Saturday, May 31, 2008

Scratch One More Mailbox

I was discussing grade crossing accidents with an Amtrak engineer a few years back and he gave me a graphic example of what it’s like when a train hits a car. He said it would be like your family car running over a mailbox. Get the picture?

I’ve written before about the morons who are so impatient they drive around the barriers at railroad crossings. You want to grab them, shake them and scream at them: “What the hell were you thinking?”

Most of the time, of course, you can’t ... because they’re dead.

This used to be a late model Mercedes-Benz. It was owned by a man in San Juan Capistrano, California, who drove it around a barricade and – Oops! – into the path of an Amtrak train. Amazingly, the guy ended up in the hospital with only minor injuries.

Talk about dumb luck!

Friday, May 30, 2008

Some People Get It. But What About the Others?

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, which has been keeping these records since the 1940s, Americans are driving less … about 4.3 percent less in the month of March compared to March of ’07. You think 4.3 percent doesn’t sound like a lot? Well, it translates to 11 billion fewer miles and, if we arbitrarily assume an average of 25 miles per gallon, that’s a savings of almost 450 million gallons of gasoline. In one month! If we really want to reduce our dependence on foreign oil, driving less is a good way to do it.

Sooner or later, we’ve got to get serious about energy conservation. And that means no more political gimmicks like waiving the federal gas tax for the summer. Or marketing gimmicks like Chrysler’s offer to subsidize the cost of your gas for three years if you buy one of their gas-guzzlers. None of these schemes encourage us to drive smaller, more fuel-efficient cars and drive them less. Just the opposite, in fact.

If you listen to talk radio (as painful as that is), when the subject turns to the price of gasoline you will hear shrill almost hysterical voices demanding that somebody has to do something to lower the price of gasoline. These deluded folks still don’t get it: $4.00 gas is here to stay.

I stopped by the little post office here in Ha’iku the other day and noticed a woman in the parking lot. She was sitting in her big SUV going through the mail she had just collected from her box. The windows were up, the engine was running and the A/C was on. She was there when I went in to mail a package and she was still there ten minutes later when I came out and drove away.

No one likes it when government steps in and tells us what we can and cannot do. But the need to reduce our consumption of energy is very clear and many of us are making a serious effort to conserve. So, dammit, that selfish stupid woman should be required to do the same.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

A Missed Connection Can Mean BIG Problems

Transferring from one train to another is quick and easy in Europe. The last time we were in France, we had three-minute connection between trains. I think it was in Dijon. Three minutes! I was worried, but when we pulled into the station, the other train was waiting right across the platform. We made the connection with two minutes to spare! That would be unheard of in the U.S.

Missing a connection with one of Amtrak’s long-distance trains is a big problem because most of them run daily, meaning the next train won’t be along for 24 hours. (Two Amtrak trains, the Sunset Limited and the Cardinal only run three days a week.)

Connections are faster and easier along the Northeast Corridor between Washington and Boston because Amtrak owns the track. Almost everywhere else in the country, however, Amtrak trains run on track owned by the various freight railroads. Any delays – usually because of work being done on the track or heavy freight traffic – are out of Amtrak’s control.

As an example, as recently as a year ago, it was not uncommon for Amtrak’s Coast Starlight (above), which runs daily between Los Angeles and Seattle, to be three, four or five hours late. Sometimes even more. Fortunately, things have improved dramatically and most long distance trains have been running a lot closer to their schedules.

Nevertheless, Amtrak trains can still be late, so when putting together a rail itinerary, be very careful about connections. Remember that the greater the distance the arriving train has had to travel, the greater the possibility it will be late.

The fool-proof approach is simply to stay over night in the connecting city. If that’s not possible, be sure to consult in detail with the Amtrak reservations agent or with a rail-savvy travel agent about any connection before finalizing your booking.

