Saturday, May 30, 2009

Some Newfound Appreciation for the Men in Blue

I watch most of the Boston Red Sox games on television via satellite and manage to see them play in person almost every year … an excellent excuse to work a train ride or two into the picture.

I’ve seen the Sox play on the road several times over the years -- in Kansas City and Dallas and Seattle and Anaheim among other cities -- but there’s just nothing like seeing a game in Fenway Park, because the Red Sox know that their fans understand the game and treat them accordingly. Besides, at Fenway Park, I'm among 36,000 friends.

In too many other ballparks -- Angel Stadium in Anaheim comes immediately to mind -- fans are subjected to public address announcers who excitedly screech the names of home team players and message boards demanding that the crowd MAKE NOISE!!!!!!! Amazingly, the Southern California fans always seem to dutifully comply. If the Red Sox tried that amateurish crap at Fenway Park, there would be a mass revolt. We are not idiots.

But the way I watch baseball games has forever changed after reading As They See ‘Em, by Bruce Weber. The book is about umpires, about their training, about their lives, and about what it takes for the very few lucky and talented ones to work their way through the system and reach the major leagues.

Like most fans, I’ve never appreciated what a tough job it is, or how skilled those guys have to be to get to “the show.” As spectators, we instinctively follow the ball when it’s pitched or hit, but the umpires -- three of the four, anyway -- can’t. They must anticipate what is likely to happen on any given play and move into the appropriate position to cover what might be a play at the plate or maybe fan interference, or … well, whatever. The possibilities are damn near limitless.

I’ll be making another trip to Boston at the end of July -- yes, taking the train from the west coast all the way back there -- and will see three games at Fenway Park. I’m going to re-read the book on the train and this time, for the first time ever, will be watching the umpires as well as the players. And I can’t wait.

Is it a great game, or what!

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Lower Amtrak Fares for Northeast Corridor Travel

Amtrak has reduced fares on service in the northeast by as much as 25 percent. Fare reductions apply to service between Washington and Boston. There has already been an announcement of reduced fares on Acela service.

Here are some typical discounts:

New York-Washington: from $72 to $49
New York-Philadelphia: from $45 to $34
Philadelphia-Washington: from $44 to $33
Boston-New York: from $62 to $49
Baltimore-New York: from $64 to $48

Note that these fares are for Amtrak’s regional service (photo above) and not the high-speed Acela trains. But so what! An Acela makes the New York-Washington run in just under three hours, while the regional service takes only 40 minutes longer to cover the same distance … well worth these savings.

These fares are available now, but apply to travel starting June 2nd and running through September 3rd. Tickets bought at these fares are not refundable, but can be exchanged.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Bigger and Fancier Doesn’t Mean Better

Once a year, I use some airline mileage and go back to Boston, where I settle into a little B&B on Bay State Road, an easy ten minute walk to Fenway Park. That is not a coincidence. I’m a lifelong fan of the Red Sox and these annual trips are to see them play three or four games in what has to be the most enjoyable venue in all of sport. Fenway Park is small, old, and crowded … and it’s wonderful!

Meanwhile, the New York Yankees opened their 2009 season in a palatial new ballpark – the New Yankee Stadium. It’s huge, it’s new, it has all the fancy amenities … and it isn’t crowded. For good reason, too: while the corporate bigwigs bask in their luxury boxes, the ordinary fans are getting screwed.

Take a look at the photo I came across yesterday …

That guy waving his arms told the New York Times that his seat – high up and far back in the left field grandstands – cost $60. And a beer will cost you ten bucks.

Prime seats behind home plate were originally being offered at $2700. That’s for one seat for one game. The greedy Yankees were embarrassed because – what a surprise! – people didn't buy them. And TV cameras covering the games also showed lots of those prime-but-empty seats. So they cut the price in half, which pissed off people who had paid less (but still too much) for seats not quite as good.

