Friday, January 30, 2009

See Ya, Mates … I’m Heading Down Under.

I will soon be crossing two long-anticipated train rides off my must-do list. Tomorrow morning, I’m hopping over to Honolulu and, just after noon, will take Hawaiian Airlines’ non-stop flight to Sydney. It will already be the next day, Sunday, when I arrive, but that will still give me two full days to see some of that city’s sights.

On Wednesday, I’ll be taking Australia’s legendary trans-continental train, the Indian Pacific, for the three-night journey westward across the continent, arriving in Perth on the Indian Ocean Saturday morning.

After two days there, I’ll catch a Qantas flight to Darwin, for another two-day stopover before boarding the train again. This time it’s the Ghan and a two-night journey south to Adelaide by way of Alice Springs. Both trains are operated by Great Southern Rail.

From there it’s Qantas back to Sydney, then the return to Honolulu once again on Hawaiian Airlines.

I gather scenery along the way will be quite varied, but both trains will take us through some pretty barren stretches. In fact, somewhere on the Indian Pacific’s route is the longest stretch of perfectly straight track in the world – well over 300 miles.

Clearly, there will be days when I’ll be unable to post any progress reports, but once back home I’ll provide more detailed posts – probably a day-by-day log – along with photos taken along the way.

So … stay tuned!

Thursday, January 29, 2009

You Don’t Get Elected Just Because You’re Right

Former Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis has been banging the drum for passenger rail for years. He was the Democratic Party’s nominee for president in 1988 -- when, more's the pity, he proved the old adage that you seldom win or lose elections for the right reasons -- and has since served as a member of the Board of Directors for Amtrak.

Dukakis recently sat for an interview on the subject of passenger rail and a transcript of most of it can be found here. The guy knows what he's talking about. It's a good read

One does have to wonder what the country’s transportation infrastructure would be like today if Dukakis had been elected president 20 years ago.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

For Some, Light Just Can't Seem to Penetrate

The economic stimulus package is now being debated in Congress. Those of us who are advocates for improving and expanding passenger rail in this country are doing our best to make sure an appropriate amount is designated for that purpose. So far, so good. Most members of Congress seem to agree.

However …Believe it or not, three Republicans in the House have introduced amendments that would eliminate all funds for Amtrak. Yes, that’s correct … eliminate all funds for Amtrak. The three – two bozos and one bozette, shown here top to bottom – are ...

Rep. Gresham Barrett (R-SC)

Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite (R-FL)

and Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ).

With Amtrak ridership increasing by 15%, with air travel becoming more expensive, more inconvenient and more unpleasant, with the price of gas fluctuating wildly, and with the undisputed environmental benefits of rail travel, these clowns want to keep Amtrak at near-starvation funding levels. Truly, the case for additional funding for Amtrak and rail in general is so clear and so compelling, you really must wonder what possible motivation they could have for marching off in the opposite direction. Any guesses?

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Recession? What Recession??

I found this photo on another blog. Don't know who the photographer is or when it was taken, but I do know what we're looking at: private jets parked at the Kahului Airport here on Maui. The photo was probably taken sometime over the Christmas-New Years holiday. I'm sorely tempted, but will save any further comment for my other blog.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Signs of the Times That Must Be Remembered

I can remember driving from New England to Florida with my family when I was a kid, probably just 10 or 12. Somewhere just south of Washington, my mother pointed out a sign hanging over the door of a roadside restaurant.

I can't imagine what it must have been like for anyone on the wrong side of signs like that … (faulty punctuation notwithstanding).

In the same way, I can’t begin to know what it must have been like for a 60- or 70-year-old black person to watch Barack Obama being sworn in as president of the United States.

This is from a magnificent collection of photographs about the inauguration that appeared in the Boston Globe … many of which were taken in far corners of the world. You can see them all here.

Friday, January 23, 2009

One Voice, Speaking for Rail, Is Now on Track

It’s no secret that there has been an increasing focus on the need to expand and improve the capacity of our country’s railroads. Not just passenger trains, but freights as well.

There has been a huge resurgence of interest in train travel over the past several years. Amtrak’s ridership has been up six years in a row, some 15 percent in 2008 alone. Commuter rail is up, too. Way up … even in Southern California, home of the freeway where car has been king for decades. A combination of three factors has caused this epic shift in transportation preferences: the volatile price of gasoline, more chaos and less reliability with the airlines, and a sharpened public awareness of the environmental benefits.

