Monday, June 30, 2008

Sometimes the Basics Are Overlooked

As I write this, I am heading south out of LA on the way to San Diego. I’m in Business Class on the Pacific Surfliner, which Amtrak touts as its second busiest route … second only after the extremely busy Northeast Corridor between Washington and Boston. Amtrak also promotes the scenery on this run, and that makes sense because, after you finally pass the urban and industrial sprawl south of LA, the train does run right along the Pacific Ocean.

I was not able to secure a window seat on the right side of the train, which is where the view of the beaches will eventually appear. That matters little today, though, because the windows are dirty – brown streaks and a milky build-up of some kind that seriously detracts from the view. Hazarding a guess, I would say these windows haven’t been washed in many days, probably weeks. What a shame!

Furthermore, the inside of the window is also dirty. In fact, there is a fine layer of brown dust or dirt covering the narrow window sill ... enough to darken a corner of the paper napkin I used to wipe it away.

There can be many things that irk Amtrak passengers, most of which Amtrak cannot control ... delays caused by freight traffic or the midwest flooding, for example. But dirty windows are reason for legitimate complaint.

Adding to my indignation this morning is the fact that I paid $14 extra to ride in Business Class. For that I get a cup of coffee and a cellophane-wrapped muffin or danish which I fetch for myself. There is a Business Class attendant in this car, but so far all I saw from him was a shrug and a smirk when I offered the thought that clean windows would be nice on this scenic run. Meanwhile, little old ladies are dragging their own luggage on and off the train while this guy is nowhere to be seen.

Note to future Pacific Surfliner riders: forget Business Class. Definitely not worth the extra fare.

Ah, but my mood brightens when I remind myself that I've just completed some 8,000 miles of travel around the country on Amtrak, all of which was quite enjoyable, and tomorrow I return home to Maui! What could possibly be wrong with that!

Sunday, June 29, 2008

My Around-the-Country Train Trip Completed

It's Sunday night and the Coast Starlight, with me aboard, arrived in Los Angeles a scant 10-12 minutes late. And with that arrival, I have completed my circumnavigation of the U.S. by train: Los Angeles-New Orleans-Washington-Boston Chicago-Seattle-Los Angeles ... all by Amtrak. On balance, a very enjoyable journey, two bus rides notwithstanding.

As always, the passing scenery and conversations with interesting people met over meals in the dining car provided the high spots of the trip. One of the more memorable conversations was with a woman from the LA area who went on at great length about her travels around both the U.S. and Europe. I was impressed with her stories of how much she enjoyed this city and that, this famous attraction and that … until she raved about visiting the Bastille in Paris. One small problem: The Bastille was demolished in 1789.

I did meet and chat with quite a number of very nice and very interesting people, however. One lady, traveling with her two teenage kids, turned out to be the ex-sister-in-law of a businessman I know in Honolulu. Furthermore, after we got over that coincidence, she mentioned that she lives on one of the islands off shore from Seattle. Huh?? My sister and her husband have just bought property on that very same island. The funny thing is that I have had similar experiences on almost every train trip I’ve ever taken.

Tomorrow morning I hop one of Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner trains to San Diego – a very nice 3-hour ride, much of it a stone’s throw from the beach along the southern California coast – where I will get together and dine with my two older kids and my other granddaughter. Good fun!

Then, Tuesday morning, it’s Hawaiian Airlines non-stop from San Diego to Maui. As always, it will be very good to get home. I took quite a number of photos all along the way and will post many of them along with a concise account of the trip as soon as I can.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Trip Report - From On Board the Empire Builder

The Chicago-to-Seattle segment of the trip did not start out well. Because of flooding somewhere in Wisconsin, we were treated by Amtrak to an 8½-hour bus ride from Chicago to Minneapolis. And I hate buses!

However – and amazingly – the time passed almost enjoyably, thanks to an excellent paperback book (The Innocent Man by John Grisham) and conversation with my seatmate, a recent college graduate traveling around the country checking out medical schools.

We reached Minneapolis about 8:30 in the evening. The Empire Builder was there waiting for us and by 9:30 all passengers had boarded … “all passengers” meaning five bus loads. The train was packed.

Once again I am reminded of the infamous and outrageous statement made a few years ago by George W. Bush’s first Secretary of Transportation, Norman Mineta: “Amtrak operates trains no one rides to places no one wants to go.”