Finally, you can check on the recent history of delays for any Amtrak train, by going to this web site.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Stubborn, Stupid and Selfish

The following came from a recent story in the New York Times:
Gas Prices Send Surge of Riders to Mass Transit

By Clifford Krauss

DENVER — With the price of gas approaching $4 a gallon, more commuters are abandoning their cars and taking the train or bus instead.
Mass transit systems around the country are seeing standing-room-only crowds on bus lines where seats were once easy to come by. Parking lots at many bus and light rail stations are suddenly overflowing, with commuters in some towns risking a ticket or tow by parking on nearby grassy areas and in vacant lots.

“In almost every transit system I talk to, we’re seeing very high rates of growth the last few months,” said William W. Millar, president of the American Public Transportation Association.

“It’s very clear that a significant portion of the increase in transit use is directly caused by people who are looking for alternatives to paying $3.50 a gallon for gas.”


Ah, but in Honolulu, where gas is $4.00 a gallon and a 15-mile commute can take an hour or more, a gaggle of yahoos has launched a campaign to stop a proposed mass transit system for the Island of O’ahu.

They are dead wrong, but too stubborn or stupid or selfish to ever see that. Take, for instance, one of the so-called leaders of this group. He has been fairly well known in Honolulu for quite a few years … as an environmentalist.

Can you imagine that? An environmentalist who opposes public transit. Government just has to suck it up and steamroll over people like that.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Murphy’s Law: If Something Can Go Wrong, It Will.

A few days ago at Narita International Airport in Tokyo, one of the airport cops was putting a drug-sniffing dog through a training exercise. He stuffed a packet containing five ounces of cannabis into the side pocket of a suitcase as it was taken off an incoming flight. No particular bag, just any old bag. The cop then took the dog into the Baggage Claim area so he could sniff out the contraband in the bag as it came sliding down the chute onto one of the carousels.

Small problem: the dog flunked the test. He couldn’t find the bag.

Big problem: the cop forgot which bag he’d hidden the pot in.

So some unsuspecting passenger pulled his bag off the carousel, went home, unpacked and … WHEE!

The cannabis, by the way, has a street value of more than $10,000.

At last report, the Tokyo Police had heard ... nothing.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Another Needless Death

To stay up-to-date with the latest news related to Amtrak or train travel, I use Google Alert, which automatically sends me news items containing those key words. Pretty slick. Pretty handy. And often pretty sad … because almost every day comes news of someone hit by a train.

The great tragedy is that every single one of those deaths is avoidable. People race the train to a crossing. They drive around barriers. They’re walking on the tracks and talking on their cel phones. Or they’re committing suicide.

The most recent incident occurred yesterday in Revere, Massachusetts, and it breaks your heart. A 5-year-old boy was on his way to the store with his mother. They were waiting at a crossing -- gates down, lights flashing -- while a commuter train went by.

Then, just as the train passed, the mother, her 5-year-old in tow, ducked under the gate and the two of them started to dash across the two tracks, unaware that another train was coming from the opposite direction on the other side of the first train.

The mother just barely made it across, but the poor little kid was struck and killed.

According to the Boston Globe report, the mother was taken to Massachusetts General Hospital “but did not have physical injuries.”

She has the kind of injuries that never heal.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

You Weigh? You Pay!

American Airlines has announced a new $15 fee when passengers check a bag. And, although I must have missed it, some months back they apparently announced a $25 charge for the second checked bag.

Clearly, the airlines are looking for ways to offset the skyrocketing cost of jet fuel. The rationale here, of course, is that the more the plane weighs, the more fuel it takes to push it through the air.

According to one news story I saw the other day, the cost of jet fuel for American Airlines has increased by three billion dollars a year. That is a helluva lot of money and, one way or another, it will have to come from the traveling public.

I have no problem with that. In fact, maybe these new fees will cause people to start getting smart about the way they pack for travel. The day I got back from my recent trip to the mainland, I noticed a couple in their late 20s at the Maui airport claiming their bags at the carousel. These two people were traveling with six large bags that must have weighed a total of at least 250 pounds. And they were only going to be here for a week.

