Sunday, November 29, 2009

I'm Taking a Brief Hiatus

I’ve tried to post here on a fairly regular and, if possible, a daily basis. But things do sometimes get in the way. Starting tomorrow, there will be what could be a gap of perhaps ten days or more.

About a month ago, my doctor gave me the cheery news that I have prostate cancer and on Tuesday the damn thing is coming out. (The sooner the better, if you ask me!)

But here’s the interesting part: The surgery will be done by a robot … operated by a doctor, of course. The Queens Medical Center in Honolulu is a first rate facility and they have one of these machines. It’s really a marvel. For one thing, it allows the doctor to get a close-up view of your innards. In fact, it’s enlarged several times, meaning he can do very precise work.

Another plus is that it’s much less invasive. Without the robot, surgeons make an eight- or nine-inch incision in the abdomen. But with the robot, the procedure is done through five small holes … so small that no stitches are necessary once the procedure is over. The recovery time is a lot less, too.

In a detached way, I find it interesting that I’m finding this whole experience, well ... interesting. Not scary … in fact, not even worrisome. (Gee … maybe that’s something to worry about.)

Actually, there is one thing: I came across a photo of the doctor who’s going to be manning the joy stick. He looks 12 years old.

One additional thought: if you're a guy reading this and you're over 50, get your PSA checked!

Friday, November 27, 2009

Now That's What I Call "Fair and Balanced!"

I’ve written here several times about the continuing problem of grade crossing accidents … cars and trucks being hit by trains where the tracks cross a road or highway.

Almost every day there is news of someone being killed. Usually it’s when they try to beat the train to the crossing and often they drive past the flashing lights and clanging bell and around the gates … and into the path of the train.

I came across this photograph the other day. How in the hell did the driver of that truck manage to get himself into such a fix?? Certainly not without doing something awfully dumb.

When these incidents occur, the story is always about how the Amtrak train slammed into a car or truck . Once … just once … I’d like to see a news report that accurately summarizes what really happened. For instance ...

"A damn fool was killed today when he drove around a gate and into the path of an Amtrak train."

Yeah ... that's more like it!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The perfect Christmas gift … for YOU!

You like trains? Are you interested in the future of passenger rail in the United States? Or are you just looking for a great read? OK … run, don’t walk, to get a copy of Waiting on a Train … subtitled The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service … by James McCommons. I’m only two-thirds of the way through, but can already tell you it’s a must-read.

The author spent a year riding around the country on Amtrak to meet and talk with a whole variety of people who are, in one way or another, involved with passenger trains.

In one section, he writes about how the freight railroads have differing attitudes toward Amtrak trains. BNSF makes serious and successful efforts to bring Amtrak trains in on time, while Union Pacific …

Well, let me give you one of the more interesting (and almost shocking) paragraphs from the book. In this chapter, McCommons is writing about a conversation he had with Griff Hubbard, a long-time Amtrak employee who is one of the people overseeing the Texas Eagle. The Eagle has a terrible on-time record and, since it runs on Union Pacific track, at one point Hubbard sat down with a UP exec to see if anything could be done to improve things. Here’s the excerpt:

According to Hubbard, the executive snorted, “You know, Griff, you just don’t get it. Amtrak doesn’t get it. And maybe you guys will never get it, but we just don’t care … You need to understand this … if you’re right to the minute on time and an ass in every seat, we don’t care. If you are nine hours late, and nobody is on the train, we don’t care. If you have engine failure and are stuck, we don’t care. If you bring a few million to the table in incentives, we don’t care. We’re a $3-billion company, it means nothing to us. So no matter what Amtrak does. No matter what you do, we don’t care. WE DON’T CARE.”

I personally experienced this UP don’t-give-a-damn attitude a couple of years ago on a ride up to Seattle on the Coast Starlight. We got shunted off onto a siding and sat waiting for nearly 40 minutes while two Union Pacific freights lumbered by. When we finally got the go-ahead from the UP dispatcher, we proceeded less than a mile into the station.