Well, ol’ Norm should be aboard the Empire Builder today! Four coaches and four sleepers are included in the consist, with almost 400 passengers on board and only a few empty seats which will be filled as people get on and off along our route. (Additional equipment includes a dining car, a lounge car, a “transition sleeper” used for overflow passengers and some crew, a baggage car, and twin locomotives.)

When I woke up this morning (Thursday), we were passing through vast open spaces in North Dakota. Everything is quite green because this entire region has had unusual amounts of rain so far this year.

There were lots of grazing cattle and plenty of wildlife: ducks and geese paddling on ponds and lakes, and even in ditches filled with rainwater near the tracks; antelope interrupting their grazing to stare as we rumble by; and multitudes of other birds -- red-winged blackbirds, starlings and occasional brown hawks soaring overhead.

My car attendant, Amanda, has just handed me a copy of the Minot Daily News. The big story in today’s paper: inches and inches about the 38th Annual Threshing Show. The large color photo dominating the front page is of a farmer standing proudly by his bright red tractor. Fascinating, but I will end this post and search their Sports Section for the box score of yesterday's Red Sox game.

This will be posted as soon as we stop somewhere my wireless connection works. And more to come after that.

(Note: The above was written Wednesday and posted Friday from Seattle ... such is the state of wireless connections across the upper tier of the country.)

Tomorrow morning I will board the Coast Starlight for the ride from Seattle to Los Angeles. As far as I know, no bus rides will be involved!

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Trip Report for Tuesday, the 24th

It’s back on board Amtrak today … well, except for the bus ride from Boston to Albany, the unfortunate result of work being done by CSX on the tracks Amtrak uses somewhere along that stretch. But, once we eventually get to Albany, it will be a comfortable sleeper from there overnight to Chicago. Chicago will be fun because it will include a brief between-trains visit with folks we met more than 20 years ago on the beach in Kailua on O’ahu.

Tomorrow afternoon I’ll connect with Amtrak’s train # 7, the Empire Builder, for the two-night trip to Seattle, another of my favorite cities. I have been known to extend my stays in Seattle just for the pleasure of dining at Assaggio, an absolutely marvelous Italian restaurant. And, indeed, I will be doing just that on this trip, also having the pleasure of the company of two favorite nieces.

Now, to wrap up the Boston experience, I can report that the weather didn’t exactly clear yesterday, but it did stop raining and the game between the Red Sox and the Arizona Diamondbacks was played. I regret to say the Sox lost a close 2-1 game … BUT it was the kind of game that true baseball fans revel in, with excellent pitching, some amazing defensive plays and a couple of game-changing moments of excruciating tension.

You know what’s really fun … every single time? It’s being part of 36,000 people all lustily singing along with Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline blaring from the public address system. That's almost worth the price of admission. A Red Sox game at Fenway Park is an experience not to be missed. And I will be back next year.

OK … now … there’s that five-and-a-half hour bus ride to Albany to deal with. My loins are girded.

More to come … probably from Seattle.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Uh-oh ... Comes the Rain

Name something more depressing than sitting in a coffee shop a couple of hundred yards from Fenway Park with a choice ticket to tonight’s game, watching the rain pour down.

OK, what’s more depressing is the weather report saying it could be like this for the rest of the day …meaning tonight’s Red Sox game, the last of four I’m here to see, could be cancelled.

If that should be the case, at least the baseball part of my trip will have ended on a positive note. Yesterday’s game offered plenty of examples why baseball is such a unique and complex game. An old time baseball guy, Bob Fontaine, once remarked that “baseball games are like snowflakes; no two are exactly alike.” Exactly right.

This morning over coffee and pastries at Abigayle’s B&B, I had a nice chat with two other Hawaii residents who are, coincidentally, staying here: a mother and daughter from the Island of Hawaii who are taking the college tour … checking out schools for the daughter, who is currently a high school junior. As a Boston University graduate, I sang the school’s praises, of course, and threw in some glowing words about the city itself.

Finally, and on a completely different note, this morning comes news about the passing of George Carlin who, I have little doubt, will be recognized for many years to come as someone with the rare ability to point out the absurdities and the hypocrisies of our society, using wicked humor as his weapon. There have been damn few of these giants over the years, but Carlin ranks right up there with Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl. George Carlin will be sorely missed.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Yet Another Report from Boston

I love this city!

Boston is a big city that doesn't feel like a big city. It's also the biggest college town in the world. I'm told, and I believe, that from September through June, one out of every ten people walking down a Boston street is a college student. The last I heard, there are 63 colleges and universities located within a 25-mile radius of downtown Boston.

