Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Second Report from Washington

Our second day of meetings has been completed.

(A refresher: I'm in Washington attending a board of directors meeting of the National Association of Railroad Passengers. This is a non-partisan, non-profit organization dedicated to promoting a coordinated national passenger rail system in the U.S.)

Today we broke up into groups of three and four to visit various Members of Congress, urging support of passenger rail in general and Amtrak in particular. I must say that those members of Congress and the staff people we saw were most supportive. I'm especially grateftul and proud that our Hawaii delegation, representing the only state in the U.S. with no Amtrak service, has consistently voted in support of Amtrak. The two members we met with today -- Senator Dan Akaka and Rep. Neil Abercrombie -- are both staunchly pro-Amtrak and will support increased funding for our beleagured railroad.

As I have noted here in earlier posts, the Bush Administration has, for the past six years, proposed funding levels for Amtrak that would, if put into effect, cause the railroad to shut down. Fortunately, Congress has had the wisdon to provide adequate -- barely adequate -- funding in spite of the administration's efforts.

Here is just one example of how this penny pinching has put Amtrak into a truly deplorable situation:

In many areas of the country, and on many different trains, Amtrak is barely able to meet the demands of the traveling public. And, because of the skyrocketing gasoline prices, demand has been increasing week after week. But there are about 100 passenger cars sitting idle throughout the system because Amtrak doesn't have the money to perform routine maintenance or minor repairs to get those cars back into service. One of my NARP colleagues has computed that those idle cars could provide roughly 8,000 coach seats and 1500 beds ... A DAY!! Think of the additional passengers who could be served with those extra rail cars. And, almost as important, think of the additional revenue Amtrak could be making if those cars were added to the fleet and put into service.

Here's another mind-boggler for you: One of our speakers this morning was Congressman John Mica (R-Florida) who is a key member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. He told us, among other things, that the federal government is going to spend five billion dolars -- that's billion, with a "B" -- to build one new runway for the Miami International Airport. Yes, I said "ONE new runway". Amtrak's funding request for a full year is one-third that amount.

It is -- I must tell you -- a frustrating and maddening situation. Fortunately, I do think there is a new awareness of the importance of rail transportation and of the benefits it brings to the country. Most of the Members of Congress now "get it." Bush and his people don't, won't and never will.

I leave Washington tomorrow, enroute to Chicago and grandly ensconced with a large contingent of felloe NARP directors in a private rail car that will be attached to the rear of Amtrak's Capital Limited. I will have an account of that trip, and the two that will immediately follow, in subsequent posts. Ah ... and photos, too.

Monday, April 28, 2008

First Leg Completed

Whew! Made it to our nation's capital. It's a long haul from Maui. I do have a couple of impressions to pass along.

First, I had two hours between flights at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport. Maybe it's the people passing through that vast facility, or maybe it's just Texas, but I must say I saw quite a number of women who looked like college coeds from the back (long, long blond hair and short skirts), and grandmothers from the front (better not go there).

Then there was the portly businessman who was sitting in one of the rows of chairs reading the morning newspaper. Whenever he finished a section, he would casually toss it over his shoulder, neither knowing nor caring if there was anyone sitting on one of the chairs behind him. (There wasn't, which was disappointing. I would have been interested in the reaction.)

And finally, there was the low, slow, bumpy descent into Washington's Reagan Airport*, our plane groping its way down through think clouds and rain. The first time terra firma came into view was four or five seconds before I saw the end of the runway. It occurred to me at the moment of touchdown that an experience like that is just one more reason to take the train.

Tomorrow will be the first of three days of meetings of the NARP board of directors. (That's the National Association of Railroad Passengers, as I have mentioned in earlir posts.) There is internet access here at the hotel, so I will pass along anything even mildly interesting.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

I'm Off on a Mainland Trip ... and Three Train Rides

Later today, I’m leaving Maui on a trip to Washington, DC, for a meeting of the board of directors for NARP (the National Association of Railroad Passengers). This will be my first meeting and I’m looking forward to hobnobbing with a group of people who know a great deal about every aspect of rail travel.

I’ll be flying directly to Washington, but have three separate train links getting me from there back to the West Coast. The first will be particularly interesting because it'll be aboard one of two private rail cars attached to Amtrak’s Capital Limited en route overnight from Washington to Chicago.

One, pictured above, is the Royal Street. This classic beauty was built in 1950 and includes five bedrooms, a buffet and a lounge-observation area. I'll have a number of other NARP members and directors keeping me company as we travel back to Chicago in style.

The second rail leg will be on the California Zephyr, shown here climbing into the Rockies about 45 minutes out of Denver. That will be a two-night trip from Chicago to Davis, California. After spending a night in Davis, I’ll pick up the southbound Coast Starlight for my return to Los Angeles and a flight back home to Maui.

I’m not sure how often I’ll be able to post something here while I’m away, but will do the best I can. Count on a full report upon my return, including photos taken during all three train rides.

This Kid Gets It. (And Writes Well, Too!)

