Tuesday, September 30, 2008

It Really Is a Puzzlement

IF the bailout bill was proposed by and supported by the Republican administration, and …

IF two-thirds of the Democrats voted for the bailout bill, and …

IF two-thirds of the Republicans voted against the bailout bill, then …

WHY are Republican leaders blaming the Democrats for killing it?

Monday, September 29, 2008

There Are Always Lesson Learned from Adversity

When Hurricane Ike plowed into Texas recently, there was widespread damage from wind and flooding. I recently received an email -- “What I learned from Hurricane Ike” -- that came originally from someone in the Houston area. Here are some of the better, more insightful observations culled from that list.

He who has the biggest generator wins.

There are a lot more stars in the sky than most people thought.

TV is an addiction and the withdrawal symptoms are painful.

People will get into a line that has already formed without having any idea what the line is for.

Drywall is a compound word, take away the 'dry' part and it's worthless.

You can never have too many gas cans.

What looks acceptable by candlelight in your bathroom will scare you when you look in the mirror at the office.

The neighbor who knows how to use a chainsaw is your new best friend.

Ice is a form of currency.

You can’t train yourself not to flip on light switches when entering a room.

Lukewarm is the new cold.

A new opening phrase when seeing someone: “Got lights yet?”

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Will The Big Guns Help Amtrak Run On Time?

On-time performance for Amtrak trains has been a problem for years. Sometimes there’s a stretch when it’s not so bad, but it seems those times are invariably followed by a period when trains are often very late.

A couple of years ago, for example, my wife and I were on the Coast Starlight traveling from Seattle to Los Angeles. Scheduled arrival time in LA is 9:00 p.m., but we were running seven hours late, meaning a 4:00 a.m. arrival in LA. So instead of a reasonably good night’s sleep in a hotel, we taxied straight out to LAX and waited six hours for our 10:00 a.m. flight home to Maui. Ugh.

With the exception of the Northeast Corridor (Washington-Boston), Amtrak trains operate over track owned by the various freight railroads. Most of the delays occur when Amtrak has to dawdle along behind slow-moving freight trains or gets shunted off onto sidings to allow freights to pass. Theoretically, the freight railroads are supposed to give Amtrak priority, but that’s not always done and, in fairness, it’s not always possible.

But it’s a big problem because all those late arrivals mean extra expense for Amtrak. Passengers miss connections and have to be put up in hotels and/or sent to their destinations by chartered bus. The last I heard, these delays cost Amtrak something like $130 million a year. God knows what it costs Amtrak passengers, who incur extra expense, too. (On our Coast Starlight trip, we were no-shows for a hotel in LA and had to pay for the room anyway.)

Something has to be done and some politicians in Illinois have stepped up to the plate with that in mind. Passenger trains in Illinois are currently running on schedule only 44 percent of the time. Two congressmen, Phil Hare and Ray LaHood, along with Senator Dick Durbin, have contacted the CEOs of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF), Canadian National and Union Pacific asking them to submit a plan that would boost on-time performance to at least 85 percent. We shall see!

In fact, we really will see. I’ll be in Chicago attending a conference next week and will be catching Amtrak from there for the three-hour ride to Galesburg. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

OK ... One FINAL Item About Senator Tom Coburn

Coburn, a Republican senator from Oklahoma, has formally “objected” to quick passage by the Senate of a bill providing critically needed funding for Amtrak. That probably means passage won’t come until some time in the 2009 session of Congress, a likely delay of many months. And, of course, there will be a corresponding delay in getting those funds to Amtrak.

The bill also mandates that railroads equip their locomotives with PTC (positive train control), a system that would have prevented the recent head-on collision of a commuter train with a freight train in California that killed 25 people and badly injured well over 100 more. So that, too, will have to wait.

What’s so maddening about this is that the senator tries to make his case with an assertion that is so wildly wrong that you have to wonder if he or anyone on his staff gives any thought to the crap coming out of his office.

Specifically, he claims in the written statement accompanying his objection to this measure, that “Amtrak loses $2 billion a year subsidizing food.”

In other words, Senator, you’re saying that Amtrak's entire annual federal subsidy only covers half of the money it loses just on food service??

Ridiculous! Absurd! Outrageous! Shameful! Stupid! Insulting! Embarassing!

That said, I’m going to take a deep breath, turn off the computer, go outside, fire up my tractor, and spread horse manure on our pasture. Care to join me, Senator? You’d be damn good at it!

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Just a Bit More About Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK)

This guy …

… says the death penalty should apply to people who perform abortions.

… pushed for a law that would give doctors the right to demand an HIV test before they treat a patient, and

… would allow insurance companies to demand an HIV test before issuing a policy.