I'm staying in a little B&B just off of Kenmore Square (and, of course, a stone's throw from Fenway Park). Most of the 5-story brownstones on the street are owned by Boston University. In fact, not more than a couple of hundred feet up the street is my old fraternity house. It's a private residence now, but you can still see the rough outline of the Greek letters, Sigma Phi Epsilon, that were scraped off the stonework just over the front door.

I've had a conversation this morning with Amtrak about my return by train to the West Coast. It starts with a glitch: there is track work going on between here and Albany and trains aren't running while it continues. That means I'm in for a five-plus-hour bus ride from here to Albany. That's over five hours to travel 165 miles. Ugh!

My first thought is always to avoid a bus ride if possible, so I checked with Amtrak about heading by train back to New York City and catching the section of the Lake Shore Limited that originates there and with which I am scheduled to connect in Albany ... thus cleverly missing the track work between Boston and Albany and the resulting bus ride. Alas, it was not to be. The replacement of the now-famous Thames River bridge in New London, Connecticut, will be underway that very same day -- of course!! -- and that would mean another, even longer, bus ride. So I'm stuck.

There was good news, however: I will be connecting in Chicago with the Empire Builder for the ride from there to Seattle. That train had been disrupted on several segments north of Chicago by the terrible flooding in the midwest, but flood waters have dimished in those areas now and that train is back to normal service.

All of which makes this a good time to note that such are the trials and tribulations that can occur with train travel. I must emphasize that most of the time, things do go smoothly. The only forseeable problem that could be in store for me would occur if the Lake Shore should be more than 4 or 5 hours late getting into Chicago, thus jeopardizing my connection with the Empire Builder. Never fear. I shall keep you posted.

And now I'm off to Fenway Park and today's game between the Red Sox and the St. Louis Cardinals!

More to come.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Travel Report - Three Days Later

Back again ... this time from Boston.

Half of my train travel has now been completed ... the Sunset Limited from Los Angeles to New Orleans, followed by the Crescent from New Orleans to Washington. I had a four hour layover there, which was highlighted - as prediceted - with a very enjoyable lunch with Congressman Neil Abercrombie. Neil is, as mentioned in an earlier post, an old friend and someone whose company I enjoy very much.

Neil is a rarity among the politicians I have known - and there have been more than a few. Neil takes his job, and the responsibilities that go with it, very seriously. At the same time, he doesn't take himself too seriously. The net result is a very bright, very competent and genuinely dedicated public servant who has his priorities straight. Neil is at the moment weighing the possibility of coming home to Hawaii in a couple of years and running for governor... and I for one, say, "Go for it!"

At any rate, following that very enjoyable lunch, I caught an express Acela, Amtrak's high-speed train, and arrived in Boston smack on time at 8:33 p.m. A quick cab ride later and I was warmly greeted at Abigayle's B&B where I stay on one of these pilgrimages to Fenway Park.

A note of possible interest to some: veteran newsman Dan Rather was sitting across from me in the first class car on the Acela and, as we approached his stop in New York City, he was approached by several of the other passengers. Each, in turn, said hello and offered compliments in one form or another. Rather responded directly and -- this is the most appropriate word I can think of -- humbly ... asking each person's name, and calling him by name for the rest of the conversation. No sign of brushing anyone off. Courteous, polite, respectful, friendly and, yes, humble. I have met many celebrities in my day and must say that I was genuinely impressed. Short version: by all appearances, a very good guy.

So ... here I am in Boston, where I will be for the next five days taking care of my other active passion: the Boston Red Sox. I have tickets for the next four games and am looking forward to all of them. Seeing the Red Sox play at Fenway Park is an experience no one should miss, even non-baseball-fans. It's like Las Vegas ... everyone should go there at least once.

I checked with Amtrak this morning and was relieved to hear that the Empire Builder -- Amtra's daily train running between Chicago and Seattle/Portland -- is back to normal operations after several days of disruption due to the terrible flooding in the mid-West. Good! I'm due to be aboard that train next week!

OK ... more to come over the next several days.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

People Watching

(Written en route in Arizona, posted in New Orleans)

It’s quite an experience to sit for a couple of hours in the Los Angeles Union Station ... as I did this past Sunday, waiting to board the Sunset Limited. People! All types, all sizes, all colors, in a constant stream… coming from trains, rushing to catch trains, meeting friends and family. An amazing number of people for a Sunday morning.