What follows are excerpts from a column that appeared recently in The Daily Texan, the campus newspaper at the University of Texas at Austin. It's by Colin Kalmbacher, a senior and a journalism major.

I took the train from Fort Worth to Austin on Monday.

It wasn't close to being on time (three hours behind schedule), but my attitude was: "Why would it be?" Amtrak is under-funded, under-appreciated, under-used and yet still under the constant stress of operating a national rail network.

Amtrak is also frequently and fiercely under attack by critics such as John McCain who want to strip away all government operating subsidies and kill national passenger rail service.

Of course, the private airlines, upon which the people in McCain's state of Arizona are dependent, are loaded up to their seat backs in government subsidies, and they would probably hemorrhage cash if they weren't. But McCain doesn't say a word. The airlines even received a hefty $15 billion bailout following the grounding of flights after Sept. 11, even after Amtrak proved its usefulness as a means of transportation. Go figure. ...

On the short trip I took Monday, I saw that the populated areas near the tracks are as neglected as the national public transportation infrastructure itself, from the economic flop of Fort Worth's Rail Market to the Austin Amtrak station, which is cordoned off and isolated.

Some sights along the way absolutely celebrate Texas: lush, green unspoiled field and forest, cows on the graze, expansive hills, plateaus lined with elm and oak, deposits of that clay that are as red as my neck after a day on top of my mom's roof. Most of what you get is the good stuff - proof that God blessed Texas with His own hand. ...

The fares are cheap enough for quick rides, but Amtrak's lack of efficiency is pathetic. And there's nothing powerful about a nation with a slipshod public transit system in a constant state of disrepair. There's nothing more annoying than transit being eternally late because right of way must be given up to graffiti-covered Union Pacific freight trains.

Our country has a responsibility to provide an efficient, cheap national infrastructure that makes long-distance rail accessible and manageable for all Americans. This calls for a much bigger investment and the requisite regulation.

For the McCainites and small-government harpies who'll whine about the "waste" of tax dollars to passenger rail, simply consider that no form of passenger transportation in the United States is self-sufficient - not driving your own ruggedly individual automobile across highways, and especially not air travel. ...

It's high time that America put our money where our myths are. This country is too beautiful and flawed to not be seen from the windows of a moving train.

Like Tom Waits sang, "There ain't nothin' sweeter than ridin' the rails."

Friday, April 25, 2008

One More Plus for Rail Transportation

I came across - and verified - a fascinating tidbit of information yesterday. It brings into sharp focus just how much more fuel efficient rail transportation is than any of the alternatives.

How far do you think one gallon of fuel will move a ton of freight by rail?

The answer is 432 miles!

It really isn't very complicated: steel wheels on steel rails = less friction. Whether passengers or freight, rail is a good way to go.

Twenty-Five Years ... and Counting

"My advice is to buy land, because they ain't making any more of it."
-- Will Rodgers

Well, not so ... at least not on the Island of Hawaii, the largest of the eight main islands in this chain, where Kilauea volcano has been erupting steadily for more than 25 years. It is not, I hasten to add, a violent eruption. Rather, the volcano has been steadily pumping out molten lava which flows down its flanks, eventually ending up in the sea, as in the photo. In the process, almost 600 acres (230 hectares) of new land has been created.

Here on Maui, we've had several days of almost no breeze, so there is a haze in the air. Most of it is very fine ash -- we call it vog -- coming from Kilauea, which is about 100 miles away.

I've lived here for more than 45 years, but still find these islands endlessly fascinating.


(Photo by Bob Bangerter from today's Maui News)

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Meet Someone Who REALLY Enjoys Train Travel!

A little over two weeks ago, on April 7th, Amtrak’s Southwest Chief came to a stop at La Plata, Missouri, on its way from Los Angeles to Chicago. From the door of a sleeping car, a beaming Chris Guenzler stepped out onto the platform and into his own modest place in the history of train travel.

Photo credit: TrainWeb.com

I don’t know if there was a brass band on hand, but there darn well should have been! There was a crowd to greet him, however, because Chris had, at that very moment, completed exactly one million miles over all the routes in the Amtrak system.

According to Steve Grande of TrainWeb.com, it is theoretically possible that another passenger may have traveled that many miles on Amtrak, but so far no one has stepped forward to make that claim and none are expected.

It’s also possible, perhaps even likely, that a few veteran Amtrak employees have reached that milestone, but certainly none of them would have done so by traveling every one of Amtrak’s routes.

Chris’s story is interesting, improbable and heart-warming. You can read more about this unusual man by clicking here.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Harry Truman. And the Train in American Politics

Harry Truman became the 33rd president of this country in April of 1945 when, as Vice President, he succeeded Franklin Roosevelt, who had collapsed and died at his retreat in Warm Springs, Georgia. Truman finished out FDR's term, then ran in his own right in 1948.
I think historians would agree that a train was a major factor in the outcome of that election.

FDR was an inspiring leader and a gifted orator, revered by much of the nation – a blue-blood from New York. Truman was a blunt, plain-spoken mid-westerner, who suffered by comparison with his predecessor. The political pundits of the day gave Truman virtually no chance of being elected when the presidential campaign began.

