Thursday, July 31, 2008

Grown-Ups Take A Stand, But Kids Pay The Price

Many years ago, I ran for the State Legislature here in Hawaii. I ran as a Democrat in what was then a solid Republican district – temporary insanity is my excuse – and lost.

But I was reminded today of an incident that occurred back then while I was going door-to-door passing out my campaign material. The neighborhood was very hilly and it was a hot day, so when I was offered a cold drink by a 60ish lady in a tidy little house, I gratefully accepted.

She invited me in, sat me down under a churning ceiling fan, and handed me a tall cold glass of iced tea. As I sipped, she asked questions about several issues of the day and absolutely loved every answer I gave. I positively basked in her praise.

Then, ever so innocently, she asked me what I thought about fluoridating the public water supply. Well, I said, the Hawaii Dental Association was strongly in favor of it and my own dentist said it would drastically reduce tooth decay in our kids.

In an instant, she leaped to her feet and shrieked, “Get out! Get out! Get out!” -- literally shoving me out onto her front porch and slamming the door behind me. That loony woman scared the hell out of me! In fact, it was several seconds before I realized I still had the glass of iced tea in my hand.

I was reminded of that today during a visit to my dentist. Just as I walked in, he was telling a lady in the waiting room that he would have to refer her four-year-old daughter to another dentist, a pediodontist, because the child “wasn’t cooperating” while he tried to work on her.

Later, he told me that kids in Hawaii have lots of tooth decay because many parents either can’t afford the daily fluoride drops or just don’t bother. And, of course, our water supply still is not fluoridated. “The Dental Association has given up because we’ve taken so much abuse on that issue,” he said. “People go crazy. It’s just not worth it.”

So how will that other dentist deal with the little girl who wouldn’t cooperate?

“They’ll have to strap her down,” he said. “Sedatives aren’t good because kids on the mainland have actually died from them. But when kids get cavities, the work has to be done. Strapping ‘em down is the only way.”

Here’s an idea: let's make the anti-fluoride people watch while the pediodontist works on that little four-year-old.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Around the U.S. By Train – Part 9

The Metropolitan Lounge in Chicago’s Union Station is reserved for Amtrak's sleeping car passengers and that’s where I’m waiting to board my connecting train to Seattle, the Empire Builder.

That’s also where I get the bad news: There has been severe flooding along the Mississippi River in Wisconsin and the Empire Builder is unable to get all the way to Chicago. As a result, Amtrak is going to bus us from here to St. Paul where the train will be waiting. It will be an eight-and-a-half-hour bus ride. Ugh!

I hate buses and immediately start looking for any reasonable option. Out comes the cell phone and moments later I’m speaking to a Northwest Airlines reservations agent. Yes! They have a flight this afternoon. And yes! The flight is a quick 90 minutes. And yes! They have one seat left on that flight. For $366!

And so, at a few minutes past 2:00, I find myself climbing aboard an Amtrak bus, resigned to a long, boring, barely comfortable ride. Moments later, a young man politely asks if the seat next to me is taken. He’s casually but neatly dressed, obviously well-mannered, and – most important – is not the 300-pounder I was dreading.

Ten minutes later we’re underway, although the first 45 minutes of the trip finds us bogged down in bumper-to-bumper traffic, creeping along on our way out of Chicago. Happily, that time passes quickly because my seatmate turns out to be an interesting chap. Just graduated from a pre-med curriculum at Wesleyan University, he’s spending the summer traveling around the country looking at medical schools. And he’s doing as much as he can by train.

Soon we’re rolling along, headed north through lush green farmland. Between some good conversation with my new friend and a good book, the long trip passes almost pleasantly, although we never do see any signs of the flooding that has caused this bus ride.

The Empire Builder is waiting for us when we arrive at the Minneapolis-St. Paul Amtrak station at 9:40. We won't be leaving for another two hours and by now I'm hungry. The dining car will not be serving tonight, but the station master tells me there are a couple of fast food joints a hundred yards down the road. Off I go.

The first place I spot is a Subway which, I discover, is staffed by a young man who is the polar opposite of my seatmate on the bus. He is unkempt, greasy, and is a living, breathing portrait of incompetence and disinterest. We have a less than promising start:

Me: I’d like a BLT on a 6-inch wheat bread, no cheese.

Him: You want lettuce on it?

After clearing that up, he set to work and I detoured to the rest room. To my surprise, the sandwich was ready, wrapped and bagged with my drink when I emerged. I paid and walked back to the station, settling into a chair in the far corner of the station to await the Empire Builder’s “All Aboard.”

Time for the BLT … my favorite sandwich … and by now I'm really hungry. Problem: My BLT has no lettuce and no tomato. Just bacon. And, of course, cheese.

Nevermind. The Empire Builder gets underway at 11:30 and, hungry or not, I’m once again settled comfortably in my roomette ... a happy camper.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Sometimes There Really Are Simple Answers

Faced with high gasoline prices, and the very likely prospect that those high prices are here to stay, we’re hearing a lot of talk about more offshore drilling, drilling in the arctic, tapping our strategic reserves, coming up with alternative fuels, etcetera and so forth.

But, unless I’ve just missed it, there hasn’t been any organized effort at conservation. Nevertheless, we Americans have started conserving all on our own: We are, in fact, driving less … carpooling, taking public transit, combining trips, parking the gas-guzzlers.

