Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Hawaii Weather: It's All in the Eye of the Beholder

We encourage friends and relations to come here to Maui for visits, but we also do our best to warn them about coming during the winter months. The weather can be beautiful … but it can also be like it's been here for the past ten days: temperatures in the low 60s, blustery trade winds, and rain.

And I do mean rain! We got 2 inches of rain last night and almost 3 inches the day before that. And I can’t tell you how much rain we got in the two days after Christmas because our rain gauge filled up and overflowed. It holds six inches.

We get prolonged spells of heavy rain like this almost every year, and every year the Honolulu TV stations send reporters into Waikiki to interview some of the drenched visitors. Invariably, the conversation goes like this:

TV Reporter: How does it feel spending thousands of dollars on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Hawaii and having six solid days of rain?

Visitor: Are you kidding? It’s 15 degrees back home in Cleveland and they’re hip deep in snow. This is great!

Monday, December 29, 2008

Uh-oh! Something Has Gone Wrong Somewhere.

My apologies for the lack of regular posts over the past week. For reasons well above my threshold of understanding, my high-speed internet connection has not been working and I have been relegated to dial-up. It is so painfully slow that it has been almost impossible to check my Google Alerts for newsworthy blog fodder, let alone maneuver through the actual posting process.

My computer-savvy son-in-law will get me back up to speed when he returns on Thursday from a holiday visit with his family in Canada. In the meantime, my best wishes for the New Year, for which there is indeed reason for hope and optimism.

Haoli Makahiki Hou.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Two Very Special Train Rides Coming Up

I’ve just made arrangements for a visit to Australia at the end of January where I’ll be taking two wonderful long distance train trips.

Travel from here to Australia is very convenient because Hawaiian Airlines has three non-stop flights a week between Honolulu and Sydney. As regular visitors here know, I’m a big fan of Hawaiian. They fly my favorite wide-body plane, Boeing 767s, and their in-flight service is really excellent.

The first train ride will be aboard the fabled Indian Pacific which runs clear across the Australian continent, between Perth on the Indian Ocean and Sydney on the Pacific Ocean … and, yes, hence the name. The route - it's the blue line in the map below - passes through Broken Hill and Adelaide on the three-night trip from Sydney to Perth.

I’ll spend a couple of days in Perth, thentake a Qantas flight to Darwin where I’ll catch the southbound Ghan. I’ll be aboard this second train for two nights en route to its southern terminus at Adelaide. Both of these trains are operated by Great Southern Rail.

After a day in Adelaide, I’ll hop a second Qantas flight back to Sydney and, from there, back to Honolulu and a quick connection for the short hop home to Maui.

I’ll be taking my laptop along and am planning to provide regular reports in this space while I’m away. Sure sounds like fun, doesn't it!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

It's Better in Imagination Than Real Life, But …

Picture this: You’re cruising along in your car on the way to work and come up behind someone plodding along in the left lane, slowing everyone down. So you reach out and press a special button on the dash and – WOOOO-WOOOOOO! – you let him have it with the deafening blast of an authentic train horn.

Setting aside for a moment the distinct possibility that you scare the beejeezus out of the guy so he loses control and causes a 10-car pile-up, the idea does have a certain twisted appeal, doesn’t it.

Well, such a diabolical devise is actually available and you can find out about it at

(Way back in my day, the equivalent was something called a Wolf Whistle. It was very cool.)

No, where else can you get valuable information like this?

Monday, December 22, 2008

“Buy land. They ain’t makin’ any more of it."

I think it was Will Rogers who said that. At any rate, he was wrong. They are making more of it on the Island of Hawaii, which folks here call “the Big Island.”

Kilauea volcano has been erupting continuously now for 25 years, with lava flowing some seven miles through a natural system of tubes to the sea … where new land is formed.

Trouble is, it’s unstable. A few months ago, a chunk the size of a football field broke off and collapsed into the ocean. Nevertheless, it’s a fascinating sight and a reason – one of a great many – to visit this incredible place.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Aloha and Welcome to the First Family-Elect

The Obamas are here for their brief vacation. Well, not here, exactly. They’re on Oahu, happily ensconced in the community of Kailua on the opposite side of that island from Honolulu. The place where they’re staying is about a quarter mile from the house we sold when I quit working and we moved to Maui. (Our house, I feel compelled to add, was nothing like the place where Barack, Michelle and the two girls are staying.)