That’s ridiculous! They couldn’t possibly use all that stuff if they changed clothes every three hours. But with the new fees, they would have been whacked an extra $130. And I say good! Why should my air fare be increased to cover the cost of flying their excess baggage? I travel with one carry-on bag and can be gone for three to four weeks with no problem.

Oh, yes …one more thing: What about the 300-pounders who wedge themselves into the seat next to you? I vote we make them buy two seats!

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Hawaiian Pidgin: Communicating To Da Max!

Visitors to Hawaii are immediately aware of the incredible natural beauty of these islands and that awareness is enhanced the more they travel around this place.

But to me, one of the really interesting and more enjoyable things about Hawaii is the pidgin English that locals use when speaking informally among themselves. Some use it most of the time, others whenever the mood strikes, but it’s colorful and highly descriptive … and a great deal of fun. It borrows from Hawaiian and Japanese and Chinese and from the two main Filipino dialects, not to mention some delightful twists given to recognizable English words.

Here are just a few samples ...

You meet another local on the street, you say, Howzit?

If a teenager wants to go out for a burger he'll say You like grind?

If mama’s teriyaki chicken is really good, tell her it broke da mouth.

If something was a total failure, say it was a bus’ egg.

One of the more flexible of our pidgin words is puka (pronounced POO-kuh) which is the Hawaiian word for "hole" … as in the damn dog dug a puka right in the middle of our back yard.

But also: the County guys is patching a big puka in the road.

Or: I had to go to the dentist because I had a puka.

Or: I drove around the block three times before I found a puka.

Or even: My zip code is nine-six-seven-puka-eight.

Or better yet: Gawge Bush? Fo’ grade, da buggah get one beeg puka!

The best – and funniest – book about Hawaiian pidgin is called Pidgin To Da Max and is available in bookstores throughout Hawaii and from

A final word of advice: Until you really know your way around and until you get both the context and the inflections exactly right, leave the pidgin to the "locals" ... udduhwise by-m-by one local guy going bus' you up.

Friday, May 23, 2008

A Great Public Transit System in Tahiti? Believe It!

Driving home from town this afternoon, I was enjoying some Tahitian music on one of the local radio stations and it brought back some wonderful memories of our several visits to that glorious part of the world.

French Polynesia is made up of several groups of islands, the better known being Tahiti, Moorea, Bora Bora, Raiatea, and Huahine. It’s an incredibly beautiful place with its own unique charm … an exotic blend of real Polynesia overlaid with a generous French veneer.

This is an aerial view of the Hotel Bora Bora where I’ve stayed on three occasions. If I had to pick one place in the world to visit for a week, it would be this hotel on this island. It is, in a word, perfect!

At any rate, these islands also offer what has to be one of the most colorful and yet practical forms of public transportation: le truck. Essentially these are flatbed trucks that have been modified with a wooden roof and open sides. Some, but not all, have roll-down plastic covers for the very rainy days. And most have boom boxes mounted inside and blaring Tahitian music.

Heading into town? Take le truck. Traveling around the island? Take le truck. When you’re ready to go, just stand beside the road. Le truck will be along in a few minutes. Drivers are independent entrepreneurs, who follow specific routes and charge fares that are regulated by the government. Your fellow passengers will be a colorful and jovial mixture of the island population, often one or two visiting back-packers, and an occasional bank president from Indiana thrown in for good measure. You just never know.

Of course with all the regulatory agencies and liability concerns in our litigious society, le truck would never work in the U.S. But, once again, somebody in a far corner of the world has come up with a wonderful, practical, efficient, economical public transit system. One that works.

Amtrak Knows How to Deal with Unruly Passengers

Several people were kicked off one of Amtrak’s Cascade trains the other day at the Olympia-Lacey station, some 75 miles south of Seattle. They were caught smoking on board and Amtrak’s policy is clear: Smoke on board and you’ll be getting off at the next stop.