Estimates are that we drove some 30 billion fewer miles over the past six months compared to the same period of the year before. Assuming an overall average of 20 miles-per-gallon, and projecting those numbers over a full 12 months, we’re already saving something like three billion gallons of gas a year. At $4.50 a gallon, that amounts to 13.5 billion dollars or roughly a $50 savings for every man, woman and child in the U.S.

And here’s a really delicious thought: If we keep it up and do even better, think of all the money that we won’t be shelling out to pay our dear friends the Saudis for their crude oil.

If that doesn’t bring a smile to your lips and a spring to your step, nothing will!

Monday, July 28, 2008

Around the U.S. By Train – Part 8

During the night, the Lake Shore Limited crosses up-state New York, a corner of Pennsylvania and heads into Ohio. I raise my window shade to the soft light of dawn. We’re in Toledo and crossing the Maumee River just before it empties into Lake Erie.

Breakfast in the dining car is enjoyable because I’m seated with a young man who is on his way back to Chicago after helping a friend move to New York City. They attended an inter-league game between the Cubs and White Sox in Chicago, then loaded a rented truck with the friend’s belongings and drove it to New York. After unloading and with no sleep for two-plus days, he bought a coach ticket on the Lake Shore and headed home. He’s bleary-eyed, but after several cups of coffee and with a good breakfast in front of him, we are soon deep into an animated baseball conversation. He is a devoted fan of the White Sox and, since I have a similar devotion to the Bostion Red Sox, we discover a deep common bond: we both have a loathing of the New York Yankees which, we happily agree, borders on the irrational, but is understandable, justifiable and absolutely normal.

Outside our dining car window, the landscape has flattened out and we’re passing fields of corn, tidy farm houses and barns, most of them in the traditional Dutch colonial design and painted in the classic red.

The Lake Shore slows to a crawl and the conductor announces that we have done so to allow a CSX freight train to cross in front of us. Many of these freights are close to 7,000 feet long and can cause real problems when trundling slowly through these small mid-western towns. Of course traffic stalls at intersections waiting for the freights to pass, but the worst case scenario is a fire breaking out on one side of town and the fire equipment having to wait for a slow freight to clear an intersection before being able to respond. Anticipating that, many of these towns have had to duplicate fire and police facilities on each side of the tracks, effectively doubling the cost of equipment and personnel.

There’s nothing fancy about these little towns. Most have a main street lined with small shops and stores, with houses on the nearby streets modest in size and of simple, utilitarian design – all a reflection of mid-western values and tastes.

Just past Waterloo, Indiana, we pass several huge piles of wooden railroad ties, evidence of the extensive track work being done all along this route.

The Lake Shore rattles along now at a steady pace while outside the houses come more frequently and begin to blend into light industrial areas. Soon, well up ahead but rising well above the other buildings on the skyline is the distinctive profile of the Sears Tower. Chicago is dead ahead.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Cattle Car Makes a Comeback

Do we really need any further evidence that high gasoline prices are causing more and more people to switch to public transit?

The Chicago Transit Authority has recently announced that all seats will be removed from some of the cars used on their commuter trains during rush hour. As many as 50 additional passengers can be crammed into each of the seatless cars.

Typically, in an eight-car train, two cars will be of the standing-room-only version, meaning that an extra 100 people can be accommodated on every train … although “accommodated” really doesn’t seem like the right word here.

Reaction from Chicago commuters has apparently been very negative but, according to CTA authorities, the alternative is that those 100 people would have to be left behind on the platform.

Meanwhile, back here in Hawaii, opponents of Honolulu’s proposed transit system have apparently been successful in getting a build-or-don’t-build question on the November ballot. There are signs of hope that clear-thinking will eventually prevail: A recent poll indicates that some 60% of Oahu residents are in favor of the project.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

What’s In A Name? Occasionally Too Much.

There has been a weird news item making the rounds lately about kids being given bizarre names by idiot parents in New Zealand. Example: A 9-year-old girl who was named Talula Does The Hula From Hawaii. Fortunately, a judge stepped up and made the poor kid a ward of the court, then gave her a new, legal name. What that new name is we do not know, in deference to the youngster’s privacy.

I hasten to add that kiwis certainly do not have a monopoly on adults with no brains who insist on procreating. I wrote recently about a mother who got off an Amtrak train in Montana somehow forgetting that her two children were still on board. Fortunately, the train attendant did remember.

Anyway, the unusual-name phenomenon is not something new. Way back in my youth, I knew a young man whose legal name was Twig Branch.

And just the other day, while looking for a new truck here on Maui, I noted the name of the car dealership’s sales manager: Ivan Ho.

Years ago, I knew a professional baseball player named Dave Hirtz. When his wife became pregnant, I asked him what they were going to name their son.

“Anything but Dick or Peter,” he said.

Good call.

Friday, July 25, 2008

They May be Nuts, But At Least They Know What’s Really Important

Barak Obama is a pretty smart guy. Before a meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Paris today, Obama was asked by someone in the press corps to “say something in French.”

Uh-oh … that, folks, was a trick question.

Four years ago, John Kerry was scorned and mocked by conservatives in this country – ready? – because he can speak French.

Obama, however, was prepared. He just smiled, waved, and said, “Bonjour.”

And that leaves the 2008 Swift-Boaters gnashing their teeth. They suspect Obama can speak French, but – dammit! – they can’t prove it.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

They’re Either One Or The Other

Somewhere back there in earlier posts, I said most of the people who oppose new transit systems fall into one of two groups: the uninformed or the selfish.

Those in the selfish category are generally people who live in an area that will not be directly served by transit, but whose taxes will help pay for the system. These are the same folks who send their kids to private school, then grouse about having their taxes go to the public school system.

