every Fall, Churchill is a very popular tourist destination. Polar bears appear and wander around in this little town waiting for the bay to freeze over. When it does, they go out onto the ice to hunt seals for the rest of the winter.) He grins and pulls a copy of the current VIA Rail magazine out of the seat pocket, flips to page 52 where there is a story about that very trip. It turns out he wrote the piece and by the time we reach Montreal, we’re old friends and have exchanged email addresses.

(Melanie Fordham photo)

When I left the quaint B&B in Quebec, host Gregg Anderson presented me with a small pin, a replica of the Canadian flag, which I immediately fastened to the lapel of my sport coat. While boarding my connecting train to Toronto in the Montreal station, a VIA employee, an older man, looks at me and says, “You’re not Canadian, are you. Canadians don’t wear those pins.” He walks away, laughing heartily. A young assistant watches him go, then shakes her head and mutters just loud enough for me to hear: “That’s not so.”

The scenery on the way to Toronto is still flat fertile farmland, but the farms are larger and clearly more prosperous than most we’ve seen so far. A variety of crops are in the fields: corn, wheat, barley and grass for hay. A bit later on we pass a picture postcard horse farm, with a stately main house, a large red barn and several out buildings. The pastures and paddocks are delineated by a meandering white rail fence. Minutes later we flash by an orchard of fruit trees – apple or pear – each a giant snowball of white blossoms.

Lake Ontario appears and reappears on our left and seagulls, silhouetted against a mist that shrouds the lake, swoop lazily in and out of the haze.

Toronto’s downtown skyline is dominated by towering new high rise office buildings as befits the center of business and banking for Canada. With more than 5 million residents, this is the largest city in Canada and the fifth largest in North America. Toronto is also thought to be the most diverse city in the world, with about half its population born outside of Canada. And as local folk are quick to tell you, this city boasts a generally high standard of living and a very low crime rate.

Wherever you are in Toronto, it’s almost impossible to miss the CN Tower. It’s over 1800 feet tall and, in fact, on a clear day you can see it from the opposite shores of Lake Ontario. There is a restaurant in the tower, but the main attraction is an outdoor observation deck at 1122 feet. It has a glass floor and if you don’t have a fear of heights before you step out onto it, you will forever after. Of course, if you want to go higher, there’s the Sky Pod, up another 323 feet - the highest public observation deck in the world. I did both and am, I truly believe, scarred for life.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Unfortunate News

This morning's newspaper contained word that Aloha Airlines has gone into bankrupcy. For background, see my earlier post: A Bizarre Development in Hawaii's Airline War . This does not necessarily mean Aloha's demise -- they have been in and out of Chapter 11 before -- but it can be considered another step forward in Mesa Air's stated objective* of driving Aloha out of business. That would be a great pity ... but this is nevertheless a win of sorts for Mesa, which is run by a real corporate shark. What positive contribution to society do these ruthless people make, anyway? Answer: Not very damn much!

* This statement -- or words to that effect -- was found in one or more of Mesa's internal documents which became public as the result of lawsuits against Mesa filed by Aloha and Hawaiian Airlines.

Some Politicians Really Do Get It.

As I’ve said in a couple of earlier posts, there are a lot of practical and environmental reasons why the U.S. should be expanding intercity passenger rail service.

Comes now the news that Ohio Governor Ted Strickland, a Democrat, has asked Amtrak to study the feasibility of creating a network of passenger rail service in his state.

The governor wants two routes to be considered. One would be a
140-mile link between Cleveland and Columbus, the state capital. The second would run from Columbus to Cincinnati via Springfield and Dayton, a distance of about 130 miles. The State of Ohio would pay Amtrak for the cost of the study.

All right! Let's hear it for Ted Strickland!

Thursday, March 20, 2008

My Trans-Canada Rail Journey – Part 5

Day Two in Quebec is for serious sightseeing and there is a great deal to see. Five million tourists visit this city every year, winter and summer, and with good reason. It is not to be missed.

Quebec is celebrating its 400th anniversary this year. Founded and settled by the French in 1608, the city was captured by the British a century-and-a-half later in 1759 and remained British until Canada was formed in 1867.

Quebec was and is the only fortified city in North America. That came to be because the Brits doubted the loyalty of the city’s French citizens and built a massive stone Citadel into which they could retreat if worse ever came to worst. It sits on high ground overlooking the St. Lawrence river some 350 feet below. The ritualistic changing of the guard takes place at the Citadel every morning at 10 o’clock. It is, as the locals wryly point out with only slight exaggeration, a British tradition presented by French Canadians to American tourists.

Sloping away from the Citadel is a large open area known as the Plains of Abraham, so named because one Abraham Martin once grazed his cattle on these grounds. It was here that the British, led by General James Wolfe, defeated the French under the Marquis de Montcalm. Both Wolfe and Montcalm were fatally wounded during the battle which took place over two days in September of 1759.

The Brits may have won that day but, make no mistake, Quebec remains French … thoroughly, proudly, defiantly French. In fact, there are two-thirds of a million people here and 95% of them speak French.

It's my last night in Quebec and, after a second exquisite meal at Le Saint-Amour, I spend another couple of hours wandering through the old town. Most of the buildings are stone, and many here in the Old City date well back to the 1700s. Doors and trim are painted in an endless variety of bright colors and the countless layers of paint have rounded and softened corners and edges.

A horse-drawn carriage comes down the street, driven by a young man in colonial garb topped off with a three-cornered hat. His shoes, however, are decorated with the Nike swoosh.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

One Argument (of Many) for High-Speed Trains.

America’s airports, especially the major hubs, have a serious congestion problem. There are simply too many airplanes landing and taking off. Delays are the result, sometimes very long delays, with hundreds of thousands of airline passengers inconvenienced. There is also, of course, a potential safety issue with so many airplanes flying around in those crowded skies.

