Thursday, April 30, 2009

Strangers - and New Friends - on a Train

One of the reasons I enjoy traveling on Amtrak is the opportunity to meet and briefly get to know some very interesting and entertaining people. You have time for that on the train.

I boarded the Coast Starlight Wednesday morning in Davis, California, and spent quite a few of the next 14 hours relaxing in the Pacific Parlour Car. You see, there was a wine tasting around the middle of the afternoon and I found myself seated with a young Canadian couple from Edmonton, a retired executive who divides his time between Orange County and Vail, Colorado, and a very hip, very brash young Hispanic guy who works in film production in LA.

After the wine tasting, the Canadians bought a bottle, then I bought a bottle, then … Well, suffice to say we had a grand time all the way to Los Angeles.

We all got along famously, quizzing each other on classic movie lines, talking a bit of politics, and then each speaking about people in our varied backgrounds who had in some way changed our lives. The Hispanic kid – well, he was not quite 30 – topped us all when he said the most influential teacher in his early years, gave him a priceless piece of advice:

The key to a successful life is learning to deal with Plan B.

I always seem to come away from train rides with something worthwhile. That heads the list for this trip.

More about the trip tomorrow.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

“Riding the Rails” Taken to a Whole New Level

Several years ago, my wife and I rode the Eurostar from London to Paris. It was slow going on the stretch from London to Dover – since improved, I understand – but the train really started to fly once we came up out of the tunnel in France. The ride was remarkably smooth, with attendants moving easily up and down the aisle, serving food from carts and pouring hot coffee and tea.

The engineer was climbing down out of the locomotive cab when we were walking down the platform in Paris and I asked him how fast we were traveling. “Trois cent kilometers,” he said ... 300 kilometers, which computes to 187 miles an hour.

I thought about that yesterday when one of my Google Alerts picked up an item about a guy who tried to enter England illegally by climbing up onto the outside of a Eurostar train. He apparently got into a space between cars somewhere in France and rode the damn thing through the tunnel to the Ebbsfleet International train station in Kent, where he was spotted and busted.

No word yet on who he was or what prompted his unofficial trip to England. But it sure as hell must have been important!

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Wine Train: Fine Dining and a Leisurely Ride

I had lunch today aboard the Napa Valley Wine Train … but “lunch” can’t begin to adequately describe the meal. It was a luncheon, and it was superb! And, of course, the train itself is a marvel … rail cars from the Golden Age, beautifully refurbished and a pleasure to experience.

I did have one disappointment, however, and it’s something I should have thought to ask about in advance. I made the reservation for one person only and ended up seated alone at a smallish table for two. For me, one of the pleasures of train travel is the opportunity to meet new people over a nice meal in the dining car, be it on Amtrak or on the Wine Train.

That didn’t happen today – the people at the table across from me were honeymooners and were exclusively focused on each other – and it detracted from my experience. There was a lot of time to be without conversation because the train meanders along very slowly on its three-hour trip from Napa to the town of St. Helena and back.

I went the whole nine yards and chose to have lunch in the Vista Dome car, which is the top-of-the-line option. I have made a follow-up inquiry to see if there is more inter-action among passengers in some of the other class-of-service choices.

Nevertheless, it’s a very enjoyable, albeit pricey, trip and when I get back this way, I’ll do it again. Next time, however, I’ll bring my wife along to share the experience!

Sunday, April 26, 2009

An Ill Wind Blows on the Zephyr, But All Ends Well

I've just left Amtrak's California Zephyr at Davis, California, after a fine ride from Chicago. The equipment was in good shape and the crew was excellent ... at least that's true of the car attendant in my sleeper: personable, outgoing, on the ball, and right there whenever anyone needed him.

The first pleasant surprise occurred in Denver where the windows on the train were washed! I can't remember that ever happening before. First came a guy with a soapy wet long-handled mop, followed immediately by another guy with a squeegie. I have no idea if this is a regular feature, but on what I think is probably Amtrak's most scenic route, it's a great idea and very welcome.

Ah, but the best laid plans ...