There’s a proposal now in the Washington, DC, area to extend the Metro system into the hoity-toity suburb of Chevy Chase, Maryland. Because the existing system is so successful, prevailing public sentiment has been positive. In recent weeks, however, a new web site has popped up opposing the new transit line … lots of criticism, but no alternate solutions.

There’s also no mention of who’s behind the web site … just a vague reference to “concerned citizens”. That obvious omission peaked the interest of some of the pro-transit people who did a little digging.

It turns out that the web site’s owner is a company located in the Madeira Islands off the coast of Portugal. And like the famous Swiss bankers, this company won’t reveal the names of its clients. Undaunted, there was more sleuthing that included research into the State of Maryland's tax records.

Aha! It turns out that the mysterious company’s founder is a board member of the Columbia Country Club in Montgomery, Maryland. And guess what? The proposed route for the new transit line would cross part of the 100-year-old golf club’s property.

The head of the pro-transit organization summed it all up rather neatly:

“What’s going on here is a battle between commuters who want to get to work and a bunch of people who don’t want to look at trolley cars while they play golf.”

Those country club bozos definitely belong in the 'selfish' category.

Around the U.S. By Train – Part 7

It’s good to be back in Boston. One of the reasons I like this city so much is that it has all the advantages of a big city – sporting events, cultural opportunities, excellent public transit, etc. – but has the look and the feel of a smaller town, with tree-shaded streets of classic five-story walk-ups.

I stay in one of those during my annual Boston visit when I come to see the Red Sox play three or four games. My home-away-from-home here is a classic brownstone on Bay State Road, a block from the Charles River and just a few hundred yards from Fenway Park.

The next four days are delightful: sleep in, have breakfast and conversation with other guests at the B&B, stroll over to Kenmore Square and browse through a bookstore, have a cappuccino and tap out some leisurely posts on my laptop, visit with friends in the area, and go to the ballgames. The only possible way this break in the middle of my rail odyssey could have been improved? If the Red Sox hadn't lost three of the four games I've seen.

The next leg of my rail trip will be aboard the Lake Shore Limited to Chicago. One section of the train originates in New York City, the other in Boston, with the two meeting and joining in Albany, NY, for the overnight journey to Chicago.

The day before I’m scheduled to leave, however, Amtrak calls to say that CSX, the freight railroad owning the track between here and Chicago, will be doing extensive track work somewhere between Boston and Albany. So, instead of a train ride between here and Albany, I’ll be on an Amtrak bus.

There are, in fact, two buses waiting outside of South Station the next day for the Albany bound passengers. Just before our scheduled noon departure, an Amtrak conductor climbs aboard the bus with a cardboard box full of cans of soft drinks and snack bags to serve as lunch. In each bag there are individually wrapped packets containing an oatmeal cookie, some trail mix, crackers and a gooey, yellow substance labeled “Gourmet Cheese Spread.” I am able to spread it, but it may or may not be cheese and there is nothing even remotely gourmet about it. I give them one out of three.

A few minutes after swinging out onto the Massachusetts Turnpike, the bus passes just behind the Green Monster, the 37-foot-high left field wall of Fenway Park … with the possible exception of Wrigley Field in Chicago, the best possible place to see a big league ballgame.

The trip takes 3½ hours, most of which is spent on what the locals refer to simply as the Mass Pike. It’s a boring trip, largely because we construct super highways by scraping a swath through the countryside that’s couple of hundred yards wide, building up and flattening out and turning the whole thing into mile after mile of sameness. And that's too bad because we do seem to be passing through some pretty country which would no doubt be enjoyable if we got off the Mass Pike and took some of the country roads.

The Albany station is crowded with people, some arriving on trains from New York City or other points south of here, others waiting to board trains headed back in that direction, plus those of us waiting for the New York section of the Lake Shore Limited. I settle into a comfortable seat in a portion of the station that extends over the several tracks and offering a good view of these comings and goings.

The Lake Shore arrives just a few minutes late and soon I’m comfortably settled in my Viewliner roomette. Then comes the familiar routine of dinner, some time with a good book, and bed. It’s a routine that, for me, will never get old.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Anybody Want to Trade Places With These Folks?

From time to time, I’ve written about the difficulties that can confront people trying to run a passenger rail system. Check out this link and you will see what I mean. It describes an exceptionally difficult few days for the people operating passenger and commuter trains in and around the Bay Area in California.

http://www.capitolcorridor.org/aboard_the_train/bulletins_and_updates/


The Capitol Corridor refers to rail links connecting San Jose with the State Capital of Sacramento and a bit farther north.

As you see, and as is almost always the case, disruptions in train service are almost always caused by people and events completely out of the control of the folks actually running the railroad. But guess who always seems to get the blame!

We (Still) Got It Good and That Ain’t Bad

Many years ago – probably around 1950 – the family drove to Florida for a visit with my grandparents. Somewhere in South Carolina we stopped for gas and, when my father got back in the car after paying, he was sure we had been cheated. “That fill-up cost $5.09,” he said. “They must have rigged the pumps, because I’ve never paid five bucks for a tank of gas in my life!” I wonder how my dad would feel if he knew it now costs me $65 to fill up my Toyota!

Apropos of that, I recently came across a graph showing what folks in other countries are now paying to fill up their Toyotas. It won’t reproduce here, but I can give you some of the highlights.

As of this past June, Americans were paying an average of $4.00 per gallon for regular gas. Here’s what people in other countries were paying at that same time, shown in U.S. dollars.