… tried to block a bill recognizing the 100th birthday of Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring, saying her book promoted “junk science.”

… complained that Silent Spring led to the unfair outlawing of insecticides such as DDT.

… said, “The gay community has infiltrated the very centers of power [in this country] …”

… also said, “[The gay] agenda is the greatest threat to our freedom that we face today.”

… was seen doing a crossword puzzle during the confirmation hearing for Supreme Count Chief Justice John Roberts.

… attacked NBC for airing the Oscar-winning film, Schindler’s List, calling it “irresponsible sexual behavior.”

And this is the guy …

… who's holding up critical funding for Amtrak on a technicality because, he said yesterday, Amtrak’s food service operation loses money. (See previous post.)

There's a lot more, but you get the picture. By the way, this guy is a medical doctor. Is that scary, or what!

My Vote For Obstructionist Idiot of the Year

As regular visitors to this space know, Amtrak has been kept on a starvation diet for many years, with barely enough federal funding just to keep operating. In particular – and this is fact, not a partisan comment – Republicans in Congress and the Bush administration have been the main culprits. Bush’s most recent budget proposal cut Amtrak’s funding by 40 percent which would have put the railroad out of business in a matter of months. Cooler heads eventually prevailed, but all this came at a time when Amtrak’s ridership is increasing by double digits.

However, there has been a full-court press in support of adequate funding for Amtrak during the current session of Congress by pro-rail groups and individuals. At the forefront, I am proud to say, was the National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP). The result is a bill just passed by the house that will provide Amtrak with a five-year commitment for just over $13 billion. This will not only guarantee Amtrak’s continuing operation, but it will also mean the repair and refurbishing of badly needed additional rail cars and locomotives as well as a likely, if modest, expansion of service.

The House bill (H.R.2095) has been sent to the Senate where ….


… Senator Tom Coburn, Republican from Oklahoma, will apparently “object” to quick passage. Under the rules of the Senate that’s all it will take to put off passage until next year, meaning Amtrak’s badly needed funding will be delayed even longer than that.

Coburn is a way-way-far-right conservative who has long been a critic of Amtrak, mostly on ideological grounds. Based on his comments today, he appears willing to hold up this critical funding because he doesn’t like the fact that Amtrak’s food service loses money. I am not making this up!

Senator Coburn’s action is obstructionist and counter-productive ... political grandstanding at it’s worst, because earlier versions of this legislation have been approved by both the House and the Senate by veto-proof margins. It will pass and become law.

And yes, that really is Senator Coburn in the photo above. It pretty much tells you all you need to know about this selfish political opportunist, doesn't it.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

These Guys Would Have Been Against Electricity

On November 4th, Californians will vote on a $10 billion bond issue which, if passed, will finance an initial high-speed rail line linking Los Angeles and San Francisco.

There are many reasons to support this proposition as well as high-speed rail generally. Since the estimated travel time between those two cities would be 2 ½ hours, it offers people a reasonable alternative to making the trip by car or plane.

And that, of course, would mean fewer cars on the road and fewer LAX-SFO flights. That, in turn, would mean less traffic congestion both on the ground and in the air, less air pollution, and less energy consumed. All excellent objectives given the higher and higher gasoline prices, the severe cutbacks in flights being offered by the airlines, (almost) everyone’s concern for global warming, and need to reduce the demand for energy.

But, predictably, opposition to the measure has appeared. Three perennial nay-saying groups - the Reason Foundation, Citizens Against Government Waste and the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Foundation – have produced a report saying the proposed system is too expensive, won’t work, won’t go that fast, etcetera and so forth.

The head of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, Mehdi Morshed, points out that the Authority’s costs and ridership estimated have all been reviewed and confirmed by high-speed rail experts in France, Germany and Japan, where high-speed rail has long been the preferred means of transportation. Morshed summed up his response to the opposition groups succinctly and accurately: “They don’t know what they’re talking about.”

Let us hope that most California voters will realize that and vote accordingly.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

What Could I Have Done to Deserve This?

It's taken almost eight years, but I no longer stifle a scream when our president says “noo-kew-lur” instead of “noo-clee-ur”.

But now I must contemplate the possibility that we could have a vice president who not only says “noo-kew-lur”, but repeatedly uses “Awsome!” to describe anything new, different or interesting.

Truly, I must have committed some terrible sin in a former life.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Back up a bit, Charlie. A little more. A little m …

A few days ago in Fargo, North Dakota, three pals were walking along Main Street in the wee hours of the morning near the Fryn’ Pan Restaurant. Train tracks cross the street there and, with perfect timing, a freight train appeared just as the trio came up to the barrier.