Anyway, there are many fascinating insights throughout this book. And there is much more about the future of passenger rail in the U.S. It’s a terrific book … Buy it!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

They May Be Doin’ It Right, But That Don’t Mean We Is Wrong!

High-speed rail lines are being opened and expanded all over the world. France, with its TGV network, has been the acknowledged leader for several decades, but other countries are rapidly catching up, the most notable being Spain which has now linked all major cities with a high-speed rail system.

In China, trains on the high-speed rail line linking Beijing and Tianjin are among the fastest in the world, running at speeds up to 218 miles per hour.

The Chinese have also announced they will be increasing the operating hours for the maglev (magnetic-levitation) train that is running daily between downtown Shanghai and the airport. This futuristic train reaches a speed of some 210 mph and averages 157 mph on the short 18 mile run. In tests, the maglev train has reached a speed of 310 mph.

But here’s what’s interesting about all this: China’s airlines are seriously worried that the country’s determined push to develop the world’s largest high-speed rail network could actually cause them to suspend service on most of their domestic routes.

Here in this country, we’ve just started to talk about high-speed rail linking a few of our major cities. But we continue to plow billions and billions of dollars into more highways, expanding airports, and creating a new air traffic control system to permit more planes in the air flying closer together.

But a nationwide system of passenger trains for the U.S.? Well, shucks … we ain’t gonna pay no ‘tention to all them Frenchies and Spanish people, and ‘specially t’ them Chinesies! Dagnabbit, America has always knowed how to do things better than all them dang furriners!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Flying With a Very Large Problem

At one time or another, we’ve all found ourselves on a long flight seated next to someone who could be described as “circumferencly challenged.” I once spent five hours sitting next to an overweight woman who extended far enough into my space that I was forced to eat my meager meal left-handed.

But THIS is ridiculous!

This photo -- now circulating on the Internet -- was apparently taken with a cell phone camera by an American Airlines flight attendant to convince a disbelieving gate agent that something had to be done about this behemoth. Apparently one look was enough and they relocated the poor guy in Seat E, giving Man Mountain Dean two seats to spread out in.

As a practical matter, how else would the flight attendants run their service carts up and down the aisles?

And let’s hope whoever was stuck in Seat F didn’t need to make a trip to the lavatory!

But there are other, more serious, considerations:

What would happen if – God forbid – there had been some kind of an emergency? Can you imagine a mad scramble to evacuate the plane with this guy part of the exodus?

Some airlines are requiring king-size folks to purchase two seats. That strikes me as absolutely fair and reasonable, although it doesn’t begin to deal with the safety issue.

I suppose a case could be made for prohibiting someone this large from flying at all … or, barring that, assigning them to two seats in the very last row.

Of course, Amtrak could be a very good alternative. This guy couldn’t fit through the doorway of one of the bedrooms, but could ride quite comfortably in two coach seats.

Or the baggage car.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

We Finally Get a Peek at the REAL Cost of Roads

I’m constantly running up against people who grumble about the federal subsidy of Amtrak. As I’ve noted here before, every form of public transportation is subsidized by government at one level or another. There are no exceptions.

Airlines? State and local governments build airports and the federal government provides the air traffic control system. Landing fees don't begin to cover those costs.

Trucking? Why do you suppose our interstate highways are thick, reinforced concrete? Surely not to accommodate my Toyota! But “Wait!” cry the anti-subsidy ideologues, “The gasoline tax pays for our roads.”

Really? Not according to a study done by the Texas Department of Transportation. They developed an asset value index to look at that very question. Here's an excerpt from a summary:

"… in Houston, the 15 miles of SH 99 from I-10 to US 290 will cost $1 billion to build and maintain over its lifetime, while only generating $162 million in gas taxes."

The folks who figure these things out say that if the gasoline tax were to pay all of the costs associated for that stretch of highway, it would have to be $2.22 a gallon. That's just the tax!

