Friday, October 31, 2008

It's Gonna Take Money to Fix Up the Fixer-Uppers

Congressman James Oberstar (D-Minn.), chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, is one of Amtrak’s biggest friends in Congress. He was the moving force behind the recently passed bill that authorizes a five-year funding commitment to Amtrak by the federal government.

William Crosbie of Amtrak appeared before Oberstar’s committee yesterday and there were a couple of nuggets in his testimony that illustrate one of the big problems facing the railroad – lack of equipment.

Crosbie cited the need to replace a lot of the so-called Heritage fleet, best described as the classic rail cars that were generally in service when Amtrak was created in 1971. At issue are baggage cars and diners like the one shown here. Crosbie said that the average car of this type is – ready for this? – 57 years old!

Despite increasing ridership, Amtrak has almost 100 serviceable Amfleet rail cars (see above) in storage at the moment … cars that cannot be put into service because Amtrak hasn’t had the money to perform required maintenance or minor repairs. According to Crosbie, it will take almost $80 million to get all of those cars back into the active fleet.

But thanks to Oberstar and his committee, it looks like the money will be there to do it ... providing we have a new Congress and president who recognize the need for more and better passenger rail service and who will see that the money is actually appropriated. (See below!)

Thursday, October 30, 2008

"But Wait! There's More!"

Apropos of my previous post, The Philadelphia Inquirer has an excellent editorial today on the same subject.

Obama and McCain and Where They Stand On Rail

A couple of days ago, USA Today published a story by writer Bill McGee that’s a comprehensive review of where John McCain and Barack Obama stand on transportation issues … specifically on that segment of the industry that affects the traveling public.

As I have mentioned on prior occasions, McCain has been an implacable foe of Amtrak during his entire Washington career. He has said that the federal government should stop helping to fund Amtrak and has proclaimed that position “non-negotiable.” As recently as last month, he was one of a small minority of senators who voted against the Passenger Rail Investment and Innovation Act of 2007, which authorized a five year commitment of funding for Amtrak. Barack Obama co-sponsored the legislation.

The entire piece is well worth reading, but here are a few selected paragraphs.

While head of the Senate Commerce Committee, McCain opposed funding for rail and singled out Amtrak as a symbol of government waste. In 2002, McCain stated: "Amtrak should be restructured to eliminate its reliance on the American taxpayers and to allow for its privatization."

Indeed, five years ago McCain tangled with the then-president of Amtrak, David Gunn, who famously suggested that if McCain wished to cut off funding for commuter rail, the Arizona senator should do the same for commuter airlines. The McCain campaign's website includes a section on "Reforming Our Transportation Sector," but there is no mention whatsoever of rail.

David Johnson, deputy director of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, was quoted recently as saying: "McCain has consistently not been a supporter of Amtrak. His voting record in the Senate speaks for that." In July, Railway Age summed up both candidates' positions and noted the following: "In his position papers, McCain does not mention Amtrak, or any other form of intercity passenger rail service. His record indicates opposition to continued funding for Amtrak."

Obama's campaign site includes a lengthy section on high-speed rail, freight trains and Amtrak. The Democratic nominee supports development of high-speed rail networks across the country and "renewing the federal government's commitment to high-speed rail." The site states that Obama will "continue to fight for Amtrak funding and reform." Such initiatives would seem to be in keeping with his overall goal of meeting the demands of "our short- and long-term energy challenges."

This one issue pretty well summarizes the whole campaign for me: Obama sees the big picture and understands what needs to be done for the future; McCain stubbornly refuses to let go of his ideology in the face of today’s circumstances and offers more of the same.

At any rate, that’s the way I see it.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Going Green ... Going By Rail

Yesterday I was watching a movie on one of the hundreds of channels we get from the DirecTV satellite. During one of the breaks, I was stopped by a very good commercial for CSX, one of the country’s six large freight railroads, which operates pretty much everywhere east of the Mississippi.

The commercial presented an interesting – even startling – factoid: How far, they asked, can a freight train move one ton of cargo on one gallon of fuel?

Answer: 423 miles! Quite an eye-opener, eh?

Earlier this month, I was in Chicago where I had the chance to take a tour of a CSX inter-modal yard and get a close-up look at one of their new energy efficient GenSet locomotives. (See above – and, yes, we got rained on.) These new engines can cut CO2 emissions in half and reduce particulate emissions by as much as 80 percent.

There was also time to talk about the business of moving freight with some of the CSX people. It was all informative and very interesting, of course, but I also heard something that was actually heartening: More and more shippers are turning to rail because it’s a greener way to go.