For some unfathomable reason, one of the guys suddenly got the idea to have his picture taken with a moving train in the background.

The men walked around the lowered gate to snap a photo of this character grinning at the camera while standing next to the track with the train passing behind him.

Close behind him.

Very close behind him.

Too close behind him.

One of the rail cars grazed him, tearing his shirt and pants and knocking him to the ground. He was able to make it to the local hospital where he was patched up and released.

The police report noted that – this will not shock you – alcohol was a factor in the incident.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

I Hate To Say “I Told You So”, But …

A couple of posts back, I reported speculation that the recent crash of a Metrolink commuter train near Los Angeles could have fallout that goes beyond trying to figure out what happened and taking corrective action. The concern was that the freight railroads would use that accident as an excuse to resist any increase in passenger traffic over track they own.

Well, sho’ nuff! Folks in Texas are agitating for a new commuter rail service linking Austin, the State Capital, with San Antonio, a distance of about 80 miles. The scenario under discussion would have passenger trains using existing track that's owned by Union Pacific with the railroad laying new track to the east so freight not destined for either Austin or San Antonio could bypass both cities. That would reduce the volume of freight on the Austin-San Antonio stretch and make room for the commuter trains.

Not so fast, pardner! Union Pacific honcho James Young has tossed cold water on the plan, saying it would cost too much to relocate the freight line and he doesn’t want passenger trains running on the existing track. “Freight and passengers don’t mix,” he said.

Sure they do. Amtrak is running on track owned by the freight railroads everywhere in the country except the stretch along the Northeast Corridor between Washington and Boston, which Amtrak owns. It’s not ideal, and the freight railroads hate it, but it is being done.

Unhappily, until moving people becomes as important as transporting new cars and appliances and coal and lumber, those commuters will have to continue grinding it out in bumper-to-bumper traffic every day, wasting expensive gasoline and productive hours.

So whaddaya think? Time for this country to get serious about transportation? And energy? And productivity? And quality time with family?

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Do You Remember the Definition of Insanity?

in·san·ity (in san′ eh tē) : Doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.

A Timely Quote:

“Opening up the health insurance market to more vigorous nationwide competition, as we have done over the last decade in banking, would provide more choices of innovative products less burdened by the worst excesses of state-based regulation.”

John McCain
Contingencies Magazine
Sept./Oct. 2008 issue

(Emphasis added is mine. I couldn't resist. I tried ... God knows, I tried!)

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Putting Some Fun Back Into the Campaign, One Headline At A Time

Yesterday was not a good day for John McCain.

For one thing, during a stump speech in Iowa, his running mate, Sarah Palin, ran through a list of the wondrous things a “Palin and McCain Administration” was going to do for people. Uh-oh! If she’s already putting her name in front, John had better watch his back.

Then, in an interview with a Spanish language radio station, McCain himself got all snarled up. Relations between the U.S. and Spain have been strained and he was asked if he would agree to meet with “Mr. Zapatero” … a reference to Spanish prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero.

McCain’s answer was disjointed and he ended up talking about supporting our friends and standing up to our enemies "in this hemisphere" … leading listeners to the inescapable conclusion that (a) he was confused or (b) he doesn’t know who Zapatero is, or (c) both.

People in Spain were understandably miffed over that and there has been a spate of negative comments about the incident in the Spanish media.

And that was reported in a news item carried by CNN.com which included the following headline:

The Pain in Spain Falls Mainly on McCain

Somewhere in CNN headquarters, an editor is still getting high-fives.

Fall Out from the Train Wreck in California

The terrible crash of a Metrolink commuter train in the Los Angeles area has prompted calls for positive train control (PTC) systems to be installed in locomotives operated by all major railroads. Legislation mandating that has just been introduced in the U.S. Senate.

PTC is a satellite-based system that monitors the movement of trains and will automatically apply the brakes if, using the recent tragedy as an example, a train ignores a trackside signal.

Predictably, initial response from the freight railroads has been negative. They argue that the PTC technology is not yet perfected and that it would cost the industry an estimated two billion dollars to implement. As always, it comes down to money.

But another angle has popped up: The freight railroads, which accommodate Amtrak trains on their tracks only grudgingly, may discourage any additional passenger service citing safety concerns triggered by the California accident. That would certainly be too bad since, as has been reported everywhere, people by the millions are turning to rail for commuting as well as for travel over longer distances.

It’s time for the federal government to step up to the plate.

If the feds operate the air traffic control system for the airlines, and build and maintain interstate highways for the truckers, they can damn well provide financial assistance to the railroads for the PTC system … especially if that will result in more and better and safer passenger service.

And, while we’re at it, Amtrak and commuter railroads need federal help to buy new equipment to meet the increasing demand for train service.