On one of my Amtrak trips, I chatted with a conductor about how they deal with troublesome passengers – usually people caught smoking or someone who’s had too many beers in the lounge car.

“We tell them to change their behavior or we’ll put them off the train,” he said. “If they keep it up, there is no second warning. We don’t want them to know ahead of time that we’re going to put them off. That can lead to big problems because some of them will get violent. So the next thing they know, the train has stopped and they’re looking up at a couple of big state troopers.”

I had a first-hand experience with this many years ago aboard the late lamented Desert Wind as we were heading southwest across Nevada toward Los Angeles. A disreputable character in one of the coaches had been wandering into the sleeping cars cajoling passengers into giving him their little bottle of complimentary wine. (Ah, those were the days!)

The Amtrak conductor dealt with this clown very effectively. The train stopped in the middle of the Nevada desert where a state highway crossed the tracks. A police car was there waiting and, when last seen, the wine hound was looking back at us from the rear seat of the police car en route to the jail at Caliente, Nevada.

Several of us waved good-bye to him from the air-conditioned comfort of the lounge car. There was even a smattering of applause.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The U.S.A. Leads the Way

The New York Times recently published an in-depth article on the current oil crisis in which they pointed out that the United States is the only industrialized country that has significantly increased its consumption of oil since the oil shocks of the 70s and 80s.

Here’s how our oil consumption since 1980 compares with a few other countries:

Denmark – down 33%
Sweden – down 32%
Germany – down 20%
Switzerland – down 18%
France – down 14%
Finland – down 14%
Italy – down 13%
Japan – up 0.2%
England – up 2%
United States – up 21%

There are several reasons for our “performance”:

> We still have some of the lowest gas prices in the world.
> We still insist on driving big cars.
> We have very low taxes on energy.
> We have the longest daily commutes, which we do by car instead of transit.

Bottom line? The U.S. accounts for about a quarter of the entire world’s daily consumption of oil and fully half of that goes into our cars and trucks.

So all together now: We’re Number One! We’re Number One!

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Sixty-One Million Tax Dollars Down the Drain.

Five or six years ago, city officials in Hagerstown, Maryland, wanted to induce the airlines to start bringing jet aircraft in and out of their municipal airport instead of the prop jobs. The goal was better air service for the residents of the area.

So they spent $61 million on a nice new 7,000-foot concrete runway which was finally ready for service six months ago. Trouble is, two months earlier Hagerstown lost all scheduled air service. The reason? Cut-backs by airlines as the result of high fuel prices and tough times generally for the aviation business.

This is not an isolated case either. Across the country, 30 cities have lost all scheduled air service just in the past year and 400 other cities and towns have seen the number of flights to their airports reduced. According to the Official Airline Guide, almost 23,000 fewer domestic flights were scheduled this month compared to May of last year.

Anyone who doesn’t understand that the airline industry in this country is in big trouble just hasn’t been paying attention.

You know where I’m going with this, right? Right! Passenger trains can step up and, in a great many of those cities and towns, fill the transportation void. It’s going to happen, too … it’s just a question of time. Public officials at all levels are finally beginning to see the light, but it's going to take new awareness, some political courage and a bunch of tax dollars. Help ‘em out, will you? Call, fax or email your federal and state reps and give them a friendly push.

And consider joining the National Association of Railroad Passengers. The people in NARP's Washington office work tirelessly to educate the key senators and representatives and to press for adequate funding for rail in general and Amtrak in particular. This is a non-profit, non-partisan organization whose mission is to work for “a modern, customer-focused national passenger train network that provides a travel choice Americans want.”

Sounds like a pretty darn good idea, doesn't it? I'm damn sure the people in Hagerstown think so!