Feight railroads have all experienced unprecedented growth, too. As the price of gas spiked with a corresponding increase in the cost of truck transport, shippers began turning to rail, which is almost always cheaper and nearly as fast. In addition – and isn’t this refreshing! – my contacts at CSX report that many shippers, like commuters, are switching to rail because they have learned it’s a more environmentally-friendly alternative.

Ah, but the problem is to make sure the federal government, holder of the purse strings for all that stimulus money, understands the pressing need for improving the rail infrastructure for both passenger and freight trains.

And it is precisely for those reasons that the OneRail Coalition has been formed. As one would expect, the group is made up of existing organizations representing rail passengers, freight railroads and shippers. But note, please, that the list also includes one of the country’s most respected and most effective environmental organizations, the National Resources Defense Council.

Let us hope that together, and speaking with one voice, OneRail can make sure that a significant chunk of those stimulus dollars are spent on trains … more trains, better trains, faster trains, safer trains, on-time trains.
Individuals can help by conveying that message to their representatives in Congress. I would also suggest a membership in NARP, the National Association of Railroad Passengers. You can go here to get necessary information. Thanks!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Maui Celebrates Obama's Day at the Crack of Dawn

This time of year, when the U.S. mainland is on standard time, there is "only" a five-hour difference between Hawaii time and East Coast time. (When Daylight time is in effect, the difference is six hours.) So when our native son was sworn in as president yesterday at noon in Washington, Hawaii residents were blinking over their first cup of coffee at 7:00 a.m. Not a problem!

Charley's is a combination restaurant and sports bar located15 minutes down the road from here in the little town of Paia. And by 6:30 yesterday morning, the joint was packed with people waiting to watch Barack Obama become our 44th president.

I wasn't there myself and can't give you a first-hand report. But, if I may, let me have my daughter, Ilima, to the honors. She covered the event at Charley's as a staff writer for The Maui News, our daily paper. You can go here to read the full account, but here's the first 'graph of her report, which conveys the emotions of that morning.

PAIA — Friends held hands, strangers wept and embraced, and kamaaina, malihini and visitors came together Tuesday to celebrate native son Barack Obama’s inauguration as president of the United States. At an early-morning gathering to watch the event live on television at Charley’s Restaurant in Paia, a crowd packed shoulder to shoulder erupted as Obama completed the oath of office, surging to their feet, screaming and wiping away tears. “I cried all the way through,” said Helen Wilson. “It was wonderful.” The Maui crowd, joyous and buzzing in spite of the event’s 6:30 a.m. start, cheered as Obama struck key themes in his speech — invoking the sacrifices of previous generations, reaching out to Muslims and the international community, and calling on Americans to rise to the challenges that lie ahead. People stood, hands over hearts, to sing along with the national anthem. “I never sing the Star-Spangled Banner, but I sang it loud today,” said Kihei resident Kamalani Rose.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Some Pols Insist on Doing Exactly the Wrong Thing

Amtrak’s Ethan Allen Express leaves Rutland, Vermont, every morning, swings west and crosses the New York State line, runs down to Albany, then follows the Hudson River south to New York City. Connections there will take passengers on down the east coast to Washington. The return trip leaves New York’s Penn Station in the middle of the afternoon and gets back to Rutland just after 9:00 p.m.

For many years, the Ethan Allen has been partially funded by the State of Vermont. But the administration of Republican Governor Jim Douglas, in order to trim the state's budget, is recommending an end to the subsidy … and that would, in turn, mean an end to the Ethan Allen.

Where is the logic in cutting out a train that more and more people are using? In fact, the Ethan Allen’s ridership increased a whopping 17.5 percent in 2008. What the hell do Republicans have against rail, anyway? I suppose it’s ideology … a knee-jerk antipathy for any government subsidy of any kind. But when people by the millions all over the country are giving up their cars and getting into public transport, this is just plain dumb!

(By the way, care to hazard a guess as to another area of the state budget where Douglas proposes to chop? Of course … public schools!)