Kailua is a very laid back little town where the main attraction is the beach … a 3-mile-long crescent that is remarkably uncrowded most of the time. The house where the Obamas are staying is located about in the center of this photograph, perhaps 80-100 feet back from the beach.

As a note of possible interest, there is no such thing as a private beach here. By law, all beaches in Hawaii are public with private property extending only as far as the high-water mark.

During the 25 years we lived in Kailua, I would wait until about the middle of February, walk down to the beach on a warm, sunny morning, wade out to my waist in the ocean, take out my cell phone and call my brother in Illinois and ask him if he was tired of winter yet. I think, in some perverse way, he actually enjoyed that.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

About Insurance Companies - Then and Now

Great American Insurance is trying to weasel out of a claim in Houston, Texas, where three people died in a building fire, a fire that was maliciously set.

It seems Great American has an exclusion in their policy’s fine print that says they don’t have to pay off if deaths are caused by “pollution.” They're claiming the people died from smoke and not from the fire and, since smoke is pollution, they’re off the hook.

How times have changed!

One of my first jobs right out of college was with the Hartford Insurance Group. I was assistant editor of the monthly magazine sent to all the independent agents around the country who sold the Hartford’s various insurance policies. In that job, I learned a good deal about the company’s history, and the news about Great American triggered the recollection of a story from the Hartford’s past involving the Great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906.

In those days, the typical fire insurance policy didn’t cover earthquake damage, so when considering claims resulting from that catastrophe, insurance companies had to determine if the building in question was destroyed by the earthquake (not covered) or by the subsequent fire (covered). Just to further complicate things, if the building was partially damaged by the quake, then totally destroyed by the fire, the insurance company would pay off based on the appropriate percentage.

A number of insurance companies took the easy way out: they refused to pay any claims on the grounds that they would be bankrupt if they did. That meant they would forfeit the right to do business in California in the future but – hey! – better than the alternative, eh? So what if their insureds were screwed.

The Hartford Fire Insurance Company, as it was known then, took a different approach: The company's board of directors decided they should pay all claims in full, without making the earthquake-versus-fire distinction. That's what they did, and they went broke doing it.

So the Hartford Fire went literally across the street to the Connecticut Mutual Life Insurance Company and borrowed a million dollars, which was a helluva lot of money in 1906. And with that infusion of cash, plus additional money raised through a new stock offering, the Hartford Fire went back to San Francisco and paid every claim on every policy.

You see, in those days, the old line insurance companies – like the Hartford and the Aetna and the Travelers – considered one of their policies to be an unbreakable commitment.

But those days are gone. Today we have corporations without souls like Great American. Let’s hope a jury nails their sorry not-so-great asses right to the wall.

Friday, December 19, 2008

I Choose to Believe This Is A Good Sign

Ray LaHood (see below) was introducted to the media today. In his remarks about our transportation needs, he specifically mentioned Amtrak and light rail. Excellent!!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

So ... Another Republican for the Obama Cabinet?

Subject to confirmation by an official announcement, the word is that Barack Obama’s choice for the new Secretary of Transportation is Ray LaHood, a Member of Congress from Illinois. LaHood is also a Republican which, I suppose, is further evidence of Obama’s desire to encourage if not promote a bi-partisan approach to dealing with America’s problems. And that sure as hell would include our transportation infrastructure.

Selecting someone from the other party to run DOT doesn’t always mean the common good will be served. Early in the current administration, George Bush also reached across the aisle for a Transportation Secretary when he named Congressman Norman Mineta, a Democrat from California, to the post.

Unfortunately, Mineta turned out to be a toady for the Bush administration’s anti-Amtrak bias, and will always be remembered for his mind-boggling assertion in 2005 that Amtrak is “running trains that nobody rides between cities that nobody wants to travel between” … a statement demonstrably false at the time and even more so today.

The critical concern about Ray LaHood is whether or not he will move away from what has been, for at least the past eight years, a transportation policy focused almost exclusive on cars and planes and work to improve our rail system ... in particular, Amtrak.

Short answer: He will if he’s told to.

And if he’s told to, he’d better!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Obama Will Go to Washington in Style … BY TRAIN!

Those of us who have been advocating more and better passenger trains for this county have known for months that we had a friend in Barack Obama.

Then, of course, there’s Joe Biden who, as most everyone knows by now, commuted by Amtrak every day between his Senate office in Washington and his home in Delaware.

