Monday, March 30, 2009

We might … just maybe … get the Pioneer back!

Amtrak’s train # 25, the westbound Pioneer, left Chicago as part of the California Zephyr consist, splitting off at Denver and heading up into Wyoming and Utah. From Ogden, the Pioneer continued toward the northwest, ultimately ending up in Seattle. The eastbound Pioneer, train # 26, reversed that whole scenario, departing from Seattle and joining the Zephyr in Denver for the overnight run to Chicago. As a cost-cutting move, the train was discontinued in 1997.

May 10,1997 - The Pioneer is prepped in Seattle before its final eastbound run to Chicago. (Warren Yee Photo)

My wife and I rode the Pioneer from Chicago in 1996. We got off in Cheyenne, rented a car and spent a week just driving around Wyoming, Nebraska and South Dakota, visiting historical sites. We ended up back in Cheyenne and resumed our journey on the Pioneer, west to Laramie and from there through the Wasatch Mountains.

Does the name Medicine Bow ring a bell? Well, the town was the setting for a novel called The Virginian, first published in the early 1900s. In a famous scene from the book, the main character is playing poker in a hotel bar when one of the men at the table calls him an S.O.B. Our hero looks across the table and says, very quietly, “When you call me that, smile!” The book is fiction, but Medicine Bow is real enough and so is the hotel, which you hotel which you could see as the Pioneer rattled through town.

From there, the Pioneer went across Utah, up through Idaho and into Oregon, following the magnificent Columbia River to Portland and on up to Seattle.

And here's the possibly-good news: One of the provisions in the $1.3 billion stimulus package calls for a study to determine the feasibility of restoring this wonderful train.
Let us hope, because it was a glorious ride!

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Vive les ... Well, You Know Who.

It was fashionable during the Bush years to denigrate the French, their unforgivable offense being to disagree with Dubya’s foreign policy. Congressional Republicans weren’t about to stand for that, of course, and they retaliated by changing the menus in the House and Senate dining rooms to read freedom fries instead of french fries. By golly, that sure showed 'em!

But give them their due: the French sure as hell know how to run a railroad. Their high-speed rail service, operated by the Société Nationale des Chemin de Fer Français, the French National Railway, is a model for the world. SNCF trains now routinely operate at speeds of 217 miles per hour (350 kph) and carry passengers between major cities in better time than can be done by plane. And certainly in greater comfort.

Then there’s the matter of punctuality. Several years ago, we were traveling by train in France and in reviewing our itinerary I noticed that we had a three-minute connection in Dijon. Three minutes?? In the U.S., a three hour connection between Amtrak trains is cause for real worry.

But when our train came to a stop at Dijon, the train that would take us on to Paris was standing right there across the platform. We literally had to walk about 30 feet to step into the right car.

There was a large clock mounted on a post right outside our window. We were scheduled to depart at 2:27 and at that exact moment, literally when the second hand clicked onto the “12”, our train started moving. It had taken us less than one minute to make our three-minute connection.

I mention this because a top official at SNCF, Jean-Pierre Loubinoux, has said he thinks there are several corridors between major cities in the U.S. where high-speed rail could operate efficiently and at a profit. He specifically mentions routes on the east coast and in California, Texas, the Mid-west and Florida.

Furthermore – and don’t think this isn’t galling to the tiny minds behind freedom fries – Loubinoux says SNCF would be interested in submitting a proposal to operate the system for us!

Whoa! Pass the catsup, s’il vous plait!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Ugly Little Bugger, Isn't He! (The shark, I mean.)

Have you ever heard of a cookie cutter shark? Nope, neither had I … and I’ve lived in Hawaii for more than 45 years. But these little critters grow to about 20 inches in length and are aptly named because they clamp onto their victims and when the unlucky fish twists trying to get away, the little shark ends up with a neat little 2-inch disk of flesh. According to the experts, these nasty little guys lurk in the depths during the day, but come up to the surface at night looking for dinner.

About a week ago, Mike Spaulding, a 61-year-old realtor who lives here on Maui, met a cookie cutter shark up close and personal. Spaulding, you see, is a long-distance, deep-water swim enthusiast who was attempting to swim from the Big Island of Hawaii to Maui across the 30-mile-wide Alenuihaha Channel.