But Truman took his message directly to the people in what has pretty much become an American tradition: the whistle-stop campaign. Harry Truman crisscrossed the country by train, speaking to crowds in small towns and big cities from the observation platform of the rear car.

And Harry Truman fooled ‘em. He came from behind to win the 1948 election, soundly defeating the Republican nominee, Thomas E. Dewey, a blaring headline in an early edition of the Chicago Tribune notwithstanding.

The Truman Library is located in Independence, Missouri, the town where Truman lived all his life and where he died. I've visited the Truman Library on two occasions and recommend it. It’s a must-see, and worth at least two hours of your time. I promise you will come away with a deep appreciation of this unpretentious man. I don’t know if it’s possible for someone to be ordinary and extraordinary at the same time, but it seems to me that Harry Truman was both.

Shortly after leaving office, someone asked Truman what it felt like to be a private citizen again after being President of the United States. Truman responded that since the president works for the people, as far as he was concerned, he’d just been given a promotion.

On second thought, forget what I said earlier. There was nothing at all ordinary about Harry Truman.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

President Harry Truman Got It

He once said, "You get a real feeling of this country and the people in it when you're on a train."

He was right, too. When you take a long-distance train ride across America, you have time to look and, more importantly, to think about what you see: factories and farms, mountains and plains; scenes of incredible variety and beauty.

But you also see, and have time to think about, abandoned buildings and urban decay and inner city slums and trailer parks and weather-beaten shacks. And if you’re really paying attention, you soon realize that there are a helluva lot of poor people all across these United States of America. And most of them are having a hard time.

I wish every Member of Congress would take time off from their official duties and spend a week just riding around this country on Amtrak. Maybe, if they get it they way Harry Truman got it, we would soon have a whole new list of national priorities.

Barak Obama Campaigns via Amtrak

Harry Truman was trailing badly in the 1948 presidential campaign, but he took his case directly to the people of small-town America by train ... and he won.

Senator Barak Obama has taken a page from President Harry Truman’s book and is campaigning through Pennsylvania on his own whistle-stop tour aboard a four-car train hauled by twin Amtrak locomotives.

This is being written before the results from the Pennsylvania's Primary Election are in, so we don’t know yet how effective Obama’s whistle-stop campaign will be.

But, as a rail advocate, it’s nice to know there’s at least one candidate who understands that you really gain a true understanding of this country from the window, or the observation platform, of a train.

(More on this subject in tomorrow's post.)

Monday, April 21, 2008

My Favorite Train Ride: The Empire Builder

If I had to make a choice among Amtrak's long-distance trains, it would be the Empire Builder, which operates daily between Chicago and either Seattle, Washington, or Portland, Oregon.

I’ve probably taken this two-night trip eight or nine times, maybe more. I like it a lot because the scenery is so varied. Out of Chicago, the train heads north to Milwaukee, then angles more to the west, cutting across Wisconsin and Minnesota, through some of the most fertile farmlands anywhere in the U.S.

You’re in North Dakota when you wake up the next morning, heading due west through vast fields of grain. The Montana state line comes about lunchtime and this truly is “Big Sky” country – rolling plains stretching to the horizon, sometimes sectioned into wheat fields, sometimes home to grazing cattle. Every so often, there’s an oil well with the derrick methodically dipping up-down, up-down.

There’s a half-hour stop in Havre, Montana, where the train's locomotives are refueled. Most of the passengers wander up and down the station platform, stopping to gawk at a huge steam engine on display right next to the station.

Toward the late afternoon, the Rockies come into view way up ahead and, by the time dinner is being served in the dining car, the Empire Builder is skirting Glacier National Park, threading its way through the rugged peaks, many still snow-capped well into June.

Just about dusk, the train passes the Isaac Walton Inn in the little town of Essex. This place is well known to rail fans because it sits right on the Burlington Northern Sante Fe main line and there is a lot of freight traffic. And I mean a lot. My wife and I stopped in the area for a couple of days last year and we had planned to stay at the Isaac Walton Inn. Plans changed abruptly when she learned that our room would be a couple of hundred feet from the tracks and freight trains come through every half hour or so all night.

The Empire Builder gets to Spokane about 2:00 in the morning which is where the train divides into two sections … one continuing on to Seattle, the other swinging south a bit and terminating in Portland, Oregon. (The process is reversed for the eastbound train.)

If you’re on the Seattle section, you’ll be near Wenatchee, Washington, when you wake up. This is really beautiful country, but it’s best known for its apples. Buy an apple in your neighborhood supermarket, and chances are very good it came from somewhere near Wenatchee.

From here it’s on to Everett where the train turns south and runs along the shore of Puget Sound, reaching Seattle around mid-morning.

I’ve always felt very comfortable in Seattle and, truth be told, on several occasions I have elected to ride the Empire Builder just so I could have a day or two in this city … and as many meals as possible at Assaggio, a wonderful Italian restaurant.