The New Yankee Stadium does have one big plus: it’s just one more reason for my loathing the damn Yankees. I have a list.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Saving Green By Going Green

The cost of electricity is high here on Maui because the fuel to run the power plant has to be shipped in from at least 2300 miles away. Last I checked, we were paying something like 41 cents per kilowatt hour. That translated into monthly electric bills that typical ran between $240 and $260 a month … a heavy hit, especially since we have neither heat not air conditioning in our house.

Ah, but six months ago, we put in a photovoltaic system … thirteen panels up on the roof, facing south and not visible from the front of the house. (The two large solar panels in the photo are for heating our water.) On sunny days, it provides power for the house. When it provides more than we need, it sends electricity back into the grid and, when that happens, our electric meter literally spins backwards.

The cloudy, rainy weather is behind us now, and our new system is really starting to pay off. My most recent electric bill was for $27 – almost one tenth of what it used to be – and with lots more sunny days between now and December, the solar guys say there should be three or four months when it’ll net out at zero.

Based on recent bills and an educated guess, the system should pay for itself in seven years. So we're saving money and doing our bit to help Maui Electric cut down on the fuel they need to generate electricity. It's a very modest effort, but it feels good.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Hopes for New and Better Rail Service in the News

I’ve written here a couple of times about efforts to restore the New Orleans-Orlando portion of the Sunset Limited’s route. Large sections of track in Mississippi and the Florida panhandle were torn up by Hurricane Katrina and, although the track has long since restored, Amtrak has never reinstated that part of the Sunset’s schedule. There is a federal mandate to study the possibility and it may yet happen.

Elsewhere, the City Council in Boulder, Colorado, has gone on record asking Amtrak to have the Pioneer stop in their town if and when that train is restored. The Pioneer, which was discontinued in 1997 as a cost-cutting move, left Chicago as part of the California Zephyr consist, splitting off in Denver and heading up through Wyoming, eventually terminating in Seattle. Like the Sunset, Amtrak has been asked to look into the possibility of restoring that service. If they do, it would make sense to add a stop in Boulder, which is where the University of Colorado is located.

And the County Commissioners in Bunnell, Florida, voted unanimously on a resolution urging the restoration of train service between Jacksonville and Miami. One commissioner, Alan Peterson, voted for the resolution, but said he thought a JAX-MIA train would be “a waste of public money.” Huh??

And Illinois Governor Pat Quinn has asked that state’s legislative body to add state funding to federal stimulus dollars that will be used to improve rail service between Chicago and St. Louis. That route has often been mentioned as a prime prospect for high-speed rail, but an initial upgrading of existing track would increase speeds to 110 mph and reduce travel time to less than it can now be driven.

And there are more examples popping up from all across the country. Bodes well for rail, eh?

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Good News for Rail Passengers from Up North

Like ours, the Canadian government is plowing money into the economy in an effort to create jobs and turn their economy around.

More than 100 million of Canadian stimulus dollars are going to VIA Rail, that country’s equivalent to Amtrak. VIA will use the money to refurbish nearly 25% of their passenger cars and to improve accessibility on a dozen of their newest trainsets.

VIA's train, the Skeena, runs between Jasper in the Canadian Rockies to Prince Rupert on the Pacific coast.

The LRC fleet (Light, Rapid, Comfortable) operates in the eastern corridors between major cities such as Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa and Quebec.

I’ve traveled on many of VIA’s routes – two summer’s ago crossing the continent from Halifax on the Atlantic to Vancouver on the Pacific – and am a big fan of the railroad. I love their equipment and their on-board service is very good.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Way It Works … And The Way It Doesn’t Work

I've frequently noted here that the rest of the world has had the right idea about passenger rail for a long, long time … with government investing heavily in high-speed systems linking major urban centers.

Over the same span, we here in the U.S. we have allowed our rail system to stagnate. As a people, we have chosen to fly or drive instead of taking the train. There really was no choice, because we’ve had a federal government run by free-market ideologues philosophically opposed to subsidizing trains.