Monday, May 19, 2008

To Tip or Not to Tip, That Is the Question

I received an email yesterday from someone about to take an overnight trip on Amtrak. She wanted to know who and how much to tip. Good question! About the only reference I’ve ever seen in any of the material Amtrak puts out is pretty vague … just saying that tipping is optional, but appreciated. Well, for what it’s worth, here’s how I deal with this issue, whether on Amtrak or VIA Rail in Canada.

First, don’t tip the conductors. (Believe it or not, I’ve been asked that question more than once over the years.)

Tip car attendants in coaches if they are especially helpful or friendly or if you have asked for and received some special service. How much? I’d say $2 or $3 for each night you’re on board … or more if, for example, you’re traveling with kids and the attendant has had to clean up after them.

My rule-of-thumb for sleeping car attendants is $5 per night per person … meaning if there are two of you traveling in a roomette for two nights from Chicago to Seattle, tip $20 when you get to the end of your trip. If you're traveling solo, 10 bucks.

It’s customary to leave some extra change for the lounge car attendant when you make purchases there.

In the dining car, follow the normal custom for any restaurant by tipping 15 percent of the cost of the meal. I’ve noticed that many sleeping car passengers fail to tip because their meals are “free” … meaning they’re included in the cost of the ticket. That’s really a shame because the IRS assumes the servers receive tips and their income tax is computed accordingly. So note the price of the meal when you order and tip accordingly. Furthermore, assuming the service is good – and it almost always is – be generous, because the dining car crews work very hard, usually starting at 6:30 in the morning and often going well past 9:00 p.m.

All that said, don’t hesitate to tip less, or even not at all, if you get poor service. Hopefully, that will be a rare experience.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Transit Systems Are Big Success Stories

Everyone knows the price of gasoline is going up and up and up. It’s $4.28 a gallon here on Maui and while it might not be that bad on the U.S. mainland, it’s still hurts because people drive more and over longer distances there.

But along with the increase in the cost of gasoline has come an increase in the use of transit. More and more people everywhere across the country are turning to subways and trains and buses for their commutes to and from work. For example:

New York City subways – up 6 percent.
New Jersey transit – up 5 percent
Caltran (San Francisco, Santa Clara) – up 9.3 percent
Denver transit system (photo above) – up 8 percent
Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach – up 20 percent
Charlotte – up 34 percent

And -- who woulda thought it? -- it's even happening in Los Angeles, where ridership has exceeded all projections.

In Hawaii -- more specifically, in Honolulu -- thanks to Mayor Mufi Hannemann, a transit system is finally moving ahead after two near-misses in the past. Mufi is a true-believer and, to his great credit, he has pressed hard for the project, steam-rolling over a nitwit faction on the Honolulu City Council.

Despite the nitwits – who, alas, will always be among us – the tide has turned and it sure looks like the U.S. is ready to hop on a train like the rest of the world. And about time, too!

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Right Side or Left Side? It Can Make a Difference.

Back in the late 80s, I was traveling from Los Angeles to Portland, Oregon, on the Coast Starlight. It was my first trip on that Amtrak train and I enjoyed the ride thoroughly, especially running through the hills north of LA and the frequent views of the Pacific Ocean.

I awoke early the next morning, rose up on an elbow and peered out the window of my roomette on the left side of the train just in time to see Mount Shasta come into view. The snow-capped peak was sparkling in the morning sun and framed against a clear blue sky. Wow! (You can actually see the train tracks in this photo.)

Later that morning, however, the train seemed to be plodding along and there was nothing to look at but an endless wall of rock and brush, a gray-green blur passing just outside my window. It seemed to go on forever, so I finally decided to walk back to the lounge car to break up the monotony.

When I got there, the car was full of passengers, all crowding together to soak in the view out the other side of the train: incredible vistas of mountains and lakes and valleys which we had been passing through for the past hour. I had missed it all.

Today's tip on train travel: When you board, ask one of the conductors when you’ll be getting to the best scenery and which side of the train will it be on.

After all, the reason you’re on the train is to relax and to see this amazing country. Why miss any of it?