In an earlier post, I said I thought the California Zephyr is Amtrak’s most scenic train. I’ll stick with that but, for whatever reason, I’m happiest and most content when I ride the Empire Builder. It’s my favorite Amtrak train; Seattle is one of my favorite mainland cities; and Assaggio is my favorite restaurant anywhere. That’s a combination I just can’t resist.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Dumb Statements by People Who Damn Well Ought to Know Better

“We simply cannot keep going on sending empty trains clear across the country with no riders.”
-- Rep. Harold Rogers (R-Ky.)

“Americans don’t like to travel that way anymore.” -- Senator Robert Bennett (R-Utah)

“Amtrak operates trains no one rides to places no one wants to go.” -- former U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta

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* Amtrak ridership is up system-wide for the fifth year in a row.

* Amtrak now carriess 41 percent of the traffic in the Washington-New York-Boston corridor.

* The Downeaster, between Boston and Portland, Maine, has increased ridership by 27 percent.

* Amtrak’s San Joaquin service, linking Sacramento and Oakland with Bakersfield, is up almost 20 percent.

* Ridership on the Pacific Surfliners, which run between San Luis Obispo through Santa Barbara and Los Angeles to San Diego, is up 7 percent.

* In Florida, ridership out of Tampa has increased 39 percent over the past two years.

Further comments? Nope. None necessary.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

My Opinion: Amtrak's Most Scenic Train Ride

I'm sure I'll get an argument from some, but I think the California Zephyr is the most scenic train ride offered by Amtrak. I'm going to be taking this train in early May and will provide a detailed travelogue with photos soon after I get home to Maui.


This is Donner Lake in the Sierra Madre Mountains of California ... just one of the great vistas to which passengers on the Zephyr are treated during the two-night journey between Chicago and the Bay Area in California.

Summer's coming. Why not plan a train trip with the whole family?

Friday, April 18, 2008

Why Didn’t We Think of That?

It’s frustrating to be an advocate for rail transportation in the U.S. There are many obvious reasons why our government should launch a crash program to expand and improve our national rail system: higher and higher prices for gasoline, multiple benefits to the environment, and steadily increasing ridership on already over-taxed rail systems, from commuter lines to long-distance trains.

Still, the Bush administration persists in its efforts to gut, if not kill, Amtrak … witness their proposed budget, in which Amtrak funding would be slashed by 40 percent. (Thankfully, Congress will not permit that idiocy.)

Meanwhile, it seems that the airline industry has but to ask and the federal coffers open and money just pours out. One reason for all that generosity was highlighted in an Associated Press story that appeared today in many national newspapers, including several Hawaii media.

It seems that a lot of the Federal Aviation Administration’s top officials have left that agency to take big shot jobs with the various airlines … either that or with lobbying firms whose mission in life is to convince the FAA to make life easier for the airlines. And it’s worked, with more and more deregulation of the industry and billions of dollars in bailouts.

Gee … who better to guard the hen house than the fox?

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Every Kid Should Have One of These

Today’s mail brought an invitation to attend Alumni Day at my old boarding school back on the East Coast. I won’t be able to attend – Happily, I’ll be on one of Amtrak's long-distance trains at that time – but it did bring back memories of a very important time in my life and, in particular, of a teacher who had a profound and lasting impact on me.

Joe Stookins was tall and courtly and quite formal in his demeanor. He was my French teacher. Joe spoke the language beautifully and conducted his classes almost entirely in French from Day One.

He took long trips to France every summer and came back with hundreds of color slides -- that was state-of-the-art in those days -- which he would show at regular meetings of the French Club. I was fascinated with Joe’s photos and with the glimpses they provided of such a different world. I’m quite sure that my love of travel came from those Sunday afternoon meetings.

Joe took a special interest in me, not because I got good grades in his classes, but because I had – and still have – a rather good accent. From time to time, to this very day, I still work on improving my French. So some 50 years later, long after he’s gone to his reward, Joe Stookins is still teaching. And I'm still grateful.

Imagine what would happen if somehow every kid in every school across America could have just one teacher like Joe Stookins. Why is that asking too much?

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Here's One of My Favorite Amtrak Train Trips

I got an email yesterday from someone asking if I could recommend a scenic train ride in the eastern part of the U.S. Absolutely! Take the Cardinal. It runs three times a week in each direction between Chicago and New York City, but it takes a longer, more southern, and more scenic route than other eastern trains linking those cities.

The Cardinal leaves Chicago in the late afternoon and heads south across Indiana to Cincinnati, turns east and runs along the Ohio-Kentucky border, crosses West Virginia and Virginia, then on into Washington, DC, arriving about 6:00 p.m. From there, the train heads north through Philadelphia and Trenton to New York City.

As I said, this train runs in both directions, but if you have a choice, by all means take the eastbound train. It passes through the New River Gorge during daylight hours and it’s the scenic highlight of this very special ride. Unfortunately, the westbound Cardinal covers this part of the trip at night.

My suggestion would be to get off the train in Washington and take a few days to see some of that wonderful city. Tour the White House and the Capitol Building, then visit the Smithsonian. And I promise, if you haven’t seen it already, you will be impressed with Union Station, which has been restored and is a truly magnificent building.