Here’s one more example of a public transportation system entirely funded by tax dollars:

So why the hue and cry about subsidizing Amtrak? Because rational argument never changed an irrational mindset.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Much Ado About Not Too Much

The storm is still hanging around, but it never really developed to the extent that forecasters were warning. We had some rumbling thunder two nights ago -- nothing of note except one that sounded as though someone dropped a load of bricks in an upstairs apartment and sent the faithful hound scurrying around in a panic. We've had strong winds alternating with an almost eerie stillness, and heavy rain both nights ... a total of almost 4 inches. And, best of all, the driveway remains intact.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Here It Comes ... and There's No Place to Hide

When the weather starts turning cold on the mainland, we constantly hear complaints from friends and relatives there. Invariably, they say they're sure our weather is gorgeous and they wish they could swap theirs for ours.

Oh, yeah ... Take a look at the current Hawaii weather, courtesy of the National Weather Service! (Well, as of about noon today, our time.) We're surrounded by rain ... heavy rain, which is all that yellow and brown stuff. It's all circling counter-clockwise and it's just a matter of time before we get it.

When it rains here, it really pours, especially in this part of the island where we'll routinely get a couple of inches overnight.

The year we moved into our house, run-off from heavy rains ran over our driveway and scoured off all the gravel in a 50-foot section. We had it repaired -- ca-ching! -- but it happened again two years later. So we bit the bullet -- ca-ching! ca-ching! -- and had a real culvert put in ... four 12-inch pipes. Last year, we had another big storm and water ran through and over the culvert, scouring off the gravel in a 50-foot section.

Such is life in "paradise."

Monday, November 9, 2009

A ‘Moment of Truth’ May Be Just Weeks Away

This past Saturday, an Amtrak spokesman appeared before the annual meeting of TRAC, the Train Riders Association of California. He said that soon after the first of the year, Amtrak would be making an announcement about new equipment purchases that he said would be “dramatic and bold.”

Let us hope so.

Many of Amtrak’s Superliner cars, used on all of the long-distance western trains and for some of the overnight eastern trains, are now some 35 years old and in serious need of overhaul or – best case scenario – replacement.

New equipment may be needed, but is not so easy to come by. Amtrak has already put out a Request for Proposals for 50 new Viewliner sleeping cars but, last I heard, there have been no takers.

Here’s the problem: It will require a huge up-front investment for a manufacturer to gear up to build these rail cars. They'll need factory space, heavy equipment and a work force, and no one is likely to make that kind of investment for a one-time order of 40 or 50 rail cars. If they did, the per-unit cost would be prohibitive.

The solution is for Amtrak to do what the French do: commit to a standing order of 40 or 50 new rail cars every year ... year after year. This allows the manufacturer to justify the initial outlay of capital because there will be a long-term return on that investment. It also means the railroad can continuously replace old rolling stock with new equipment. And that, in turn, means lower costs for maintenance and repair. Oh, yes … and happier passengers riding in nice new coaches and sleepers.

So those of us who follow the fortunes of Amtrak are cautiously hopeful that the forthcoming announcement will be, in truth and in fact, dramatic and bold. For the hard truth is, if there isn’t some definitive plan for the systematic replacement of both Superliner and Viewliner equipment, the future of long-distance train travel – most especially on Amtrak’s western trains – will be in doubt.

Stay tuned.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

A Practical Joke That Just Keeps on Giving

Folks here in Hawaii – and not just sports fans – are laughing about a practical joke perpetrated by someone within the Honolulu Police Department, an institution not renowned for its sense of humor.

First, however, you need to know that the UH football team is in the middle of a less-than-stellar season. After starting their season with two wins, they have lost six consecutive games, to the consternation of their faithful fans.

At any rate, the cops routinely put out a report of significant cases to the media. This week’s list included the report of an investigation into “a suspicious, unknown white powdery substance” purportedly discovered on the University of Hawaii's football practice field and noted that the day’s practice had been suspended and the FBI had been called in to investigate.

The report concluded with the following: “After a complete field analysis. The FBI determined that the white substance unknown to the players was the goal line. Practice was resumed when the FBI decided that the team would not be likely to encounter the substance again.”