Japan - 4.72
South Africa - 4.79
Canada - 5.09
Spain - 7.30
Czech Rep. - 7.99
England - 8.71
France - 8.78
Germany - 8.98
Netherlands - 10.05

By far, the biggest factor affecting the price of gasoline in every country is government tax. In the U.S., that tax averages 49-cents a gallon. Across Europe, the per-gallon tax ranges from $3.37 to $5.57.

Question: What the hell are we belly-aching about?

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

“A Damn Hard Thing To Do”

Back in the early part of June, three of Amtrak’s western trains had their schedules disrupted for several days because of flooding along the Mississippi River. Here’s a shot of the flooding at Burlington, Iowa, around that time. Burlington is in the foreground and the view is to the east, looking back into Illinois.

The California Zephyr, which runs daily between Chicago and the Bay Area, crosses the river over the swing bridge at the right of the photo. At the height of the flood, the westbound Zephyr couldn’t even reach the bridge because the tracks in Illinois were under 17 feet of water.

The schedule for the Southwest Chief – it’s the daily train between Chicago and Los Angeles – was also disrupted for several days. That train normally crosses the river at Fort Madison, Iowa, which is about 20 miles south of Burlington, but had to start and end in Denver during the flooding.

Similar floods farther up river in Wisconsin disrupted service for the Empire Builder, which is Amtrak’s daily train between Chicago and Seattle/Portland. During that time, however, St. Paul was the temporary eastern terminus for the train.

As it happened, I was on the Empire Builder during this time. One of the conductors summed it all up rather nicely, I thought: “Sometimes runnin’ a railroad is a damn hard thing to do.”

Monday, July 21, 2008

Around the U.S. By Train – Part 6

Instead of continuing on up to New York on the Crescent, I’ve scheduled a four-hour layover in Washington for two reasons. I want time for a lunch with two old friends and, since I’ve never had the chance to ride it before today, I want to complete the first half of my journey on Amtrak’s high-speed train, the Acela.

Because this is my first time on an Acela – what the hell – I’m in the first class car. By the time we’ve been underway for 20 minutes, I realize it would have been a better idea to opt for the “quiet car” directly behind this one where talking on cell phones is not permitted. This car is definitely “non-quiet” with several cell phone conversations taking place in the seats around me. That’s a negative in the case of a severely overweight character sitting two seats in front of me who is loudly badgering some underling about a project with an impending deadline.

On the other hand, it’s a plus in the case of the man seated across the aisle from me. It’s newsman Dan Rather and he’s briefing his New York office about an interview he conducted earlier in the day with someone he identifies only as an ambassador. Whoever it is, Rather tells his New York colleague that “the man could sweet talk a dog off a meat wagon.”

The Acela is sleek and the interior is comfortable. We’re running at something in excess of 100 miles per hour but, as has often been noted, the Acelas are not able to operate anywhere near their top speed because of track conditions and other train traffic. No matter. The ride is comfortable and we’ll cover the 225 miles between Washington and New York in under three hours.

Why is there so much trash and junk in the eastern part of the country? It’s impossible not to notice it on this run from Washington to Boston. Admittedly, much of the route is through industrial areas, but so what? And the sheer quantity is still shocking. Why can’t government – state or federal, who cares which? – hire the unemployed to clean up this junk, recycling what we can, safely disposing of the rest. (Oh, wait, I forget … that would just be another “government program” and we can’t have that, can we!)

As we approach New York City, several passengers in the car get up to organize their gear and use that excuse to say hello to Dan Rather. He is unfailingly polite and respectful, shaking hands and asking each individual’s name, then repeating the name at the end of each brief conversation … as in, “I appreciate your comments. Thanks for saying hello, Alan.”

Two thirds of the passengers leave the train when we reach New York City’s Pennsylvania Station. During the 15 minute stop, I move to a seat on the right side of the train. The Connecticut shoreline will be on that side during the run on up to Boston. Very picturesque.

Leaving Penn Station, the train angles downward for the run under the East River, then up again to emerge in the Borough of Queens. Just behind us to the left, we’re treated to a classic view of the Manhattan skyline, dominated by the familiar profile of the Empire State Building and the art deco spire atop the Chrysler Building. The heart swells … until you remember that the World Trade Center isn’t there any more.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

From Now On It’s Either Fenway Park or the Tube.

Those of you who stop in here occasionally know that I have followed the fortunes of the Boston Red Sox for longer than I care to remember. I see the Sox play in Fenway Park almost every year and that is something every baseball fan should experience … even casual fans. The place is sold out for every game and the fans are supportive, enthusiastic and understand the fine points of the game.

I’ve also seen the Red Sox play in several other ballparks around the country and it’s just not the same. Not even close. For one thing, all the other stadiums have multiple electronic signs that are constantly telling you what to do, like ...

MAKE NOISE!!

Or the stadium organ starts a rhythmic cadence and animated hands start clapping on the scoreboards. (OK, it’s time for everyone to start clapping.)

Or they play a recording of somebody blowing a bugle call and everyone is supposed to yell, “Charge!”

Worst of all, the stadium public address announcer doubles as cheerleader, fairly screeching the name of each home team player as he comes to bat … as if this particular plate appearance is the most exciting event to occur since … well … since the guy before him popped up to the second baseman.

Apparently, they think there are 35,000 morons in the stands who must be told when it’s time to get excited and when to applaud. None of that stuff happens at Fenway Park. If the Red Sox management ever tried it, the fans would revolt.