Sure, it’s often a less expensive alternative, but isn’t it nice to learn that some enlightened manufacturers are also feeling some environmental responsibility?

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

A Little of This and a Little of That

High time to do something about being on time

Everyone who has taken any of Amtrak’s long-distance trains is aware that late arrivals are a big problem. Everywhere except in the Northeast Corridor (Washington-Boston), Amtrak trains run on track owned by the various freight railroads. In theory (and, indeed, according to law), the freight railroads are supposed to give priority to Amtrak trains. Sometimes they do, but often they do not. In my personal traveling experience, the principal offender has been Union Pacific. Apparently, Amtrak feels the same way because the company has asked for arbitration to deal with its disputes with UP over this subject. Here’s a link to the Chicago Tribune story.

Amtrak rail passes are now available

Rail passes are offered by most of the national railroads around the world and traditionally they may only be purchased by people living outside that particular country. The object is to encourage foreign travelers and, of course, foreign money.

Amtrak has long offered such passes but now, for the first time, they’re available for purchase by Americans in this country. Passes are for 15, 30 and 45 days of travel for $389, $579 and $749 respectively. Go here for details. A word of caution: Rail passes, either here or abroad, are not always the cheapest way to go.

Another plus for our local airline

This item should have been posted some weeks ago, but here it is anyway: In August the nation's airlines posted an on-time arrival rate of 78 percent. The airline with the best on-time performance was Hawaiian Airlines, which scored 92 percent. Once again, let me recommend Hawaiian for flights to or from these islands from quite a few cities on the western part of the U.S. … Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, Oakland, Phoenix Portland, Las Vegas, Sacramento and San Jose. They also fly to Sydney, Manila, Samoa and Tahiti.

Some perspective on federal funding of transportation

Matt Melzer, Communications Director for NARP, the National Association of Railroad Passengers, dropped an interesting – not to mention revealing – tidbit in an article that ran recently in a New Jersey newspaper. Matt pointed out that Amtrak has received less funding from the federal government over the past 30 years than the $41.8 billion the feds are spending on highways this year alone.

Strikes me that the the next president's first priority should be a review of all priorities!

Monday, October 27, 2008

Hello, 911? There’s a lolo* guy in the loo!

France’s high-speed trains running between La Rochelle and Bordeaux had to be shut down for two hours the other day. It seems some guy accidentally dropped his cell phone down one of the toilets and got his arm stuck trying to retrieve it. The toilets use powerful suction to function and firefighters had to remove the entire unit before they could cut him loose.

Can you picture the guy coming home that night?

Alors, cherie, je suis ici. (Hi, honey, I’m home.)

Oui, mais pourquoi es-tu deux heures en retard??
(Yeah, but how come you’re two hours late??)

Eh bien, dans le TGV cet après-midi … (Well, on the train this afternoon …)

* lolo = crazy (in Hawaiian)

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Amtrak May Bring Back Several Popular Trains

The new Amtrak authorization bill, passed by Congress and – whaddaya know! – signed by President Bush*, has started folks talking about restoring some old Amtrak routes. Three are actually written into the bill … not a mandate, but directing Amtrak to study the feasibility of bringing back the three trains.

The first is restoring the Florida portion of the Sunset Limited’s route, shown here arriving in New Orleans after crossing the Mississippi on the Huey Long bridge. Because of severe damage by Hurricane Katrina to the tracks between New Orleans and Orlando, that part of the train’s route was suspended and since the storm, the train has been operating only between Los Angeles and New Orleans. The tracks have long since been moved farther inland and are in operation, but Amtrak still hasn’t restored service to Orlando.

Amtrak has also been directed to study the restoring of service once provided by the North Coast Hiawatha, one of the original routes that Amtrak operated from its founding in 1971 until it was discontinued in 1977. The train ran as a section of the Empire Builder from Chicago to Minneapolis where it split off and ran a southerly route across North Dakota and Montana, rejoining the Builder in Spokane for the rest of the trip on into Seattle.

Finally, also mentioned in the new law is the Pioneer, shown here leaving Seattle’s King Street Station on its final run in 1997. The Pioneer left Chicago as part of the California Zephyr consist, splitting off in Denver and running through Wyoming, Utah and Idaho to Seattle.

But in addition to the possible return of those three trains, Amtrak has also suggested it might consider adding a new train between Jacksonville and Miami. It’s possible to travel between those two cities now on either the Silver Meteor or the Silver Star, but the former takes 9 hours because it goes via Orlando and the latter makes an even wider detour, going by way of Tampa, and takes 11 hours. A more direct route could reduce the running time to under six hours.