Friday, May 16, 2008

Hawaii Leads the Way In More Ways Than One

We have a new law here in Hawaii that will require all newly-built residential homes to have solar water heaters. Rough estimates are this requirement, which takes effect in 2010, will add about $5000 to the cost of each new home. The upside, of course, is that homeowners will save many times that amount over the years in the form of lower electricity bills.

The cost of electricity has been going up and up here. Our electric bill for an average-size three-bedroom, two-bath home is now running about $250 a month, nearly double what it was two to three years ago. That’s a swat, too, because we have neither heat nor air conditioning in our home. A small wood-burning stove in our living room takes the chill off on the occasional nippy winter morning and ceiling fans in every room are all we need to keep cool in summer.

Everything else is going up, too. For example, regular unleaded gas is selling for $4.28 a gallon here on Maui this morning. I'll bet we lead the nation with that, too!

Hawaii residents are used to paying premium prices for just about everything. Shipping costs are the reason for most of that. We are, after all, living in the most remote populated spot on the globe. Everything has to be shipped in from at least 2300 miles away. And much of that stuff arrives in Honolulu and then has to be sent along by barge to those of us living on one of the Neighbor Islands. Most folks here just shrug it off as “the Price of Paradise.”

But ... would I trade this spot for someplace on the mainland with lower electric bills? Not a chance. Not a snowball’s chance on Napili Beach!

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Crossing the Country in Style ... Part Five

Continuing (and concluding) the account of my recent trip from Washington, DC, to Los Angeles on Amtrak:

After leaving Trinidad, Colorado, crossing under the Continental Divide and descending through Raton Pass, the Southwest Chief heads out across some dry but dramatic New Mexico landscapes. A little after 3:00 that afternoon, we arrive in Albuquerque. Thanks to the padded schedule, we’re almost a half hour early and not scheduled to depart until 4:45.

That leaves plenty of time to stretch our legs, wander through the new station building, and walk up to the head end to watch the three locomotives being refueled (note the tanker truck under the overpass).
Many of the passengers pause to look at some Navajo jewelry that’s on display and for sale. There are lots of small inexpensive items, but some of it - mostly silver and turquoise - is very artistic and truly magnificent.
One of the passengers takes this opportunity to clean the windows of his lower-level roomette. The Chief went through the car wash back in Chicago, but that was a day-and-a-half and 1300 dusty miles ago.

I asked for the last sitting for dinner in the dining car and am just finishing a very good (and very rich) cheesecake dessert as the Chief makes its scheduled stop in Flagstaff. This is where bus connections are made by passengers headed to Phoenix.

Forty minutes later, the stop is Williams, Arizona. A few more passengers get off here, including a couple with two kids planning to take the steam train tomorrow morning to the Grand Canyon. My wife and I will be back here next summer to do exactly that, too!

The rest of Arizona passes during the night and at 7:48, not quite 30 minutes early, the Southwest Chief comes to a stop at beautiful Union Station in Los Angeles.

One more cross-country train trip is in the books … and well worth it, as always.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

A Thing of Beauty ... and How to Get There

A college friend of our daughter is in India at the moment and has emailed a very interesting narrative about, among other things, his visit to the Taj Mahal.

"Lovely doesn't really capture it. It's seriously the most beautiful building I've ever seen. Something about the simplicity and intricacy of the construction and the fact that it's white, but also translucent, reflecting the white around it. It's just breathtaking. I can't even think of a building that's even close."

Clearly, the Taj Mahal is worth adding to any world traveler's "must-see" list.

And now, transitioning to the opposite end of that spectrum - and because, after all, the focus of this blog is travel and transportation - I can't resist including a photo he took of an auto-rickshaw.

Essentially, these are modified mopeds that ply the streets of Agra picking up passengers and delivering them wherever they want to go, including to the magnificent Taj Mahal. Not exactly suited to a Los Angeles freeway, but I gather quite appropriate where they are.