Well, Vermonters are upset and a bunch of them showed up at the Rutland Amtrak station the other day to make their feelings known. The Rutland newspaper said the crowd numbered about a hundred, but Chris Parker, a member of the National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP) organized the rally and says there were at least 200 protesters there. Whatever the number, they got the attention of the local politicians and there is hope that cooler and less ideological heads in the legislature will prevail and the Ethan Allen Express will be saved.

But – sheesh!! – it’s certainly frustrating having to fight the same battle over and over again.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Yes, Safety Comes First … But With Whom?

My modest tribute to the captain of US Airways flight 1549, which appeared here last Friday, triggered a comment with a different and interesting perspective that's very much worth sharing. I have taken the liberty of re-posting it below.

What the mainstream media are not reporting is that virtually everyone involved in the rescue is a union member. And that they used the safety training that unions have been fighting for and management has been fighting against.

The pilot, Chesley Sullenberger, is a former national committee member and the former safety chairman for the Airline Pilots Association.

The flight attendants, members of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA.

The air traffic controllers, members of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.

The ferry crews, members of the Seafarers International Union.

The fire and police workers - unionized.

The one thing that all these unions have in common is that they have been fighting for safety training that management has been trying to cut back. If management had its way, this safety training would not have taken place and these passengers would probably all be dead.

The passengers owe their lives to trade unions. And that is a politically incorrect fact that the corporate-owned mainstream media is ignoring.

-Kevin Love

It's my personal view that the vast majority of men and women in the news media make a serious effort to get it right. That said, there are times when they, collectively, are so focused on the hard news that deeper, significant and more provocative aspects of a story often do not see the light of day. Whatever the reason, that is a pity.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Hope for Passenger Rail Springs Eternal

Clearly, Barack Obama’s historic rail journey from Philadelphia to Washington’s Union Station has dramatically raised public awareness of rail travel in general and Amtrak in particular. That’s wonderful, but let us hope that that awareness will evolve into some serious efforts to repair, rebuild and expand our national passenger rail system. God knows it’s way overdue.

The economy, high gas prices and turmoil in the airline industry have all spawned dramatic increases in Amtrak ridership … up something like 15 percent in 2008 over the previous year.

That’s terrific, of course, but it’s also created another problem: Amtrak trains are becoming crowded and there’s nothing much the railroad can do about that. Almost every rail car is already out there hauling people.

About 100 rail cars are currently in storage, but Amtrak hasn’t had the money to do the minor repairs or complete the necessary maintenance that will get them back into service … a direct result of the anti-Amtrak mind-set of the Bush Administration. The last Congress did authorize money to pay for those repairs as part of the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act, but those funds still have to be appropriated by the new Congress.

Compounding the problem, much of Amtrak’s existing fleet is now 30-35 years old, which means those cars only have another 10-15 years of practical use left. New replacement rail cars have to be designed and built, but even if Amtrak got the money and a green light today, it would still be three years before the new equipment could be delivered.

All of this means the new administration and the new Congress need to get their priorities sorted out quickly and adequate funding plowed into transportation with a major emphasis on rail.

Let us hope.

Friday, January 16, 2009

The More You Learn and The Harder You Work, the "Luckier" You Get.

I don’t know about any of you folks, but around the dinner table last night, we hoisted a glass to Chesley B. Sullenberger III, the captain of US Airways flight 1549. Wow!!

Thursday, January 15, 2009

More Money for Rail? Potentially, Yes. But ...

Congress passed some important legislation last year and, with any luck, it should have a major impact on rail transportation in the U.S.

For one thing, it authorized increased funding for Amtrak, essentially doubling what the railroad has been getting. Equally important, it included a commitment for those extra dollars for five years. Whaddaya know … for the first time ever, Amtrak gets to plan more than one year in advance!

Also, worked into the language were several interesting provisions:

One requires Amtrak to study the feasibility of restoring service between Florida and New Orleans by the Sunset Limited. That portion of the route was halted after Hurricane Katrina tore up a lot of the track. Repairs have long since been made, but Amtrak has never resumed that portion of the service and the Sunset remains a two-night trip between Los Angeles and New Orleans.

Another would solicit proposals from private operators for rail service along the Northeast Corridor – well, for that portion between Washington and New York, anyway. (This is the brainchild of Republican Congressman John Mica of Florida, who has the tiresome habit of referring to Amtrak as “America’s soviet-style railroad.”)

