Monday, August 31, 2009
Friday, August 28, 2009
McCain took his cue and, waving a copy of the Senate’s version of the health care reform bill, informed the crowd in mock outrage that it was 660 pages long! The audience clapped and laughed uproariously.
Several years ago, my wife and I sat down with an attorney to prepare the wills, trust documents, health care directives and powers of attorney we need to avoid confusion and mistakes upon our deaths. It all came to a total of 64 pages.
Doesn't it seem reasonable that the documents to reform the health care system of our entire nation would be a bit over 10 times longer than the end-of-life legal papers for just two people?
But instead of promoting -- no, demanding -- serious debate on a critically important issue, politicians like John McCain waste precious time pandering to the morons.
Of course, that’s the whole idea, isn’t it?
Wednesday, August 26, 2009
A friend of mine named George Wray ran South Pacific Island Airways, flying among the islands of American Samoa and to Western Samoa. Eventually George leased some jets and expanded to fly a couple of times a week between Honolulu and a number of South Pacific islands, including Samoa.
But I digress.
So far the prime minister appears to be resolute and is, in fact, indignant that his decision is being challenged. After all, respect for elders and those in authority is fa’a Samoa.
Monday, August 24, 2009
Katrina’s storm surge also undermined miles and miles of train tracks and disrupted rail service – both freight and passenger – all through the area. As a result, service by Amtrak’s Sunset Limited, which had been operating three days a week between Los Angeles and Orlando, Florida, was discontinued east of New Orleans.
CSX, the freight railroad that owns the tracks over which the Sunset Limited operated, has long since made the repairs, even aligning some of the track farther inland and away from any future storm surges. But Amtrak has never restored the Sunset’s Florida service, and continues to terminate the train in New Orleans.
Finally, toward the end of last year’s session, Congress told Amtrak to come up with a plan for reinstating the Florida portion of the Sunset’s route. Some weeks ago, Amtrak issued it’s report and three possible options were presented. One was to restore the original tri-weekly service, another was to extend the City of New Orleans (Chicago to New Orleans) on to Orlando, and the third was to create a brand new New Orleans-Orlando train.
But as soon as the report was issued, a great hue and cry arose. Many rail advocates felt that the Amtrak report included ridership and revenue projections that were conservative to an extreme. Furthermore, Amtrak said it would need more than a year and a half to restore the same Sunset Limited service that existed pre-Katrina, and that it would be at least four years before either of the other two options could be implemented.
The National Association of Railroad Passengers has just issued a news release in response to the Amtrak report and has followed that up with NARP’s own recommendations.
But the core of the matter, it seems to me, is pretty simple: People want Amtrak to start telling us why something can be done … not why it can’t be done.
“You have to spend 10 percent of the time setting policy,” he said, “and ninety-percent of the time kicking people in the ass to make it happen.”
Yo … Joe Boardman! You want I should have Frank call you?
Saturday, August 22, 2009
The most obvious difference is that there is a fold-down washbasin and a small toilet in the Viewliner roomette, as shown in the photo below, while the lavetories are “down the hall” in Superliners. Having those facilities in your room seems like a big plus at first, but after a number of overnight trips in each type of room, I’ve decided I really prefer the Superliner roomettes.
To make room for the toilet and wash basin, the lower berth in the Viewliner actually narrows where your legs and feet go. And, even in the daytime, the room just feels a lot smaller to me. Furthermore, if there are two of you in the Viewliner roomette, decorum pretty much requires that one person go out into the hallway while the other uses the facilities. That’s a lot of fun in the middle of the night!
When I’m traveling in a Superliner roomette, I sleep in a comfortable pair of gym shorts and a T-shirt. If I have to use the facilities during the night – and at my age that’s a given! – I just slip on a pair of rubber flip-flops and head off down the hall.
There’s one other plus, too: Where the washbasin and toilet are located in the Viewliner sleeper, the Superliner roomette has a wide shelf/armrest which will just accommodate a medium-sized suitcase.