At the moment, Amtrak has more than 100 badly needed rail cars sitting in storage because they don’t have the money to perform overdue maintenance or minor repairs. It will cost about $140 million to get those cars back into service. We spend that much in Iraq every ten hours.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

100 Percent In Favor of Progress … But Not Yet.

Amtrak was created back in the early 70s because railroads operating at the time desperately wanted to get out of the passenger business. Why? Because the money was in freight and most passenger service was a money-losing proposition. So Congress created Amtrak because the lawmakers correctly felt that a national passenger rail system was a necessary part of an integrated transportation system. Also because people living outside the large urban centers needed rail travel as an option.

As I’ve discussed frequently in earlier posts, train travel is making a big comeback due to the high cost of gasoline and the deep cutbacks in flights being offered by the aitlines. As a result, some politicians in Idaho are agitating for Amtrak to restore the Pioneer, a train that operated between Chicago and Seattle and ran through their state. Amtrak stopped running the Pioneer as a cost-saving move in 1997.

Not all politicians are for restoration of the Pioneer, however. Some – and guess which political party they represent! – are complaining that the train lost money and would likely do so again.

Cliff Black , Amtrak’s communications poobah, sees the irony: “It’s a perverse kind of thing,” he says. “Amtrak was created because intercity passenger service was unprofitable, yet our critics use profitability to bludgeon us as a failure.”

The politicians who keep pressing Amtrak to become profitable haven’t a clue. No national passenger rail system anywhere in the world is profitable. And the politicians who want to take high-volume segments of the Amtrak system and privatize them have to be smoking funny cigarettes. Assuming private companies could actually run those routes at a profit – a very doubtful supposition – the net result would just mean Amtrak would no longer have the revenue from those busy routes, resulting in the need for even more federal dollars to support the rest of the system.

What’s so damn hard to understand about that?

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Apparently It’s Time for a Disclaimer

From time to time, I’ve received comments and emails -- not all favorable -- about the posts that stray from “Travel” and “Trains” and wander off into “Other Things.”

Sometimes I write about "Other Things" because there just isn’t enough stuff about travel or trains coming along to provide fodder for a daily post that’s worth your time. And so I digress when I come across something I find interesting and worth sharing.

Yes, many of those other posts are about politics … but, gee … it is a political year and we’re in the home stretch of a damn important election. We should be discussing politics, don’t you think?

I do my very best to get my facts straight for all my posts, political or otherwise, and I do try to be fair. But I certainly have opinions and my posts tend to reflect them.

For instance, I have no patience for the cynical and superficial crap that seems to dominate political campaigns in this country. Why are we talking about lipstick on pigs when 47 million of us have no health insurance? Why do we tolerate that stuff? It makes me mad as hell and I intend to keep on writing about it.

But any blog … this blog … is just a collection of one individual's thoughts and opinions. In the grand scheme of things, how important is it, anyway?

Monday, September 15, 2008

Two Views on Suddenly Becoming President of the United States

“When they told me yesterday what had happened, I felt like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me.”

Harry Truman, to reporters after the death of Franklin Roosevelt
April, 1945


“I’m ready.”

Sarah Palin, to ABC's Charles Gibson
September, 2008

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Step Awa-a-a-y From the Car … And Into the Train.

VIA Rail, which is Canada’s equivalent to Amtrak in the U.S., made news a while back by offering free tickets to Canadian service personnel during the month of July. That promotion was a huge success and, as I recall, something like 60,000 people took advantage of the offer.

Well, VIA is at it again. To help promote Car Free Day, VIA is offering a 50% discount on tickets purchased on line between today and next Monday, the 22nd. But note, please, the discount applies only to travel between next Monday and December 14th, and there is a blackout for travel from October 10th through the 13th.

I must now confess that I was completely unaware of Car Free Day, although it is supposedly observed by millions of people every year on September 22nd. As the name implies, we’re supposed to shun our cars on that day as a means of calling attention to our addiction to automobiles and, I suppose, to the gas they guzzle.

Not a bad idea … although a cold chill just went up the collective spines of the members of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority (see previous post).

Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Mass Pike: Not Taking Its Toll

Yesterday, I posted some thoughts about the impact of the almost drastic reduction in the number of flights being offered by U.S. airlines due to the high cost of fuel. It’s causing inconvenience and higher expense for travelers who are flying less. That’s resulting in a serious loss of revenue for airports around the country … and that will, in turn, mean further drain on tax dollars.

The cost of fuel is affecting us as motorists, too, isn’t it? We’re driving less. A lot less. And, like the ripples on a pond, there are more and more effects being felt from that, too.