Taxi, anyone?

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Train Travel Is Catching On In California

Amtrak’s busiest route is the Northeast Corridor, linking Washington, New York City and Boston. Last I heard, Amtrak is now carrying about 60% of the traffic between Washington and New York.

And why not? Amtrak’s Acela trains can take you from within a couple of hundred yards of the Capitol building in Washington to the heart of Manhattan Island in two hours and 45 minutes. Try that by air!

A lesser known success story is the Pacific Surfliner route on the West Coast, running from San Diego in the south as far north as San Luis Obispo and Paso Robles. This is Amtrak’s second busiest rail route now.

Right now, it costs about $50 to ride the entire length of that route; the fare for the 3-hour ride from LA to San Diego is about $30. The Washington-New York-Boston route may be carrying more passengers, but its scenery can’t compare to the ride along the Pacific Ocean. Pretty nice to be rolling along in air conditioned comfort, looking out the window at kids playing on the beach and surfers catching waves.

The State of California supports the Pacific Surfliner route with an annual subsidy of about $80 million. Is that a worthwhile expenditure of taxpayer dollars, you ask?

Damn right! Think of all the cars that takes off the road. And rail travel produces 70 percent less greenhouse gas compared to automobiles. You think $80 million is a lot of money? Of course it is … but we spend that much on one major highway interchange without blinking an eye.

Now here’s the big news: this fall, California voters will have the chance to vote on a $10 billion bond issue, the money to be used for building a high-speed rail line linking Los Angeles and San Francisco, a trip that would be done in three hours.

All right, California! Now we’re getting somewhere!

Monday, May 12, 2008

Words You Do NOT Want to Hear …

… from your dentist as he’s about to start a root canal:

“Yikes! Well, this is really going to be a challenge!”

(I'm afraid my next post will have to wait until tomorrow.)

Sunday, May 11, 2008

It Really Is a Puzzlement

I got an email yesterday from a friend in Kansas who was wondering why so many Republicans in Congress are so adamantly against using tax dollars to pay for rail transportation in general and Amtrak in particular.

That’s a question I’ve struggled with for years. I find the case for rail so clear and so compelling that I’m baffled when someone doesn’t get it. What’s wrong with these people? What prevents them from understanding what is so damn obvious?

Some Republican legislators, I’m afraid, are simply locked into their position and will not or cannot change their minds. John Mica, a Republican congressman from central Florida, spoke at our NARP* board meeting last month. This guy is an implacable opponent of Amtrak and constantly refers with a sneer to "our soviet-style railroad", whatever the hell that means. Forget about turning him around. Even if he hears you, he does not listen.

Other members of Congress are simply unaware of the important role Amtrak is already playing in our national transportation system, despite having been nearly starved to death over the past decade or so. For instance, we spoke to several elected officials who were mistakenly under the impression that there is a lack of ridership on Amtrak’s long-distance trains.

The origin of this misperception probably goes back to Bush's first Secretary of Transportation, Norman Mineta, who is famous for making what is probably one of the most brazenly false statements of all time. "Amtrak,” he said, “operates trains no one rides to places no one wants to go." That is such nonsense and so easily disproved, one wonders why he thought he could get away with it. Regardless, there are still people in influential positions who believe it to be true.

Some of this anti-rail attitude by Republicans is ideological – an automatic knee-jerk opposition to any federal "subsidy." That, in my book, is either willfully hypocritical or monumentally stupid because in one way or another government already subsidizes all forms of public transportation, from the airlines to sidewalks.

In his remarks to the NARP board, Mica himself said he has reservations about giving Amtrak the $1.7 billion they are asking for because of so many other demands on funds set aside for transportation needs ... including, he noted, five BILLION dollars for one new runway at Miami International Airport. He said it with a straight face, too.