We’re still a long way from seeing this actually happen, however. For one thing, while the money has been authorized, it still must be appropriated by the next Congress and then approved by the next administration. That approval is likely if it’s Obama ... highly unlikely if it’s McCain, who voted against the bill last month. And then there’s the matter of equipment, in short supply as it is.

Nevertheless, things are definitely looking up!

* And why not? It passed both the House and the Senate with veto-proof margins.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Power FROM the People!

It's an economic fact-of-life here in the islands that almost everything costs more. And those higher costs are usually attributable to the cost of shipping. That's primarily what's behind the high cost of electricity. We are, after all, some 2300 miles from the West Coast and all the fuel to power our generators, be it coal or oil, has to be shipped in.

The residential rate for electricity here on Maui is now about 41 cents per kilowatt hour. (By contrast, my brother in central Illinois is paying eleven cents per kwh.) Over the past year or so, the monthly electric bill for our household of two adults was averaging about $250 ... and we have neither heat nor air conditioning.

A month or so ago, I wrote about the two solar-power systems we had just installed on our house. The first, involving the two large solar panels, is to provide hot water. The second, the 13-panel photovoltaic system, is to generate electricity. During sunny days, it provides power for us with any surplus electricity being sent back into the grid for Maui Electric to sell to someone else. When that happens, our electric meter literally spins backwards ... in effect, it's Maui Electric buying electricity from us. At night and on cloudy days, we seamlessly draw from their grid and, of course, pay MECO for the electricity we use. Our monthly bill reflects whatever difference they may have been between what they charged us and what they paid us.

We just got our first full-month's electric bill since the system was installed: $26.44!

Friday, October 24, 2008

While People Watching Today at LAX, I Saw …

* A teenage girl, actually quite attractive, with “Jeremy” tattooed across the back of her neck.

* An Asian couple with a little girl about 18 months old who was absolutely adorable … until she toddles over and stands staring at you for the 5th time.

* A corpulently challenged man in his 50s sporting skin-tight sweat shorts and T-shirt, wearing rubber slippers, and buying at least a dozen candy bars for his flight.

* A neatly uniformed security guard wearing a very non-regulation Tampa Bay Rays cap.

* Quite a few women wearing high heels; some looking terrific, but others walking awkwardly and ruining the effect.

* An overweight woman with huge boobs wearing a tank top. Very, very scary!

* A distinguished looking man pacing back and forth in the middle of the foot traffic flow unmercifully chewing out a subordinate for everyone in a 50-foot radius to hear.

* Older flight attendants, both male and female, looking worn out … a sign of the times, I guess.

* A fashion trend (at least in LA): Younger women wearing skin-tight jeans, black leather boots with spiked heels.

It's amazing how time flies with that kind of entertainment. And it's free.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Amtrak’s Most Scenic Train: The Coast Starlight

I’ve just arrived back in Los Angeles after making a round trip on Amtrak’s Coast Starlight … LA to Portland to Seattle and back to LA. I’ve ridden this train probably six or eight times and it never gets old.

The train departs daily from Los Angeles at 10:15 in the morning and gets to Seattle the following evening at 8:45. The southbound train leaves Seattle at 9:45 a.m. and gets to Los Angeles at 9:00 p.m. the next night. Intermediate stops include Portland, Eugene, Sacramento, Emeryville and Oakland in the Bay Area, San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara among others. Go here for a look at the timetable.

Either direction is good, but personally, I think the northbound trip is better because you see a bit more of the spectacular scenery during daylight hours.

In particular, there is the absolutely fabulous view you get of Mount Shasta just about the time you wake up on Day Two. The train circles around that magnificent mountain for probably 30 minutes and trust me: you will not forget the experience.

Of course there’s also the experience of running right along the Pacific shores for the first part of the northbound trip and running through the wilderness along a forested ridge overlooking the Willamette Valley during the afternoon of the second day.

There is a special feature on the Coast Starlight that's not found on any other of Amtrak’s trains: the Pacific Parlour Car. It’s available only to sleeping car passengers and features a nice lounge area in soft swiveling easy chairs, a casual seating area with small tables to set drinks on, and a more formal area where full-on meals are served. There is also a wine tasting in the Parlour Car each afternoon. The wines served come from wineries located along the trains route. A very cool idea, eh? Of course the train’s dining car is also available and offers a different menu.