After four hours in the water -- it was close to 8:00 p.m. and night had fallen -- Spaulding was about a third of the way across the channel when he felt a sharp pain in his chest. A few seconds later – zap! – same thing on the calf of his left leg.

Since it’s not a good idea to be bleeding out in the middle of the ocean at any time, let alone at night, he climbed into the kayak that was accompanying him and they radioed a support boat cruising nearby. Once aboard, he was patched up … with a towel and duct tape! … and they headed for Maui.

Some three hours later, Spaulding was at the Maui Memorial Medical Center getting patched up professionally and telling everyone he would soon be taking another shot at the Alenuihaha Channel.

After examining Mike's wounds, experts are are certain that a cookie cutter shark was indeed responsible.

But what a guy! Sixty-one years old, in great shape ... and completely crazy!

Hospital photo from The Maui News

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

One More Reason to Leave Valuables at Home

In all the years I’ve traveled, I’ve never bothered to lock my suitcase. For one thing, I seldom check a bag and, for another, I’m always afraid I’ll lose one of those tiny little keys. And, of course, I never bother locking my suitcase once I’m in a hotel room.


If, like my wife, you faithfully lock up your suitcase when you travel, take a look at this video. It's just one more reminder that the crooks always manage to be one jump ahead of the rest of us.

Monday, March 23, 2009

The Great $uperferry Fia$co

Here’s an abbreviated version of the expensive screw-up that has unfolded here in Hawaii over the past few years:

1. The State was approached by a company that wanted to run a high-speed ferry between Honolulu and two of our neighbor islands, Kauai and Maui.

2. State law says that before harbor improvements are done to accommodate the Superferry, there must be an Environmental Impact Study.

3. Republican governor, Linda Lingle, says we can just pass a law saying the Superferry can start running before the EIS is done.

4. Lingle introduces such a bill and the Democratic controlled Legislature passes it.

5. The State spends $40 million upgrading harbor facilities on Maui to accommodate the Superferry.

6. The Superferry begins operating, amid heated protests from environmentalists, surfers, and canoe clubs among others ... and they file a lawsuit.

7. A week ago, the Hawaii Supreme Court rules that, yes indeed, the EIS does need to be done and the Superferry can’t operate until it is.

8. Superferry shuts down and owners are looking for somewhere else in the world to operate.

MORAL: If the law says you have do an EIS, do a freakin’ EIS!

Oh, by the way … Governor Lingle says she was right all along, by damn, and she's gonna ask the court to change its mind. Yeah, really … she actually said that.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Yet Another EXPENSIVE Grade Crossing Accident

This one has happened just outside of Charlotte, North Carolina, where an Amtrak train hit a truck carrying some new cars.

News reports don’t say which train it was, but the accident occurred at 5:30 p.m. so I’d guess was the Piedmont which runs between Charlotte and Raleigh.

The truck driver was unhurt and there were minor injuries to a few of the 104 passengers. And -- oh, yeah -- I’d guess the local Mercedes dealer is pretty upset, too.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

A Lifetime of Luck Used Up in One Incident

I’m constantly amazed at all the stories about cars and trucks getting hit by trains at grade crossings. There’s one of these incidents almost every day, most involve fatalities, and every single one is avoidable, with booze or stupidity to blame. Or both. Take a look at this photo. The woman driving this car apparently got halfway across the tracks and tried to turn around!

News stories don’t make it clear, why she didn’t continue across when she realized a train was coming, but trying to turn around was a big mistake. Her tires got stuck inside the rails and she wasn’t able to get the car off the tracks.

Luckily, she had enough sense to bail out before the Amtrak train struck her car. And a good thing, too, because it burst into flames at the impact and, according to the emergency crews, was shoved some 300 feet down the tracks before the whole ugly mess came to a stop.

As you can see, the fire blackened the front of the locomotive. Luckily (again), the engine’s fuel tank, which contains 2-3,000 gallons of diesel fuel, did not ignite.

This accident occurred in the town of Chelsea, Michigan, which is about 15 miles west of Ann Arbor.

Friday, March 20, 2009

High-Speed Rail (Could Be) Coming Fast!

Those of us who have been advocating more and better and faster passenger trains have spent the past decade or two shouting into the wind. The last eight years have been particularly frustrating since the late-and-unlameted Bush Administration was overtly anti-rail in general and anti-Amtrak in particular.