One more item asks a study be done to see if there’s a possibility of restoring the North Coast Hiawatha, which originally operated three days a week between Minneapolis and Spokane, via Bismark, North Dakota and Butte, Montana.

All this is encouraging because it indicates new awareness of the importance of rail passenger service, now and in the future. But the measure Congress passed last year was only and authorization. This Congress, the one that convened last week, still needs to pass an appropriation that will actually provide the money.

Maybe we could hire Cuba Gooding, Jr., the actor who played the football star Rod Tidwell in Jerry Maguire, to go up to The Hill and, on Amtrak’s behalf, and holler: Show me the money!!
Better yet, we can all write or call our representatives in Washington and ask that Amtrak gets full funding.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Are High-Speed Freight Trains in Our Future?

Some interesting ideas were recently presented by Hunter Harrison, president and CEO of Canadian National Railway, who laid out his view of the future of freight rail in a speech to the Canada Maritime Conference.

First of all, Harrison predicts that multiple mergers will create two mega railroads in place of today’s “Big Six”: Union Pacific, Burlington Northern Santa Fe, CSX, Norfolk Southern and the two Canadian railroads, Canadian Pacific and his own CN.

Reducing existing freight railroads to just two would, Harison said, make it easier to introduce high-speed freights to North America. And when he says “high-speed” he really means it. He sees freights eventually traveling at 100 miles per hour.

CN already deals with 100-mph VIA Rail passenger trains using their track, but freights moving at that speed would require new high-speed rolling stock to be designed and built, not to mention the elimination of most or even all grade crossings. That, of course, means building thousands of overpasses or underpasses for automobile traffic.

Harrison said that if just 10% of freight now being hauled by trucks were to shift to rail, it would save a billion dollars a year in fuel alone and account for a significant reduction in emissions. He also quoted a factoid used in a current CSX television commercial, noting that railroads can move one ton of freight 423 miles on one gallon of fuel. “Imagine,” he said, “your car giving you that kind of performance.”

Wow! I’m still trying to imagine a 100-car coal train roaring through small-town-USA at 100 miles an hour!

Thursday, January 8, 2009

The Public Shift to Rail Is A Very Big Deal

Americans are turning to public transportation and, for the most part, that means rail: public transit and commuter trains. Amtrak, too, has experienced a big increase in ridership. Make no mistake: there are big societal benefits to this trend – large and small, short term and long term.

Think it’s a good idea to reduce our dependence on foreign oil? Well, people taking public transit are saving the equivalent of 300,000 full tanks of gas every day.

Concerned about global warming? By not driving their cars, those people taking transit are reducing carbon emissions by 7 million metric tons every year.

Transit also means people can live comfortably and conveniently in denser development. In other words, more transit means less urban sprawl. And less urban sprawl means fewer cars on the road.

The stimulus package being put together by the Obama team will include huge investments in the country’s infrastructure. Let us all hope that a substantial chunk will go into new transit systems, and adding new equipment and more frequency on existing systems.

The best thing any of us can do now is contact our senators and representatives in Washington expressing support for public transportation, which means everything from street cars to commuter rail to Amtrak. Personal letters are best, phone calls are good, email comes in third.


Tuesday, January 6, 2009

PR Professionals: Messes Swept Up On Demand

Professional communicators – those who deal with the media on a daily basis – have a thankless job. Their clients step in doo-doo and expect the PR people to make it all smell of roses by the time it appears in print. The trouble is, the clients have no clue how the media operates.

One client of mine always insisted on sending lengthy news releases to the local newspapers, much more than we could reasonably expect would ever be printed. My solution was to have him approve a three-page release, then I would send the paper a much shorter version, just the essential stuff in three or four paragraphs. When the item finally appeared in print, his reaction was always the same: “Well they chopped the hell out of our release, but at least they got all the important stuff.” Gee ... I wonder why!

The Amtrak media relations people, however, have much bigger problems.

On one hand, they have their marketing department promoting a photography contest, asking people to enter Amtrak-related photos for the competition. (Official contest rules stipulated that photographers had to stay away from any area not open to the general public.)