The Coast Starlight would be a very good choice for someone’s first long-distance train ride because it involves just one night aboard and the scenery is varied along the entire route.

Gee … I just got off this train 90 minutes ago and I’m ready to go again!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

If You Love Great Italian Food, Listen Up!

SEATTLE -- Ten years ago – maybe more – I came to Seattle on business and stayed in a small hotel, the Claremont, on the north side of town. There was an Italian restaurant right next to the hotel and I walked in there one night for dinner.

WOW! It was fabulous.

I’ve probably stopped here or passed through Seattle 15 or 20 times during my train travels over the years since then. And almost every time – even if, on a couple of occasions, it’s meant staying an extra night – I’ve managed to work in a lunch or a dinner at Assaggio. Last time, this past June, it was both!

Tonight was one of those occasions. I had an appetizer-sized serving of carbonara and, for the main course, a braised lamb shank on a bed of rice. And the sauce! Tomatoes and green peppers and onions all simmered for hours, I’m sure, along with the meat. A glass of white wine went with the pasta, a wonderful red with the lamb. Desert was a pear tart with vanilla gelato.

Double WOW!

If you’re coming to Seattle, don’t miss Assaggio’s. It’s at 2010 4th Avenue, which isn’t more than a 10 minute cab ride from almost anywhere in the downtown area.

The hotel next door has been sold and renovated in the meantime and the Claremont is now the Hotel Andra. Very nice, well appointed, and also recommended.

And why not? After all, Assaggio is right next door!

Most Of Us Have Too Much ‘Stuff’

SEATTLE, WA -- Travel around the country by train as I have done, and after a while you will become aware of seeing something over and over again in almost every town and city through which you’re passing: self-storage facilities.

Some are in converted warehouses or other old buildings, others are brand-new looking. But you see them everywhere.

If ever there was symbol of the excess to which we have all become accustomed, this is it. We have so many possessions there’s no room for all that junk in our houses and apartments. Solution? We shell out good money every month so some stranger will look after it for us.

That’s crazy!

There was a news story last night on one of the Seattle TV stations about a second-hand clothing store that takes donations of old clothes which are then sold to people at very, very low prices. The clientele of this store – sorry, I didn’t catch the name – is single parents, folks who have lost their jobs, and others who are just having a tough time.

The manager of the store told the reporter that there has been a huge increase in demand over the past month or so. Why are we not surprised? Times are tough. The problem is, they are close to running out of donated clothing with which to restock their shelves and racks.

And yet we have self-storage facilities all over the country warehousing millions of tons of stuff we’re not using including, no doubt, a lot of useable clothing.

I mean, that’s crazy!

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Train Travels Continue

WHIDBEY ISLAND, WA -- Amtrak's Cascades left Portland yesterday morning right on time. It's a very pretty ride up to Seattle, capped by a spectacular view of Mount Rainier off to the right of the train about a half hour before arriving.

The train itself is Talgo equipment, manufactured in Spain. The cars are shorter than the usual standard and the trainset is articulated, so there's no pulling open doors and walking through the usual vestibule when moving from one car to another.

There is also a "tilt" capability, meaning the cars can tip slightly when going around corners to mitigate centrifugal force and give passengers a more comfortable ride,. In reality, these trains don't travel fast enough to make this a significant feature.

Nevertheless, the trains are clean, comfortable and well-designed ... all in all, a very nice, very enjoyable ride.

Today I'm on Whidbey Island, about an hour's drive north of Seattle, visiting my sister and her husband. Back to Seattle tomorrow and on the southbound Coast Starlight the next day for the overnight trip back to Los Angeles. Then -- ta-DAH! -- back home to Maui.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Sometimes ALL of the Good Guys Win

PORTLAND, OR -- The NARP* board meetings concluded today with three fascinating luncheon speakers representing All Aboard Washington, the rail advocacy organization for that state. They told us about their year-long battle to prevent the local government from tearing up 42 miles of railroad track running through several Seattle suburbs and turning the right-of-way into a bike path.

But, gee … everyone loves bike paths, so didn’t the good guys actually lose on this one?

Not really. Because a private investor is going to run a commuter rail line on those tracks and a conservative estimate is that 3,000 people will ride the trains to and from work every day. Think how many cars that will keep off the nearby highly-congested highway. And consider the greenhouse gasses and other pollutants that will not be pumped out into the air as a result.

And don’t even think about feeling sorry for the bikers, because there will still be room for a bike path along much of the route. But now the bikers will be able to peddle twice as far, then rest their tired legs while taking the train back home.