*National Association of Railroad Passengers

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Crossing the Country in Style ... Part Four

An hour or so after leaving Dodge City, the Southwest Chief crosses into Colorado while I’m enjoying breakfast in the dining car. This crew is outstanding – taking orders, pouring coffee, serving breakfasts of eggs or French toast or pancakes, with bacon or sausage … even granola and fresh fruit, if you’re more inclined to lighter fare. Not me! This is a dining car ... and I'm dining!

Outside the dining car windows, we’re rolling through miles and miles of grazing land, broken up here and there by freshly tilled fields ready for planting. I’ve taken this trip probably six or eight times, but have never found this part monotonous.

For one thing, there are lots of cattle who placidly share these huge pastures with small herds of pronghorn antelope, some stand quite close to the train, watching as we roll past; others run off, putting a little distance between themselves and the Chief. According to one of the conductors, these handsome animals can hit speeds of up to 50 miles per hour if they really turn it on.

A rutted dirt path is running along next to us now, just a hundred feet or so outside my window, sometimes plainly visible, other times dissolving into a wooded hillside, then appearing again a few hundred yards farther on. This is the original Santa Fe Trail.

The train is moving slower now, laboring up a miles-long grade toward Raton Pass, which is the highest point along the Southwest Chief’s route at 7,588 feet above sea level.
After passing through a long tunnel, the Chief heads down grade and to our scheduled stop in Raton, New Mexico. We’re now on the western side of the Continental Divide. From here, all water flows westward, ultimately ending up in the Pacific Ocean.

More comig about this great train ride.

May 10, 2008 – National Train Day in America

There is a new and rapidly growing awareness that, as a nation, we need to put more money – many billions of dollars, in fact – into all forms of passenger rail service: long-distance, short haul, commuter and inter-city high-speed.

To help focus public awareness on the need for more rail service, today is National Train Day in the U.S.

Amtrak has planned major events in Washington, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, and smaller celebrations have been organized in 40 or 50 other towns and cities all across the country, many actively supported by the National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP).

The basic theme is pretty simple: rail travel is good for people, good for the country, and good for the environment.

Every other country in Europe and most of those in Asia figured that out a long time ago. Now there are encouraging signs that our political leaders are beginning to get the picture, too … although it took $4.00 gas and a near-dysfunctional air transportation system to wake many of them up.

Most of the opposition to better rail service has come from Republican politicians. This is not a partisan comment, it is a simple statement of fact. But many, perhaps even most of them, are now starting to see the handwriting on the wall and come around.

And it’s damn well about time, too!

Friday, May 9, 2008

Crossing the Country in Style ... Part Three

We left Chicago at 3:15 in the afternoon, right on time … three sleepers, a dining car, a lounge car and three coaches, all pulled by three locomotives.

Amtrak’s Southwest Chief is a two-night journey heading, as the name implies, in a southwesterly direction from chilly the Midwest crossing prairies and deserts and winding through mountain passes to Los Angeles.

Leaving the city behind, the Chief heads out across Illinois farmland – mostly soy beans and corn – through small communities invariably and proudly identified by the town’s water tower.

Just a few miles south of Galesburg, two main rail lines converge and the Chief pauses for several minutes while a 100-plus-car freight train lumbers by on its way to Chicago.

Forty minutes later, as twilight begins to fall, we swing into a long turn, slow down, and clatter across a “swing bridge” over the Mississippi River. (A middle section of the bridge pivots and swings open to allow river traffic to pass … hence the name.)

Once we cross into Iowa, the Southwest Chief runs along the west bank of the river and into Fort Madison, first passing a river boat of modern construction, but classic “paddle wheeler” design.

During the night, the Chief crosses Missouri and heads out across the Kansas prairie. When I wake up the next morning, the train isn’t moving. I raise up on an elbow and peer out the window to discover we’re in Dodge City. About 200 yards up the street from the station is Boot Hill. At that very moment, a conductor passes the door of my roomette and I can hear him speaking to the engineer on his radio: “OK, Number 3, let’s get outta Dodge!”

More tomorrow.