Friday, July 31, 2009

Off Line, Out of Sight, and Out of (My) Mind!

BALTIMORE -- I guess you are aware that there have been no regular posts here for several days ... several very frustrating days for me! Here is a short version of the story:

After two nights on the Califoirnia Zephyr from Oakland to Chicago and a third aboard the Lake Shore Limited, I arrived in Boston and checked into the little B&B where I stay on these pilgrimages to see the Red Sox play at Fenway Park. The B&B is a five minute walk from the ballpark and, coincidentally, one block down the street from the fraternity house where I lived as a Boston University student many years ago.

The next morning, I trotted around the corner to a little bagel shop where patrons are encouraged to order a bit of breakfast, set up their laptops and surf the internet to their hearts content. So far, so good.

There were several wireless networks available for internet connection but, for whatever reason, my laptop insisted on defaulting to the Boston University system. ("A lot more bars, I guess," said one of the techies I spoke to about this.) I had discovered that after composing -- would I lie? -- a brilliant post about my travels across country on those two Amtrak trains. When I went to "publish" the post, up popped the home page of the BU network and all those words had disappeared into the ozone.

But here's the catch: Internet access via the BU system is only for students, faculty and visiting academics attending conferences at the university. It did seem to me, however, that since their system was preventing me from using any other system, it might be OK for someone in authority to give me a three day pass to use their system ... the same privilege they give visiting conference attendees. After all, I am an alumnus -- School of Communications, Class of '59 -- and a regular albeit modest contributor to their annual campaigns.

Nope. Not a chance. And, believe me, I tried ... hoofing it on a very hot day from the IT Department to the Alumni Office to the Development Office and then by phone (because I was just to damn hot and tired to walk any more) to the President's Office. Everyone was sympathetic and understood my problem, but no one would give me a freakin' temporary password!

And so, I fretted for three days, unable to post here and unable to send or receive email.

(It is quite true, that I could have packed up my laptop, taken the Boston transit system a couple of stops toward downtown, walked two blocks to Newbury Street and settled in at some other bagel shop, but I was just too damn mad and could not bring myself to do that.)

At any rate, my apologies for the long silence. I will do my best to make up for it over the next couple of days, although I will be back in the train again on Sunday en route back to Chicago.

And, by the way, I can hardly wait for the next appeal I get from the Boston University Development Office!

Friday, July 24, 2009

The Lousy Economy: Up Close and Personal

OAKLAND, CA -- Oakland International Airport, at least the part I saw after my Hawaiian Airlines flight landed, appears disorganized and unfinished, with exposed ceilings, plywood and cardboard duct-taped to the floors. Even at 10:30 p.m. when my flight landed, there were long lines of passengers waiting to go through security. To exit the area, we had to pick our way through this incoming mob.

I caught a shuttle to my hotel in Emeryville and, as the only passenger, had an animated and interesting conversation with the driver ... a Palestinian, now an American citizen, who came to the U.S. as a teenager 26 years ago. He has been a shuttle driver for four days. Two weeks ago, he was laid off from his job at Safeway -- their corporate headquarters is here -- where he had worked for 17 years. Two weeks' severance. No pension. See ya 'round.

This morning I take the California Zephyr for the two-night trip to Chicago. I'll have a few hours in the Metropolitan Lounger there and will post a recap of the trip then.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

I’m Off Again … This Time Heading East

There will be some interruptions in these posts over the next few weeks because I’m leaving today on what has become my annual jaunt to Boston and a few evenings watching the Red Sox in Fenway Park.

As you would expect, there will be several long distance train rides, too. First, however, the short 22-minute hop from Maui to Honolulu, then Hawaiian Airlines from there to Oakland. The next morning I’ll take the California Zephyr for the two-night ride to Chicago, then change to the Lake Shore Limited for the overnight trip to Boston.

After three games between the Red Sox and the Oakland A’s, I’ll take Amtrak to Baltimore to catch two more games with my guys vs. the Orioles.

Then a quick 30-minute ride down to Washington where I’ll connect with the Capitol Limited back to Chicago. I have a brief meeting scheduled there with an editor with Chicago Review Press. (More about that in another post.)

I once asked an Amtrak car attendant what was the strangest thing that ever happened to him on one of his trips. He didn’t have to think about it … it was the honeymooners who had somehow gotten the idea that there would be a fireplace in their sleeping car compartment. That prompted the notion that a travel editor somewhere would be interested in a story about nutty passengers and strange happenings on long distance trains, so I’ll be trying to collect material for that along the way.