So what are our esteemed leaders doing about this? Off hand, I can think of three things:

Over the long Thanksgiving weekend, President Bush directed the military to allow civilian airliners into air space normally reserved for military aircraft, helping ease the problem for three (of 365) days.

The FAA has been talking for some time about a new and improved system for use by air traffic controllers. It would allow them to increase the number of take-offs and landings at these airports by reducing the separation between planes in the air. (Does that idea comfort you?)

And in a few major urban areas – Chicago, for example – there’s been talk about building whole new airports at a cost of many billions of dollars. (Gee ... that approach has worked really well with our highways, hasn't it!)

But get this: At many of these major airports – Chicago’s O’Hare, for example – as much as 40% of all flights are going to or coming from destinations that are 300 miles away or less.

Here's a question for you veteran air travelers: Can you get from downtown Chicago to downtown Milwaukee or Detroit or St Louis or Cincinnati by plane in two hours or less? Almost certainly not. Not with the cab out to O'Hare, waiting in lines for check-in and security and boarding, waiting for clearance to take-off, the actual flight time, then deplaning and collecting baggage and a second cab ride at the other end.

But each of those cities is 300 miles or less from Chicago. And that’s a two hour ride by high-speed rail.

So if high-speed rail links can take you in real comfort between many of our major cities in two hours and at the same time dramatically reduce congestion (and pollution) in the air, why aren’t we building high-speed inter-city rail lines as fast as possible?

Good question! And one we should all be asking every candidate for public office in this election year.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Who's Got the Fastest Train in the World?

Most people would probably guess the bullet train in Japan or the TGV in France. Nope, the fastest train in the world is in China. It runs from Shanghai's International Airport into Pudong where passengers can transfer to a subway that will take them into the center of Shanghai.

The Chinese train runs at a maximum speed of 268 mph, although it's at top speed for only a short while since it's just an 18 mile trip. Total time, start to finish? Eight minutes!

Yes, it's really fast, but what makes this train so interesting is the maglev technology. It literally rides on air, using electromagnetic force to suspend it just above the guideway.

By contrast, in most parts of the U.S., Amtrak can only run at a maximum speed of 79 mph over track that is owned by freight railroads. Amtrak does own the tracks on the Northeast Corridor from Washington through New York and on up to Boston, but their Acela trains only top out at 125 mph. Even so, it's by far the best way to travel between those cities.

The fact is, when it comes to rail travel -- especially high-speed rail -- we have a lot of catching up to do.

My Trans-Canada Rail Journey – Part 4

My itinerary calls for me to double back to the east with a three-hour ride to Quebec City and early next morning finds me in the Montreal station gliding down a long escalator from the main hall to a lower-level platform where my train is already waiting.

We depart precisely on time and within minutes I’m presented with a breakfast menu. I opt for the omelet, which comes on a slice of Canadian bacon with some sautéed potatoes on the side. Essentially, this is “airline food,” but it’s reasonably good and it’s nicely presented along with fresh orange juice and coffee. I’ve just started on the omelet when the car attendant appears with a tray of fresh, warm croissants.

After quick stops at St-Hyasynthe and Drummondville, the train swings a bit more to the northeast toward Quebec City. We glide to a stop on a siding to wait for a westbound train to pass en route to Montreal. In a small parking lot outside my window, is a large white van, sparkling clean and proudly sporting a sign proclaiming it belongs to “E. Larocque et Fils, Fruites et Legumes en gros
(E. Lerocque and Son, Wholesale Fruits and Vegetables). Two men, who by their appearance could well be Monsieur Larocque and his son, are stacking crates of fresh produce in the back of the van.

In less than five minutes, we’re off again. The countryside we’re passing through is rural, dotted with family farms. Off in the distance to the left a tractor pulls a harrow across an undulating field. To the right, a truck loaded with bales of hay is backing slowly into the open door of a weathered red barn. There are neat stacks of firewood beside almost every house, testimony to the length and severity of the winters in these parts.

The train sweeps around a long curve, then slows a bit before clattering through a switch and emerging onto a bridge over a river swollen to the top of its banks with the Spring thaw. Two deer are grazing on tender new green shoots in an adjacent field, ignoring the train as it accelerates back to 100 mph.

In quick succession, we flash past a Christmas tree farm, a small barn with a dozen sheep standing in an attached pen, and a broad field, freshly plowed and empty save for one huge boulder, located so exactly in the middle it could be the farmer’s monument to some cause or person.

Clearly, the Canadians are making full use of today’s technology. VIA Rail provides wireless internet connection for passengers and signs on buildings we’re passing promote web addresses: and

As we get closer to Quebec City, we run parallel to the St. Lawrence River with Quebec’s suburbs below us, tidy little houses with steeply sloped roofs. Up ahead, the old city is now clearly visible with the distinctive tower of the Chateau Frontenac dominating the skyline.

Thirty minutes later, a taxi drops me on the rue Ste-Ursule at the 210-year-old Maison Historique James Thompson, where I’ll stay for the next two days. On the recommendation of my host, Gregg Anderson, I go across the street for lunch at Le Saint Amour restaurant: Watercress soup, a delicate herb omelet, and a glass of white wine. Parfait!

In fact, after a stroll through the old city and an hour with a good book, I go back to Saint Amour for dinner. The restaurant was created in the 40- to 50-foot space between two houses, glassed over to create an atrium setting. Tonight there are several dozen people dining here, the men relaxed, the women stylish, all obviously enjoying their meals. Mine starts with a delightful chilled zucchini puree topped with a parmesan mousse, followed by a chicken broth with paper-thin slices of fois gras and tiny raviolis. Next comes a rack of lamb, with potatoes and assorted grilled vegetables. All accompanied by a half carafe of pinot noir. The final entry in my note pad for today says it all: “WOW!”