So it’s really a win-win. And one more example of how rail transportation is good for communities, good for people, and good for the environment.

*National Association of Railroad Passengers

Friday, October 17, 2008

Oh, Me of Little Faith

After the last business session yesterday evening, I returned to my hotel room, snapped on the television set and went hunting for the Red Sox-Tampa Bay game which, I figured, would probably be in the 5th or 6th inning.

I was not hopeful. The Red Sox had already lost three games in the best-of-seven series with the Tampa Bay Rays and one more loss would mean their elimination and send the Rays on to the World Series. I clicked through the channels with the remote and eventually up popped the game.


The game was the 7th inning and the Sox were losing 7-0. That’s it! No way they’re coming back from that. Too big a lead by Tampa Bay. Game over … series over … season over.

I turned the TV off, wrote up yesterday’s post, sent a couple of emails and went down to the Mexican restaurant in the hotel lobby for a bite of dinner.

An hour later I returned to my room, turned on the laptop and went to ESPN’s website to read the final gory details of the game.

Holy horse poop! The Sox had scored four runs in the 7th inning, three more in the 8th to tie, and one more in the bottom of the 9th to win it … the second greatest come-back in post-season history! And they did it all while was eating a beef burrito and feeling sorry for myself.

Tomorrow night, when the Sox and Rays meet for Game Six, I will once again not watch. I will sit in the Mexican restaurant and eat a beef burrito. Two, if necessary.

Anything for the Red Sox.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Little Steetcar That Could … and Did!

PORTLAND, OR – This city is going places. More specifically, Portland residents are going places on streetcars that carry people around the downtown area.

I’m in Portland for a two-day meeting of the NARP* board of directors that starts tomorrow. But today, we were treated to a tour of the Portland Streetcar system. We also visited the facilities of the United Streetcar Company, a subsidiary of Oregon Iron Works. The day was one eye-opener after another.

Take, for instance, the streetcars. They run on a circular 8-mile route through the center of the city, with no fare charged if people hop on and hop off in the very central part of town. Yearly passes are available for riding the streetcars in or through other areas. And everyone loves it. The system started out carrying 3400 people a day; today their typical daily ridership is 13,000 people.

The streetcars have also reduced automobile congestion and, more importantly, the system has revitalized the entire area it serves. Get this: The system began operating in 2001, but since 1997 when the commitment was made to build it, a total of $3.5 billion in new development has taken place around its 8-mile route … new condominiums and apartments, new restaurants and countless other small businesses serving a community that thrives 24/7. All that has meant jobs … lots of them.

Furthermore, in a spic and span industrial complex just a few miles away, United Streetcar is building more streetcars to add to Portland’s fleet. What’s more, they have had inquiries from 73 other cities that have seen what Portland has done and are thinking about the same for their towns.

Gee ... d'ya think maybe these folks have stumbled on something?

*National Association of Railroad Passengers

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

From Los Angeles to Portland ... in Style!

PORTLAND – Arrived safely in this wonderful city late this afternoon on Amtrak’s Coast Starlight … and only about an hour late. I say “only” because yesterday morning we had to take a bus around a very serious fire north of Los Angeles and travel two-plus hours up the coast to Santa Barbara where we actually boarded the train.

Then there was more time lost this afternoon in the Cascade Range where the train was under slow order while crossing a stretch of track rebuilt after a massive landslide closed the route for weeks back in January. Still, all things considered, a very nice trip.

Certainly there can be no doubt that the Coast Starlight is one of Amtrak’s more scenic trips … along the Pacific Coast from Santa Barbara north past Vandenburg Air Force Base, then inland through what my late and truly wonderful father-in-law referred to as “PBCH” … by which he meant “Pretty Brown California Hills”. Actually, they’re golden brown hills, some quite high, all spotted with dark green oak trees, with small farms and ranches scattered in among them.

The second day, today, began with an absolutely spectacular view of Mount Shasta, which was capped by snow this morning, touching off a discussion over breakfast as to whether the snow was the first of this year or left over from last winter.

Then it’s up into the Cascade Range and fabulous views of lakes and valleys as the train winds along narrow ridges through a marvelous wilderness area.

The trip today was enhanced by a conductor who periodically gave an interesting and even scholarly commentary about the passing scenery and some of the history of the area. I only got his first name, Dave, from our car attendant, but will send Amtrak an “atta-boy” letter for his file as soon as I get home.

So … tomorrow is the first gathering of the NARP* board of directors when we get a day-long tour of Portland’s several transit systems. More on that later, and photos shortly after I get home.