Late yesterday afternoon, as we were sitting in Grand Junction, Colorado -- just east of the Nevada border) --it rained just enough to wet down the cars. But then the wind picked up and blew dust everywhere, leaving our nice clean windows a streaky brown mess. Not a happy situation with a full 24 hours left on board.

But this morning we woke up to sparkling clean windows! I was sound asleep, but a fellow passenger said it had rained like hell for about 20 minutes an hour or so after we had left Salt Lake City. Thank goodness, because that two hour stretch after the Zephyr leaves Reno -- through Truckee and up and across the Sierras by way of Donner Pass -- is probably the most spectacular scenery offered on any of Amtrak's routes.
One other note regarding on board service: There were only two people serving in the dining car, and it ain't enough! Furthermore, as far as I could tell, there was only one chef working in the galley down below. They all did the best they could, but meals -- particularly dinners -- took quite a long time. No one is in a rush on a leisurely long-distance train ride, but my dinner meal last night took two hours from the time a sat down. Fortunately, the luck of the draw provided me with some very interesting dinner companions, but it would have been a real ordeal if that had not been the case.
That said, it was nevertheless a very good trip.
Help! Does anyone know why this damn program sometimes doesn't recognize paragraphs?? I have tried several times to add a space between these last three paragraphs but blogspot will not let me do it. Any advice will be much appreciated.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

A Very Good Day On The Hill

Along with other members of the NARP* Council of Representatives, I spent most of the day today visiting the offices of several Members of Congress, banging the drum for passenger rail in the U. S.

What an interesting time! Without exception, the representatives or senators -- or their legislative aides -- were very receptive. And all were very much aware of the dramatic turn-around by the federal government with respect to rail, made clear to all by President Obama’s dramatic commitment to both high-speed rail and Amtrak in his speech last week. So there is reason, after eight dismal years, for real optimism.

However … money is tight and there is still no long-term commitment. So one of our requests was that serious consideration be given to some permanent, dedicated source of income be considered for rail in the same way that the federal gas tax provides funding for highways. Until that happens, Amtrak will find itself existing at the whim of whoever is president and in the Congress, and dealing with the same old problem of not knowing from year to year what their budget will be.

Nevertheless there is indeed reason for real optimism!

I’m off again tomorrow … this time overnight to Chicago on Amtrak’s Cardinal. I’ll be connecting to another train there and spending a night with my brother near Galesburg, Illinois. The following day, I’ll catch the California Zephyr for the two-night trip to the West Coast. I’ll report again from there.

Finally, a quick word about Washington, DC: This is a fabulous city and a must-see for every American. The government buildings, the museums, the restaurants … this is where it’s happenin’, baby! And come by train so you will not miss the glorious Union Station … almost worth the trip all by itself

*National Association of Railroad Passengers. Please consider becoming a member. Go here to find out about the organization and go here to join.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

More Thoughts About Amtrak's New Dining Car

Today’s ride on the Capitol Limited was another good experience topped off by an arrival in Washington about 10 minutes ahead of schedule. The only blemishes on the trip were the less-than-sparkling windows on my side of the sleeper and a humorless server in the dining car.

This train also had one of the newly-configured dining cars and I am really growing to dislike them. Furthermore, in a completely unscientific survey of seven people, four gave it a thumbs-down, one said he didn’t NOT like it (hardly a ringing endorsement), and the other two – a husband and wife – didn’t find it particularly comfortable, but abstained because they hadn’t traveled on Amtrak before and had no basis for comparison.

Still, “preliminary findings” indicate that most passengers don’t care for the new design, and the crews don’t like it. Perhaps the appeal to Amtrak brass is that it’s cheaper to run because – at least on these last two trips – they can operate the new diners with fewer staff and therefore at lower cost.

This photo (from shows part of the new layout. The problem is the design of the seating itself. Each alternating table is configured to seat three with one patron seated with lots of elbow room, but with back to window. (Huh? Isn't the passing scenery the whole idea??) The other two sit at the end of the long narrow table with – trust me on this – not enough space. It does not make for a comfortable meal.

The other tables are designed to seat four, but the seats are angled and, while there’s just barely enough room for each person, the seating is still a bit awkward. I took several photos this morning without any people at the tables and will post them as soon as I get home. It will, I hope, be easier to visualize what I’m talking about.