Anyway, from Chicago I’ll take the Empire Builder to Seattle for a visit with my sister and her husband on Whidbey Island. Then home from there, once again on Hawaiian Airlines.

I’ll be posting along the way, too … assuming my laptop finds the internet here and there.

Monday, July 20, 2009

When Things Go Wrong, Don't Panic ... Improvise!

More than one member of a train’s on board crew has told me that the key to the job is flexibility … being able to cope with unexpected and unusual occurrences. An Amtrak car attendant on one of my train trips put it quite succinctly: “If you can’t roll with the punches, you’d better find another line of work.”

Some time ago – probably more than 10 years, actually – I was on the Coast Starlight, heading from Los Angeles up to Seattle. About the time the sun was going down, the dining car steward announced over the train’s PA system that there had been a power failure in the diner. Uh-oh … a couple of hundred people expecting a nice dinner and the ovens weren’t working.

But not to worry.

At the next stop, the steward hopped off the train and dashed into the station where I could see him making a phone call. An hour or so later, when we pulled into Salinas, there was a van waiting for us. As we rolled to a stop, two kids hopped out of the van and began handing dozens of small boxes through the lower-level door of the dining car to the chef and the steward. A couple of minutes later the steward came on the public address system. “Folks,” he said cheerfully, “the Colonel has just paid us a visit and dinner tonight there will be Kentucky Fried Chicken with all the trimmings for everybody.” Applause rippled throughout the train.

Ever since, I’ve had fun picturing a 20-year-old assistant manager of a KFC store picking up the take-out phone and hearing someone say they needed 200 chicken dinners to go in 45 minutes. Sounds like a perfect routine for Bob Newhart or Bill Cosby, doesn’t it: “Yeah, right. Who is this really?

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Where Have All the Giants Gone?

Many of us who have worked with and around print and broadcast reporters over the years continue to be distressed at the decline of good, serious journalism that has occurred in the last 15 or 20 years.

Television in particular has steadily lowered its standards in response to the axiom espoused by the consultants: “If it bleeds, it leads.” And so we suffer through TV newscasts that present a highway accident as the most important thing we need to know today.

On the radio, we get “newscasts” that are a pitiful 60 seconds long and squeezed into breaks between hour-long rants by blowhards like Rush Limbaugh and Glen Beck and Lou Dobbs.

Newspaper circulations are dwindling because more and more people are getting their news “free” from the internet and won’t cough up 50 cents a day for their local newspaper. Of course, the news people get from Google and Yahoo comes from newspapers and pretty soon those newspapers won’t have the money to pay the reporters to gather it. Then what?

All that brings to mind the passing of Walter Cronkite, whose one-of-a-kind stature as a journalist with CBS News was respected and acknowledged by public and peer alike.

I just got an email from my son who has a teleprompter business in Southern California. About ten years ago, as part of the crew producing a special on immigration for the Discovery Channel, he experienced both the professional and the human sides of Walter Cronkite. The crew had assembled on a cold, wet day at the Mexican border where they would tape Cronkite doing a number of stand-ups that would later be edited into the program.

Here’s what my son wrote:

In the midst of the cold weather, a small craft services table is set up [with] some donuts and coffee set out for the crew. … So the vehicle pulls up and Walter and some other people climb out... Somebody leads Walter over to the small craft services table and says "Mr. Cronkite, if you'd like we have some coffee here and some donuts." … This giant of television journalism surveys the modest spread, glances kindly over to where the crew is standing by and … inquires: "Has the CREW had some yet?"

And that, folks, is real class.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

What’s Going On? Dark Planets in Alignment?

I have no idea why, but there has been a terrible rash of grade crossing accidents.

A couple of weeks ago, Amtrak's Coast Starlight hit and killed two people in two different locations on the same day – the first in Emeryville, CA, the second about six miles farther on in Oakland. What are the odds of that happening??

A week ago, five kids were killed near Detroit when the 19-year-old driver raced past a car stopped at the grade crossing, went around the barrier and into the path of an Amtrak train running at close to 80 mph.