But now, Obama says he will arrive in Washington for his inauguration by train – specifically, on Amtrak. It’s a highly symbolic gesture, too, because he’ll be following the same rail route that Abraham Lincoln took to his inauguration in 1861 – from Philadelphia to Baltimore to Washington.

This is great publicity for Amtrak and for rail travel generally, but we all have to remember that our national rail passenger system is still just barely scraping by.

Back in October, Congress authorized almost $2 billion a year for Amtrak. However, before Amtrak actually gets the money, the next Congress has to appropriate it.

If you are so inclined, contact your two senators and your representative in the House. The message is very simple: Ask them to make sure that Amtrak gets full funding as authorized in the Passenger Rail Investment and Innovation Act. Letters or phone calls are the most effective approach.


Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Very Different World ... Very Different Priorities

Several years ago, I opened the top half of the dutch door in the vestibule of an Amtrak Superliner to get a photograph. At the time, we were traveling through the Sierras just west of Truckee, California, heading up to the Donner Pass. I was trying to get a shot of the locomotives laboring up the grade and entering a tunnel.

Just as I leaned out to snap the photo, a conductor happened to come down the stairs from the upper level and gave me a severe lecture about how dangerous it was.

Boy, he should be working the railroads in India ...

... where yet another crackdown has been announced in an effort to keep people from climbing onto the tops of the trains. Most of their railroads are electrified so, in addition to the danger of falling off, there is also the risk of electrocution. The authorities keep making arrests, but the problem persists and people keep getting killed or injured. Lots of people.

A year or so ago, a friend of mine who lives in Bangkok took a train ride through a part of Cambodia where there were occasional attacks by insurgents. As he boarded, he noticed that the locomotive was pushing several flatcars, presumably to safely trigger any explosives laid in the track.

About 20 minutes after they had left the station, as the train swept around a long curve, he looked forward to catch a glimpse of the locomotive. The four flatcars were crowded with people who had been sold tickets … at a helluva discount, I hope!

Monday, December 15, 2008

Italian High-Speed Rail Competes For All Travelers

Italy plans to introduce high-speed rail service between Milan and Rome next year, reducing the 360-mile trip to a flat three hours … that’s an average speed of 120 mph, including whatever stops will be made en route.

The Italian state railway, Trenitalia, says they expect to take 60 percent of all traffic between those two cities, and that includes both air and automobile traffic. This is not good news for a group of Italian businessmen who are trying to get the bankrupt national airline, Alitalia, back into the air. But it's certainly a sign of the times.

The question is, can we learn from the Italians, the French, the Germans, etc., etc., etc. that linking major cities with high-speed trains is the way to go for the future. With billions of dollars about to be poured into America's infrastructure, now is the time!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

OOOPS! Can You Top This PR Nightmare?

This past Friday, a new commuter rail line was inaugurated in Costa Rica by Incofer, the country's national railroad. The new service will run between Heredia and the capital, San Jose. On board was an assortment of dignitaries, including the country’s president, Oscar Arias. Plus, as luck would have it, a flock of reporters and photographers. And the train derailed!

It was very minor and fortunately no one was hurt. But it happened less than a hundred feet from a bridge over the Virilla River.

Wow! You’d better believe that somebody got sent off to … to … to wherever you get sent when they no longer want you around in Costa Rica.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Let’s Get More Money For Passenger Trains

There is no doubt now that there will be a huge stimulus package coming in the first days of the Obama Administration. That’s the good news. The not-so-good news is that the talk so far has most of the money going to roads and bridges.

Mass transit has also been mentioned – and that’s good – but now is the time to really rebuild Amtrak and the rest of our national passenger rail system … more commuter trains, more corridor trains, high-speed trains linking major cities, and new routes and more frequency for long-distance trains. All of it!

The best way to help is by contacting your representatives in Congress. You can also become a member of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, headquartered in Washington, DC. NARP does most of the heavy lifting on this issue. Go here for details.

And here's the best idea: Take a train ride!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

I now have another blog aimed more at current events with an emphasis on politics and government. Please stop by and take a look at a Smatter of Opinion. Mahalo / Thanks!

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Americans Are Riding the Rails. And That's Smart!

A few months ago, when gasoline was at $4.00 a gallon ($5 here on Maui!), there were a great many reports about people getting out of their cars and turning to public transit, including light rail and commuter trains.