Here are two more examples – one of progress, another of a lack of same – coming from other parts of the world.

First, the Russians are about to inaugurate their first high-speed rail line, which will operate between Moscow and St. Petersburg at speeds up to 187 miles per hour. They have named their train the Sapsan after the peregrine falcon, which can reach 200-plus miles an hour in spectacular power-dives.

The equipment is manufactured in Germany and the Russian government will be buying a total of eight more trainsets over the next year and a half.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, we have the example offered by Mexico, where passenger trains were privatized some ten years ago. Today, only one real intercity passenger train is left, running between Chihuahua and Los Mochis – the Copper Canyon route – and it's heavily dependent on tourism.

The free market did a helluva job for the Mexicans, didn’t it!

Sunday, May 17, 2009

And, Speaking of Idiots …


I’ve written here several times about the ongoing tragedy of grade crossing accidents … where cars and trucks and buses are hit by trains at railroad crossings, usually killing whoever happens to be in the vehicle.

There are also regular occurrences of people being killed while walking on railroad tracks. Some just aren’t aware of the oncoming train because they are listening to ipods or talking on cell phones. Others are suicides.

Then, of course, there are the terminally – or as seen in this amazing video – the near-terminally stupid.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Tom! Look Out for the Squirrels!!

Oklahoma is represented in the U.S. Senate by a man named Tom Coburn. He is a Republican. And he is an idiot.

Tom Coburn’s loony and outrageous opinions cover so many diverse topics that the scope of his idiocy could actually be considered impressive!

For example, Coburn says doctors and other health workers who perform abortions should face the death penalty.

He says the gay agenda “is the greatest threat to our freedom that we face today.”

He called Rachael Carson’s Silent Spring “junk science” and complained that it unfairly caused the pesticide DDT to be banned.

Tom Coburn caught my attention last year when he tried to hold up funding for Amtrak because he said Amtrak’s food service lost $2 billion a year … a figure so wildly, outrageously, insanely wrong that the mind boggles. (Amtrak’s entire federal subsidy at that time was around $1.2 billion.)

And now for the latest outrage from Tom Coburn: This past week, Coburn introduced an amendment to a bill that would protect the rights of credit card holders. His amendment would allow people to carry loaded guns into our national parks. And now the bill itself is all snarled up because of Coburn’s totally irrelevant amendment.

If elected officials are accurate representations of their constituencies, are we not able to assume, then, that at least 51 percent of Oklahoma voters are idiots?

Thursday, May 14, 2009

How To Be On Time and Late at the Same Time

Amtrak’s OTP (on time performance) has improved quite a bit over the past year or so, but for far too long it had been abysmal. How abysmal? Well, three years ago, when I took the Coast Starlight from Seattle to Los Angeles, we were supposed to arrive in Los Angeles at 9:00 p.m. We were seven hours late and didn’t pull into LA’s Union Station until 4:00 in the morning. And this was not an isolated incident. Most of Amtrak’s long distance trains were late most of the time … often very late.

The problem, of course, is that most Amtrak trains operate on track owned and controlled by the freight railroads and too often passenger trains were forced to wait while priority was given to freight traffic. In the case of my ill-fated trip on the Coast Starlight, dispatchers for the Union Pacific Railroad constantly shunted us off onto sidings to let their freight trains rumbled by.

Clearly, rail passengers needed some realistic idea as to when they would reach their destinations, so for many years Amtrak has fallen back on a kind of slight-of-hand: they’ve padded their schedules, adding time arbitrarily between stations along the way to allow for all those likely delays.

For example, take a look at the current timetable for the Sunset Limited. The westbound train, which originates in New Orleans, is scheduled to make the 56-mile run to its first stop at Schriever, Louisiana, in 90 minutes, departing at 11:55 a.m. and arriving at 1:25 p.m.