So I've decided: No more trips to Kansas City or Oakland or -- worst of all -- Anaheim (where the crowd actually waves floppy little stuffed monkeys in the air!) From now on I go all the way to Boston to see them play. Or I don’t go at all.

Besides, what a great excuse for another cross-country train ride!

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Around the U.S. By Train - Part 5

By mid-afternoon, the Crescent is approaching Birmingham, sweeping through a series of long, graceful curves. Twice, looking forward from my roomette, I see cars scoot around lowered gates to cross intersections ahead of us. It’s a dangerous, incredibly dumb thing to do, and it’s a practice that kills almost one person a day somewhere in the country.

Birmingham is a large city. I can tell because, for the first time since leaving New Orleans, there’s a lot of graffiti, which is pretty much a big city phenomenon. The entire side of a factory building is covered with multi-colored scrawls, but one stands out … mostly because its lettering is done in neat block letters: TIME IS NOT REAL.

The Crescent has crossed into Georgia and just after dinner – my choice was vegetarian lasagna, tonight – we arrive in Atlanta for a thirty-minute refueling stop. There is a lot of milling around on the platform: people getting off, people getting on, and smokers who have seized the opportunity to step off this non-smoking train and light up. I dash up the stairway to the waiting room to have a brief reunion with an old high school pal and his wife, residents of Atlanta who have come to the station to say hello.

Underway again, I manage to get in a solid hour of reading before drifting off. Conditions have to be near-perfect for me anywhere else, but I sleep like a baby on a train. Why do you suppose that is?

Morning comes and I head for the dining car. Moments after I order orange juice, coffee and an omelet – hold the grits, please – the steward appears and seats three youngsters at my table. Good looking kids, all of them, but they’re shy, even wary, not expecting to be having breakfast with a total stranger. Little by little conversation builds, however, and I learn that I’m breakfasting with Jazzy, who’s 9, and her brother, Rico, 13. Their cousin-companion is Alexis, also 13. All three are from Calhoun, Georgia, and they boarded the train last night in Atlanta.

By the time the Crescent has us somewhere between Charlottesville and Culpepper, Virginia, they’re talking enthusiastically about their great adventure – an overnight train ride to Washington and a visit with relatives. The trip was the idea of their grandmother who, I discover, is seated at the table directly behind me. “I want my grandkids to see our Capitol,” she says firmly. “And the Black History Museum, too.”

Meanwhile, the three youngsters, fascinated by their first experience in a rolling restaurant, are sawing away at slabs of French toast and expanding on their plans for Washington. The two boys bob their heads and grin when I say the Air and Space Museum is a must-see.

Back in my roomette, I once again have my scanner tuned to the Amtrak frequency so I can listen in on conversations among members of the operating crews. We pass a freight that has been moved to a siding allowing us to get by. Its engineer watches us go by, on alert for any mechanical problem, then speaks into his hand-held radio: “Lookin’ good on this side, Amtrak.” The Crescent’s female conductor chirps right back in a syrup-thick accent, “All right! We ‘preciate that. Y’all have a safe trip, now, heah?”

Two hours later, the Crescent glides to a stop in Washington’s Union Station. As I head off down the platform, I catch one last glimpse of that proud grandmother, happily trying to count heads and bags and backpacks as the three grandkids frolic around her.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Train Travel Is Green...And The Best Bargain, Too

We already know that train travel is better for the environment and is more fuel-efficient than other modes of transportation. If it’s broken down to the common denominator of the passenger mile, an Amtrak train uses about half the energy of an airplane and can carry twice the number of people.

Furthermore, the train covers shorter inter-city distances in equal or better time than airplanes, assuming you’re traveling from city-center to city-center, as most of us do. But, compared to flying, the train can also be cheaper. Often a lot cheaper.

From Travelers Notebook, here are just a few examples, comparing the cheapest available economy fare from the airlines with the lowest coach fare on Amtrak:

New York to Philadelphia: plane - $362, Amtrak - $86
Seattle to Portland: plane - $165, Amtrak - $56
Los Angeles to San Diego: plane - $245, Amtrak - $68
Baltimore to New York: plane - $193, Amtrak - $122


Now let’s look at somewhat longer distances. Here, clearly, plane beats train if you’re traveling with a short deadline. But if you have some extra time and want to travel relaxed and in comfort, you can save money here, too.

Toronto to New York: plane - $398, Amtrak - $184
New Orleans to Memphis: plane - $411, Amtrak - $100
Washington to Chicago: plane - $229, Amtrak - $174
Los Angeles to San Francisco: plane - $165, Amtrak - $96

So will someone tell me once again why it is that the federal government has, for so many years, insisted on funding Amtrak at a near-starvation level? And, while you’re at it, tell me why this country isn’t launching a crash program to improve and expand our national passenger rail system?

Incontrovertible Proof that There Is A God

The Daytona Beach (Florida) Police Department is investigating a complaint that one of their officers has been demanding free coffee from a local Starbucks, threatening slower police response in the event of an emergency if he didn’t get it.

According to reports, the cop has been visiting the coffee shop as often as six times a night for the past year. He also irritated both employees and customers by cutting in line to get his free coffee.

When confronted, the cop denied the allegations and demanded a lie-detector test.

He got it.

And he failed it.

All together now: Praise the Lord!