Finally, for the return to Chicago, take the Capital Limited. It leaves Washington at 4:00 in the afternoon and will get you back to Chicago the next morning just after a nice breakfast in the dining car.

Of course, you can make this circuit starting from anywhere along the way. Just remember that the Cardinal only runs three days a week, so you'll need to adjust your schedule accordingly. No matter. This train may not be as well known as some of Amtrak's western trains, but it offers fabulous scenery, especially during the Fall. I've ridden the Cardinal five or six times and it's one of my favorites. Try it and I know you will agree.

Getting the Price of Gas Into Another Perspective

I stopped for gas while out running some errands yesterday and discovered that regular has broken the $4.00 barrier … and then some! It’s $4.09 a gallon here on Maui and I ended up putting almost $90 worth into our Dodge pickup. Wow!

A number of years ago, my wife and daughter and I were on a European visit that included two weeks in Hungary. (I recommend that fascinating country enthusiastically, by the way.) After several days in Budapest, we rented a tiny little car and spent most of the next ten days visiting several other cities … Eger, Szeged and Pecs, among others.

About halfway through all that touring, I stopped at a one-pump gas station to fill up our little Suzuki’s tank. It took 1000 Hungarian forints, the equivalent at the time of about US$14.

It was also equivalent to three days’ pay for the average Hungarian.

Maybe Americans driving around in SUV’s (and, yes, in pickup trucks) should stop whining about the price of gas.

And maybe – here comes the sermon – the leadership in this country should read the handwriting that’s on the wall in big, bold letters and start thinking “rail” … urban mass transit, inter-city high speed rail and long-distance trains. Government leaders have had that figured out for years everywhere else in the world.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

It’s Time to Suck It Up and Write Those Checks

I’ll be getting our tax forms into the mail late this afternoon, along with a sizeable check to the federal government. Today is Tax Day all across the U.S.

This is also the day when it would be a good idea to give some extra thought to where all those tax dollars go after you and I and 100 million other Americans send them off to Washington.

This damn war, for instance, which is costing us $341 million a daya day, for God’s sake.

At that rate, we could cover the entire annual cost of federal support for Amtrak before the weekend!

Then, of course, there’s health care and Social Security and new schools and fixing up bridges before they collapse and on and on.

No wonder 80% of Americans think this country is headed in the wrong direction.

Monday, April 14, 2008

About Hawaii and Europe and Jet Lag

I’ve lived in Hawaii for 46 years and it’s long since become home. The one real drawback to living here is that we’re so far from anywhere else. In fact, Hawaii is said to be the most remote populated spot on the entire globe. It’s five hours by jet to California and eight hours to Asia. Nothing is any closer.

Local folks are used to long flights. I’ve probably flown back and forth to the West Coast 150 times over the years. But travel from Hawaii to Europe is really nasty because it means two red-eye flights. Furthermore, you’re completely upside down when you get there because from here, Europe is 12 time zones away.

My wife and I usually fly American Airlines because we’re deep into their mileage program. So for us, the first leg of a European vacation is overnight to either Dallas or Chicago, leaving Maui in the late afternoon and arriving around 5:30 in the morning. That’s bad enough, but the next red-eye – the flight to London or Paris or Frankfurt – doesn’t leave until 5 or 6 o’clock in the evening. I can’t face sitting in the airport for 12 hours after flying all night, so let’s get a room in a nearby hotel for the day. Oops, sorry ... check-in time is 1:00 p.m.

On one of our European trips, I did arrange in advance for a mid-morning check-in at a hotel near the Dallas-Fort Worth airport where we stayed until the following afternoon before boarding our flight to Paris. That was certainly better than back-to-back red-eyes, but I chafed at what seemed like a waste of 36 hours and fretted the whole time.

The fact is, no matter what arrangements we make, it will be four precious vacation days before we can walk around Paris without looking and feeling like jet-lagged zombies.

The flight back home is totally different. Traveling with the sun, we can leave Paris at 7:45 in the morning and get back home in time for a late dinner on the same day.

Is that weird, or what?

Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Mystery of the Sunset Limited

Everyone knows about the devastation Hurricane Katrina brought to New Orleans and other areas of the Gulf Coast in August of 2005. The terrible storm also caused considerable damage to the rail infrastructure skirting the Gulf of Mexico from Louisiana to Florida. Freight traffic was disrupted for months and Amtrak was forced to suspend thrice-weekly service by the trans-continental Sunset Limited between New Orleans and Orlando, Florida. Since the storm, the train only runs between New Orleans and Los Angeles.

It’s been more than 2½ years since Hurricane Katrina. The CSX rail lines have been repaired and freight traffic is once again moving. But Amtrak still has not restored Sunset Limited service between New Orleans and Orlando. The big question is: Why not?

Certainly it can’t be because no one wants to ride the train over that segment. Unofficial reports claim that nearly 45% of the Sunset Limited’s revenue originated from that part of the route, about one-third of the total mileage.

Furthermore, it would seem that rail travelers in that part of the country are getting restless. A grassroots advocacy group, the Sunset Marketing and Revitalization Team (SMART), was formed early this year for the very purpose of pressuring Amtrak to restore that portion of their service and to encourage other improvements to the train’s operation.