But that stretch comes at the end of the eastbound train’s route and, to allow for delays that may have occurred along the way, the timetable shows the train departing Schriever at 1:08 p.m. and arriving in New Orleans at 4:00 p.m. See? Schedule makers have allowed the eastbound train almost three hours to cover those same 56 miles.

Prodded by Congress, there now seems to be a lot more cooperation between Amtrak and the various freight railroads. Let’s hope that continues … and that passenger trains will start arriving “on time” in “real time.”

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Return of the Sunset? Or Something Even Better?

Until Hurricane Katrina, Amtrak’s Sunset Limited offered one-train service clear across the continent, between Orlando, Florida, and Los Angeles. But service east of New Orleans had to be suspended because that terrible storm washed out large sections of track in Mississippi and across the Florida Panhandle.

Those stretches of track have long since been repaired – and, in some cases moved farther inland – but Amtrak has never restored that part of the Sunset’s route. I was never aware of any official reason given, but I would assume it was because of insufficient ridership through that section.

However, included in the Amtrak funding bill that was passed by Congress last year was the stipulation that Amtrak had to study the feasibility of reinstating the Sunset’s New Orleans-Orlando segment.

That has been done, but now another idea has apparently surfaced: an entirely new train, quite separate from the Sunset, running on it’s own daily schedule between New Orleans and Florida, perhaps as far as Jacksonville.
This strikes me as a very good idea, because the Sunset only runs three days a week and its arrival and departure times along that stretch of the route were not terribly convenient. A new train would not be dictated by the Sunset’s three-days-a-week schedule and could be set at more convenient times. The only difference being that passengers traveling past New Orleans in either direction would have to change trains there. (Or spend a night … now there’s a happy thought!)
There's also some agitation being mounted for a Chicago-Florida train. There were several such trains operating between those destinations all through the 1930s and they were very popular.

Whichever way it shakes out – reinstating the original Sunset route or launching new trains – it will mean more and better passenger train service. And that will be a step or two in the right direction.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Who ARE Those Guys Out There?

As you travel around the country on Amtrak, you begin to notice the "train nuts" … the guys standing alongside the tracks as you pass. (And, yes, 99 percent are guys.)

Many have cameras and some carry notebooks for recording locomotive numbers. But all are fascinated by trains and are drawn to various vantage points where they can watch the trains as they thunder by.

One of the best spots is in La Plata, Missouri, at the site of the Silver Rails Resort. It’s an enclosed observation room that’s heated in the winter and offers a picture-window view of almost constant freight traffic and, twice every day, Amtrak’s Southwest Chief.

Railroad people have mixed feelings about these folks, often referred to as ‘foamers’ … the idea being that they start to foam at the mouth whenever a train comes into view. Some – a very few – can be real pests when they trespass onto railroad property to get close, sometimes dangerously close, to the passing trains.

But Amtrak, for instance, knows that these are the same people who write passionate letters to the Washington politicians supporting better funding for passenger rail. More and more, foamers are finding themselves truly appreciated.

So – two days after the event itself – a belated Happy National Train Day to all you foamers out there! I’m proud to be one of you.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

If Only We Could Outlaw Stupidity!

It’s happened again!

This past Friday, a two-car Boston subway train plowed into another that was stopped in an underground tunnel for a red light. The damn fool operator of the first train was using his cell phone to send a text message to his girlfriend at the time of the accident.

Boston Globe photo

Luckily, there were no serious injuries, although 49 people were sent to Boston hospitals. The most serious injury – justice well served! – was to the operator himself, who broke his wrist … hopefully it was the one he uses to send text messages.

Of course this incident evokes the horrific accident near Los Angeles last year in which 25 people were killed and many more injured. The engineer of that commuter train was texting at the time of the accident.