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Around the U.S. By Train - Part 4

The Crescent, Amtrak's train # 20, runs daily between New Orleans and New York by way of Atlanta and Washington. It departs at 7:00 in the morning and it occurs to me as I’m walking down the platform to my sleeping car that 13 hours in New Orleans is not nearly enough, dinner at Irene’s notwithstanding. Next time I’ll give this city at least two nights. At least.

As soon as I reach car 2010, I’m greeted warmly by the train attendant, who seizes my bag and leads me down the corridor to roomette 6. After making sure I know how everything works, he says, “My name is Gary and I want you to remember throughout the trip that you are my guest. Please let me know if there’s anything I can do for you.” All right, Gary! We’re definitely off to a good start.

The sleeping cars on the Crescent are Viewliners, built by Amtrak to operate on overnight trains running in the eastern part of the U.S. These are single-level cars, unlike the Superliners used on western trains, which are too high to fit through some of the tunnels in this part of the country. Like the Superliners, the Viewliners have roomettes and bedrooms, the main difference being these roomettes include a wash basin and a toilet. They also have a smaller window for people sleeping in the upper bunks. On Superliners, the facilities for roomette passengers are “down the hall.” The larger bedrooms in both types of car include those facilities.

As the Crescent leaves the city, the only remaining signs of Hurricane Katrina I can see are a few abandoned houses and many others that are obviously new construction. All is still not right in this wonderful city, however, for several of the wards that were hit with the worst flooding are still virtual wastelands. On the way to the station this morning, my cab driver, a dignified, soft-spoken black gentleman, talked about it bitterly. “That storm took away everything I had,” he said, “and here I am today, 79 years old and driving a taxicab just to get by.” He paused a moment, then added softly, “That Katrina was a real motherfucker.”

(I thought a lot about deleting that expletive, but didn't because it’s an exact quote and because in context it perfectly communicated the hurt and devastation he felt. My apologies if you found it offensive.)

We’ve barely left the city behind when the Crescent starts out across Lake Pontchartrain on a single-track bridge built on pilings. The effect is a bit startling because looking out the windows on either side of the train, no structure is visible and it appears the train is rattling along in mid air, just a few feet above the water.

Just before noon, we stop in Meridian, Mississippi, to change engineers and conductors and to refuel the locomotives. There's a nearly new station here in Meridian, the brainchild of Mayor John Robert Smith. Mayor Smith is a staunch supporter of Amtrak and is well known as a man of vision among folks who are advocates of rail travel. This new station serves both rail and bus passengers under one roof and has revitalized this whole section of the city.

An hour later, the Crescent has crossed into Alabama and is rattling along at close to 80 mph. In contrast to the Texas landscapes, everything here is green, the fertile land fairly bursting with life. Bursting with kudzu, too. The creeping vine is everywhere and covering everything where given the chance – trees, telephone poles, even entire hillsides. We pass a ramshackle one-story building with the kudzu covering one wall and half the rusted metal roof. The faded sign over the door reads NU-IMAGE STYLE SHOP. There’s evidence of recent heavy rains here, with standing water in many of the fields we pass. A half dozen egrets are wading attentively through one; a great blue heron stands solemnly in an adjacent field.

I’m back in the dining car for lunch as the train gathers speed after a stop in Tuscaloosa. A large bearded man, who has introduced himself as Frank, is seated across from me, but staring out the window at more than a dozen impressive red brick buildings, part of the University of Alabama's athletic complex. “Tuscaloosa,” he mutters, “Home of the world’s most obnoxious football fans.” Frank, I am not surprised to learn, is from Baton Rouge and has been an LSU fan since he was seven.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

How A Little Boat Helped Win a Big War

New Orleans is well and justifiably renown for Mardi Gras, for the French Quarter, for wonderful jazz, and for great restaurants.

But any visit to New Orleans should include – no, must include – a visit to the D-Day Museum. It’s beautifully laid out and is a wonderful combination of displays and a whole sequence of mini-theaters presenting video clips. As luck would have it, a number of gentlemen who participated in that invasion were there to answer questions on the day I visited. What an opportunity that was!

The first question I had when I was told about this museum was “Why is it located in New Orleans?” The answer is fascinating: It’s because of the Higgins Boat. Perhaps you never knew what they were called, but you'll recognize them instantly from this photo.

These flat-bottomed landing craft were designed to run right up onto beaches where men and equipment could be quickly unloaded. The fact is, the Higgins Boats made the D-Day invasion possible, not to mention the countless other landings made throughout the Pacific during World War II.

The basic design of the boat was the work of Andrew Higgins, a Louisiana native. His company originally designed and built the plywood boats for running around the shallow waters of the Louisiana bayous. Higgins recognized the potential military application and was able to convince the Army that a military version of the boat could be used for the invasion of Europe.

Once the military brass understood the capabilities of these boats, the entire invasion strategy changed … and the D-Day invasion as we now know it became feasible. Higgins Industries ended up building more than 20,000 of these landing craft and it's no exaggeration to say that Andrew Jackson Higgins' little plywood boat changed the course of the greatest conflict in the history of the human race.

And now you know -- where's Paul Harvey when you need him? -- why the D-Day Museum is in New Orleans.

Seriously, go see it. It’s worth a special trip. (And afterwards you can go to diner at Irene’s Cuisine!)

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Think Before Sacrificing on the Altar of Commerce

New legislation or community projects are often opposed by Chambers of Commerce or small business owners because the proposals are supposedly “anti-business.”

The classic example is the inevitable breast-beating we get whenever there’s a move to raise the minimum wage: My God, we can’t do that! It’s anti-business! Horse pucky! It just means the guy who owns 15 McDonalds stores will raise the price of Big Macs by a nickel.