There was a 40ish man wearing a Red Sox cap and a Lakers T-shirt, either playing it safe or schizophrenic.

There was a cute little Asian girl – not more than two years old – who ran out into the main aisle of the waiting area and shrieked, “Mommy!” Seconds later she was scooped up and hugged by a Caucasian woman.

There was a young man, movie-star handsome, except for the stainless steel ring through his lower lip and the Mohawk haircut.

There was the dignified middle-aged woman who circulated through the cavernous waiting room every half hour, carefully removing empty plastic bottles and soda cans from the 25 or 30 trash containers placed around the room.

More to come.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Day One - Report

Some quick impressions from the two flights today:

First of all, the flight from Maui to Honolulu was spectacular. A gorgeous, clear day with what can only be described as breathtaking views of Moloka'i enroute to Honolulu.

Sitting in the Honolulu airport, waiting to board my Hawaiian Airlines flight to Los Angeles, I was again struck by how people dress for travel these days: tank tops stretched over beer bellies, rubber slippers, baseball caps worn throughout the flight, and on backwards, of course. I guess being turned off by that makes me an old geezer, but it's just low class.

As an aside, I clearly remember my folks putting me on a train in Hartford, CT, when I was 10 or 12 ... sending me off by myself on a two-hour ride from Hartford to Darien for a weekend visit with my cousin. They put me in my Sunday best for that trip: white shirt, tie, my one and only sports jacket, and shoes shined. For a two-hour train ride!

Another mind-boggler: The guy going through security ahead of me at the Maui airport, was pulled out of the line because he had -- ready for this? -- a boxcutter in his carry-on bag.
The TSA person said, "Do you want to give it up?" He said, "OK" and that was the end of it.
A boxcutter, for God's sake!!

Once again, Hawaiian Airlines did a great job getting us to LA. Smooth flight on my favoriye airplane -- a 767 -- friendly crew, small but tasty meal, and really excellent in-flight video, produced exclusively for Hawaiian. And thus endeth my commercial for Hawaiian Airlines.

Comfortably ensconced now at the LA Marriot, about to tie into a BLT and a Carona, then off to bed.

Tomorrow, it's Amtrak's Sunset Limited. Hooray!

More to come.

Friday, June 13, 2008

17 Days of Pure Indulgence Start Tomorrow

I’m off tomorrow morning on a trip that will include several lengthy train rides and a visit to Boston where I’ll see the Red Sox play four games, thereby indulging my two great passions. First comes the trans-Pacific hop to Los Angeles on Hawaiian Airlines (my favorite).

The train travel begins in Los Angeles on Sunday afternoon. I’ll be aboard the Sunset Limited for two nights en route to New Orleans. There will be one overnight there – just time for some strolling around the French Quarter and dinner at Irene’s, a wonderful little restaurant my wife and I discovered on our last trip through the city.

From New Orleans, I’ll take the Crescent to Washington, DC, where a 4-hour layover between trains should allow time for what will no doubt be a riotous lunch with an old pal, Congressman Neil Abercrombie (D-HI). Then it's up to Boston on Amtrak's high-speed train, the Acela, for my annual pilgrimage to Fenway Park.

From Boston, I’ll return to the West Coast - all the way by Amtrak: Boston to Chicago on the Lake Shore Limited, Chicago to Seattle on the Empire Builder (photo below), and Seattle back to Los Angeles on the Coast Starlight (photos of the beautiful new parlour car to come).

The idea was to travel completely around the U.S. by train and see if that would be enough of a “hook” to interest a travel editor somewhere. While traveling, I’ll also be working on a train travel story for Grand magazine, so I’ll have my work cut out for me when I get back here to Maui just after the first of July.

I will be taking a brand new laptop with me and, assuming I can get it to work properly, will continue posting here throughout my trip.

By the way, I’ve added one more fantasy to my list. It’s that someday I’ll run into the person who wrote the owner’s manual for my new computer. If I ever do, I’ll punch the miserable little geek right in the nose!

Thursday, June 12, 2008

One Bridge Too Far

A few days ago I posted an item about the railroad bridge over the Thames River near New London, Connecticut. A section between two towers (see below) raises to permit river traffic to pass through. That part of the bridge is being replaced after 90 years and there will be no rail traffic across the bridge for four days while the work is completed.