Monday, March 17, 2008

A Bizarre Development in Hawaii's Airline War

A strange story, which local folks have been buzzing about for a month, has just reached the national news networks. But first, some background:

We've had two local airlines here in Hawaii for a long time. Aloha Airlines has been flying inter-island since the late 40s and Hawaiian Airlines has been operating since way back in 1927. Over the last 10-15 years, Hawaiian has grown significantly and their impressive fleet now includes more than twenty wide-body 767s. Hawaiian now flies to six or seven west coast cities, plus Tahiti, Guam, Samoa, Sydney and soon to Manila. It is - take my word for it - an excellent airline.

But the local market is tough and about 18 months ago both Aloha and Hawaiian were in bankruptcy. Both have since come out of Chapter 11 and are back to normal. But before they did, Mesa Air, a regional airline in the southwest US, showed up posing as a potential buyer for either Aloha or Hawaiian and, in that capacity, were given access to confidential internal information from the two airlines. A few months later, Mesa suddenly announced they weren’t going to buy either of the local airlines, but were going to compete against them in the inter-island market. The new competition was called go! Airline.

Both Hawaiian and Aloha screamed bloody murder, of course, since by getting to look at their books, go! had gotten an unfair advantage in their new role of competitor. That's not just my opinion: a judge recently agreed and whacked Mesa Air with an $88 million fine.

As we say in the ad business, But wait! There's more!

About a month back, a go! jet en route from Honolulu to Hilo flew 80 or 90 miles past its destination before finally responding to radio calls, turning around and landing safely. The FAA is investigating, but the best guess so far is that -- Are you ready for this? -- both pilots had fallen asleep!!

Click here for video from CNN and a Honolulu TV station, KGMB.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

My Trans-Canada Rail Journey – Part 3

It's morning, and I awake to find clear skies and a splash of yellow sunlight on the forward wall of my compartment. The Ocean has made its loop over the top of Maine during the night and now, with the St. Lawrence Seaway off to the right, is heading southwest toward Montreal. We’re still in farming country, but these farms are much bigger than the ones we saw yesterday east of here.

As we travel father into Quebec province, I see fewer and fewer signs in English. It’s almost all French now … and no wonder, because Montreal is, in fact, the second largest French-speaking city in the world.

There’s a road running parallel to the tracks and we pass a sign indicating that Montreal is 52 kilometers ahead. I organize my belongings, shave at the small sink in the lavatory (which provides instant hot water), and settle back into my seat to contemplate the build-up of traffic that is occurring outside my window - morning rush hour, Montreal style. After a long sweeping curve, the Ocean swings up onto a bridge and crosses the broad St. Lawrence River. The city is dead ahead.

Ten minutes later, the Ocean has come to a stop in the Montreal station. There are six or eight entrances to the station: from the street, directly from the adjacent Queen Elizabeth Hotel, and from the underground shopping areas that interconnect and lie beneath many of the surface streets – testimony to the frigid Montreal winters.

The station teems with people bustling to and from trains or just passing through. Many pause to browse the myriad of shops and kiosks or to stop at one of the many restaurants, including those featuring Italian, German, Thai and Chinese food in addition to the more standard fare.

And – Oh, my! – there is a patisserie with a bountiful selection of baked goods, from still-warm loaves of bread to delectable deserts, all laid out in a display case that must be 50 feet long.

I’m only in this amazing city for the balance of this day, so I spend it walking around the old town and along the river bank with a stop for lunch at Schwartz’s Delicatessen, enthusiastically recommended as a “must” by Veronica, my dinner companion in the dining car last evening. Schwartz’s has been here for 75 years and is a Montreal institution. It’s small, noisy and, even well before the noon hour, there is a long line of customers waiting to get in. Twenty minutes later, I finally get to bite into Schwartz’s famous beef brisket sandwich. The experience is nothing short of euphoric which must have registered on my face because a young man next to me at the counter nods solemnly and says, “Extraordinaire, n’est-ce pas?”

I’m spending my one night in Montreal at the Queen Elizabeth and my culinary experience continues that evening with a superb dinner at the Montrealais Bistro-Restaurant, one of three in the hotel.

Tomorrow it's off to Quebec City.

Friday, March 14, 2008

This Could Only Happen on Maui.

I live in a part of the island that us locals refer to as “upcountry.” It’s rural and pretty far off the beaten path for tourists. This afternoon I stopped by what passes for our neighborhood supermarket – Foodland in the little community of Pukalani – and ran into the entire women’s varsity water polo team from Dartmouth College. They’re here, said one of the young ladies, for “training.”

My Trans-Canada Rail Journey – Part 2

The Ocean arrives in Moncton just after 5:00 and the 20-minute stop gives the smokers on board a chance to step off the train for a cigarette. VIA Rail has a large facility here, including the people who handle their reservations system.

Underway again, the train is moving fast now – 80 mph over straight track through a thick forest on either side that passes in a blur for many minutes at a time. Then, suddenly, we emerge from the woods, cross an open field and pass a cluster of small houses. The one closest to the tracks has a small outside deck on which 5 or 6 people, all warmly dressed in fleece jackets, are gathered around a BBQ grill. A woman with white hair is holding an infant and waving the baby’s hand at us as the train rushes past.

The sun has emerged from the overcast and, as it settles toward the horizon off to our left, it appears to follow the train, darting in and out of an almost endless row of pine trees running parallel to the track. The new leaves on the birch trees are pale green and have gone almost chartreuse when backlit by the sun.

I have a 7:00 reservation for dinner and, when I enter the dining car, the steward seats me with a young woman who works for a pharmaceutical company, translating everything from advertising copy to complex medical text from English into French. Veronica is a Montreal native and she cheerfully gives me a list of things to do and places to visit there.

For dinner tonight I choose a small salad, followed by chicken fricassee accompanied by two glasses of a modest, but rather good chardonnay.