Two days ago, three people were killed at a crossing near Somonauk, Illinois, about 60 miles west of Chicago. There were five people in that car; two survived, but just barely

Yesterday, two people were killed in Goshen, Indiana, when the truck they were driving was hit by Amtrak’s Capitol Limited. (Photo above. I don’t have a link to this one; the report came from a fellow NARP* director in that area.)

And that’s not all: A quick check through Google yielded news of three other incidents in the past two days, each involving a person hit and killed while walking on the train tracks.

On average, there is an incident involving a train and a motor vehicle or a person (pedestrian, trespasser or suicide) every two hours around the clock. And, as I have noted here several times before, every single one of these tragedies was avoidable.

Best guess at this point is that two of the incidents were suicides. But all the others were the result of human carelessness or stupidity. It’s very hard to feel sorry for the drivers. But the passengers …!

* National Association of Railroad Passengers


Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Uh ... Mike wants to say a few words, too.

The was a nice little celebration this past Monday at Amtrak’s rail car repair facility in Bear, Delaware, just south of Wilmington.

Along with Joe Boardman, Amtrak’s president, dignitaries attending the event included several Delaware politicians: Governor Jack Markell (above), Senator Tom Carper and Congressman Mike Castle.

The occasion bringing all these VIPs together was the rolling out of the first Amtrak passenger car rebuilt with stimulus funds coming from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

All three politicians got to speak. Even Congressman Castle. He’s a Republican. And he voted against the stimulus package.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Amtrak Will Double Seattle-Vancouver Service

It looks like Amtrak will be running a second daily train between Seattle and Vancouver, British Columbia, starting sometime in August.

The current schedule has one train and four buses running in each direction every day. Train # 510 leaves Seattle at 7:40 every morning, arriving in Vancouver at 11:35 a.m. The southbound train, # 517, leaves Vancouver at 5:45 p.m. and gets to Seattle just after 10 o’clock.

As far as I know, no schedule has yet been announced for the second daily train, but the best guess is that it will be pretty much the reverse of the existing schedule, leaving Vancouver in the morning and departing Seattle in the late afternoon.

The trains will be the Spanish made Taldo equipment which I had a chance to tour when I was in Portland last Fall. It's good looking, modern, clean and very well designed.

This is good news … first, because any increase in train service is good news. And second, because, with a bus ride as the alternative, there will certainly be demand.

Moral: If you run it, people will come.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Great Advertising: Rare, But Long Remembered

Once every year or so when I was a kid, my family traveled from our home in Connecticut to the Fort Myers area in Florida where my grandparents had a home. We’d visit for a couple of weeks, usually over Christmas or Spring vacation.

Sometimes we would make the trip by train – without doubt the origin of my love of train travel – but we also drove. This was before the interstate system and it was a grueling trip that took us right through the center of all the big cities along the way. As I recall, it took three-and-a-half days to cover the 1400 or so miles … a long tedious trip for us kids.

I do remember a few things we saw along the way. We crossed a magnificent bridge over Chesapeake Bay and drove within sight of the Capitol in Washington, D.C. (My Republican dad said the statue on top of the dome was FDR with a halo; my much more liberal mother glared at him and said that wasn’t so.) As we got farther south, there was a half-hearted contest to see who would spot the first coconut palm.

But mostly, and vividly, I remember signs promoting a shave cream called Burma Shave. We eagerly watched for them and, when they appeared, we would all read them out aloud.

For those too young to remember – meaning anyone under 60, I suppose – Burma Shave would erect a series a small signs along the road. They were spaced 50 or 60 feet apart and each included a brief phrase that was part of a longer message which usually (but not always) encouraged safe driving.

We were too young to shave in those days, but I’ll always have a warm spot for Burma Shave. Without seeing their signs every 40 or 50 miles, those long drives would really have been unbearable.

Oh … I also remember passing huge billboards for Eastern Airlines: a large photo of one of their planes over the caption, “You’d be there by now.” We were not amused.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Is The End in Sight for Amtrak's Western Trains?

There is growing concern about the future of Amtrak’s long distance train service in the western part of the country.

This includes all the trains using Superliner equipment, bi-level coaches and sleepers:

Coast Starlight, running daily between Seattle and Los Angeles;

Empire Builder, running daily between Chicago and Seattle/Portland;

California Zephyr, running daily between Chicago and the Bay Area;

Southwest Chief, running daily between Chicago and Los Angeles;

Texas Eagle, running daily between Chicago and San Antonio;

City of New Orleans, running daily between Chicago and New Orleans; and

Sunset Limited, running three days a week between Los Angeles and New Orleans.