Originally, work on the bridge was to be finished by Tuesday the 17th, but everything was pushed back two days and now it will be finished on Thursday, the 19th. That, of course, is one of the days I’ll be traveling and the very day I was due to cross that bridge by train en route from Washington to Boston. No bridge means no train, and mine was cancelled.

Amtrak stepped up to the plate, however, and is providing a few extra trains to accommodate us poor displaced souls. The one they put me on will get me to Boston, but the long way ‘round – via Hartford and Springfield. My only regret is that I was originally booked on Amtrak’s high-speed train, the Acela. I’ve never ridden the Acela and the replacement will be the conventional kind.

All this is by way of noting that the people who operate passenger trains are constantly having to deal with an almost limitless variety of problems: track work, freight traffic, freight train derailments, grade crossing accidents, floods, landslides, equipment breakdown, and – yes – bridge repair. It’s been my experience that, by and large, the folks at Amtrak do a great job.

I once asked the dining car steward on VIA Rail’s Toronto-to-Vancouver train what was the most important quality for a member of an on-board crew to have. He didn’t even have to think. “You gotta be flexible,” he said.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

U.S. House Passes an Important Pro-Amtrak Bill

Good news: The House of Representatives today passed H.R. 6003, the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act which, for the first time ever, will give Amtrak money to improve its system and enable them to plan several years into the future. This is a huge step forward for train travel in the U.S.

Better news: The vote was 311 to 104, which is a veto-proof margin!

As per yesterday’s post, President Bush had threatened to veto this bill. Now – after the House and Senate get together and agree on a final version of this legislation – he can whistle “Dixie”. The votes are there to override.

All 104 votes against the bill were cast by Republicans, reminding me of the old saying, "Republicans are in favor of progress, but not now!"

There was also an effort to amend the bill by Republican Congressman Pete Sessions of Texas. In effect, his amendment would have killed Amtrak’s Sunset Limited, which runs clear across his own state!

You really do wonder where their heads are at, don’t you.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Dubya Strikes Again!

What if you couldn’t find out until some time in November what your household income would be for next year? It could be the same … it might increase by 5 percent … or it could be reduced by 40 percent. How the hell could you plan for anything??

You couldn’t, of course, but that’s exactly what Amtrak has had to deal with for the past 20-plus years.

But wait! A bill that would provide the first serious, meaningful, long-term funding for Amtrak will be coming to the House floor tomorrow. It’s H.R. 6003, the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act.

It would authorize more than $14 billion over the next five years and includes a provision for matching funds that states could use to start new rail service or expand and improve existing service.

The timing couldn’t be better, because the airlines are cutting back on flights or going out of business, the price of gasoline is headed for five bucks, and people all across the country are turning to rail in droves for vacations and for their daily commutes.

And today our peerless leader, George W. Bush (photo, left), threatened to veto this legislation if it comes to his desk!

He says he wants more accountability from Amtrak – whatever the hell that means – and he complains that there isn’t enough in the bill to encourage “competition on existing Amtrak routes.”

Are you kidding me? Amtrak was created in the first place because the private rail companies couldn’t make passenger service pay. And today's freight railroads wouldn’t touch passenger service with a 100-foot pole.

Trust our prez to pick just the right moment to make exactly the wrong decision. Again!

Note: I usually illustrate these posts with photographs I scrounge from the Internet. There are plenty of photos of Bush out there, of course, but I thought it too offensive to use one that made him look like a baboon. And I just couldn’t bring myself to use one of the decent ones. So instead of a photo of our president, you get an empty space instead … which, when you stop and think about it, is rather appropriate.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Hip-Hip-Hooray!

Three loud and lusty cheers for the City of Minneapolis, and three more for the City Council and the mayor, The Honorable R. T. Rybak. There’s a new law in Minneapolis and henceforth folks there can get (and will deserve) a ticket if they allow the engine of their vehicle to idle for more than three minutes … unless they’re stuck in traffic.

"In these times of high gas prices, it’s a way for people to save fuel. If you’re sitting in an idling car, you’re getting zero miles a gallon. That’s not good for your pocketbook or the environment," Mayor Rybak said.

Ever the diplomat, what the mayor did not say is that this new law is aimed directly at the people who sit in their cars with the engine and the A/C running while waiting for the soccer game to end … or while they go into the convenience store for a box of Twinkies and a case of Dr. Pepper.