The bustling dining car crew is cheerfully and efficiently serving some 20 passengers. Somehow, instinctively, they know to greet me in English and Veronica in French. Indeed, our server effortlessly switches languages in mid-sentence, saying, as she presents me with a menu, “The special tonight is beef stroganoff and (shifting her glance to Veronica) vraiment, il est tres bon.”

As I finish a chocolate torte, the Ocean slows and clatters across a bridge spanning the narrow-most part of Mirimichi Bay, which is fed by several rivers that twist and turn through the countryside. Off to our left is the silhouette of a lone kayaker paddling into the setting sun on the horizon where the bay empties into the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

It’s approaching twilight when we reach Campbellton and I return to my compartment to find that the car attendent, Joanne, has lowered my bunk, turned down the bedcovers and plumped up my pillows. A dozen pages into the paperback book I bought as insurance against a sleepless night on board the Ocean, my eyelids close.

I waken briefly at exactly 12 o’clock, raise up on an elbow and find the Ocean has crossed into Quebec province and is standing in the Mont-Joli station, which is precisely where we ought to be at midnight.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

My Trans-Canada Rail Journey – Part 1

In May of last year, I took Canada’s VIA Rail across the continent from coast-to-coast. This is my account of the 8-day trip, which included a total of four nights on the train.

I arrived in Halifax, Nova Scotia, yesterday and just after noon today will be leaving on the start of a rail journey that will take me from here on Canada’s Atlantic Coast all the way to Vancouver on the shores of the Pacific, just over 4000 miles away. Twenty-four hours is not nearly enough time to spend here in Halifax, but I do the best I can with a drive around the city and, this morning, a memorable visit to the Maritime Museum on the Halifax waterfront.

This is where General Sir William Howe organized an invasion fleet before his capture of New York City in 1776. And here, in this vast harbor, is where convoys of merchant ships loaded with the men and material of war assembled before running the terrible gauntlet of German submarines on the way to Europe in two World Wars.

It’s still an hour before the scheduled departure time for VIA Rail’s Train # 15, the Ocean, but passengers are already standing in small clusters in the spacious waiting room of the Halifax train station. Periodic public address announcements come in both English and French and reverberate through the room. Out beyond the double glass doors, our train waits at the platform – more than a dozen cars, in blue and teal livery with a classy yellow stripe.

At 12:00 noon on the dot the doors open and the first group of travelers, sleeping car passengers, flow out onto the platform in search of their assigned cars. Mine is number 21, which is five or six from the rear of the train and the attendant, a petite French Canadian lady named Joanne Doucet, greets me at the stairs. She leads me directly to my compartment – a compact room with a comfortable six-foot seat, a bed that folds down from the wall, and a small private lavatory – and briskly takes me through the brief orientation. She points to a telephone handset on the wall and says if I need her for any reason, day or night, all I have to do is pick it up and the portable phone clipped to her belt will ring.

Now comes my favorite moment on one of these overnight train trips: settling back in my private sleeping compartment waiting for my rail journey to get underway. Ten minutes later, after the coach passengers have been boarded and precisely on our assigned departure time of 12:35 p.m., the Ocean begins to move.

This train’s final destination is Montreal, but for me it’s the first leg of a trans-continental rail journey to Vancouver, British Columbia – 4,000 miles to the west and all by train. But we’re leaving Halifax and the Atlantic Ocean behind now, clattering through switches onto the main line and increasing speed as we roll through the city’s suburbs, mostly modest clapboard-sided houses.

Not more than a half hour later, we’ve left the populated area behind and are speeding through countryside that’s mostly wooded interrupted by occasional small farms. Every few minutes we cross streams that are swollen from the Spring thaw and running at the top of their banks.

Montreal is almost due east, but for the rest of the day the Ocean will be headed north as it loops up and around the state of Maine.

As a reminder that freight is king on North American railroads, our train slows and swings off onto a siding. After a 15-minute wait, a freight train lumbers past headed for Halifax.

After quite a good lunch in the dining car, I take a few minutes to “walk the train.” The Ocean is being pulled by twin diesel locomotives – the “head end” in railroad lingo – followed by a baggage car, three 48-passenger coaches, a lounge car, a dining car and seven sleeping cars, each with ten compartments which, depending on configuration, will accommodate either one or two people.

Clearly, this part of the country has had a lot of rain recently. Freshly plowed fields have standing water in low spots and every few minutes a few drops of rain spatter against the window. There are few signs of any real prosperity here. Most of the farms are small, with modest houses and weather-beaten barns. One small house, just a hundred feet or so from the tracks, displays a yellow ribbon in the front window.

Around 4:00 in the afternoon, still under lowering clouds, we cross into New Brunswick. Shortly after a brief stop at Sackville, the train passes Chicnecto Bay off to our left. Farther to the south it broadens out into the Bay of Fundy, known for tides that can rise an fall as much as eight feet an hour.

We’re back in fertile farmland again, crossing small streams that wind through the countryside. A blue heron glides to a gentle landing at the edge of a pond as we pass. Along the bank of a small river, green shoots are starting to poke up through the brown grass flattened by months of snow. The small farms hereabouts are really cultivated islands in the middle of woods – evergreens, maples, oaks, and birches.
(To be continued)

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

(I Really Hope) This Is a True Story.

A friend of mine, who traveled a great deal, told the following story, swearing it actually happened.

Some years ago at Honolulu International Airport, he was second in line to check in for a flight to Los Angeles. The man in front of him was giving the poor reservations agent a very bad time – grousing about the airline, complaining that the flight was delayed and generally being loud, rude and obnoxious.

Through it all, the young man behind the counter, who happened to be asian, remained calm and polite.

Finally the big blowhard went way over the line. “This kind of incompetence,” he sneered, “is what I expect from you people.”

Still, the res agent kept his cool, and finally the jerk went stomping off toward security, clutching his boarding pass and baggage claim check.