Both roomettes are small, but very well designed and both provide the all important comfort and privacy that makes them well worth the extra cost. (Besides, I’m too damn old and creaky to sleep sitting up all night in coach!)
Thursday, August 20, 2009
The one and only runway at the Gibralter Airport intersects with a main road that connects two parts of the town on the peninsula.
Tuesday, August 18, 2009
And suicides? Well, there’s nothing careless about someone who is fed up with life and thinks the answer is to step in front of a train.
Almost always overlooked in the reporting of these incidents is the toll they take on the locomotive engineers. A very good AP story about this is appearing in the media and I recommend it.
I’m always surprised to run across people traveling by train who are unaware that Amtrak has their own version of a frequent flyer program. It’s called Amtrak Guest Rewards and the program is about to enroll its two millionth member. Should you join? Well, why not?? It costs nothing and the very worst that could happen is that you won’t travel on Amtrak enough to get a free trip. I did and enjoyed a free roomette on the Empire Builder from Chicago to Seattle earlier this month. Go here for info and to join.
Monday, August 17, 2009
This is really fascinating! (Sorry it's not larger.) Each little dot represents an airliner raveling somewhere in the world over a 24-hour period. Notice how the sunlight moves across the globe, too.
Still, it makes you want to take a train, doesn't it!
Saturday, August 15, 2009
The trouble is, it’s hard to grasp any practical meaning from numbers that big.
Amtrak's Southwest Chief stops for passengers at Galesburg.
OK, so here’s a much smaller number. Smaller, yes, but it’s still another example of the increasing popularity of rail travel coming from the heart of middle America … from Galesburg, Illinois.
According to Shannon O’Malley, the Station Agent at Galesburg, ridership there is now more than 100,000 a year. Pretty impressive for a town with just 35,000 residents, wouldn’t you say?
Friday, August 14, 2009
This is very good news, because with every passing year, much of Amtrak’s fleet gets closer and closer to becoming … well … junk. A reasonable life expectance for a passenger rail car is something like 50 years and much of the Amtrak fleet is now 35 years old.
Viewliners are single-level sleeping cars with 12 roomettes, each capable of accommodating two passengers, two large bedrooms and one accessible bedroom designed for passengers requiring a wheelchair. (The second tier of windows shown in the photo above are for passengers sleeping in the upper berths.)
These sleepers are now used on most of Amtrak’s eastern overnight trains. Exceptions are the Auto Train, which runs between suburban Washington, DC, and Sanford, Florida, and the Capitol Limited, operating daily between Chicago and Washington. Both of those trains use Superliner equipment.
And, speaking of Superliners, it does seem to many of us that a new order for a hundred or more of these cars is at least as much of a priority as is more Viewliners. All of Amtrak’s western trains use the bi-level Superliners, which have proven to be popular and have served the public well.
The concern is that "tempus is fugiting," as my wonderful, now departed father-in-law was fond of saying. There will likely be as much as a four-year lag from the time an RFP is put out until the first new rail car is delivered. It takes that much time for specifications to be drawn, bids to come in, a builder to be selected and for that firm to gear up for production and, finally, for production to actually begin.
Let’s hope we hear about an order for new Superliners soon. Before we know it, the old ones are really showing their age and will need to be replaced and/or pulled out of service for extensive renovation.
Tuesday, August 11, 2009
Which brings me to lovely Felicia. She's lovely because she has just been downgraded from a hurricane to a tropical storm and, just a bit ago, to a tropical depression. Whew!
That said, Felicia will still be passing directly over Maui according to the latest from the weather guys. For all practical purposes, the projected path of the storm will be north of the Big Island and -- yep -- right over our house (see above). All indications are this won't be a big deal, but we'll probably get some high winds and a lot of rain -- and when it rains hard here, it really pours, often several inches an hour.