Notwithstanding all that, as usual I met a number of first-time riders in the diner, all of whom have now been turned into train travel enthusiasts.

The NARP meetings begin tomorrow. Several of my fellow council members were aboard the Capitol Limited today and I must say the mood is quite upbeat. And why not … with the anti-rail Bushies gone and Obama vocally in support of more and better and faster trains!

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Progress Report - From Chicago

So far, so good. I'm in Chicago between trains, comfortably settled in Amtrak's Metropolitan Lounge. I arrived a bit ago on the Texas Eagle and will soon be off again aboard the Capitol Limited, headed for Washington.

I was delayed leaving Maui by two hours because the incoming flight had been plowing through some pretty stiff headwinds en route from Dallas. There was a plus to that, however, because that meant tailwinds on the eastbound flight back to DFW. And, sure enough, the normal flight time is eight hours and we made it in six hours and 45 minutes.

The ride on the Texas Eagle was fine. Left Forth Worth on time and arrive here just 30 minutes late, most of that delay occurring just a half hour out of Chicago waiting for a couple of freights. After sitting up all night on the plane on Thursday, I slept like a baby last night.

The Eagle consist included one of the re-designed Superliner dining cars -- cleverly called a Cross Country Cafe -- and it is NOT an improvement. For one thing, it seats fewer people, which means even longer on-duty hours for the serving crew. For another, the seating configuration -- which no doubt pleased the designer -- is awkward for some of the passengers. Hard to explain without photos, which I will post at a later date, but it's just not as comfortable as the tables-for-four standard.

One strange incident: No one ever took my ticket. An hour or two after boarding, I offered it to the car attendant, but he declined, saying someone else would be by to collect it ... meaning the conductor, I 'm sure. Nope ... never did and I still have it in my bag. Seems strange and I do wonder if that will eventually cause some kind of error report to pop up in Amtrak's system.

By and large, however, Amtrak has the system down pretty well. When I checked into the lounge here, the gal noted my departure on the Capitol Limited (scheduled for 7:00 p.m.) and asked me what time I would like to have dinner. The first option was 6:30, a full half hour before departure. Sorry ... no can do. Dining car meals just have to be consumed after you're under way.

More to come.

By the way, it doesn't seem possible, but I just realized that this is my 400th post. Whew!

Thursday, April 16, 2009

On the Road Again

There will be some gaps in posting over the next couple of weeks because in a few hours I’ll be headed to Washington , D.C., for a semi-annual meeting of the Council of Representatives for the National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP). I’m lugging my laptop along, however, and will try to post brief accounts of both my travels and anything of general interest coming from the meetings.

This morning, President Barack Obama announced sweeping plans to improve and expand passenger rail service in the U.S. Here is NARP’s reaction to the announcement. And isn’t it appropriate that NARP has chosen President Obama as the recipient of its 2009 Golden Spike Award! It’s presented every year to the person who has done the most to advance the cause of passenger rail in this country and, certainly, there is no one more deserving.

ABOVE: NARP’s Chairman of the Board, George Chilson (left) presents last year’s Golden Spike Award to Congressman John W. Olver (D-Mass).

I’ve worked several train rides into my itinerary, of course. After flying direct to Dallas I’ll take Amtrak’s Texas Eagle from there to Chicago where I’ll connect with the Capitol Limited for the overnight trip to Washington. Reports of both trips will be posted.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

It's Been a Bad Week for Us Old Time Fans

One day after several million or so of us were punched in the gut by news of Harry Kalas' sudden death, we hear that another of the greats, Les Keiter, has died. I suppose there's some comfort in the fact that Les was 89, but it's a big loss nonetheless.
I was general manager of the Hawaii Islanders back in the late 70s (see previous post) when Les was doing play-by-play for the club. If anyone could be described as a legend, it was Les Keiter. He did all the major sports, including boxing, and all with a similar style: with gusto.
Les was one of the originators of the recreated baseball games, getting the most basic reports of away games by phone -- Islander 7th: Stimac out 6-3, Perlozzo singles to left, Beswick hits into 4-6-3 DP -- then making up all the details, complete with sound effects for the radio audience.
He loved it when someone would spot him on the street during the day and say, "Hey, I thought you were in Tacoma!"
It's been a lousy two days.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Harry Kalas: the Best of the Best

It’s an oddity, but what must surely be a disproportionate number of sports broadcasters got their start in Hawaii doing baseball play-by-play for the Triple-A Hawaii Islanders of the Pacific Coast League. I’ve wondered over the years why that was, but never did settle on a plausible explanation.