Here’s the reality: These trains serve literally many hundreds of cities and towns scattered across 26 states.

Here’s the problem: Most of the Superliner cars are now about 35 years old. The life expectancy of a passenger rail car is about 50 years, even assuming regular and conscientious maintenance.

Here’s the concern: Amtrak apparently has no plans to order more Superliner equipment. And even if they did, it would be three or four years before a significant number of the new cars would begin entering service.

Here’s the solution: Get the political powers in those states – governors and legislatures, plus senators and representatives in Washington – to provide the money and mandate that Amtrak spend it on new equipment.

Here’s the benefit: Jobs, in the short term; more and better train service for another 50 years.

What’s not to like about that??

CORRECTION/ADDITION: Superliner equipment is also used on two eastern trains: the Capitol Limited (daily between Washington and Chicago) and the Auto Train (daily between Lorton, Virginia, and Sanford, Florida). Obviously these trains would also be affected as Superliners wear out and if there are no new cars to replace them.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Three Rail Deaths in Three Days in the Bay Area

What are the odds?? This past Friday, Amtrak train number 535, running from Sacramento to San Jose, hit and killed two people … in separate accidents! The train -- like the one shown below -- struck a woman near Berkeley then, less than a half an hour after resuming its run, hit someone else at Oakland. Details are here.

You will note from the story that the train crew was replaced after the first accident. This is pretty much standard procedure and is the largely unreported aspect of these stories. News reports invariably focus on the victims, but these events often have a profound effect on the train crews, who see the accidents coming but are almost always powerless to avoid them. There is simply no way to stop a moving train in time.

Virtually 100 percent of these incidents are avoidable and, sadly, the people killed are almost always to blame one way or another. They aren’t paying attention; they don’t hear the train coming because they’re talking on a cell phone or have earphones on; they’re careless or reckless or stoned or drunk; or they’re suicidal.

And today (Sunday) comes news of yet another fatality, also in Oakland. A woman, apparently homeless, was struck and killed this morning by an Amtrak train shortly after it had left Jack London Square. The news report doesn’t say, but I’d guess train was the southbound Coast Starlight, which leaves that station at 8:50 a.m. on its way to Los Angeles.

How tragic. Let’s just remember to include the train crews among the victims.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Whither Goest Thou, Sarah? And Wherefore?

Well, Sarah Palin’s decision to step down as Governor of Alaska with 18 months remaining in her first – yes, her first – term, was certainly a surprise. I’ll give her that.

The question, of course, is why?

Let’s start by ruling out running for president in 2012. By resigning, she won’t even be able to claim one term as governor of a state with a population ranking that’s 47 out of 50. And accomplishments to campaign on? Fuggedaboudit.

Seems to me that leaves only two logical reasons for quitting her job, notwithstanding her penchant for doing and saying the illogical.

Door Number One: She’s going to cash in on her notoriety with a lucrative book contract and by making paid appearances, things she can't do while being governor at the same time; or …

Door Number Two: There is some kind of major scandal brewing, meaning serious political corruption or something personal and very, very messy.

Either way, Sarah Palin will surely be in the news for many months to come.

Oh, goody.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Niagara Falls: One of Our Great Natural Wonders

Sometimes well-known and popular tourist destinations become out-of-fashion … you know, for whatever reason it’s just not cool to go there anymore.

I can’t tell you why, but Niagara Falls was always in that category for me. I just pictured wall-to-wall honeymooners gawking and never could muster any interest in going there.

Until several years ago, when I attended a business conference nearby.

My first clue that this was really something was when I noticed a cloud of spray over the site from several miles away. Then, as we got closer, the noise … a constant roar from millions of gallons of water pouring over the edge of the falls. And when you first see it ... WOW!

You can walk right up to the edge, by the way.

I was reminded to mention this when I received a news release about VIA Rail running extra trains to the falls from Toronto this summer.
And Amtrak's Empire Service includes several trains daily to Niagara Falls coming up from New York City. It’s about a nine-hour trip but it’s through some wonderful countryside, especially in the Fall. And there are some major stops along the way: Albany, Saratoga Springs, Syracuse and Rochester among others.

At any rate, do consider a visit to Niagara Falls. It’s quite spectacular and well worth the time.