My friend, who had overheard everything, complimented the young man on how well he had handled a very unpleasant passenger and asked him how he had managed to keep his cool.

The agent smiled. “I just tried to remember,” he said, “that while that guy was on his way to Dallas, his bag would be heading for Tokyo.”

MORAL: Be nice. You never know when you're going to piss off the wrong person.

Say Hello to a REAL Traveler.

Here in the Islands, we call this little guy a kolea ... the Hawaiian word for plover. Or, as the serious ornithologists prefer, a Pacific Golden Plover. We've had a pair of these birds in our pasture since early last Fall. They'll be around for another month or so before taking off for their summer home in either Alaska or Siberia. Imagine that! It's more than 2000 miles over open ocean. Non-stop. What's more, those two kolea will be back in our pasture again next winter. The very same two birds. Sometimes I stand at the pasture fence and just look at them.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Why Are We Not Surprised?

NEWS ITEM: The number of Americans hopping buses and grabbing subway straps has climbed to the highest level in half a century as soaring gasoline costs push more commuters to take mass transit.

U.S. mass transit ridership began to surge when gasoline hit the $3 a gallon level in 2005 and has continued to rise steadily ever since as pump prices top record after record, according to a report released on Monday by the American Public Transit Association.

(FYI, folks, the price of gasoline on Maui today is $3.92 for regular. )

How Come Everyone Else Gets It?

My cousin, Steve, works for several of the better tour companies -- G2 Adventures, China Travel and Tour, and Orbis Institute -- escorting groups to all sorts of exotic areas of the world. I had an email from him a few days ago in which he describes some of the fabulous train trips he took during his recent travels:

I just took trains the whole length of Vietnam--from Saigon up to Hanoi and then to the Chinese border. The stretch of rail just north of Danang heading toward Hanoi runs along the coast and the scenery was stunning. I've been taking a lot of trains in China lately--their system is surprisingly sophisticated and efficient. I took the Maglev in Shanghai (fastest in the world--431 km an hour) and the Tibetan Express (highest in the world). China also has some classic steam engines still running. It's a train aficionado's paradise. Amy and I are heading to Italy in a couple days and we'll be riding great European trains there. It seems every country in the world has a terrific passenger train system except us.

He's right about that, of course. Everywhere you go in the world, countries are pouring resources into their rail systems. Why? Because you can transport more people for less fuel. Because the railroad infastructure is much less invasive. Because trains are less polluting. Because rail systems dramatically reduce congestion in the air and on the highways. And because traveling by train is more pleasant and more comfortable for the passengers. What's not to like about that?

These are indisputable facts, but they seem to have escaped our peerless leaders. As mentioned in an earlier post, President Bush's proposed budget calls for a 40-percent reduction in funding for Amtrak, and current funding levels are barely adequate. Cuts that drastic would essentially put Amtrak out of business ... except, perhaps, for the Northeast Corridor between Washington and Boston.

Fortunately, Congress will not permit that to happen, largely because Amtrak trains run through too many Congressional districts and most Members of Congress understand that their constituents would raise hell if their elected representatives went along with that lunacy.

Monday, March 10, 2008

The Way West

My final destination on this trip was San Francisco, but this photo was taken from my roomette on Amtrak's California Zephyr as we headed west across Nevada. Later that day, we crossed the Sierras before descending into the Bay Area. Is there be a better way to see the country? I don't think so!

Derailment Spills Critical Cargo

Here's another NEWS ITEM, coming from the opposite end of the spectrum:

TRENTON (AP) - It might take until the end of the month to finish cleaning up from a Jan. 12 derailment on the edge of this northwestern North Dakota town, BNSF Railway says. Spokesman Gus Melonas said the railroad is still investigating the cause of the wreck and tallying damages.Twenty-three cars left the tracks, spilling lumber, paper and french fries.

French Fries??

No Comment Necessary

NEWS ITEM: Campbell High School teacher Corey Rosenlee currently conducts classes with his lights off because of the heat. About 400 students and staff from the Ewa school [on the Island of Oahu] plan to march at the state Capitol tomorrow to ask lawmakers to set aside money for air conditioners. They are even bringing the school band.

NEWS ITEM: In 2008, it’s sixth year, the war [in Iraq] will cost approximately $12 billion a month … Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph E. Stiglitz and co-author Linda J. Bilmes report in a new book.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Are You Sick of Winter Yet?

The arrival of Daylight Savings Time is normally a sure sign of Spring. Not this year … at least not in much of the Midwest, which has been hit by another huge snowstorm.

CNN reports this morning that the Cleveland airport, Hopkins International, was buried in snow yesterday and had to shut down altogether. Hopkins reopened today, but a bunch of flights have either been delayed or cancelled, which means a great big bunch of people have either been inconvenienced or are still camped out on the floor at the airport.

Similar problems have affected other airports all over the area. And roads and highways are a mess, too, of course.

To see how Amtrak might have been affected by the storm, I checked the status of the Lake Shore Limited, which left New York City Friday morning bound for Chicago. It passed through Cleveland during the height of the storm, but was only two hours late into Chicago yesterday. Pretty good, all things considered.

The fact is, when there are weather problems, you’re much more likely to get there by train than by plane or car. One more reason (all together now) to take the train!

Saturday, March 8, 2008

You Were Expecting Maybe the Orient Express??

A freelance writer friend of mine, who relocated to Bangkok several years back, emails every so often whenever he has anything related to train travel to pass along. One of his assignments included a 12-hour train ride that crossed through a part of Cambodia that had been infiltrated by insurgents and where there had been occasional outbreaks of violence.

As he was boarding his train at the Bangkok station, he noted that the locomotive was pushing four flat cars. After a moment, it dawned on him that this was in fact a safety precaution: the flat cars were there to trigger any explosives that might be laid in the tracks at some point up ahead in the disputed territory.