The Islanders began playing in Honolulu in the early 60s and continued right on through until the final game of the 1987 season. The next year, the team moved to Colorado Springs.

Over the years, Islander games were broadcast by some very talented men behind the mike. There was Hank Greenwald, who went on to do the San Francisco Giant games for many years.

And Al Michaels, probably best remembered for one of the classic lines in all of sports broadcasts, uttered when the U. S. Olympic Mens Ice Hockey team defeated the Russians at the 1980 Winter Olympics and went on to win gold medals: “Do you believe in miracles? Yessss!”

Ken Wilson went to Seattle and the Mariner Games; Mel Procter broadcast games for the then Washington Bullets. And there was also the venerable Les Keiter, who years earlier called the Mohammed Ali-Sonny Liston fight.

But, as talented as those guys are, for my money the very best was Harry Kalas, who was the voice of the Hawaii Islanders for several years when the Islanders first started playing here. It was my great good fortune to have shared the radio booth with Harry for two seasons back then and everyone who heard him broadcast a single inning knew he was headed for the big leagues.

Harry went from Hawaii to Houston where he did the Astro games for several years. From there he moved back east where, for almost 40 years, he became the voice of the Philadelphia Phillies. And I do mean voice. You could identify Harry’s gravelly bass just a few syllables into one of his articulate sentences. He was also the voice for many of the National Football League films.

But Harry Kalas was a gentleman. A class act. A generous, kind and totally unpretentious man. The last time I saw him was in 2001 when I was in Cincinnati on business and the Phillies were in town playing the Reds. The last time I spoke to Harry was a year or so back. I’d been thinking about him -- over the years, I thought about Harry a lot -- and sent him a note, belatedly congratulating him on being elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. A week after I had posted the letter, he called and we had a nice chat.

Harry Kalas died today. He was 73. And he is irreplaceable.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

If You Want Something Done Right …

When it rains here in Hawaii, it pours … often for days at a time. The Island of Kaua'i seems to get more than its share and, as a matter of fact, the wettest spot on earth is found on that island. The summit of Mount Wai'ale'ale typically gets something like 400 inches of rain a year.

Back in December, heavy rains washed away a small bridge and a section of road leading into Polihale State Park on Kaua'i, cutting off a number residents and impacting some small businesses providing tours for visitors ... a big problem that could be reduced to a pretty simple equation: No road = no tourists = no income.

Typically, the State came out, looked at the mess, studied it, and months later came back shaking their heads. Gee, they said, the estimate for fixing the road and repairing the bridge is 4 million bucks and, since the State government is facing a big deficit, there’s just no telling when we’ll get around to fixing the road.

So a bunch of local folks said, “Screw it!” And using donated labor, materials and equipment, fixed the road and rebuilt the bridge in ten days!

The only detail left is to get the State back to inspect and certify the new bridge.


Friday, April 10, 2009

Get Thee Behind My Behind, Satan!

It was tolerated if not amusing for 29 years. And it’s also taken on a life of its own. And that is the traditional mooning of Amtrak trains which was started way back in 1980 by a relative handful of people. Since then, and for reasons unknown (to me, anyway), the second Saturday in July has become Moon Amtrak Day in and around Orange County in Southern California.

As more and more people have joined in the fun, there have been more and more activities that, predictably, have gone beyond fun … such as drunkenness and public urination.

That has prompted officials in at least one town, Laguna Niguel, to consider legislation banning the whole thing. When last heard from, however, the town council has decided, albeit grumpily, that any attempted ban would undoubtedly result in far more problems that looking the other way.

Considering the size of many of the participating posteriors, that is no doubt the best possible course of action

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

What Is Amtrak’s Most Scenic Train Ride?