Take, for example, the dilemma it’s posing for the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority. The Mass Pike, as it’s known around New England, is 138 miles long and runs east-west across the state, from Boston’s Logan Airport to the New York State border.

But to save on gasoline, people are driving less, especially at higher speeds and over longer distances. And the trend is affecting revenues for the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority. There were 4.7 percent fewer toll transactions for the month of June compared to June last year. For the month of August, that figure was 6.75 percent. And fewer cars mean less revenue for the Authority.

And therein lies the rub: The Mass Pike is operated and maintained from revenues that come from tolls paid by motorists. But if revenues from tolls continues to drop, there won’t be enough money to cover the cost of maintaining the highway. Short term solution: tax dollars.

Once again, however, there is what should be an obvious long term answer: A comprehensive transportation policy involving federal, state and local governments, coordinated by the feds. And it should integrate travel options that include air, highway and rail.

Or are we going to continue doing nothing because of an ideology that says government is always the problem, never the solution?

Friday, September 12, 2008

The Fallout Continues from Airline Cutbacks

I’m starting to make arrangements to attend next April’s board meeting of NARP (the National Association of Railroad Passengers) in Washington. Any trip to the mainland is an excuse for me to take a train ride, of course, so my plan was to fly to Chicago, then take Amtrak’s Cardinal overnight from there to Washington. It's one of my favorite trips, passing through the New River Gorge and across the Blue Ridge Mountains. Wonderful scenery all the way.

Since I’m deep into American Airlines’ frequent flyer program, I started at their web site. But – oops! – American’s non-stop from Honolulu to Chicago is no longer operating. I’ll have to go by way of Los Angeles or Dallas and the 8-hour trip is now at least an 11-hour trip … assuming I can get the flights I want using mileage and also assuming no delays.

But the reduced number of flights has serious implications that go way beyond minor inconveniences for individual passengers. For instance, officials at the Sky Harbor airport in Phoenix, AZ, are reporting that 800,000 fewer passengers used that facility during the first seven month of this year compared to the same period in 2007.

And that’s a very big deal, because the airport takes a piece of the action from the money passengers spend in the facility – for parking your car, for a magazine to read on the plane, for a muffin and overpriced latte at Starbucks and, of course, for your plane ticket. As of now, the folks who run the Phoenix airport are expecting more than a 12% drop in revenue for the year. That’s a $26 million dent in their budget. Ouch!

Now what would the total amount be if we were to tally up all of the lost revenues for all of the airports all across the country? I dunno. But whatever it is, it’s a reeeeely big number.

Ironically, there's still some demand there, but the flights aren’t. Airline industry officials have been very frank, saying they're not going to have seats for everyone who wants to fly.

So maybe our representatives in Washington should get off their butts and start to adequately fund a real, integrated national rail passenger system? Ya think??

Thursday, September 11, 2008

And A Very Good Time Was Had By All.

Back when I was in college – and that’s way back! – I had the very good fortune to have Sid Dimond as one of my professors at Boston University. He taught a variety of courses at BU's School of Public Relations and Communications, focusing mostly on radio and TV.

Sid was a writer and a damn good one, too. Before he landed at BU, he wrote scripts for a classic old radio show called Inner Sanctum. More than 60 years later, recordings of the show are still being sold on several web sites. Yeah ... he was that good.

But this isn’t about Sid; it’s about his barber. I’m sorry to say I have long since forgotten the guy’s name, but he was a widower, as I recall, and getting on in years. Italian, with a lingering accent. The old guy was also an excellent cook.

And he had the most wonderful hobby, if that's what you call it. Every couple of months he would invite three of four people up to his simple apartment for a gourmet dinner which he prepared himself. His guests were people he thought would find the others interesting.

Sid had been invited a couple of times and said the conversation flowed and was always entertaining and great fun, even though it was invariably a very eclectic bunch – celebrities and ordinary folks, actors and athletes, young and old, black and white, doctors and trolley car drivers and automobile mechanics. People of different ages and ethnicities and backgrounds and professions, apparently with nothing in common.

Oh, wait … they all had one thing in common: They all were customers of the little Italian barber.

Was that a cool idea, or what!

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

How Business Is Conducted in the 21st Century

On the first of June, I bought a Lenovo laptop computer. It arrived 10 days later and I took it with me on an extended train trip. It worked just fine.

When I got home some weeks later, I checked my Visa bill and no charge for the laptop had shown up.

So I emailed Lenovo: How come I haven’t been charged for my new laptop? No answer.

Emailed again. Again no answer.

Telephoned the 800 number and a live person assured me the billing was being handled.

The July VISA bill came in. No charge for the laptop.

Emailed again. Again no response.

The August VISA bill came in. Still no charge for the laptop.