The center of the storm should arrive a little after 1:00 p.m. today and by coincidence my daughter, her husband and my 5-year-old granddaughter are due to arrive at 1:25 from the west coast for a week-long visit. How's that for timing!
Looks like an eventful day, but not to worry: our portable generator is gassed up and ready to go, so the beer will stay cold. I mean ... first things first, right?
Sunday, August 9, 2009
Over the years, Baltimore has become a favorite destination for thousands of Red Sox fans whenever their team plays the Orioles. The hotel where I stayed overlooks their wonderful ballpark, as you can see from the photo I took from my hotel room, and the lobby and restaurant and bar were packed with people sporting Red Sox caps and shirts. And, indeed, Red Sox fans appeared to make up at least 20- to 30-percent of the crowd at the two games that I saw.
On my last morning in Baltimore, I hopped into a taxi for the 20-minute ride from the hotel to the Amtrak station across town where I would catch a train to Washington. As we started off, I remarked to the cab driver that there were a lot of Red Sox fans in town.
Yes, he said, there always are whenever the Red Sox play the Orioles. He turned out to be a knowledgeable baseball fan and for the next several minutes we discussed the pros and cons of the two teams.
He supports the Orioles, but likes the Boston fans because, he said, they stay at various hotels around town, see the sights, and are fun to be around. “They root hard for the Red Sox and beat us most of the time,” he said, “but they are very friendly and show respect for our team and for our city.”
Then, to my surprise and delight, he launched into a diatribe against New York Yankee fans. He described them as loud, arrogant and generally unpleasant. “They always stay downtown, and they drink too much,” he said. “From them, we get no respect. Rude people, most of them.”
By the way, the cab driver – proud resident of Baltimore and staunch Oriole fan – was Fahti Mohammed Muktar, who came to this country 11 years ago from Iraq.
Friday, August 7, 2009
I have no idea how many of these sturdy boats are operating in and around these parts, but they seem to be everywhere … shuttling back and forth across Puget Sound and from the mainland to many (probably most) of the islands up and down the coast here.
Some of the ferries are smaller than others, but the ones running between the mainland and Whidbey Island can accommodate well over 100 vehicles on two levels. Most were family cars and pickup trucks, but there were also several motorcycles and even two or three large semi-trailer trucks. The fares vary, but I paid about $7 each way for my ride.
Most of the people using the ferry simply sit in their cars for the crossing to Whidbey Island, which only takes about 20 minutes, but there is also a spacious third deck where passengers can walk around –in or out of the weather – and there’s a snack bar serving a variety of simple offerings, plus soft drinks, coffee, etc.
I don't know what it costs the State of Washington to operate this system, but I’m sure there must be some kind of subsidy … the point being that essential public transportation can come in many forms, including airlines, subways, ferries, highways, and all the way down to bike paths and sidewalks. All provide essential services to the public and it’s appropriate that all are paid for with a combination of private funds from the people who use them and tax dollars from the general public.
And that begs the question: Why is there still such virulent opposition from some members of Congress to any kind of federal subsidy for Amtrak? Fortunately, there are fewer and fewer of those people, but they’re still out there. And those of us who know and care about the benefits and advantages of rail transportation need to speak up and let them know how we feel.
To that end, may I suggest you consider a membership in the National Association of Railroad Passengers? NARP is a non-profit, non-partisan organization that lobbies in Washington, DC, on behalf of all rail passengers. And in State capitols around the country, too. Please give it some thought … and go here for membership information. Thanks!
Thursday, August 6, 2009
The fare for one of the high-speed Acela trains was only $20 more, but I opted for one of the “Regional Service” trains. It would take about 45 minutes longer, but I was in no particular hurry and would arrive in Baltimore a full three hours before game time anyway.
Whether it’s the high speed Acela service or the more conventional Regional Service trains, both offer a choice between a regular reserved coach seat or a seat in Business Class. The upgrade for the Acela train was $70, but just another $31 for the “regular” train. What the heck … for another 30 bucks, I upgraded to Business Class.