At a SMART meeting held just a few days ago in New Orleans, a representative of Amtrak would only say that the railroad “does not encourage Florida service at this time.” So Amtrak is apparently discouraging an organization established to encourage Amtrak. Huh??

All that intrigue notwithstanding, it must be said that the Los Angeles-New Orleans segment of the Sunset Limited’s route - 1,995 miles, covered in 48 hours - offers a wonderful look at a unique section of the U.S. One of the more spectacular moments comes just after the train leaves New Orleans and crosses the Mississippi River on the Huey Long Bridge, 4 ½ miles long and 280 feet high.

(By the way, anyone who spends any time looking out the train window at the harsh landscapes and rugged terrain on the way to California will realize that building a 20-foot-high wall along our border with Mexico is an absolutely crazy idea.)

That said, there is no doubt that the Sunset Limited – even the truncated version – is a glorious ride through some of America’s most varied and fascinating scenery. I’m taking that trip in mid-June and am planning at least one post in the near future covering this train and it’s route in some detail.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Do Not - Repeat: DO NOT - Miss Your Connection

The other day I mentioned the importance of booking your train trip carefully to be sure you won't miss connections from one Amtrak train to another. Usually that happens because one train is running so late that the connecting train has already departed. (Most Amtrak trains run over tracks controlled by freight railroads and are often delayed, sometimes by many hours, because of track work or heavy freight traffic ... not Amtrak's fault.)

OK, let’s suppose the worst: you’ve missed a connection that was supposedly “guaranteed”. What happens next?

Well, a lot depends on how far you were going on the connecting train. If it’s a route with several trains every day, Amtrak will put you on the next one, assuming you haven’t just missed the last one for that day.

If it’s a long-distance train that only runs once-a-day, they’ll try to put you on the same train the following day. There will probably be a seat available if you’re traveling in coach class, but if you’re in a sleeping car, the chances of an empty room on tomorrow’s train will likely be slim-to-none. Now you're really stuck.

If your connecting train was taking you a relatively short distance, meaning up to perhaps 300 miles, Amtrak may decide to send you on to your destination by bus. (For me, that's a worst-case scenario. I hate buses!)

Many different circumstances can lead to missed connections and there can be a variety of possible solutions to each … far more than I’ve used as examples here. Just remember that rail itineraries should be planned to avoid any possibility of a missed connection.

My advice? Don't take any chances. Plan to spend the night in the connecting city and continue your journey the next day. Compared to a missed connection and a long dreary bus ride, one night in a hotel will be well worth the extra time and money.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Five Tips for Overnight Train Trips

1. Relax! That’s the first rule of train travel. A long-distance train is much more than just another mode of transportation; it should be an important part of your vacation experience. So enjoy it.

2. Upgrade if you can afford it. Traveling in coach class is inexpensive, but in a sleeping car you’ll have privacy by day and a real bed to sleep in at night. Yes, it’ll cost more, but all dining car meals are included in the price of the ticket and for a two-night trip, that would be worth about $150 for two people.

3. Pack smart. You’ll be much more comfortable in your cozy room - especially a roomette - if you leave your suitcases in the storage area near the entry doors of the sleeping car. Take only a tote bag to your compartment containing just what you’ll need for the night: toiletries, a change of underwear, a clean shirt, etc.

4. Don't miss a connection. If your itinerary involves changing trains somewhere, beware! Amtrak’s long-distance trains are often delayed because they run on tracks owned and controlled by the freight railroads whose dispatchers give priority to their trains. My advice: allow at least five hours for a connection. Better yet, stay overnight and take the next day’s train.

5. Dealing with Delays. See Rule # 1.

In the next day or two I'll start posting about some of Amtrak's overnight train rides ... where they go and what you'll see along the way. So start thinking now about taking a nice long trainride!

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Air Travel Is In a Helluva Mess

As everyone knows, air travel across the U.S. has been in turmoil over the past few days, with literally hundreds of aircraft being suddenly grounded for overdue inspections. According to news reports as many as 250,000 passengers have had to scramble to find other flights or other modes of travel. Amtrak is an obvious alternate choice and a spokesperson for the railroad reports that ridership out of Chicago has been up by some 60% in these past few days. We must assume that’s because of all the cancellations at O’Hare, Chicago’s principal airport.

The traveling public is hopping mad, of course, and with good reason. We can only hope that some good will come from all this inconvenience. If nothing else, it has exposed the cozy relationship the Federal Aviation Administration has developed with the nation’s airlines, the very companies the agency is supposed to oversee.

The chaos of the past several days has also provided fodder for comedian Jon Stewart of The Daily Show, who has poked some well-deserved needles into the FAA which is, after all, charged with making sure U.S. airlines operate safely. Here’s a quote from his television show of a few days ago. (My thanks to Matt Melzer, on the staff of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, who spotted this little gem and put the video clip on NARP’s blog.)