We keep getting a variation of this theme from the Bush Administration in Washington: We don't want to be anti-business, so we’ll let the market forces adjust and take care of the problem.

The truth is, business interests almost always conflict with the public interest. It’s not right and it’s not wrong; it’s just the way it is. The trouble is, we tend to forget that it is government's responsibility to protect the public interest.

A number of years ago, in the town of Kailua on O’ahu, the City proposed a beautification project for the main business district. The idea was to create a grassy medial strip down the center of the road in which monkeypod shade trees would be planted. If there was ever such a thing as a no-brainer, this was it.

But wait! Merchants and store owners along the street opposed the plan because – Ready for this? – it would mean losing five on-street parking spaces! And that, of course, made the project anti-business.

Fortunately, level heads prevailed and the project got the green light. I don’t have a “before” photo, but this is what the street looks like today.

Nice, isn’t it! Obviously, the town of Kailua is far better for it and, ironically, so are the damn fools who fought the project. Business is better than ever because Kailua is a quiet, attractive and – yes – shady place to spend money!

So the next time you hear of a project in your community being opposed because “it won’t be good for business,” give it a little extra thought. Chances are excellent it would, in the long run, be very good for business … not to mention the community as a whole.

A Sign of the Times

"Amtrak carried a record 25.8 million passengers in fiscal year 2007 as crowded highways and surging gasoline prices pushed more Americans to use mass transit. Ridership has continued to increase this year, rising 11 percent in the nine months ending June 30 from the same period a year earlier." - Bloomberg.com

Monday, July 14, 2008

Arguing With People Who Have No Shame

There is a petition being circulated in Honolulu by people who are against the city building a mass transit system for which there is an almost desperate need. In an astonishing lack of leadership, our governor, Linda Lingle, a Republican, just signed the damn thing!

Furthermore, people of the same ilk continue to oppose all forms of rail transportation across the rest of the country. There is bitter irony and a helluva lot of hypocrisy in that opposition, too.

For years – in fact, for more than 50 years – taxpayers have heavily subsidized roads and cars. In that same time, rail has been systematically starved, the most recent example being the Bush Administration’s attempt to cut Amtrak’s current subsidy by 40 percent. If Congress had allowed that to happen, Amtrak would have shut down by now.

Got the picture? Our government heavily subsidizes cars and roads while it starves rail and – here’s the irony – the anti-rail people demand ever more money for roads and oppose rail because, they say, there are more drivers than rail passengers.

It’s amazing, isn’t it? We continue to debate and argue an issue that has long since been settled everywhere else in the world, where governments continue to make major investment in commuter and high-speed rail service.

I think about this whenever I hear blowhard politicians bragging about how great we are. Some of these arrogant clowns just don’t understand that we might be able to learn a thing or two from some of these other countries.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Around the U.S. By Train - Part 3

My tablemates at dinner tonight include a demure middle-aged lady from South Carolina and a couple from Houston. The husband was originally from Alabama and still has a heavy accent. His only interest in life appears to be NASCAR and he keeps the conversation going in that direction, reeling off the names of drivers and alternate drivers and lead mechanics and every other conceivable bit of racing trivia. He keeps it up until, finally, the lady from South Carolina gently but firmly corrects him on several points he has just made. There is little doubt that she is right and, mercifully, he lapses into a sullen silence for the rest of the meal.

At 8:45 – we’re running about two hours late now – the train slows to cross the Pecos River. The bridge is several hundred feet high and it's quite a spectacular sight. As we trundle across, my roomette glows from light reflected off the cliffs on the eastern bank, golden in the setting sun.

San Antonio comes and goes during the night and Tuesday morning, the start of my last day aboard the Sunset Limited, finds us once again crossing a flat landscape. This is different, however: it’s all green, with a soft mist settled over the low spots.

It’s already quite warm as the train comes to a gentle halt in Houston. This is another refueling stop and we’ll be in the station for a half hour, a long-awaited opportunity for smokers, one of whom leaves an uneaten breakfast in the diner to dash for the platform where he madly puffs his way through two cigarettes.

Just after the Sunset gets underway and as we’re still rolling through some Houston suburbs, the conductor announces that the Union Pacific Railroad – we’ve been running on their tracks since leaving Los Angeles – is sending us over a different routing for the 80 miles between here and Beaumont. This, he says, will cause us to fall another 30 minutes behind schedule. He does not sound pleased and emphasizes that this is not Amtrak's doing, but is the result of a decision by the UP dispatcher.

We cross into Louisiana while I’m enjoying quite a nice chicken Caesar salad in the diner. I’m eating light this noon because tonight, for my one evening in New Orleans, I intend to visit Irene’s Cuisine, a superb restaurant my wife and I enjoyed during a visit to the city two years ago. We’re currently running two and a half hours late, but the timetable has almost an hour-and-a-half of padding and we should be in New Orleans no more than 90 minutes behind our scheduled arrival time of 4:00 p.m.

When approaching New Orleans from the west, the Sunset Limited crosses the Mississippi River on the Huey Long Bridge. This amazing structure is some 4 ½ miles long and the train is 280 feet above the river at the highest point, which is that section of the bridge you see in the background of this photo.

I called ahead to Irene’s from the train for a 7:00 dinner reservation and I make it on time, even after checking in and having a quick shower at the Hotel Provincial, which I have cleverly selected because it is located just around the corner from Irene’s.

And now ... bon appetit!

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Growing Up With the Red Sox and Curt Gowdy.