During the recent presidential campaign, however, Barack Obama frequently spoke about the need to improve passenger rail in the U.S. and it sure looks as though he really meant it. His economic stimulus package includes $8 billion earmarked for high-speed rail and getting the money spent and the work started is clearly a priority. The Department of Transportation has been told to generate a strategic plan by April and, by June, to publish guidelines for the various states to apply for a share of the money.

There has been a lot of interest already, with much of it coming from the mid-west. Chicago is the country’s busiest rail hub, of course, and rail proponents foresee high-speed links between Chicago and many surrounding cities -- Milwaukee, Minneapolis, St. Louis, Indianapolis, Cincinnati and Detroit, among others.

Imagine! High-speed rail could connect Chicago with each of those cities with travel times ranging from 40 minutes to just under two hours. And there is no way you can make those same trips by air -- from downtown-to-downtown -- in less time than that. The train would be faster, more comfortable, comparably priced, and infinitely better for the environment. Furthermore, air traffic congestion in and out of Chicago's O'Hare could be reduced by as much as 40 percent ... so, interestingly, there's an air safety component to high-speed rail as well.

Of course, California is also after a chunk of that $8 billion for the high-speed rail line between Los Angeles and San Francisco. And those folks already have a leg up: much of the environmental work has already been done and last November, California voters approved a $10 billion bond issue to get the project started. When completed, trains running on that system will cover the 400 miles between those two cities in just over 2 ½ hours. Again, try doing that by plane!

Finally, let us not forget that all of these projects will mean jobs … lots of jobs … in the planning, design, construction and continuing operation on these various systems.

High-speed rail, how do we love thee? Let us count the ways.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Rail Ridership Is Up And Is Staying Up

Many media reports over the past six months have touted Amtrak’s increasing ridership -- up 15% for 2008 over the previous year. Most also cited the soaring price of gasoline as a major factor for that increase.

But now that the price of gas has fallen, the usual nay-sayers are telling us that the rail boom is over … that people will be getting off the trains and climbing back into their cars.

Really? That’s not what the latest numbers say. As just one example, Amtrak’s Silver Star, which runs daily between Miami and New York City via Tampa, was up 4 percent in the month of December … and another 18 percent in January.

If a dip in ridership were to occur, it would seem most likely to happen with commuter rail. But again, ‘taint so. Three quick examples: the relatively new Rail Runner commuter service linking Albuquerque and Santa Fe in New Mexico is up more than 35 percent. Portland, Maine is up 26.5 percent and the increase in Seattle is almost 24 percent. And it’s the same story pretty much everywhere.

The flip side to all this is that increased demand means a corresponding increase in the operating costs for these commuter lines. And for Amtrak, too. Since necessarily (and properly) all passengers rail systems are subsidized by government – local, state and federal – those increased costs are just adding to budget deficits raising their ugly heads at almost every level.

I’m a member of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, a non-profit volunteer organization that’s working hard to make sure as much stimulus money as possible is spent on improving and expanding our nation passenger rail system. May I suggest that a modest $35 annual membership in NARP is an excellent way you can help? Many thanks!

Monday, March 16, 2009

Some Good News for Amtrak and for Indiana

Amtrak has been gaining passengers steadily for the past several years. That we know. The big problem has been not enough equipment to comfortably handle all that new business. A year ago, Amtrak had more than 100 rail cars – coaches and sleepers – in storage because there was no money for the minor repairs or required maintenance that would get them back into service.

Well, that is about to change! The Obama Administration has announced that a chunk of stimulus dollars will be going to Amtrak’s repair facility in Beech Grove, Indiana. Yes, it means jobs for a part of the country that’s been hit harder than most areas. But it’s also a very good indication that the Obama folks are serious about passenger rail and, even more, that they know what the real practical priorities are.

For an interesting photo-tour of Amtrak's repair facility by Chris Guenzler, go here.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Full of Sound and Fury, Signifying Nothing

The United Rail Passenger Alliance is an organization that promotes passenger rail in the U.S. They often have good ideas but, most unfortunately, they’re preoccupied with an unrelenting and counter-productive bashing of Amtrak.