Media types were still chuckling over that, when a female “reporter” at a top-rated local radio station – clearly not a sports fan and having no clue anyway – picked up the story, thought it was legitimate news, and breathlessly read it on the air. Her “report” aired several times before anyone noticed and pulled the plug.

Meanwhile, the brass at HPD is not amused and has been trying to find out who initiated the phony story in the first place. Heads will roll … presumably all the way to the goal line.

Friday, November 6, 2009

The Headline Said It All: “PINEAPPLE PAU.”

We took an economic body blow the other day. Maui Land and Pine, the last company growing pineapple on this island, is shutting down. It’s been coming. We’ve all known that. But it was a shock nevertheless.

The company had been scaling back for several years and, by the end of the year, the last 285 pineapple workers will be pau (finished), too.

It’s easy to shrug and say this is just a sign of the times: lousy economy, high cost of labor, prohibitive cost of shipping the fresh fruit to the U.S. mainland, etcetera and so forth. Certainly those are all factors.

But many people, including those who know and understand the business, say there were also bad -- no, make that, terrible -- management decisions that were a major cause of the company’s demise.

One former ML&P president was sacked a year ago, but not before he bought a prime piece of property from the company (they say at market price) on which he built a luxury home.

The workers, however, remain screwed.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Schedule Padding: The On-Time Illusion

Three years ago, when I took the Coast Starlight from Seattle to Los Angeles, we didn’t pull into LA’s Union Station until 4:00 in the morning … seven hours late.

Amtrak’s long-distance trains operate on track owned and controlled by the freight railroads. They are supposed to be given priority, but dispatchers for the Union Pacific Railroad had constantly shunted us off onto sidings to wait while their freight trains rumbled by. That was not an unusual occurrence back then, especially on UP routes. These days, extensive track repair work being done with stimulus money is the cause of delays on many of Amtrak's routes.

Delays like those are not Amtrak's fault, but put Amtrak between a rock and hard place nonetheless. Knowing they have to give passengers some kind of realistic idea for arrival times, they did the only thing the could do ... they padded some of their schedules, arbitrarily adding time between stations along the way to allow for likely delays.

A good example is the current timetable for the Sunset Limited, which runs three times a week between New Orleans and Los Angeles.

The westbound Sunset, Train # 1, originates in New Orleans and is scheduled to depart at 11:55 a.m., arriving at it’s first stop in Schriever, Louisiana, at 1:25 p.m. It covers those 56 miles in 90 minutes.

But to allow for delays that the eastbound train may have had after leaving Los Angeles, that same timetable shows Train # 2 leaving Schriever at 12:03 p.m. and arriving in New Orleans at 2:55 p.m.

See? The eastbound Sunset is allowed almost three hours to cover the same 56 miles.

I’m glad to say that Amtrak’s on-time performance has improved a lot over the past year or so. That’s partly because the volume of freight traffic is down due to the economy and partly because the Obama Administration stepped up pressure on the freight railroads.

One result of that improvement: Amtrak has since shaved a full hour off the Sunset’s schedule. And, when I rode to Coast Starlight about six weeks ago, we were an hour early into Los Angeles. How about that!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Hawaii Offers Another Good Example

Driving to Arches National Park in Utah after our recent visit to the Grand Canyon, we were horrified to see a huge sign painted on the sheer, rocky side of a cliff in letters 20 feet high. It was advertising a store selling souvenirs.

It was just another egregious example of the visual blight of outdoor advertising … something we don’t have here in Hawaii, where billboards have been illegal for more than 50 years.

Our law is very simple: signs advertising a business may only be located at the place of business. Furthermore, the size of the sign is limited to a certain percentage of the area of the building surface on which it’s located. No other signs are permitted.

To me – in fact to 99 percent of the people here – this makes sense and we wouldn't have it any other way in what is arguably one of the most beautiful places in the world. Besides, as a practical matter, tourism is the lifeblood of Hawaii’s economy and the natural beauty is what brings most of the visitors to these islands.

There is, however, a company here on Maui that periodically flouts the law by flying an airplane back and forth above our beaches towing a sign advertising their cheap T-shirts. Proving once again that greed and self-interest know no bounds.