About 20 minutes after they were underway, as the train was sweeping through a long curve, he leaned out the window for a view of the locomotive up ahead and was startled to see that the flat cars were all full of people.

Evidently the railroad had sold tickets for that space … one would hope at a substantial discount.

A Ranch in the middle of Big Sky Country.

The Empire Builder has become Amtrak's premier long-distance train, running daily in both directions between Chicago and either Seattle or Portland. Almost a full day is spent crossing Montana where scenes like this keep passing by your little living room window. Now doesn't this beat traveling at 30,000 feet?

Friday, March 7, 2008

How About Joning NARP?

The fact that you’ve dropped in here for a looksee likely means you’re interested in rail travel. So think about a membership in NARP – the National Association of Railroad Passengers.

NARP’s mission is to promote “a modern, customer-focused national passenger train network” and it’s the only national organization that speaks for people who travel by train, whether long-distance or commuter.

Over the past 15 or 20 years, NARP, with the help and support of its 23,000 or so members, has played an important role in keeping Amtrak in business. Whenever a member of Congress starts talking about cutting federal support for Amtrak – it’s almost always a Republican, by the way – NARP alerts those of its members who are constituents of that politician and the letters and faxes and emails start showing up at his or her office.

Annual dues are very low and, if you think this country needs a modern efficient and environmentally-friendly system of passenger trains, your support of NARP can help make a real difference.

There’s a link to the NARP web site in the right-hand column. Check 'em out.
VIA Rail's train # 1, the Canadian, passing 14,000-foot Mount Robson, the highest peak in the spectacular Canadian Rockies. I've made this trip - from Toronto to Vancouver - three times and highly recommend it. Beginning next week, I'll be posting installments of an account of the trans-Canada train trip I took last summer - from Halifax to Vancouver. (Melanie Fordham Photo)

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Staying Humble is Easy

As I've noted in my brief bio, some years ago I wrote a book about train travel. It was (and still is) called All Aboard! The Complete North American Train Travel Guide.

The first edition came out in 1995 and a second one followed three years later. The book sold reasonably well – something over 20,000 copies total. A few weeks after the first edition came out, my agent, Sheree Bykofsky, excitedly reported that the book had been given a very good review by a magazine that went to the nation’s librarians. She said that meant libraries all over the country would order copies. And indeed they did.

The book is no longer in print, but a few copies are still available through Amazon and other dealers in new and used books.

Friends and acquaintances occasionally say they would like to have an autographed copy, but I’ve long since given away all those originally provided to me by the publisher. So a few months back, I ordered a half a dozen to have on hand for that purpose.

Turns out they were all library copies of the first edition, which had subsequently been replaced when the second edition came out.

And each copy had a large rubber stamp smack in the middle of the title page:


That pretty much took any luster off the “presentation ceremonies” whenever I gave one away.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

NEWS ITEM: Woman Escapes Injury When Amtrak Clips Back Bumper.

It seems the woman was stopped in front of a railroad crossing in Orlando, FL, yesterday, when the car behind her started honking.

MISTAKE # 1: She drove ahead onto the railroad tracks.

When she realized a train was coming, she pulled forward as far as she could. Later she told a TV reporter what was going through her mind: “Do I jump out or stay in the car? I didn't know what to do …”

MISTAKE # 2: She stayed in the car!

The train barely nicked her vehicle, although it was enough to tear the rear bumper off. The woman, fortunately, was uninjured.

This incident brings to mind an interesting subject. There are about 150,000 public grade crossings in the U.S. and, of these, just over a third have some kind or safety feature – gates or flashing lights. Accidents at these crossings are a big problem, with 500 to 600 people killed every year.

The great tragedy is that all of these accidents are avoidable. Carelessness or downright stupidity (see above) are the problem
99 percent of the time. Believe it or not, in most cases the motorist actually drives around the barrier and onto the tracks, trying to get across before the train reaches the intersection.

A personal note: About ten years ago, my daughter and I were on Amtrak’s Silver Star heading to Florida. Just outside of Savannah, Georgia, our train hit a car. It was a VW bus and the impact literally tore it in half. We were in the lounge car at the time and the attendant said, rather tartly I thought, “I hope we didn’t kill the guy.” She saw my expression and explained: “If he's still alive, the ambulance will come and we’ll be able to leave as soon as they take him to the hospital. If he’s dead, we have to wait for them to find a coroner, and we could be stuck here for hours.” (The driver was dead, and we were delayed over two hours.)

The harsh reality is that a collision between a moving train and a car is no contest at all. An Amtrak engineer once told me that a fair comparison would be running over a mailbox with your family car. That’s a good image to keep in mind as we head off to the supermarket.

Oh … and if you should find yourself stuck on the tracks and a train is coming? Get out of the car!!

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

A View from Train # 5

Amtrak’s westbound California Zephyr climbs into the Rockies after leaving Denver and follows the Colorado River for over 100 miles.

Monday, March 3, 2008

What the hell are they thinking?

I am, of course, an advocate for expanding and improving America’s passenger rail system. There are just too many reasons why we ought to be putting a lot more resources toward that as a national goal. Rail is the way to go because it’s good for the environment, it will reduce our dependence on oil, and it can dramatically reduce congestion in the air and on our highways. (Much more on this in later posts.)

A bigger, better national passenger rail system is a no-brainer! Every other country in the world has already figured that out, even third world countries. So why does the power elite in this country keep trying to starve Amtrak to death?

In his current budget, President Bush has proposed cutting Amtrak’s subsidy by 40 percent, which would, for starters, mean kissing all the railroad’s long distance routes good-bye. That’s crazy, of course, and Congress won’t let it happen. But it does reflect the Bush Administration’s mind-set.