Existing rules of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority already forbid the use of cell phones by train or bus operators while on duty, but the MBTA now says operators won’t even be allowed to have cell phones in their possession.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Family Farming Is Not For Everyone

My younger brother lives in Illinois, in a small community some three-hours southwest from Chicago. He sent an email yesterday that is well worth passing along:

I'm sitting here watching my farmer-neighbor planting the field south of our house--corn or [soy] beans, don't know which. The equipment continues to amaze; he's pulling a 16-row planter behind his $100,000 tractor. I think someone even makes a 24-row planter. You gotta plant a lot of corn to pay for that stuff!

In any event, it has been big, local news around here that planting has been delayed for weeks because of a cold, wet Spring. In this agricultural economy, that's a big deal, and the farmers have been going crazy trying to get into the fields to "get the crop in."

Once those fields have dried out enough to let them in, those guys will work nearly 24/7--with their wives bringing meals to them so they can keep working.The equipment dealerships have [repair] people "on-call" 24/7, so that if someone's tractor craps out, they fix it on the spot.

Once the crops are in, then the concern becomes where is the rain? Too little rain, too much rain, too hot, too cold, hail storms, wind storms, insects, fungus, etc. It's quite a life, but most farmers wouldn't do anything else; it's in their blood.

Friday, May 8, 2009

A Celebration of Trains - Coast to Coast

Tomorrow will be the 2nd annual National Train Day with special event celebrated around the country.

The event is now scheduled annually for whatever Saturday is closest to May 10, which was the day in 1869 when the Central Pacific and union Pacific railroads met at Promontory Summit in Utah, marking the completion of America’s trans-continental railway.

Amtrak will be hosting big events in Washington, Philadelphia, Chicago and Los Angeles, but local groups including members of the National Association of Railroad Passengers are sponsoring special observations in many other locations around the country. So if you live in or near an Amtrak station stop, by all means check to see if some kind of special event will be occurring tomorrow at the station.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Beating the Drum for Passenger Trains

I arrived in Washington aboard the Capitol Limited on a Sunday evening. Monday morning, meetings of the NARP* Council of Representatives began bright and early.

This was only my third meeting as a Council member, but this time there was a huge difference in the mood of the 80-plus people attending. After coming through eight years of the Bush Administration, which was most decidedly anti-Amtrak, this year is different because President Obama has repeatedly voiced his support of passenger rail.

Our first day of meetings dealt with organizational issues and on Day Two, Council members broke up into groups of 2 to 4 and headed off for meetings with members of Congress that had been scheduled on The Hill

Our group of three met with key staff people for two California Members of Congress, plus the Legislative Aide for Senator Diane Feinstein. Then we headed for the offices of Hawaii’s Mazie Hirono and Senator Dan Inouye.

I am unashamed to admit that Dan Inouye is a hero of mine. Our meetings were scheduled with the staff people who deal with transportation issues, but Dan himself stopped to chat for several minutes as he was heading off to lunch.

In every one of those Congressional offices, the mood was upbeat and we came away with acknowledgements of the importance of passenger trains and for the need to improve and expand Amtrak service.

However … the halls of Congress are full of people – ordinary people and paid lobbyists, too – who are there with hands out looking for money and support for their own favorite causes. It’s very important for NARP to continue its work and to keep the pressure on in the face of all these demands.

So, once again, let me suggest that you consider a NARP membership. It’s quick and easy and you can join by going here.

Mahalo! Thanks!

*National Association of Railroad Passengers

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Chicago to Washington on the Capitol Limited

The Texas Eagle arrives in Chicago’s Union Station close to on time and I go directly to Amtrak’s Metropolitan Lounge to stash my bags. The lounge is crowded at that time of day because several trains are coming and going. The California Zephyr departs at 2:00 and the Southwest Chief leaves at 3:15.

After trying to phone a couple of Chicago-area friends, I head off for a brisk walk around the station, stopping in at a noisy Irish bar for a late lunch. (Question: What would prompt a very attractive female bartender in her mid-20s to have a dozen studs piercing her lips and eyebrows? Oh, well …)

The Lounge has thinned out considerably by the time I return and, while waiting for the Capitol Limited to board, I settle down to a couple of chapters in Paul Theroux’s latest book, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star …which I heartily recommend.