*National Association of Railroad Passengers

Monday, October 13, 2008

Sometimes You Can Be Late and On Time, Too

LOS ANGELES –I arrived here this morning on the Southwest Chief after the two night trip from Galesburg, Illinois. By my watch, we pulled into Los Angeles Union Station at 8:11 a.m., four minutes ahead of schedule.

But were we really “on time”?

I’ve written before about the chronic delays affecting many Amtrak trains. Some of the blame for the late arrivals can be laid at Amtrak’s door – equipment failure, etc. – but most of the time the problem is just too much rail traffic.

With the exception of the Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington, Amtrak must run their trains over track owned by the several major freight railroads. Often Amtrak trains get caught behind slow moving freights or are shunted off onto a siding to allow a freight coming the other direction to pass.

This can cause problems for passengers, of course. Relatives arrive at the station to pick up Aunt Sadie only to discover her train is three hours late. Or passengers expecting to arrive in Los Angeles at 9:00 in the evening find themselves wandering around Union Station at 2:00 a.m. instead. Worse yet, connections are missed … but the next train doesn’t come until tomorrow and maybe there’s no space available.

To mitigate this problem Amtrak pads its schedules.

For example, it takes the southbound Coast Starlight 46 minutes to reach Tacoma after departing from Seattle. But, according to its timetable, Amtrak allows one hour and 34 minutes for the northbound Coast Starlight to cover that same stretch at the end of its trip up the California coast from Los Angeles. The extra 48 minutes is there to absorb any unforeseen delays that may occur en route.

They do the same thing for the Southwest Chief which runs daily between Chicago and Los Angeles. After departing Los Angeles, the eastbound train takes just 35 minutes to reach its first stop at Fullerton; the westbound Chief is allowed 1:41 to cover that same distance. Today, we needed every bit of that padding, because we lost nearly two hours after leaving Albuquerque yesterday afternoon.

As I was trundling my little rolling suitcase into the main terminal, I passed a fellow passenger who was being greeted by his son.

“Well, here you are,” said the young man, “right on time!”

Well, yes ... sort of.

Friday, October 10, 2008

En Route to Middle America

CHICAGO -- It's 7:35 a.m. and Amtrak train # 381 is leaving Union Station spot on time, clattering through a maze of switches out through the yards and onto the main line headed south. This is an Amtrak train, but it's subsidized by the State of Illinois.

There are three coaches and a cafe car in the consist. The cost of this three-hour ride to Galesburg in coach class is just $19, but I chose to upgrade my ticket this morning before I boarded and am comfortably seated in business class, which is located in the forward third of the cafe car. Just to the rear of us is the service area where an attendant is popping packaged breakfast sandwiches in and out of the microwave and pouring cups of hot coffee for sleepy passengers.

The Chicago skyline, dominated by the imposing Sears Tower, gradually disappears into the morning mist. City turns to suburbs and not long after the Napirville stop we're rolling along through farmlands at 80 miles and hour.

It's harvest time here in the midwest -- at least that's the case here in this part of Illinois -- and there are tractors and combines busily scouring the fields of brown corn stalks and soybeans. Every 10 to 15 minutes, we flash through small towns, modest houses and small commercial buildings clustered around the inevitable water towers.

The other half of this car is a seating area for patrons of the little cafe. The half-dozen booths with formica-topped tables are now occupied by several passengers chatting among themselves. That's one of the big differences between trains and air travel. Rail passengers talk to each other ... get to know each other ... and it's a big part of what I like about train travel.

At 10:20 by my watch, just about on time, we arrive in Galesburg where my brother and nephew are waiting. This is an interesting little town, with a lot of rail traffic passing through, both passenger and freight. In fact, I'm told that a train goes through Galesburg on the average of every eight minutes for the better part of the day.

So ... two nights here, then back on the train for the very enjoyable ride to Los Angeles on the Southwest Chief. As always, more to come ...

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The CSX Rail Yard: In A Word ... Impressive.

CHICAGO--I always knew that Chicago was a big time rail center, but our tour of one of the CSX rail yards yesterday was an eye-opener. I frankly had no idea as to the size and scope of rail operations in this city.

There are, in fact, 70 rail yards in Chicago! Four large U.S. railroads and two Canadian railroads all converge here. Then, of course, there's Amtrak and the commuter lines.

On a normal day, 500 freight trains and 700 passenger trains depart or arrive or pass through here. Wow!