Emailed: How come I still haven’t been charged? No answer.

Telephoned the 800 number and a real person assured me that my account was in order and I didn’t need to worry about it.

Two days ago comes a letter: Pay up or we’ll turn you over to a collection agency!

There was a specific name and phone number attached, so I called and spoke to a cold, officious woman. I tried to explain this 90-day delay in settling our account was their fault not mine, but she was interested only in getting my card number and moving on. No apology. Not even pleasant.

I was still steamed after we hung up. That’s a lousy way to do business. I should contact someone higher up at Lenovo ... someone who cares about customer relations, like the Vice President for Giving-a-Shit. If they have one. Which they don't.

Nah ... a waste of time. Fuggedaboudit.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Rental Car Stories...the Good and the Not-So-Good

I frequently have occasion to rent a car when I travel. Several years ago, I rented a Hertz car for a few days in Saumur, France. It was a small operation and when I brought it back at the appointed time, there was no one in the little office so, as instructed, I left the keys with the next door shop owner. When the paperwork arrived several weeks later, I discovered I had been charged for three additional days. Fortunately, I was able to produce a receipt from a hotel in Vienna, proving I couldn't have been driving that car for those three days. It's probably unfair, but I haven't rented from Hertz since, mostly because they wouldn't take my word and demanded I produce that hotel receipt to prove my innocence.

Two years ago, because its rental location was closest to a particular train station, I rented a car from Enterprise. The car was fine, but they really pressured me to take the collision insurance, making a big production of inspecting the car, noting every nick and smudge and clearly giving the impression that I would be held responsible for the least little problem. They also informed me that, in the event of any damage, they would insist on collecting from me in cash when I brought the car back, regardless of my credit card company's guarantee. It was an unpleasant and intimidating experience and I haven't rented from them since.

Basically, my advice is not to skip around. Rates are pretty much the same anyway. Pick one of the top-tier companies, sign up for their frequent renter program, and become a steady customer unless and until they screw up. I have been a “preferred” Avis customer for years and that always seems to ensure good service and occasional free up-grades.

In fact, two years ago when I visited the Field of Dreams in Dyersville, Iowa, I rented an Avis car in Molene, Illinois, and dropped it in Burlington, Iowa, where I was to board Amtrak’s Claifornia Zephyr for my train ride back to the West Coast. When I turned the car in at the Avis Counter, the young lady offered to drive me to the train station and gave me an interesting tour of Burlington on the way. And she was cute, too!

Monday, September 8, 2008

You Are My Sunshine, My Only Sunshine ...

We have just gone solar. The sun is now heating the water we use for washing dishes and for showers, and it’s also providing electricity during the daylight hours when it’s not overcast or raining.

It was a big step, but should be worth it in the long run. There are both federal and state tax credits which will reduce the net cost considerably and bring Break-Even-Day much closer. Besides, we’re doing our small bit to reduce the demand for energy.

The cost of electricity in Hawaii is high. Here on Maui, we’re now paying Maui Electric 41 cents a kilowatt hour. By comparison, my brother in down-state Illinois is paying 11 cents! Power is expensive here because whatever fuel is used to run the generators – be it oil or coal – has to be shipped in. And remember, we’re at least 2300 miles from anywhere.

The two large panels are for the hot water; the others generate electricity -- DC current that goes to an inverter in the garage where it's converted to AC.

But now, during sunny daylight hours, the photovoltaic panels on the roof supply enough electricity to take care of our modest daytime needs and the excess that’s generated is fed back into Maui Electric’s grid. And when that happens, my electric meter actully spins backwards. I pay for whatever electricity Maui Electric sends me minus the value of whatever electricity I send back into the grid. In a subsequent post, I'll let you know how much my electric bill has been reduced.

I confess that whenever I go down to the garage for something during the day, I stop for a bit and watch that meter turning backwards. I suppose that will eventually wear off. Maybe.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

What’s in a Name? Quite a Lot, Actually.

I’ve always been interested in the origins of surnames. It goes back to when the subject was brought up in school – way back in the 5th grade in Bloomfield, Connecticut, I think. Our teacher started talking about family names and how many of them identified the family’s trade or occupation. One of the girls in my class blushed. Her name was Sally Brewer.

A lot of names and their origins are that obvious: Baker, Cook, Carpenter, Farmer, Smith, etc. Some refer to occupations or trades that are no longer common. There aren't too many Archers or Wagoners advertising in the Yellow Pages these days.

But the origins of many family names are more obscure today, mostly because they refer to a trade or skills that are part of the past. A Chandler made candles. A Fletcher was an arrow maker. A Fowler caught birds in snares.

And a Cooper made barrels … which reminds me of a visit we made to Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia several years ago.