We depart on time just after 7:00 p.m. and as soon as I check in with the car attendant I proceed to the dining car where I’m seated with a history professor, recently-retired from the University of London. He arrived in Chicago earlier today aboard the Southwest Chief, coming all the way from Los Angeles. As a retirement gift to himself, he’s on a ‘round-the-world trip, taking the train wherever possible. We’re mutually delighted to discover that four days earlier he had completed the trans-Australia ride from Perth to Sydney on the Indian Pacific, the same train I’d taken in the other direction a month earlier.

Peering out the Viewliner window the next morning, I see that the train is running alongside a rushing stream with fishermen on the banks or wading in mid-stream – so many of them that I suspect this could well be the first day of the fishing season in these parts.

The rest of the morning we pass through small towns and villages, more and more with clapboard or brick houses of an design that says they’ve been around since Civil War days.

Finally, under a very low overcast and occasional spatters of rain on the windows, we trundle through the suburbs of Washington, pass within sight of the well-known monuments and come to a stop at magnificent Union Station.

NARP (National Association of Railroad Passengers) meetings begin tomorrow.

Monday, May 4, 2009

P.S.: A Texas Eagle Afterthought

I forgot to mention in yesterday's post about my ride on the Texas Eagle that no one ever took my ticket. It's the first time that has ever happened to me on my many Amtrak rides. All sleeping car passengers are listed on a manifest along with accommodation assignments, but still ... Kinda strange, eh?

Sunday, May 3, 2009

First Leg: A Ride on the Texas Eagle

My recent travels took me to Washington for the semi-annual meeting of the Council of Representatives of NARP, the National Association of Railroad Passengers. And, of course, I took that opportunity to get in some long distance train travel.

After the usual long, dreary red-eye from Maui to Dallas, I taxied to downtown Fort Worth to catch the Texas Eagle to Chicago, an overnight trip.

The Fort Worth station was a pleasant surprise: modern, clean and conveniently located. And, reflecting an enlightened trend, it’s an intermodal facility, with Amtrak trains, commuter rail, light rail and buses all coming and going at the one location. There is even a rental car office there.

The Trinity Railway Express system links downtown Dallas and downtown Fort Worth with the huge Dallas-Fort Worth airport, main hub for American Airlines and one of the busiest airports in the country.

And, of course, that’s where the daily Texas Eagle stops some seven-plus hours after leaving San Antonio. We left on time at 2:20 in the afternoon for the 24-hour ride almost due north to Chicago.

Next time: On to Washington aboard the Capitol Limited.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Amtrak Should Cross Off the Cross Country Cafe

A couple of posts back I mentioned the redesigned dining cars that have shown up on several of the Amtrak routes. They're called the Cross Country Cafe and I found myself eating in one on both the Texas Eagle from Fort Worth to Chicago and again on the Capitol Limited from Chicago to Washington. They're also found on the City of New Orleans. At first blush, they look very stylish, but unfortunately they aren't really very functional.

For example, dining car patrons are seated in booths, not at tables. Half of the booths are like this one (above) and are quite awkward. Whoever is seated on the long side of the table has more room than necessary, but has his or her back to the passing scenery. The other two people, seated at each end of the little table, don't have enough room.

The other half of the booths seat four people, but the table is tapered slightly so the two people sitting closest to the aisle have less room than the other two patrons.

All the booths and tables are fixed in place and the designers have apparently allowed room for Amtrak's heftier passengers. But that means smaller people, especially kids, find themselves too far from the table and have to lean forward awkwardly while eating.

And, finally, Amtrak's dining car crews don't like this new set-up. It can't seat as many people at one time because every other table will only accommoodate three instead of four. The net result: On crowded trains, there has to be an additional sitting and that lengthens what is already a very long day.
Bottom line? In my personal opinion, the new Cross Country Cafe is what we here in Hawaii would refer to as "a bus' egg."