On the other hand, they have the Amtrak police accosting a guy in New York’s Pennsylvania Station a few days ago after seeing him photograph a departing Amtrak train. This guy, Duane Kerzic, a 50-year-old Navy vet, was going to enter the photography contest and, yes, he was standing on the station platform at the time.

Was that a problem? Evidently, because the cops searched his camera bag and, finding nothing, demanded that he delete all photographs from the camera. When Kerzic indignantly refused, the cops handcuffed him and tossed him into a cell for a couple of hours. They finally let him go with a citation for trespassing. Trespassing? On a station platform?

Kersic says he’ll sue, and a number of individuals and organizations are taking up the cause.

Hey, no problem. Just pass the whole mess along to Amtrak’s PR people. They’ll know how to deal with it.

Finally, let me say that Kerzic is a very talented photographer. You can go here to see some of the shots he took just before he was busted.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

A Trash Crash Down Under

Since I’m off to Australia to ride some long-distance trains in another few weeks, I’ve been paying closer attention to any rail news from that part of the world.

Yesterday I came across a news report from the Australian state of Queensland about a fatal accident at a grade crossing – called “level crossings” there – involving a passenger train and a garbage truck.

The truck driver was killed and, since this was the third such fatality in recent weeks, there is now a hue and cry for the installation of gates and flashing lights at more of these crossings. Unfortunately, as we know from our own experience in the U.S., these safety devices don’t keep some people from driving around the barriers and into the path of oncoming trains.

Clearly, there are careless and stupid drivers everywhere in the world. And dead ones.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Rules are Rules, But They Should Bend Sometimes

It normally takes Amtrak’s train # 370, the Pere Marquette, four hours to make the run from Chicago to Grand Rapids, Michigan. But on one forgettable, very non-normal day a week or so ago, the run to Grand Rapids turned into a sixteen hour nightmare.

As is often the case, there were several contributing factors. The weather was bad, of course, with snow and lousy visibility playing a part. But the real problem was a federal regulation that prohibits operating crews from working more than 12 hours without a break.

On that particular day, the Pere Marquette came to a halt somewhere in Indiana behind a CSX freight that had stopped on the main line because its crew had hit the 12-hour limit. So the Amtrak train, with something like 130 passengers on board, sat there waiting for a CSX relief crew to get the freight moving again. They waited for four hours.

The Pere Marquette finally got moving but, just 25 miles before reaching their final destination in Grand Rapids, the Amtrak crew "went dead". The train was diverted into a CSX yard where it sat waiting more hours for its relief crew to arrive.

There are lots of questions about this incident that need answering, not the least of which is why it took CSX and Amtrak so long to have replacement crews take over those two trains. But, more to the point, wasn’t it absurd that a regulation forced the Amtrak crew to shut down their train when another 30 or 40 minutes would have delivered 130 passengers to their final destination.

Ross Capon, president of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, tells me there is indeed some provision in the rules permitting operating crews to work beyond the 12-hour limit, but to do so results in lots of red tape and possible fines against the railroads.

By all means, let’s run our railroads safely … but there needs to be room for some flexibility and common sense. Ross says NARP and Amtrak are working on that. Good … but it's small consolation for those folks who finally got to Grand Rapids twelve hours late.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Oops! Life in the Lounge Car Isn’t Always Relaxing

Last week, as Amtrak’s eastbound California Zephyr was headed toward Reno, Nevada, a boulder dislodged from the side of one of those mountain passes in the Sierras and rolled into the side of the train. Evidently, it hit the lounge car, because that car had to be removed from the consist before the Zephyr continued on its way to Chicago.

The Southwest Chief in Apache Pass.

I’ve often wondered why we don’t hear about incidents like this more often because all of Amtrak’s western trains snake their way through a lot of passes where huge boulders are scattered all over the steep sides, many appearing to balance precariously above the tracks.

Many of the more unstable areas have “slide fences” running alongside the tracks. These are usually five or six strands of electrified wire, that send a signal to the operating railroad if one of the strands is broken, either by a single bounder or by a landslide. Good to know … although it is a bit spooky looking up at some of those Jeep-sized boulders as you’re rolling slowly by just below.

Still, this is the first time I ever recall hearing about a boulder or landslide actually hitting a train, so I presume it’s a very rare occurrence. I’m counting on that since I’ll be riding the Zephyr again next April!