But then the price of gas started to come down and pro-transit folks began shuffling their feet nervously. Gee, will cheaper gas mean a reverse trend away from rail and back to the family car?

Well, we apparently have the answer: a resounding No! According to the Federal Highway Administration, Americans have stuck with public transit even with lower gas prices.

Comparing 2008 to last year, the number of transit trips was up 3.4 percent in the first quarter and 5.2 percent in the second quarter. And ridership continues to build. The months of July, August and September this year recorded a 6.5 percent increase over the same period last year. Use of transit was up everywhere, but up by double digits in nine cities, including – Are you ready for this? – Los Angeles, where ridership on their light rail system was up over 15 percent.

So if transit is up, automobile use must therefore be down ... and the implications of that are profound.

According to the Department of Transportation, Americans have driven 62.6 billion fewer miles so far this year compared to last. Assuming an average of 18 miles per gallon, that’s 3.5 billion gallons of gas we didn’t use this year. At an average of 3 bucks a gallon, it also means we saved almost 10.5 billion dollars. We could even call that our own individual bail-out.

Then of course, there’s less wear-and-tear on the family car and the environmental benefits from the reduction in all those polluting emissions.

Oh, yes … it also means less oil we have to buy from our dear friends, the Saudis!

Is that a win-win-win, or what!

Monday, December 8, 2008

News About Train Travel from Here and There

I have set up a number of Google Alerts, so when a story appears in the media in which “Amtrak” or “VIA Rail” or “train travel” is featured, I’m notified by email. What an amazing service!

At any rate, it's a great way to keep up with what's going on with train travel around the world. For instance …

* The price of gasoline may be down, but Amtrak ridership is still increasing as people continue to opt for rail travel. In other words: Try it, you’ll like it!

* By taking Eurostar under the English Channel to Paris and continuing on high-speed ski-trains from there, British skiers are getting to winter resorts in the French Alps in almost the same time as they can by flying. Plus there are no weather delays or diversions, and they’re saving money because of the charges the airlines now levy for transporting all those bulky skis and gear.

* Thanks largely to efforts by this country’s railroads, the number of grade crossing accidents has been significantly reduced over the past 20 years. But I still come across stories about one of these tragic incidents almost every day.

* Over the past year or so, there has been a significant decrease in complaints about Amtrak’s on time performance. It has, in fact, improved dramatically. The reason seems to be that finally – finally! – the nations freight railroads have seen the wisdom of joining with Amtrak and the commuter railroads to seek federal dollars for improving the entire system. And why not, since everyone uses most of the same infrastructure!

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Good Luck, Bad Luck, and the Right Kind of Luck

In prior posts on the subject of grade crossing accidents, I’ve said that 100 percent of these accidents are preventable. I may have to revise that pronouncement, however, after reading about an incident that occurred yesterday in Centralia, Washington, south of Olympia.

Picture this: The driver of a semi-trailer truck, which was hauling a second trailer, stopped at a grade crossing when the lights began flashing and the gates came down. He waited while a northbound Union Pacific freight trundled past. When the last freight car cleared the crossing, the gates went up and traffic began to move.

But an Amtrak train, one of the Cascades, was approaching from the opposite direction and, as the truck was moving across the double tracks, the lights began flashing again and gate came down ... between the two trailers!

At this point the truck driver, Richard Right, accelerated, knowing he had to break off the gate arm in order to get completely across the tracks.

He almost made it. Almost.

The train hit the second trailer, tearing it away from the main rig and turning it into a pile of junk. Fortunately, there were no injuries.

It sounds like Right did nothing wrong, and this one can be chalked off as a case of very bad split-second timing. It does reinforce the fact, however, that circumstances can and do conspire to make any grade crossing dangerous.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Bad Guys Won … And They Still Want More!

For years and years, two stalwart, reliable airlines carried us local folks back and forth among our lovely islands: Hawaiian Airlines, the country's 11th largest, which has been operating since 1929, and Aloha Airlines, founded in 1947. In recent years, both airlines began serving a number of west coast cities.

That all changed last March, when Aloha Airlines went out of business. Actually, truth be told, Aloha was driven out of business by Mesa Air Group, headquartered in Phoenix.

Back a year or so ago, while Aloha was in Chapter 11, Mesa was provided with confidential information about Aloha by posing as a prospective buyer. Trouble is, they had no intention of buying Aloha. Instead, they used that insider information and entered the market as a very aggressive competitor under the name go! airlines. They cut fares to a ridiculous level and after several months Aloha gave up the ghost. That’s not just my opinion. A bankruptcy court agreed that Mesa had, in effect, cheated … and whacked them with an $80 million fine.