I received an email the other day from someone who wants to take a long-distance train trip and asked which of Amtrak’s routes would offer the most scenic ride.

That’s a really tough call but, if I have to pick just one, I’d have to say the California Zephyr.

After leaving Chicago, the Zephyr crosses Illinois farmland for several hours, then crosses the Mississippi River at about dusk. After leaving Denver the next morning, the train climbs up into the Rockies, passes under the Continental Divide through the Moffat Tunnel, then follows the Colorado River for several hours through rocky gorges. The Nevada desert comes the next day and, just after crossing into California, the train begins the long climb through Donner Pass and the Sierras. From there it’s a run of several hours down through Sacramento and on into the Bay Area.

But can you really say that trip is more spectacular than traveling through ancient forests of the Cascade Mountains on the Empire Builder?

Or running on a single track through the New River Gorge in West Virginia aboard the Cardinal? (That's the rail line down there on the right bank of the river.)

Or waking up near Dunsmuir, California on the northbound Coast Starlight and seeing snow-capped Mount Shasta right outside your window? (Those are the railroad tracks in the lower lefthand corner of the photo.)

And what about VIA Rail’s fabulous trans-continental train, the Canadian, that operates between Toronto and Vancouver?

Sorry, there’s only one solution: You'll just have to try ‘em all!

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Over-reacting By Ju-u-u-ust a Little Bit

Have you been reading about the North Koreans and their proposed launching of what they call a communications satellite? Well, when (and if) they do launch, the booster rocket will supposedly fall into the Pacific somewhere between Japan and Hawaii.

That was enough for the people here at the Four Seasons Resort on the island of Lanai, who yesterday warned guests to leave the beach at Manele Bay and to find shelter.


In fact, the launch has not even occurred and one could hardly say that the splashdown location had been pinpointed.

This definitely falls under the What-the-Hell-Were-They-Thinking category.

Friday, April 3, 2009

A Service Upgrade for the Lake Shore Limited

Amtrak has announced the return of sleeping car service out of Boston on the Lake Shore Limited, which runs daily between Chicago and either Boston or New York.

Westbound trains depart from Boston’s South Station and Penn Station in New York City, connecting at Albany around dinner time for the overnight run to Chicago. The eastbound train leaves Chicago at 10:00 p.m. and splits into the two sections at Albany the following afternoon, one heading down the Hudson River to New York City, the other continuing east to Boston.

Until the restoration of sleeping car service out of Boston, passengers boarding there rode in coach seating to Albany, where they moved into their pre-reserved sleeping car accommodations. Everything worked in reverse out of Chicago. Workable, but not ideal … especially with several pieces of luggage. At any rate, this is a very good move and a tip of the hat to Amtrak for making it happen.
With the steadily increasing popularity of train travel – ridership on the Lake Shore is up almost 2% over last year – there is an obvious need for more trains and for additional rail cars on existing trains.
The problem – and it’s a significant one – is a lack of equipment. Amtrak simply does not have the rail cars they need. Many have been sitting idle in storage because Amtrak has not had the money to do the required maintenance or to make the minor repairs that would get the equipment back into service. That has changed because there is money in the Obama stimulus package to take care of that.

BUT – additional new rail cars are badly needed and will need to be ordered as soon as possible because there is a lag time of at least two years before deliveries can start. Let us hope that we will soon be hearing that new car orders are part of Amtrak’s plan for the future!

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Senator Wicker Should Butt OUT!

The U.S. Senate is gearing up for a vote on the Obama Administration’s proposed budget for the fiscal year 2010.

And today, Republican Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi has come up with an amendment to the bill that would require Amtrak by law to transport firearms in checked baggage. (For many years, Amtrak did allow that, but changed the policy following the 9/11 attacks.)

The National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP) is asking its 25,000 members to contact their U.S. senators and ask them to oppose this amendment.

There is, of course, the whole thorny subject of firearms and the potential liability problems this could have for Amtrak.

But the real issue here – and this is NARP’s concern -- is a member of the Senate trying to micromanage our national railroad.

The last thing Amtrak needs is a bunch of politicians telling them what to do and how to do it. That, indeed, would be a helluva way to run a railroad!