Ah, you say, but Bush will be out of office in less than a year. True, but if John McCain is elected, Amtrak will be – as we say here in Hawaii – in deep kim chee. McCain has been an implacable opponent of Amtrak over the years and has said shutting Amtrak down completely would be “non-negotiable” if he’s elected president. That is truly mind-boggling.

Each of us can come up with a list of pluses and minuses for John McCain’s candidacy. His attitude toward our national rail passenger system should come down on the negative side … with a very loud thud!

A Small Silver Lining

Several weeks ago, there was a massive mudslide in a remote area of the Cascade Mountains north of Chemult, Oregon. It covered almost two-thirds of a mile of Union Pacific track up to 200 feet deep, interrupting all rail traffic including Amtrak's Coast Starlight, which runs daily in both directions between Los Angeles and Seattle over UP tracks. A huge clean-up effort is in progress, but it's complicated by the fact that thousands of old-growth trees were toppled by the slide and they have to be cut up and cleared away, too, and it's all costing Union Pacific millions. So what 's that about a silver lining? Well, the arrival of several hundred people, mostly clean-up crews, has proven to be a boon to several of the little communities in the area ... so says the LA Times.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Canyons, Curveballs and Cornfields

Amtrak’s Train #4, the daily Southwest Chief, departs Los Angeles Union Station on time at 6:45 p.m., beginning a two-day, 2,200 mile journey to Chicago. I’ll be leaving the train at Kansas City, however, to watch the Boston Red Sox in a three-game series with the Kansas City Royals. It’s my annual summer indulgence of train travel and baseball.
As soon as the conductor collects tickets, it’s straight to the dining car for dinner. By the time I get back to Bedroom 2 in Sleeping Car 31, the bed is made up and waiting. San Bernardino is behind us, Barstow is just ahead, and all of Arizona slides quietly by during the night.
Dawn finds the Southwest Chief crossing a New Mexico desert. We’re in the land of mesas now, some off in the distance, others in our path and causing the train to slow as it twists and turns through canyons separating these massive obstacles. Many have Jeep-sized boulders scattered up and down their flanks.

Just after a leisurely breakfast in the dining car, the Chief eases to a stop at Gallup, New Mexico. The town’s main street – at least the one seen from the train – is a collection of small buildings of stucco or adobe topped with large signs, most promoting Indian jewelry and crafts. One offers a startling opportunity for one-stop shopping: “GUNS & LIQUOR.”

Today the landscape east of Gallup is a desert in name only for there has clearly been a lot of rain recently. The wild grasses are green, there are large pools of standing water, and the usually dry stream beds that crisscross the landscape are running with brown water. The train sweeps around a long graceful curve and passes a dozen horses, including two spindly-legged foals, who look up for a moment, then resume their grazing.

Lamy, New Mexico, is the station stop for Santa Fe, the state’s capital, and a dozen or so people get off. Santa Fe is quaint and interesting and very old, dating back to the Spanish explorers who settled here in 1607, more than a decade before the pilgrims stepped off onto Plymouth Rock.

Leaving Lamy, the train climbs up through Apache Pass, a narrow, twisting cut in the mountains with steep red-rock sides. Once through, we’re again crossing grassland, home to several small herds of pronghorn antelope. Off and on for the next several hours, a rutty dirt path runs alongside the tracks – the original Santa Fe Trail.
Near Trinidad, Colorado, four men on horseback are coaxing a dozen steers into the back of a large semi-trailer truck. They stop for a moment to watch the train pass and one lifts his dusty cowboy hat rather grandly in response to waves from passengers in the lounge car.

The Southwest Chief pulls into the Kansas City station on time the next morning. It’s only 7:30, but it’s already hot when I step off the train: well over 100 degrees without the hint of a breeze.

I’ve picked a hotel that’s within walking distance of Kauffman Stadium and it’s full of Red Sox fans decked out in Boston caps and T-shirts. Checking in just before me is a father and his young son who have come all the way from Pittsfield, Massachusetts, to see their team. Three nights later, after the last-place Royals have somehow managed to win all three games, I encounter the two of them again in the hotel parking lot. The dad is trying to console his son. “I know you’re disappointed,” he says to the boy, “but you might as well get used to it.” Every serious Red Sox fan knows what he means.

My train-baseball odyssey resumes the next morning with a five-hour ride to Galesburg, Illinois, once again aboard the Southwest Chief. East of Kansas City is corn country, endless rows of man-high stalks running off to the horizon. The train is really moving now, over 80 miles an hour, flashing through a small town every ten minutes or so. Most are just clusters of a few weathered buildings, but the defining feature of each little community is the water tower, a huge tank perched on 100-foot-high legs and emblazoned with the name of the town it serves: Marceline, La Plata, Wyaconda, Argyle. Where there’s corn there are birds: black and white magpies, ducks, swallows, and a swarm of small dark-feathered starlings darting in and out through the exposed rafters of an abandoned barn. And settled comfortably in some soft green grass not 50 feet from the tracks, a flock of Canada geese ignore the train as it thunders by. Fort Madison is the Southwest Chief’s last port-of-call before leaving Iowa and crossing the Mississippi River into Illinois. From here it’s another hour to Galesburg, where I’ll stop for tonight. There’s a lot of history in these parts. Abe Lincoln and Steven Douglas held one of their debates on a street corner right here in Galesburg. A plaque in the sidewalk marks the spot. Monmouth College is located in the neighboring town of the same name. Monmouth is also the birthplace of Wyatt Earp and the house where he was born is still here. As a matter of fact, there are still a lot of Earps living in Monmouth, including one named Wyatt. Mass murderer Richard Speck was from here, too, but the natives tend to skip over that.

My next stop lies some 140 miles back to the west: Dyersville, Iowa, the site of that famous baseball diamond carved out of a cornfield in the film Field of Dreams. Dyersville is well off Amtrak’s beaten path, so today’s transport is a rental car.