Essentially, what I got for my $31 was what seemed to be a bit more legroom (it was perfectly adequate in the regular coach seating) and free non-alcoholic beverages from the Café Car. Business Class did appear to be somewhat less crowded, however. Still, I won’t bother with the upgrade the next time.
However, I would make a bee-line for the second car in the consist, located right behind Business Class car at the front of the train. That’s the Quiet Car, where cell phones are not allowed and conversation must be at a minimum and carried out in low tones. The Quiet Car is available to anyone on the train.As it happened, the guy seated right behind me in Business Class was on his cell phone for much of the trip. Most of his conversations – unfortunately I could hear his half very clearly – were with a business colleague and dealt with the impending closure of the company. This guy was sick of his job, sick of his co-workers and, most especially, sick of his immediate superior, who had had the nerve to ask him to suck it up and put in a few extra hours in an effort to keep the company afloat. Also, there were six – count ’em, six – lengthy calls to someone named “Gorgeous.” (I will not relate any of the content of those calls lest a child under 12 might stumble across this blog.)
The Quiet Car is a boon to travelers and, unless you have important business to transact, or happen to be acquainted with Gorgeous, my advice would be to run, not walk, to that car the next time you hop an Amtrak train in the Northeast Corridor.
Wednesday, August 5, 2009
The first thing to be noted -- at least it’s the first thing that comes to my mind -- is what certainly seems to be a marked difference between the on board crews working the long distance western trains and the overnight trains you encounter in the east.
By “western trains,” I mean those running west out of Chicago … the California Zephyr (to the Bay Area), the Empire Builder (to Seattle and Portland), the Southwest Chief (to Los Angeles) and the Texas Eagle (Chicago-Los Angeles via San Antonio). Then, too, there's the Coast Starlight (LA-Seattle) and the Sunset Limited (LA-New Orleans).
Crews on the eastern trains are just as capable and just as efficient, but seem to be a lot more … well … east coast in their attitude.
Here’s a typical case in point: as the California Zephyr was nearing Chicago, the car attendant poked his head into my roomette and said, “Sorry to disturb you, sir, but may I remove your used towels?”
By contrast, when we were 30 or 40 miles out of Boston on the Lake Shore Limited, the car attendant walked through the car with a large cloth bag calling out, “DIRTY TOWELS … COLLECTING … DIRTY TOWELS!”
I hasten to add that there's nothing necessarily unfriendly about it … it’s just east coast vs. west coast.*
Another observation: The fundamental difference between roomettes in Superliners vs. those in Viewliners is that there is a small wash basin and toilet in the Viewliner room. In a Superliner roomette, you have to go “down the hall” to use the facilities. The Viewliner’s in-room lavatory is certainly convenient (photo above), but they do make the room seem a lot smaller and the lower half of the bunks are narrower than the upper part to make room for those extras. For me, it’s a toss-up. I don’t see the in-room facilities as a significant plus.
Finally, Amtrak’s on-going problems with maintenance became apparent when I boarded the Lake Shore in Chicago: the air conditioning wasn’t working in my Viewliner sleeper (like the one in this photo). It wasn’t roasting and was bearable, but it was borderline uncomfortable and I slept on top of my cover in my skivvies.
The conductor was apologetic … and disgusted, telling us that very same car had been without A/C when he had worked the same trip five days earlier. This may or may not be Amtrak’s fault, by the way. They have been kept on the edge or starvation for the past eight or more years with bare-minimum federal subsidies and it could well be they had to send that car out because there simply was no functioning spare car to replace it.
Still, both trips were very enjoyable and we actually arrived in Boston almost a half-hour early (thanks to padding in the schedule, of course).
More about my trip from Boston to Baltimore and the cross-country return in the next day or so.
* Bringing to mind the classic story about the tourist on his third day of a visit to New York City, who stops a native New Yorker on the street and says, "Can you direct me to Radio City Music Hall or should I just f--k off?"