It's a beautifully restored town appearing now just the way it was in the mid-1700s. We stopped for almost a half hour on our stroll around the town to watch a cooper actually making a barrel. It’s tough work, especially forming the iron hoops that hold the darn thing together.

And, yes, you can get to Williamsburg by Amtrak. It’s a three-and-a-half hour ride south of Washington. And I must add that a visit to Williamsburg is an absolutely wonderful experience. I recommend it enthusiastically.

Government - Two Thoughtful Perspectives

"… when the government is run by a political party committed to the belief that government is always the problem, never the solution, that belief tends to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Key priorities are neglected; key functions are privatized; and key people, the competent public servants who make government work, either leave or are driven out."

Paul Krugman
New York Times

"Government is the name we give to the things we want to do together."

Rep. Barney Frank

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Give Towns a Boost … Starting at the Train Station

Traffic congestion has become unbearable in most American cities. Four-dollar-a-gallon gas is a fact of life that’s here to stay. The airlines are in chaos and desperately cutting back flights. In fact, a spokesman for the industry recently said that America's airlines will no longer be able to accommodate everyone who wants to fly.

No wonder, then, that there has been a great deal of talk lately about the need to improve and expand passenger rail service in the U.S. Indeed, Amtrak has experienced a 14-percent increase in ridership so far this year and is heading for a grand total of 29 million.

Many cities and town have seen the light and are preparing for more and better rail service by renovating their rail stations or, in some cases, building new facilities. The really innovative folks are bringing several transportation modes in under one new roof.

Take, for example, Meridian, Mississippi. That town has a nearly new facility that is both a rail station for Amtrak and a bus station for regional service, providing slick rail-bus connections for travelers. Ah, but there is an huge added bonus: the new facility has revitalized the entire surrounding area, with new shops and stores and other businesses coming in.

The same thing has happened in Galesbug, Illinois: A newly renovated station, with more and better businesses moving into the surrounding area of town. In Hawaii we'd say, "Smaht, da buggahs!"

But, alas, such is not the case in many other cities where train stations continue to be run down, neglected and even derelict.

The train station in Burlington, Iowa, is big, cavernous and empty. No employees, no phones, nothing. Abandoned, except for the passengers getting on and off Amtrak’s California Zephyr twice a day. Welcome to Burlington, folks.

Unlike the airlines, where federal and local governments step in to provide airports and other related facilities, Amtrak is expected to provide and maintain rail stations, and to staff them … and Amtrak, of course, doesn’t have enough money to properly run their trains, let alone provide all of the other ancillary facilities.

But, given the success stories of Meridian and Galesburg, perhaps other city officials will see the light and revitalize their towns … starting with the train stations.

We can but hope.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Lucky We Live Hawaii

Most of us who have the incredible luck to live in Hawaii realize our good fortune and appreciate what we have here. When something happens to remind us – a brilliant 180-degree rainbow or seeing a humpback whale breeching a hundred yards off shore, for instance – local folks exchange looks, smile and say, “Lucky we live Hawaii”, the local expression reserved for just those occasions.

From my backyard I can look up at Haleakala, the 10,000 foot dormant volcano that dominates East Maui, the larger portion of this island. Whenever friends or relatives visit from the mainland, we make a point of taking them up to the rim of the volcano’s crater. There are other peaks around the country that are 10,000 feet high and also accessible by car, but for the most part they’re only 5 or 6,000 feet above the surrounding terrain … Pike’s Peak, for example.

But from the rim of Haleakala - by the way, it means "House of the Sun" - you can gaze down 10,000 feet to the Pacific Ocean with the peaks of West Maui in the background.

Then turn around and look down 2 or 3,000 feet into the crater.

Or turn again and there, 100 miles away, are the twin peaks of Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea on the Island of Hawaii or, as we call it, the Big Island.

No doubt about it. Lucky we live Hawaii!

Thursday, September 4, 2008

You Just Gotta Love These Guys!

Over the years, Hawaii politics has produced bumper crops of characters. It may be true of every community, but it just seems as though we’ve had more than our fair share. For instance …

Richard Kagiyama was a member of the Honolulu City Council back in the 50’s and 60’s. When the Public Works Department had a road-resurfacing scheduled in Kagiyama’s district, he would knock on doors up and down the designated street the day before.

Kagiyama: “Good morning. I’m Councilman Richard Kagiyama. I couldn’t help but notice that there are a lot of pot holes in front of your house. Would you like the street to be repaved?”

Homeowner: “Well, sure.”

Kagiyama: “OK! I’ll have them here first thing in the morning!”

Do you wonder why he kept getting re-elected?