People like that will no doubt insist they have the right to be selfish and thoughtless, and indeed they do. But let’s at least make them pay for the privilege.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Two Unforgettable Moments at Fenway Park

Earlier today I was indulging in my usual daily pastime between April and October: watching the Boston Red Sox on television via satellite.

About halfway through the game, one of the Seattle players hit a line drive into the right field corner of Fenway Park. The Red Sox outfielder, J. D. Drew, raced over and snagged the ball just a foot or so off the ground for the third out of the inning.

Then, with the crowd applauding his very good effort, Drew continued loping toward the stands and very deliberately dropped the ball into the glove of a young boy seated in the front row. The camera got a wonderful close-up of the boy – I’d judge him to be 8 or 9 years old – staring in wonderment at that baseball. The look on his face was one of pure rapture.

I can tell you from my own experience that it was a moment in that kid’s life he will never forget. Not ever. If he wasn’t already, he is now a Red Sox fan for life. Not to mention a devoted fan of J. D. Drew (shown here hitting a home run in a game last year).

On May 25, 1946, I had a similar experience, although not so dramatic. I was visiting my Aunt Bobby in Boston for that weekend and she took me to Fenway Park to see the Red Sox play the New York Yankees.

We worked our way through the teeming crowd, passed through the turnstiles and down a long concrete ramp into the bowels of the ballpark - dark, noisy, crowded - with green steel girders crisscrossing overhead.

Then up another, shorter ramp emerging, almost unexpectedly, into the sunlight with a panorama spread out before us: an immaculate, manicured green baseball field. It was perfect ... the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. I was just a kid, about the same age as that boy today, but the memory is still vivid. I don’t remember details of the game, but the Red Sox won, 7 to 4 and I've been a Red Sox fan (and, it goes without saying, a Yankee-hater) ever since.

All these years later, I still go back to Fenway Park almost every summer to see the Red Sox play. I’m leaving next week, as a matter of fact. And when I go up that same ramp and catch my first good look at the field, it will be 1946 all over again. It happens every time.

Who says time travel isn’t possible.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

A Tricky Bridge Project on a Tight Schedule

The Northeast Corridor – that's the roughly 440 miles between Washington and Boston via New York City – is Amtrak's busiest route. Northbound trains out of New York travel along the Connecticut shore before swinging a bit more inland at New London for the run across Rhode Island and on into Boston.

New London is where the trains cross the Thames River. For 90 years, they’ve crossed on a bridge with a section in the middle that raises to allow river traffic to pass … traffic that can range from a sail boat with a mast that’s more than 30 feet high to a nuclear submarine coming from the Electric Boat division of General Dynamics in nearby Groton, Connecticut.

But, as I said, the bridge is 90 years old and the moveable section is now going to be replaced ... a job that will take just four days!

Obviously a lot of planning and work has already gone into this project. Concrete pilings have been poured and the replacement section has been built. Still, removing the old bridge and setting and securing the new bridge in place in 96 hours will really be an impressive trick.

There’s a lot at stake, too, because Amtrak carries roughly 3,350 people every weekday across that bridge and almost that many on Saturdays and Sundays.

Nevertheless, all train traffic between New London and Boston will stop on Saturday, June 14th as the work begins and, according to Amtrak, everything will be finished by Tuesday, June 17th.

It had better be finished, because on the 19th a very important passenger is scheduled to cross that particular bridge on an Acela train en route from Washington to Boston: me!

And that kinda reminds me of a drawing by the famous World War II cartoonist, Bill Mauldin. Two GIs are hunkering down in a foxhole, cold and wet with bullets flying all around, and one says to the other, "The hell this isn't the most important foxhole in the world. I'm in it!"

Friday, June 6, 2008

A Memorable Visit to La Belle France

About five years ago, my wife and I were in London where I was attending a business conference. There were meetings and panels and discussion groups – more than enough to keep the IRS happy – but there was also time for some sightseeing, which included a visit to the new Globe Theater and a wonderful production of "Much Ado About Nothing".

After London, we took the Eurostar through the Chunnel. Wow! I did my best to figure out how fast we were traveling, trying to count the seconds between kilometer markers with the sweep hand on my wristwatch, then converting kilometers to miles. The best estimate I came up with was roughly 175 miles per hour. When we arrived in Paris, the engineer was climbing down out of the locomotive as we passed by on the platform. I asked how fast we had been traveling and he replied, “Trois cent kilometre.” That’s 300 kilometers an hour, or just a tad over 186 mph. Double wow! And during the trip, the car attendants were pushing carts up and down the aisles, pouring wine and serving hot coffee. That's hard to do on an Amtrak train at 79 mph!