If, like me, you grew up in Connecticut back in the 40’s or 50’s -- anywhere north of New Haven, that is -- chances were about 50 to 1 that you were a Red Sox fan.

I saw my first Red Sox game in Fenway Park on May 25, 1946, and have been hooked on the Sox ever since. Boston was about 100 miles north of where we lived and we usually managed one trip a year to see one or two games. The rest of the time, we caught the games on the radio … every game, day or night, with play-by-play provided by the incomparable Curt Gowdy who, apart from my father, was probably the most important man in my life back then.

I used to steal the cardboards out of my dad's white shirts after they came back from the laundry and use them to make my own scorecards, drawing the lines with a ruler to form the boxes, making sure I left room for possible substitutions and extra innings.

I used the white side of the cardboard for the Sox and the reverse side, which was darker in color, for the opposition. Unless, of course, the Sox were playing the Yankees. I refused to keep score for the Yankees' half of the games.

I still try to visit Fenway Park every year to see a few games. And I enjoy watching most of the rest on my new high-definition, wide-screen, state-of-the-art television set. But nothing can compare with those long ago nights, lying in the darkness of my bedroom, listening to Curt Gowdy's description of those games. A TV set with a picture that clear has yet to be invented.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Around the U.S. By Train - Part 2

When I wake up and peer out of the window, we’re passing slowly through Lordsburg, New Mexico, a dry and dusty town of some 3300 people. Just a few hundred yards off to the right is the Luxury Motel, which, judging from it’s exterior, isn’t. It's a dump, but is no doubt a whole lot better than the internment camp located here during World War II in which 1500 Japanese-American citizens were held.

Back in open country again, the Sunset Limited is rocking along at a steady pace across a landscape that is tabletop flat – sandy brown, but dotted with gray-green clumps of grass. There are mountains off in the distance, shimmering in the haze and the heat. A small herd of antelope is apparently finding something to graze on a few hundred yards from the tracks.

We cross into Texas while I’m at breakfast and, 20 minutes later, as the train slows nearing El Paso, we literally pass within 40 or 50 feet of the Mexican border which is “guarded” here by a four-foot high chain link fence. That's Mexico ... right over there.

I try to imagine actually building a effective barrier fence along the entire border, through the endless, dry, hostile wasteland we’ve been crossing for the past 18 hours. A few minutes later, I mention this to our car attendant, Phil, as we stand beside the train in the El Paso station. He shakes his head. “Craziest idea I ever heard of,” he mutters.

Forty-five minutes later, we’re off again, heading across West Texas. The countryside is more of the same: vast stretches of hot, dry scrub land. We occasionally cross narrow dirt roads that head off straight-as-a-string to the horizon and beyond. What could possibly be at the end of such a road?

And it’s hot out there. Very hot. I have a small radio receiver that lets me listen to conversations among the various members of the train crew and, just after noon, the engineer and conductor agree that we should reduce speed to 45 mph because the outside temperature is causing one of the locomotives to overheat.

Mid-afternoon finds the Sunset departing Alpine, Texas, which gets its name, I suppose, from the fact that we've been climbing gradually for a while and the terrain has become considerably more uneven … dry stream beds cutting through actual hills, causing the train to swing right then left as it threads its way through them. It’s a bit cooler here, too, and we’re back to running at 70 mph.

We're also beginning to see more wildlife: jack rabbits with comically long ears and more pronghorn antelope. Up ahead and off to the right there are low gray clouds with streaks of rain slanting down, then disappearing – evaporating – before reaching the ground. There are cattle, too … small herds with numerous calves that scamper away from the train, then turn and stare as we pass.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Around the U.S. By Train – Part 1

Union Station in Los Angeles is busy on this Sunday afternoon in mid-June. People filling the wide leather seats in the vast waiting room, people coming off trains trundling their bags toward the street, and people standing in line waiting to board Amtrak’s train # 2, the Sunset Limited.

At 1:35, 25 minutes before scheduled departure, the line starts moving and, with it, begins my 8200-mile rail journey around the entire US. This will be the first leg, a two-night trip across California, Arizona and New Mexico to New Orleans.

When you travel by train, the passing scenery always offers snapshots of extreme variety. There is all the natural beauty, of course, which comes with amazing variety. But there is also the unusual and even the bizarre. For instance, as we flash through a small town, I spot a sign on a cinderblock building that reads, “Hot Dog Push Carts Trailers”. How’s that for a niche market!

Smoking is off limits on all Amtrak trains, and when we come to a stop in the Pam Springs station, a handful of smokers desperate for a few frantic puffs, step off the train and into a blast furnace. It’s 105 degrees and a strong wind driving sand and dust causes most passengers to retreat back into the air-conditioned train.

Underway again, I notice that a seemingly endless row of ironwood trees has been planted parallel to the tracks, no doubt as a barrier against that awful wind and to prevent sand from piling up and covering the tracks.

The next major town we pass through is Indio, California, and a half hour later we run along the southern shore of the Salton Sea. This is actually a saline lake, about 35 miles long and half that wide, fed by two or three rivers and what little rainwater runoff there is in these parts. Despite the dry barren look to the landscape, we pass orange groves and hundreds of date trees.

I’m enjoying quite a good steak in the dining car as we depart Yuma, Arizona, and by 9:30 a.m. propped up against two pillows on the bed in my roomette, reading a book I bought in Los Angeles. By page six, I find I’m reading with my eyes closed and snap off the light. The rest of Arizona slides by during the night.