Even from a distance, with a dozen acres of corn in between, fans of the movie will instantly recognize the white two-story farmhouse. The swing on the front porch is still there and so are the rickety bleachers on the first base side of the diamond. The baseball field itself is in great shape: grass mowed and the infield smooth and level. A dozen or so youngsters are waiting patiently to swing at balls tossed by a middle-aged man wearing a Cleveland Indians jersey.

Don Lansing still owns the place and maintains the field himself, with the cost of upkeep covered by proceeds from sales at a small souvenir stand. He estimates that some 800,000 people have made the pilgrimage here since the movie came out 17 years ago, with 60,000 coming last year alone. Amazingly, there isn’t a speck of trash anywhere. “Everyone just respects the place,” Lansing says, “like it’s their own little piece of heaven.”
Burlington, Iowa, is 165 miles due south of Dyersville on the western bank of the Mississippi. This is where I’ll meet the California Zephyr, Amtrak’s train # 5, for the two-night trip back to the west coast. It’s due at 5:15 p.m., but is held up just outside the Burlington depot while an eastbound coal train trundles past
Coal, not oil, is black gold for America’s freight railroads. They haul unimaginable quantities of the stuff, mostly from mines in Wyoming and Colorado. The country’s appetite for coal is insatiable. In fact, there are power plants east of here that consume all the coal provided by a fully-loaded 110-car train every single day of the year.

Tonight in the dining car the table is shared with two sisters, both teachers from New York City enjoying their first cross-country train ride. Proving the theory that everybody has at least one interesting story to tell, it turns out that their father was the chief electrician at the old Polo Grounds in New York, home of the New York Giants baseball team until it moved to San Francisco. The older sister says her father installed some special wiring behind the center field bleachers which he thought could have been used for a signaling system to tell Giant batters what pitches were coming. Conspiracy theorists have suspected that nefarious plot ever since the Giants won the National League pennant in 1951 with a dramatic last-inning home run by Bobby Thompson, although Thompson and others in a position to know have always denied it.

Within minutes of leaving Denver the next morning, the Zephyr begins a slow, steady climb into the Rocky Mountains. Off to the right are the Flatirons, huge slabs of rock, mountains in their own right, that literally lean up against the Rockies.

It’s 275 rail miles from Denver to Grand Junction on Colorado’s Western Slope and along the way we pass though 43 tunnels. The longest, at 6.2 miles, is the Moffat Tunnel, boring through the mountains at an elevation of 9,000 feet. It’s the highest point of the Zephyr’s route and, when we emerge at the far end, we’ve crossed under the Continental Divide. Back on the Denver side of the tunnel, all the water flows east to the Mississippi River, eventually ending up in the Gulf of Mexico. From this point forward, water flows west toward the Pacific Ocean.

After brief stops in Winter Park and Granby, the train begins following the Colorado River, which will be off to the left for the next 100 miles or so. All along the way it’s dotted with people floating in a variety of watercraft ranging from elaborate inflatable imitations of double-hulled canoes to simple inner tubes. Many of the rafters cheerfully observe a time-honored tradition: they moon the train as it passes.

A mid-afternoon stop is Glenwood Springs where the gunfighter Doc Holiday came hoping his lung disease would benefit from the natural minerals of the springs. It didn’t and he’s buried here. This is a refueling stop for our twin locomotives and, although passengers are invited to step off the train to stretch their legs, the conductor warns everyone several times over the P.A. system against straying too far from the platform.

An hour later, with the Zephyr underway again, a man in his 40s tells the conductor he thinks his wife was left behind in Glenwood Springs. Sure enough, she’s paged several times with no response. With
Grand Junction still some 80 miles ahead, the husband is ping-ponging back and forth between real distress over his wife’s predicament and near-rage at her carelessness. The conductor shrugs. “It happens all the time,” he says.

I hit the jackpot for dinner companions tonight: a personable young film animator whose parents emigrated to Australia from Malta and a Japanese doctor doing research on organ donations in Boston. He, of course, has become a Red Sox fan and we happily exchange high-fives across the table. But the laws of probability are really stretched by the fourth person at our table: Keith Lewin, a 40-year resident of Kailua before moving to Las Vegas five years ago. Conversation flows all through dinner and it’s well past dark by the time everyone heads off to their respective bedrooms.

It’s still hot and dry the next morning, but no longer desolate. In fact, the vegetation is green and wild flowers – yellow and purple and white – are growing in profusion. There’s a lot more wildlife, too: jack rabbits, antelope, crows, more magpies, vultures soaring overhead and, floating placidly on a small lake, white pelicans. From his perch on top of a fence post, a large golden eagle glares at us as we pass. Cattle by the hundreds are grazing with heads buried almost out of sight in the tall lush grass.

By late morning, it’s all changed. The Humboldt River is alongside now, meandering westward through what has once again become hot, dry country. How hot and how dry? Well, a few miles from Reno, Nevada, the river simply gives up. It slows down, spreads out and quietly disappears into the desert.

After leaving Reno, the Zephyr crosses into California and begins climbing into the Sierra Nevada mountains. This is where the Donner Party – some 90 men, women and children – arrived from Indiana in 1846. It was late in the year, but they nevertheless attempted to cross the Sierras and were trapped by heavy snows. By the time a rescue team reached them, more than half of the party had died. This stretch of the Zephyr’s route, overlooking the American River Gorge at an elevation of some 7,200 feet, is appropriately called Donner Pass.

Less than three hours later, the train has descended all the way to sea level and by late afternoon the California Zephyr reaches its final stop at Emeryville, just across the bay from San Francisco.

There’s nothing like that first glimpse of these islands on a flight home from the mainland, but it was
a good trip: four nights on the train, some amazing scenery, three major league baseball games, and plenty of interesting conversation.

And yet, for reasons I can’t begin to explain, something else was the highlight. It was that magical baseball field surrounded by an Iowa cornfield.