Our first stop was Chartres where we spent a night and more than a couple of hours in and around the magnificent cathedral. Then, in a rental car, we headed south with the Dordogne region our ultimate destination. My advice when driving around Europe: Stay off the main highways; deliberately seek out the roads represented by the skinniest lines on the maps. The rural countryside is glorious and you miss it when you travel the autobahns.

En route to the Dordogne, we stopped to see the charming and lovely chateau, Azay-le-Rideau, in the Loire Valley. I have several coffee table books on France and had often marveled at photos of this castle for years. I was determined to see it in person and it was absolutely worth the effort. We spent well over an hour strolling on the grounds, stopping at benches in several different spots just to gaze at this beautiful little chateau.

From there we headed farther south to the Dordogne region, eventually ending up in the town of Domme, which had been recommended by veteran-traveler friends of ours.

This is the view from the window of our little hotel room, overlooking the valley with the Dordogne River running through it. I remember just standing in the window for many minutes at a time soaking it all in. We were there for three days and I cannot recommend this part of France and this little town enough.

Pricey air fares and a lousy rate-of-exchange notwithstanding, I have sworn to return to the Dordogne “one of these days”.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

What Are the Odds??

Amtrak’s City of New Orleans runs daily in each direction between Chicago and New Orleans.

Yesterday, the train hit a car at a grade crossing in McComb, Mississippi. The 19-year-old driver of the car tried to cross the tracks in spite of flashing warning lights and clanging bells. In another case of dumb luck, the kid was taken to a hospital, but was apparently not seriously injured. After a 40-minute delay in McComb, the City of New Orleans resumed its southbound journey.

Less than an hour later, in Independence, Louisiana, it happened again! The same train hit a car at another grade crossing, this time killing the two occupants. It tore the car in half and shoved the pieces almost 100 yards down the track before coming to a stop. None of the passengers or crew was hurt.

There are no flashing lights or gates at this particular crossing, but there are warning signs and witnesses reported hearing the train’s whistle before the collision. (Engineers sound the horn at every grade crossing, whether or not there are gates.)

As I have noted in a couple of earlier posts, these accidents are doubly tragic. First, of course, because people are killed or injured, but also because of the psychological toll on the engineers.

The industry is doing its best to inform and educate people about grade crossing safety through a program called Operation Lifesaver. It has helped, too, because there’s been a steady reduction in the number of these accidents over the years. I guess that means the message is getting through to people who are unaware or who might otherwise be careless.

It would appear, however, that little can be done for those suffering from chronic stupidity.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Are We On the Verge of a Comeback for Trains?

Here's a sad statistic: Amtrak is allotted less than 1 percent of the total federal transportation budget. (As embarrassing as that is, it would be zero if Bush and McCain had their way.)

Be that as it may, as a result of this pathetic under-funding, Amtrak trains run much slower than their European counterparts; they run much less frequently; and many major American cities have no passenger rail service at all.

But get this: Amtrak ridership is nevertheless increasing dramatically.

Up 6.5 % on the Heartland Flyer from Fort Worth to Oklahoma City
Up 8.2 % on the Empire Builder between Chicago and Seattle
Up 17 % between Sacramento and San Francisco
Up 18 % between Philadelphia and Harrisburg
Up 18 % between Chicago and St. Louis
Up 20 % in North Carolina on the Carolinian and the Piedmont

And there are equally impressive increases on just about every other route Amtrak operates.

Imagine how much the ridership could increase … imagine how much gasoline could be saved … imagine how our collective carbon footprints could be reduced … if our federal and state governments finally decide to get together and put money into an integrated national passenger rail system, including intercity high-speed trains and an honest-to-God long-distance network.

Who knows? This is an election year and with gas at $4.00-plus a gallon and climbing, we actually could see that starting to happen.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

More About Hungary

After spending several days in Budapest, we rented a small – very small – car and spent the next ten days visiting several other towns and cities.

I think my favorite was Eger, to the northeast of Budapest. It’s been a while, but I remember three things about Eger very clearly.

First was a minaret in the center of town. I started to climb up the extremely narrow interior steps until my claustrophobia took over… at the third step.

There’s a spectacular sculpture in the center of the old town commemorating the Magyars defence of the city against the invading Huns. Hungary has been invaded and liberated over and over again throughout history. The Nazis and the Russians were just the most recent.