“It’s all sort of ironic, when you think about it. When you fly, you are inspected quite thoroughly, whereas the plane itself is, perhaps, occasionally vacuumed. See, with this administration, if a passenger blows up a plane, it’s a failure in the War on Terror. But if the plane just blows up on its own, hey, that’s the market self-regulating!”

It's really quite amazing, isn't it. Every day we're confronted by yet another reason why train travel makes more and more sense, yet the Bush administration proposes to cut funding for Amtrak by 40% in its current budget. Congress won't allow that to happen, of course, but it certainly makes you wonder if maybe some of the policy makers in the administration are smoking those funny little cigarettes.

The Best Travel Option, All Things Considered

I’ve received an email from a man who's job circumstance is requiring him to relocate from Pittsfield, Massachusetts, to Chicago. He made a brief study of his travel options and the results are interesting.

By plane: He would first have to rent a car and drive 40 miles to Albany, then fly to New York City and connect with a flight to Chicago. Total cost: $312 (rental car $36; air fare $246, plus $30 cab fare from O’Hare into Chicago).

By rental car: It’s about 860 miles from Pittsfield to Chicago. The rental car company would require a two-day rental for the one-way trip at a cost of $151 per day. Add $75 for one night en route in a motel, approximately $100 for gas and $30 for meals and the total cost for this option is about $500.

By train: He boards Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited in Pittsfield at 3:41 in the afternoon and arrives at Chicago’s Union Station the next morning at 9:45. The cost of his train ticket – basic rail fare plus a roomette – is $362. Dinner and breakfast are included in the price of his sleeping car upgrade.

He has decided to go by Amtrak. Yes, he says, it will be a bit more expensive that going by air, but he’ll have a relaxing trip, a bed to sleep in on the way and no extra expense for meals. He acknowledges that flying would also be faster, but says he just doesn’t want to deal with all the connections and waiting in lines.

In many cases, it's also been my experience that the cost of rail travel - even in sleeping cars - is often comparable to other means of transportation. The trick is to make sure that all costs are figured into the comparison. And be sure to include the "comfort factor".

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Three Candidates. Three Positions on Amtrak.

An astute fellow blogger was interested to learn about any ideas each of the three remaining presidential candidates had about the future of rail transportation in the US. To do that, he went to each candidate's web site and conducted a search for the word "Amtrak". Here's what he found:

BARAK OBAMA: "In the U.S. Senate, Obama is a cosponsor of the Passenger Rail Investment and Innovation Act of 2007, a leading act to provide long-term federal investment to Amtrak. As president, Barack Obama will continue to fight for Amtrak funding and reform so that individuals, families and businesses throughout the country have safe and reliable transportation options."


HILLARY CLINTON: "Hillary believes that greater federal involvement is needed to maximize the potential of this transportation mode. She will increase federal investment in light rail by $1 billion over 5 years in order to help finance capital projects. These investments are in addition to the federal commitment to Amtrak."

JOHN McCAIN: (The search for "Amtrak" on McCain's web site yielded no results.)

So ... what else would like like to know?

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

My Vote for the World’s Most Scenic Train Ride

A reader from Ohio emailed yesterday asking of all the train trips I’ve taken, which offers the most spectacular scenery.

That’s easy: The Bernina Express.

This is a narrow gauge train operated by a Swiss company, Rhatische Bahn. It runs between Tirano in Northern Italy and Chur in Switzerland. Start to finish, it’s about a four hour, 15 minute trip.
I took this train several years ago and it was an extraordinary experience.

There are lakes, picturesque villages, stone viaducts and incredible mountains. Oh, yes … and glaciers! The rail cars are spotlessly clean, as you would expect from a Swiss train, and it moves at a leisurely pace - just what you want when traveling through scenery like that. (Please note that the rail cars shown in these photos have since been replaced with more modern equipment with larger windows.)

The Glacier Express is probably better known but, for my money, the Bernina Express experience is as good if not better.

If you love train travel and scenery that will take your breath away, this is the ride for you!

Monday, April 7, 2008

My Trans-Canada Rail Journey Comes to an End

Leaving Jasper, the Canadian moves at an almost leisurely pace, gliding left then right then left again as it winds along mountain ridges and cuts through rocky passes, in and out of shadows cast by massive mountains, the snow on their peaks now dazzling white in the late afternoon sun.

Two black bears come into view on the right side of the train, rooting industriously at the base of a dead three stump and oblivious to the shiny metal machine rumbling past.

An hour later, we meet the Fraser River, not yet the wide impressive waterway it will become when we see it again near Vancouver. It’s far below us here, plunging and swirling over rocks and through crevasses as we follow it in a northwesterly direction.

Just as I appear in the dining car for my dinner seating, the steward tells us that we’re passing Mount Robson. At not quite 13,000 feet, it’s the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies. Its peak is obscured in mist, but many of us dutifully grab our cameras and snap away. The main topic of conversation over dinner is about the two black bears - who among us saw them and who didn’t.