The CSX facility we visited is an intermodal yard. Trains bring containers into the yard where huge rolling cranes lift the "boxes" off flatcars at the rate of one every two minutes and deposit them onto trucks to be driven to their destinations. There's an equal amount of business in the reverse, too ... trucks bringing containers into the CSX yard where they are put onto flat cars and taken away by rail to destinations all over the country. It is a very impressive operation.

We also had a quick look at one of the new GenSet locomotives that CSX is buying and putting into operation. These are diesel electric machines that uses one-half the fuel of earlier models and boast an 80 percent reduction in particulate matter. They're not as powerful as the big brutes that haul 120-car freight trains around the country, but are used as switch engines throughout these rail yards and for hauling shorter trains to local destinations. Nevertheless, it's a real break-through and a very good sign of things to come.

I'll post photos of my visit to the yard at a later date.

It's back on Amtrak tomorrow morning. First stop will be Galesburg, Illinois, and a visit with family, than on to Los Angeles on the Southwest Chief. I'll connect in LA with the Coast Starlight for the run up to Portland and the NARP (National Association of Railroad Passengers) board meetings.

To be continued ...

Monday, October 6, 2008

There's No Such Thing As An Easy Red-Eye

CHICAGO -- This will come as a shock to no one, but flying just isn't fun any more. It's a long haul from Hawaii to mid-America under the best of circumstances, but this trip had to be booked at pretty much the last minute, so the connections were hardly ideal.

The first leg was a Northwest flight from Maui to Seattle, with a stop at Kona on the Big Island which added an hour to what is normally a five-hour flight. The plane was my least-favorite aircraft: a Boeing 757, which is basically a very long aluminium tube with three-and-three seating.

There was one funny incident during the stop in Kona, however, when one of the flight attendants was clearing up some confusion with the passenger manifest. He was trying to find out if someone named Pringle was on board. He used the PA system to ask Pringle to identify himself, but he was distracted and fumbling with the button so we never actually heard Pringle's name. What we DID hear was "... if you're on board the plane at this time, please press your call button so we can identify you." There was a brief pause, then 50 or 60 of us pressed the call button. That was followed by gales of laughter throughout the plane.

I had a three-hour wait in Seattle for my Chicago flight, which was on Alaska Airlines*, and took another three hours and 45 minutes. Then, of course, came the lenghty cab ride into downtown.

However, I am finally and happily ensconced in a comfortable hotel room where I will order room service and will watch my Red Sox take on the Angels on a dandy wide-screen high-def television set ... unless, of course, I can't stay awake.

Tomorrow comes the tour of the CSX yard and a look at their new energy efficient locomotive. What's not to like about that?

* I can report that nowhere in the in-flight magazine was there a photo of the current Alaska governor. I checked. Twice.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

New Dollars Could Bring Back Discontinued Trains

The 13-plus billion dollar Amtrak funding bill which passed Congress on Wednesday could result in restoring two or three trains that were discontinued a number of years ago as cost-cutting measures.

The Pioneer, with a classic F40 locomotive at the head end, stopped at Pocotello, Idaho, in the late 80s.

The Pioneer, which stopped running in1997, left Chicago as a section of the California Zephyr, but split off in Denver and headed across Wyoming, Idaho and Oregon to Seattle.

The North Coast Hiawatha crossed the southern portions of Montana and North Dakota. It was apparently quite successful, but was discontinued in the late 70s.

The Desert Wind heading toward Los Angeles.

This might also be a good time to start pushing for the return of the Desert Wind. It, too, originated in Chicago as part of the California Zephyr, but went off on its own at Salt Lake City and headed south to Los Angeles.

Waiting for passengers to begin boarding the Sunset Limited in New Orleans.

Before Hurricane Katrina, the Sunset Limited ran three days a week between Los Angeles and Orlando. Because the hurricane caused extensive damage to the tracks along the Florida panhandle and the Mississippi coast, Amtrak stopped running the Sunset Limited east of New Orleans. The tracks have long since been repaired, but that eastern segment has still not been restored. Perhaps this funding bill will induce Amtrak to restore that portion of the Sunset’s service.

Ross Capon, executive director of NARP (the National Association of Railroad Passengers, has a put forth several different approaches to expanded rail service that could be taken. You can go here to check out his ideas.