But now, with unmitigated gall, Mesa is asking the court to let them acquire and start flying under the Aloha name.

The real Aloha Airlines was started by local people and had deep Hawaii roots. Folks around here are outraged that the corporate raiders who illegally used deceit to kill one of our local airlines, now presumes to steal their name, too. A letter-to-the-editor in today’s Maui News sums it up rather well: “A brick painted yellow to look like gold is still a brick!”

So … coming to Hawaii? And flying inter-island once you’re here? Just say to hell with go! or Mesa or the faux-Aloha. Show your aloha for Aloha ... and fly Hawaiian Airlines! Mahalo!

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

A Schedule Change for VIA’s Tran-Canada Train

A trans-Canada rail trip aboard VIA Rail's premier train, the Canadian, is a “must-do” for anyone who really enjoys long-distance train travel. I’ve made the trip three times and heartily recommend it. This is a very popular train, especially from May through October, operating three times a week between Toronto and Vancouver, a 2800-mile journey.

You travel in classic single-level stainless steel rail cars, originally built in the 1950s, but very nicely reconditioned and very comfortable. Each consist includes coaches, sleeping cars, dome cars for a wonderful view of the passing scenery, dining cars (two or three, depending on how big the train is), and a classic bullet-shaped observation car bringing up the rear.

VIA Rail has just announced a change in schedule for the Canadian that took effect on December 1st. Instead of the traditional mid-morning departure from Toronto, Train # 1, the westbound Canadian, now leaves at 10:00 p.m. and travels at a somewhat more leisurely pace. Similarly, the eastbound train, Train # 2, now departs Vancouver at 10:30 in the evening instead of late afternoon. The schedule change brings about two rather significant differences in the whole Canadian experience.

First, both trains will now be spending more daylight hours traveling through the spectacular Canadian Rockies. That’s a big plus, because that stretch is clearly the scenic highlight of the trip.

The second change is also significant: this has now become a four-night trip. For me personally, this is not a problem because I enjoy the experience of sleeping on the train. But, frankly, I’m not sure how passengers less familiar with long-distance train travel will react to the extra night aboard. Time will tell.

In any event, the schedule change merely provides me with one more excuse to make another trip on this wonderful train. And next time -- although my wife thinks I’m crazy! – I’d like to experience this trip in the dead of winter. Sound like fun?

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

A Senseless Waste of Three Young Lives

Amtrak’s Silver Star runs daily in each direction between Miami and New York City. This past Saturday, the train hit a car near Orlando, Florida. Three young people, all in their 20s, were killed. A fourth person is in critical condition.

Their car drove past flashing lights and around the barriers at a grade crossing. Later, investigators noted that the car’s speedometer was stuck at 55 miles per hour. Those kids had absolutely no chance when struck by a train weighing 4,000 times a much as their car. An Amtrak engineer once told me it would be comparable to running over a metal mailbox with your family car. No chance at all.

So we just have to write it off as one more stupid, useless, and entirely preventable grade crossing incident. (You can’t really call them ‘accidents’ because every one of them is avoidable.)

Last year, 338 people died in collisions like the one on Saturday. That’s darn near one a day! But, as bad as that is, it’s a big improvement. In 1976, the worst year on record, more than 1,100 people were killed at grade crossings. Since that time, a program called Operation Lifesaver, sponsored by the Association of American Railroads and Amtrak, has increased awareness and has clearly saved a great many lives. Those same railroads have spent many millions of dollars installing signs and lights and gates at thousands of additional crossings.

Of course none of that means a damn thing if people insist on trying to beat a train across the tracks. You just can’t save some folks from themselves.

Monday, December 1, 2008

The Perfect Gift for the Ultimate Red Sox Fan

Apropos of a comment to the previous post, I came across this photo in today's Boston Globe.

Yes, I follow the Boston Red Sox, and I try to see them play once every year, either at Fenway Park or in some interesting city elsewhere in the country. (It's also an excuse for another long-distance train ride.) But there is a limit to my obsession and it falls well short of this.

These caskets, emblazoned with numerous Red Sox and Major League Baseball logos, sell for $4500 and are being offered by at least one Boston area funeral home.

Whatever turns you on -- or off -- I guess.