The next morning is my last aboard VIA Rail’s Train # 1. We’re descending through the mountains and the Fraser River is with us once again. Here it roils and tumbles along its descent through narrow canyons, crashing against jeep-sized bounders. For almost an hour I’m content to stay comfortably in my bed, propped up on an elbow watching as the Canadian twists and turns, passing through many tunnels, and the mountain passes gradually give way to the broad fertile Fraser River Valley.

The day is beautiful. Bright sun and clear blue skies set off the panorama of tidy farms surrounded by lush green fields, many with livestock scattered about grazing peacefully. Overhead a bald eagle circles lazily. Off in the distance, well behind us now, the snow-capped mountains provide quite an astonishing backdrop for this idyllic scene.

We pass several impressive lumber mills beside the tracks and at river’s edge. Trucks are bringing some of the huge logs, but thousands of others are simply floated up to the mill, lashed together side-by-side like acre-sized rafts. Logs enter the process at one end and milled lumber in a variety of sizes emerges at the other, where it’s stacked, wrapped, loaded onto rail cars and sent back east over these same tracks. Next to each mill are mountainous piles of sawdust and wood shavings. One of the mill workers straightens up as we pass and waves vigorously with both arms.

As the train sweeps around a long, graceful curve, I can see haze in the distance up ahead. Soon we slow to a stop and, minus later, the luxury train, the Rocky Mountaineer, passes us, headed for the mountains we’ve left behind. Moving again, I can see the Vancouver skyline in the distance and find myself wishing the train would slow to delay the inevitable end to the journey.

Minutes later, the train stops, then begins rolling slowly backwards, clattering through a switch and backing into the station. Then, with a slight jerk, we come to a stop and my transcontinental train journey is over.

VIA crews are standing by to service the train for its return trip to Toronto this afternoon and, truth be told, if I had the time and if they had the room, I’d be with them. In a heartbeat.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Aloha Means Good-bye

Last week I posted an item about Aloha Airlines shutting down after 61 years of service here. Two days later, a second shock: ATA Airlines abruptly ceased operations.

Aloha was predominantly an inter-island carrier, but did operate a couple of daily flights to the west coast. ATA had 12 daily flights between Hawaii and Los Angeles, Oakland, Phoenix and Las Vegas.

Together, the two airlines accounted for 15 percent of the air traffic between Hawaii and the west coast and, as of two days ago, the estimate was that 9,000 people were still here, scrambling for seats on other airlines.

Hawaii’s hotels are offering special deep discounts to visitors stranded here and on Friday, the Hawaii Tourism Authority announced a special fund of $5 million, which will be used for chartering special flights to help get people back to their homes on the mainland.

Some would call it an extravagant use of taxpayer dollars.

We call it the Aloha Spirit.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

How to Pick the Right Travel Agent

Any travel agent can book your flight and put you in a hotel room, but it’s been my experience that a surprising number of those folks know very little about train travel. And that’s important, because a rail savvy travel agent will look after the not-so-little details that can make a big difference during an overnight train trip.

For instance, he or she can arrange for your bedroom to be in the sleeping car right next to the diner. Otherwise, you’ll have to walk the length of three or four cars on a moving train to reach the diner or lounge car … three times a day!

If your Superliner roomette is located next to the lavatory, you may be startled awake during the night every time one of your fellow passengers hits the flush button. A good travel agent will make sure you are not assigned to roomette #1.

Only one of the five large bedrooms in an Amtrak Superliner has a soundproof wall between it and the bedroom next door. If your neighbors are loud talkers, you’ll wish your travel agent had known which room that is.

So to find out if a travel agent really knows how to book train travel, give him or her a one-question test:

What’s the difference between a Superliner roomette and a Viewliner roomette*.

Answer: Both accommodate either one or two people, but a Viewliner roomette includes a toilet and has a window for the upper berth, while the Superliner roomette doesn’t have either.

A rail savvy travel agent will know that and will be able to handle all the details of your train trip without a problem.

My thanks to Ted Blishak of Accent on Travel USA for suggesting that question. Ted and his wife, Sylvia, are two bone fide train travel experts and I recommend them without qualification. Their toll-free number is 1-800-347-0645.

*Amtrak uses Superliners on trains running from Chicago west and Viewliners on eastern trains.


Want a Close-up Look at an Amtrak Train?

People who haven't taken a long-distance ride on Amtrak always have questions about the trains themselves, the most comon one being, what are the bedrooms like? The Amtrak Unlimited web site offers a virtual tour of sleeping cars, coaches, diners and lounge cars. Click here to go there. It's a neat technology and will also give you a very good look at what Amtrak has to offer.

Friday, April 4, 2008

What Would You Like to Know?

Amtrak's Empire Builder in the Cascade Mountains en route to Seattle.

It has occurred to me - belatedly, I'm afraid - that if you're interested enough to read some of these posts, I can certainly take the time to answer any questions you might have about train travel.

I've been a passenger on every one of Amtrak's long-distance trains, most of them a half dozen times or more, and most of VIA Rail's trains in Canada. I won't have all the answers, but will do the best I can. At the very least, I'll either refer you to the right source or dig up the answer for you.

If you would like to contact me, please feel free to do so at jimloomis3@gmail.com or by using "comment".