At any rate, having the money to provide more train service is one thing, but I suspect lack of equipment is a big part of the problem, too. Amtrak has about 100 rail cars in storage at the moment because they haven’t had the funds to make minor repairs or finish overdue maintenance that would get them back into service. The new funding bill includes a special allocation for doing exactly that, but first the money has to be appropriated, then the work has to be done. As welcome as more trains would be, it’s not likely to happen anytime soon.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Washington Union Station … A ‘Must See’

I enjoy visiting Washington, DC. For one thing, I’ve spent years in and around politics and Washington is where the important stuff happens. It’s easy to sneer at politicians and at the so-called Washington establishment, but it’s been my experience that the vast majority – from Members of Congress and appointed officials to the lowliest staff member - are there for the right reasons.

There is plenty to see and do in Washington – certainly enough to keep you busy and on the go for a week at least. Visit the White House (your Member of Congress can arrange it) and tour the Capitol building (ditto). The Smithsonian all by itself is worth several days. In particular, I got a huge kick from the National Air and Space Museum. The Wright brothers’ plane is there. Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis is there. The Battle of Britain is remembered with a real Spitfire, to me the most beautiful flying machine ever conceived.

Of course, if, like me, you arrive in Washington by train, you will see Union Station. It’s a magnificent building, thanks to a $70 million renovation that was completed 20 years ago. And it certainly makes a convincing case for the argument that restored and renovate train stations can revitalize the surrounding areas in the cities and towns they serve.

Union Station is one of the busiest locations in Washington, with 32 million people a year passing through this wonderful structure. Sure, there are Amtrak and commuter trains coming and going all day ...

... but there is also a fabulous food court and some very good restaurants, one offering a traditional entrée from each of the 50 states. And there are lots of shops, selling everything from fashionable clothing to luggage to souvenirs to political memorabilia.

Note, please, that the 100th anniversary of Union Station will be celebrated today and Sunday, October 4th and 5th. Among other things, there will be a display of historic locomotives and rail cars that have seldom if ever before been assembled at one time in one place. Very much worth the trip if you're anywhere in the general area. (Or even if you're not!)

Amtrak’s corporate offices are right there in the station and, fittingly, the railroad has taken the lead in organizing this celebration.

Anyway, should you be visiting Washington in the future, or even just passing through, be sure to give yourself at least an hour or so to enjoy Union Station. You will agree that the $70 million was very well spent.

The Closer You Look, The More Confused You Get

Yesterday the United States Senate approved the bailout bill.

The Republican National Committee immediately released a television spot attacking Barak Obama for voting in favor of the bill.

And Obama did indeed vote for it.

But so did John McCain.

And we wonder why people are turned off by politics!

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Congress Passes Important Rail Legislation

By a vote of 74-24, the U. S. Senate yesterday passed the Rail Safety Improvement Act (H.R. 2095), which incorporates provisions of the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act. Boiled down to the basics, this means a lot more funding for Amtrak over five years. It also includes studies that could lead to restoring several trains that were previously eliminated to cut costs. There is also a mandate that most railroads in the country install PTC (positive train control) in locomotives, which most experts agree could have prevented the recent commuter-freight train collision in the Los Angeles area.

Barak Obama Voted YES; John McCain Voted NO
All 24 "No" votes were cast by Republicans. Click here to see how your senators voted.

H.R. 2095 will now go to President Bush. It becomes law if he signs it, but the truth is, it doesn’t matter what Bush does because this legislation passed both houses of Congress by veto-proof margins.

Ross Capon, executive director of NARP, the National Association of Railroad Passengers, has checked with the White House and the word is, Bush will sign. However, Capon notes that even then there is no iron-clad guarantee that funding will occur. He says, “ Passenger train supporters on Capitol Hill and around the nation must continue to work to see that the White House and Amtrak actually request—and Congress provides—the authorized funding so that we can meet growing demand for trains.”

Want to help? Contact your elected representative and senators in Washington and express support for Amtrak in general and for the funding called for in H.R. 2095.

Oh … and think about joining NARP, will you? Click here to do it. Thanks!

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Another Mainland Trip Coming Up

There may be some interruption in my daily posts starting this weekend. I’m off to Chicago on Sunday for a visit to the CSX facility there and for a look at the new GenSet locomotive, which is touted to be low emission and (therefore) environmentally friendly.

I’ll also be attending at least a few of the sessions of a Climate Leaders conference, which is a joint government-industry project, the goal being the development of climate change strategies. Sounds interesting and I’ll include info about all that in coming days.

From Chicago, I’ll be heading to the West Coast (via Amtrak, of course), ending up in Portland, Oregon, for a semi-annual meeting of the board of directors of NARP, the National Association of Railroad Passengers. There will be reports here about that, too. Should be very interesting, because our visit will include a tour of Portland’s extensive transit system.