Sunday, August 2, 2009
Ah, but Eric Cantor is.
Cantor (photo), a Republican member of Congress from Virginia and the Minority Whip in the House, fairly leaps in front of the Klieg lights whenever there is an opportunity to do so. In particular, whenever the subject of the Obama stimulus package has come up, Cantor has been right there to say it’s the devil’s own work.
But surely this couldn’t be the same Eric Cantor who has come out in favor of a new high-speed rail project that would run from Richmond, VA, to Washington, DC ... and which would be paid for in part by money coming from Obama's stimulus package?
Indeed it is.
Saturday, August 1, 2009
My latest trans-continental trek via Amtrak began on a chilly, overcast morning at the Emeryville, California, train station. The California Zephyr departed on time at 9:10 a.m. for the three-day, two night run to Chicago. By late that afternoon, we had made the spectacular crossing of the Sierra Nevada range over Donner Pass, stopped at Truckee, and were trundling across the Nevada desert with Reno just behind us.
It was still very hot outside. So hot, in fact, that we were running at reduced speed in case the guys in the head end spotted any heat kinks in the rails up ahead of us. There were also several spots where we slowed to 10 or 15 mph while crossing newly-laid track.
As things turned out, there would be a lot of track work going on for the entire run from the Sierras all the way to the Mississippi River. Gangs of workers and all kinds of machinery were ripping up old track, replacing weathered wooden crossties with new concrete ones, and laying down new rail. Fascinating to see, but the resulting slow orders, plus the usual delays for freight traffic, would nibble away at our progress until we were more than three hours late by the time we crossed into Illinois for the final four-hour run into Chicago.
There was a lot of angst among many of the passengers on board ... folks with connections in Chicago to other Amtrak or commuter trains. There was also a contingent of 15 or 20 people on a tour who were going to be dashing out to O'Hare for plane connections to the East Coast. For a while, until it became clear that most of the delays were behind us, I was sweating out my connection to the Lake Shore Limited. My comfortable five-hour lay-over had shrunk to just over one hour and any further delays could have put a normally safe connection in doubt.
I made the connection to the Lake Shore with no problems, but all of this reminded me again of an observation I've made on other trips: Amtrak operating crews --meaning, in this case, the conductors -- seldom seem to show any concern when trains begin to fall behind in their schedules. Most will inform passengers of the delays, but en route, as were kept falling farther and farther behind schedule, there was no obvious effort to hurry up the detraining and boarding process at stations along the way.
We even continued to observe the "smoking stops", where smokers are given 10 minutes or so to light up on the platform at several station stops along the way. In fairness, most of those are scheduled stops where there will be a crew change anyway, but the point is that there never seemed to be any effort to hurry through those stops with an eye to making up a few minutes. In fact, there were several stops where only three of four people got off or on and we were still in those stations for 10 or 12 minutes.
It seemed to me that, had there been an effort all along the way to speed things up, we might well have reached Chicago 30 to 40 minutes sooner. At it was, we were 3:45 late, but perhaps a half hour or so would have made the difference for more than a few of the passengers trying to make connections.
(Yes, I should acknowledge here that there is padding built into the schedules, but by the time we were into our second day it was clear we were still going to be very late into Chicago, padding notwithstanding. )
One more point on this issue: late trains cost Amtrak a helluva lot of money every year. The end up paying for hotel rooms, meals and shelling out for special bus transportation to accommodate passengers inconvenienced by late trains. The cost of all that accommodation? Well, the most recent number I heard was $130 million a year. Wouldn't you think that would be an incentive for those conductors and station agents and baggage handlers to hustle late trains through those station stops?
That said, late or not, it was a good trip. I still maintain that the Zephyr is the most scenic of all the Amtrak trains,(although the Coast Starlight is a close second) and I enjoyed it all, every mile of the way, even those we did at 10 miles an hour.
Next: Chicago to Boston on the Lake Shore Limited.