And there was a wonderful meal in our hotel where we were entertained by a group of musicians led by an astonishing violinist.

From there we drove to an area of the country called the hortobagy (pronounced HOR-tow-badj) where the great, broad flat plain, the puszta, is located. This is the center of the Hungarian horse culture. My wife and daughter went for a two-hour ride and returned positively aglow, having experienced, in my wife’s words, “several thundering gallops.”

We also were privileged to see some demonstrations of absolutely astonishing horsemanship. For instance, there was the csicos (Hungarian equivalent to “cowboy”, pronounced CHEE-kosh) who rode past us standing, one foot on one horse, the other foot on another horse, with three more horses out front, guiding all five animals with reins in each hand and at a full gallop. WOW! (As a matter of fact, it was my distinct impression that Hungarians do pretty much everything at a full gallop.)

More to come.

Monday, June 2, 2008

What’s In a Word? That Depends.

As I skip around the internet looking at other blogs, I’m struck by the incredible variety … variety of content, variety of style and, in particular, variety in the quality of writing. Some is pretty good, but most, I’m afraid, is marginal at best and just awful at worst.

Are kids taught grammar today? Do they spend any time talking about the nuances that provide the difference between two words with very similar meanings? I would guess not.

All of which makes me grateful all over again for the class time I spent during my high school years with an extraordinary man and exceptional English teacher. Quite apart from the formal instruction he gave us, Norris Orchard had a standing offer of $25.00 – a princely sum back in the 50s – if any of his students could come up with perfect synonyms. Emphasis on "perfect".

It was his contention, you see, that no two words in the English language have exactly the same meaning. To meet his definition of "perfect synonym", those two words could be substituted for each other in any sentence without altering the meaning of that sentence in any way.

I remember reading somewhere that the average literate English-speaking person can make use of something like 400,000 different words. And, according to Norrie Orchard, of all those words, no two mean exactly the same thing. That's quite extraordinary, if you stop and think about it.

I remember running up to him during lunch one day and breathlessly offering menace and threat as my entry in the $25 sweepstakes.

“Not bad,” said Norrie. “But you can’t send a menace through the mail.”

Damn!

But then he stopped and thought a bit. “Unless, of course,” he added, “the postal authorities would accept a package containing a five-year old boy.”

What a guy! What he gave me over four years was worth a whole lot more than $25.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Want Something Different? Try Hungary.

My family and I have made two trips to Hungary. The first was in 1985, before the Iron Curtain came down. The second was almost 10 years later after the Russians had left. The two experiences were quite different, but we enjoyed ourselves immensely both times … so much so that I’ll pass along some of my recollections today and more in a couple of upcoming posts

On our first visit to Hungary, we entered the country by rail from Vienna. When we stopped at the Austro-Hungarian border, armed guards were posted every hundred feet or so on both sides of the train. Clearly, getting out for a stroll on the platform was not an option! While teams of uniformed and armed border guards worked their way through the train checking identification, others, with dogs, walked the length of the train looking up under the rail cars with mirrors on long poles to make sure no one was hiding beneath the floor of the car.

When the guards working the inside of the train reached our compartment, they politely asked us to step out into the corridor. While one studied our passports and checked our visas, the other looked under the seats, then stepped up on a portable stool, pushed open a small trap door in the ceiling and peered around into a narrow crawl space above our compartment. To me, all of this security begged the question: Why would someone want to smuggle themselves into a country with such an oppressive system?

In Budapest, we stayed at a fabulous 100-plus-year-old hotel, the Gellert. It may have been renovated since, but back in ’85 it was pretty threadbare. No matter. There was plenty about the place that spoke very clearly to the elegance of its past …

… particularly the thermal baths down in the lower level of the grand old place. The water in the pool is naturally heated to what I remember as being around 80 degrees and is thought to be therapeutically beneficial. You'll get no argument from me. We spent a delightful and relaxing hour there, although my colorful Hawaiian swim trunks did draw some curious stares.

Budapest – pronounced, as you probably know, Booduh-pesht – is actually two cities in one: Buda with its castle on the cliff to the left, Pest with its shops and markets and Parliament building on the right. The Danube is a green-gray (not blue) dividing line between the two halves of this wonderful city.

For anyone looking for a fascinating part of the world to visit, I absolutely and enthusiastically recommend Hungary. More later.