For example, in a recent newsletter, they took Amtrak to task for, in their opinion, not spending enough money on advertising, saying that Amtrak’s ad budget is less than 1% of ticket revenue. Their hissy fit concludes this way:

“Amtrak’s decision to spend so very little money on national or local media clearly demonstrates how little it cares about being a successful company.”

Oh, please! When they stop making inflammatory and absurd statements like that, people will start taking URPA seriously.

Nevertheless, how best to accomplish the promotion of rail travel is an interesting subject. And as someone who owned and ran an advertising agency for some 20 years, I can tell you that marketing campaigns are very easy to criticize, but extremely hard to evaluate.

One of the original retail barons in this country, John Wanamaker, once said, “I know I’m wasting half of my advertising dollars; the trouble is, I don’t know which half.” And this guy is called the father of modern advertising!

The fact is, it's impossible to judge any advertising campaign as a success or failure unless you know what the original goals were. And there’s no reason to suppose the geniuses at URPA have any inside information as to Amtrak’s marketing objectives.

There's an old saying in the ad business: "Nothing can ruin a company faster than great advertising." The classic example is a new restaurant that launches with a big ad campaign that packs the place with customers … so many customers that the kitchen runs out of the specials and the servers can’t handle the unexpected crowds. The advertising worked, you see, but all those first-time customers got mediocre food and slow service … and don't come back.

OK, let’s say Amtrak does launch a big advertising campaign, with all the money the self-proclaimed experts at URPA say they should be spending. What if it works? What if more people make reservations and buy tickets than Amtrak's equipment can comfortably handle? Trains are over-crowded, so old equipment is brought out and hastily pressed into service. That leads to an increased number of breakdowns which result in delays which cause even more trains run late. So all those people who were convinced to try Amtrak by the advertising don’t have good experiences. They tell their friends and they tell theirs and … well, you get the picture.

Unless and until I knew a helluva lot more about their strategy and goals, I sure wouldn't presume to criticize Amtrak's marketing. And people who do – like the folks at the United Rail Passenger Alliance – are just flaunting their ignorance.

Hawaiian Airlines Scores Again

I have mentioned several times here how much I like Hawaiian Airlines: great equipment, great service and an unmatched safety record.

Yesterday comes word through the Department of Transportation that Hawaiian led all other U.S. airlines in three categories for the month of January: on-time performance, fewest cancelled flights and fewest lost bags. (Hawaiian has won these recognitions numerous times in the past.) More than 90 percent of Hawaiian’s flights were on time during the month of January, compared to an industry average of 77 percent.

Considering all the inter-island flights Hawaiian operates every day – with flight times ranging from 20 to 45 minutes – that’s really an impressive record. Clearly, when an individual aircraft makes a dozen or more inter-island hops during a day, one delay early in the schedule can snowball and make every subsequent flight late.

Of course everyone wants to know who gets the booby prize for January. It goes to Delta’s Comair, which ran on time only 56.7 percent of the time.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Sorting Through the Air Fare Stew

Air fares are a mystery to me … or, more specifically, what prompts an airlines to suddenly come up with an amazingly low fare.

Air fares between mainland cities and Hawaii can fluctuate wildly, but here’s some good news: Beat of Hawaii is a web site that manages to sort through all those fares and report on the real bargains.

They sure got my attention one day back in November by reporting a one-way fare on American Airlines between LA and Honolulu for $104. Wow! A hundred bucks each way was a normal everyday fare back in the 60s!

That fare is no longer available, of course, but Beat of Hawaii … at … will be a great source if you have any future trips to these Islands in mind. And, of course, many of the special fares – those that do not include extras such as room and/or rental car – will work for us locals heading to the west coast or beyond.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Australians Really Know How To Make Their Point

In several earlier posts I’ve talked about the ongoing problem of trains hitting cars at grade crossings. Just yesterday, there was a report of a fatal accident in a suburb of Halifax, Nova Scotia. I see similar reports from around the U.S. probably three or four times a week.

For the record, in a train-car collision, the train never loses. Not ever.

Evidently, they have the same problem in Australia, where these incidents are called "level crossing accidents."

The Aussies, of course, are much more in-your-face about this than we would probably be. Take, for example, the large billboard in the Perth railway station:


Point taken, eh mate?