Then there was Frank Loo, another member of the City Council. At one of the Council meetings, a measure allowing private citizens to carry mace was being discussed. A women testifying in favor of the proposed ordinance had a sample canister which, she said, would deter sexual assaults on women. Frank Loo scoffed and said a mere aerosol spray wouldn’t stop a determined rapist.

Yes, it will.

No, it won’t.

Yes, it will!

OK, says Frank, let’s try it out, and he lunged at the woman. She let him have a blast right in the face and the next thing anyone knew, the two of them were rolling on the floor of the Council chambers, Loo choking and gasping, the woman … well, she was just gasping.

A few years later, in one of May Frank Fasi’s cabinet meetings, there was a discussion about an issue, supported by the Mayor, that was currently being debated by the City Council.

One of the department heads reported that Frank Loo had just come out in favor of the proposal.

Someone said, “Frank Loo? He’s an idiot!”

“Yes, he is,” said the mayor, “but in this case, he’s our idiot.”

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

ZZZZZZZZZZZ ... Sleeping on a Train

I’m frequently asked what the sleeping car accommodations are like on Amtrak’s long-distance trains. It’s a hard question to answer because there are a lot of options. Superliner cars on the western trains are a lot like the Viewliner cars on the eastern routes. Both offer roomettes and bedrooms, but there are some small but significant differences.

For instance there is a small sink and small toilet in Viewliner roomettes, but no such facilities in roomettes on Superliners. Both roomettes have an upper bunk, but whoever draws the upper bunk on a Viewliner gets a window. No such luck on the Superliner.

Because the bedrooms and roomettes are so compact – that’s a nice word for “small” – it’s very hard to get a decent photograph … or, rather, a photo that will accurately convey what each room looks like. However, Amtrak has recently added a neat little feature to their web site that provides a virtual tour of their sleeping car facilities. It’s fun to fool with and it will tell you about the amenities for each of the various accommodations and give you a good idea of what they all look like. Go here to check it out.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Words Fail Me!

“As far as I’m concerned [Barack Obama] is a ‘baruch,’ which means a blessing. He is a blessing to the United States Senate, to America, and to our shared hopes for better, safer tomorrows for all our families. The gifts that God has given to Barack Obama are as enormous as his future is unlimited. As his mentor, as his colleague, as his friend, I look forward to helping him reach to the stars and realize not just the dreams he has for himself, but the dreams we all have for him and our blessed country.”

Click here to find out who uttered these eloquent words of praise two short years ago.

Hello? Hello? Anybody In There?

Two train-related incidents popped up in the news the other day and caught my attention. Both are the kind that make you wonder about our fellow humans.

Two years ago in Boston, a 25-year-old doofus by the name of Brian Hopkins was boozing it up with some of his pals. At the end of a very lo-o-o-ong evening, he decides he wants to go home ... to New York City ... by train ... right now. Which train, Brian? Oh, I dunno … any train. That one parked right over there will do.

Unable to break into one of the coaches, this genius climbs up on top of the locomotive and … ZAP! … finds out what 27,500 volts feels like. Two years later, after 3rd degree burns and losing a leg and a hand, Brian is suing Amtrak because they didn’t have enough safeguards to prevent someone from … Oh, never mind. Brian, by the way, is an architect.

Last Friday, in Bakersfield, California, the driver of a semi-trailer truck loaded with cheese stopped his rig at a stop sign while he tried to decide which way to turn on the cross street. But – uh-oh! – the rear half of his trailer was sitting on railroad tracks. And of course an Amtrak train was coming at 70 miles-per-hour. Result? Cheese-whiz. And six people slightly injured.

Beware. They're out there. They're among us. And they look normal!

Monday, September 1, 2008

Another Sign of the Economic Times?

As of one week ago, the company operating the GrandLuxe Express has shut down. Their web site is still up, but according to owner Tom Rader, the company is “financially unable to continue operations.”

In addition to offering excursions among several of the national parks in the west, the company also ran rail trips to the old South and through Mexico’s Copper Canyon. Their equipment once belonged to the American Orient Express and is classic in design ... really quite beautiful.

The full-on excursions offered by GrandLuxe were pricey, but very nicely handled and, I've been told, well worth the money. GrandLuxe had recently partnered with Amtrak to periodically hook two or three of their special cars onto the rear of regularly-scheduled Amtrak trains. It seemed like a good idea: giving people a taste of the Golden Age of Train Travel, but without the hefty price tag attached to their excursion trips. For whatever reason, however, it apparently did not catch on.

I haven’t seen any further comments from the company, but it would certainly seem that this unhappy situation could be another sign that even some of the folks who could afford these luxury rail excusrions are hunkering down.

Damn! That train was on my must-do list.