Friday, March 6, 2009

Spending Billions to Save MEGA-Billions

It sure looks like the Obama Administration is serious about more and better and faster trains. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood met recently with several members of Congress from upstate New York and was apparently very encouraging when asked about a high-speed rail link between Albany and Buffalo.

Amtrak trains are now making that 300-mile trip is five hours, but high speed rail service would cut that time in half.

There are many other cities where high-speed trains would make a lot of sense, too. Chicago is at the top of that list, with potential links to a number of major cities within a 300 to 400 mile radius -- Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Saint Louis, Detroit, Cleveland, Indianapolis, and Columbus, for example.

And there are other corridors all over the rest of the country, too … in Texas and Georgia and Florida and California and the Pacific Northwest.

These trains, which are powered by electricity, would replace literally millions of auto trips and all those carbon emissions.

But there’s more … a lot more. Most people don’t realize that one-third of all commercial airline flights in the US are to destinations 350 miles away or less. And, even with intermediate stops, that’s a three-hour trip on a high-speed train.

Imagine if we could reduce air traffic congestion in this country by, let’s say, 20 percent. Think how much safer flying would be. Think of the fuel (and foreign oil) that would save. Think of the pollution that would eliminate. Think of the additional runways and whole new airports that wouldn’t have to be built. And of all the tax dollars that would save!

Oh, yeah …and think of all the jobs those rail links would create.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Train in Spain Stays Mainly on My Brain*

Earlier today, I caught a an interesting report on NPR about the very serious commitment the Spanish have made to their high-speed rail system … called AVE. Billions of dollars have been spent over a relatively short period of time, and there are now high-speed rail links connecting many Spanish cities. And more in the works.

Spaniards are flocking by the hundreds of thousands to their rail system. And why not, for heaven’s sake? The trains are modern, quiet, fast and reliable. And there’s no way you can fly between most of those cities, going from city-center to city-center, in less time than the train takes … not with getting to and from the airports and going through security.

Then there’s the comfort factor. The train offers wide comfortable seats and, whenever the mood strikes, you can get up and walk to the dining car or the lounge car for a meal or a cold drink.

Consider, too, the environmental benefits. So many people are now opting to travel between major Spanish cities by train, there has been a significant reduction in the number of domestic flights. That cuts pollution, reduces fuel consumption and saves money. And there is less congestion in the air, too. The AVE trains, of course, are non-polluting because they’re powered by electricity.

The most recent route added to the AVE system is the 400-mile link between Madrid and Barcelona. Travel time, at an average speed of 156 miles an hour: Two hours and 35 minutes!

And guess what … it’s just about 400 miles between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

* Sorry ‘bout that.

Monday, March 2, 2009

A Little Bragging On Hawaii’s Very Own Airline

For my recent trip to Australia, I flew down to Sydney and back on Hawaiian Airlines. As always, a very nice trip … excellent crew and very good service (which included real meals!), all on board my personal favorite wide-body aircraft, the Boeing 767.

Hawaiian started flying inter-island here in 1929 with a couple of Sikorsky sea planes. In some instances, passengers were paddled back and forth from plane to shore in outrigger canoes.

Back in the early 60s, I remember flying in a vintage Hawaiian Airlines DC-3 from Maui’s main airport to Hana, a small town on the far side of this island. It was a unique experience because we cruised along the Maui coastline at not more than 1500 feet and the plane had been modified to provide a magnificent view through large rectangular picture windows. (You can just make them out in this old photo.)

By the way, the airline code for Maui’s Kahului Airport is OGG in honor of an old-time Hawaiian Airlines pilot named Hogg.

I also happened to be on Hawaiian Airlines – as I recall, it was from Honolulu to the Island of Moloka’i -- when a jubilant flight attendant announced that it was the first time an American commercial airline was flown by an all-female crew: captain, first officer and two flight attendants.

Yes, I will admit to being an enthusiastic booster of Hawaiian Airlines. No doubt there’s a measure of parochial pride involved and I will also note for the record that my brother-in-law works for Hawaiian. But I am not alone in my admiration. The airline has received multiple recognitions for on-time performance and for its in-flight service. So if you’re thinking about coming to visit us from any one of a half dozen or so mainland cities along the west coast, give Hawaiian Airlines a try.