Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Figuring Out What NARP Wants for Christmas.

The internet is humming these days with emails zooming back and forth among members of the Board of Directors of the National Association of Railroad Passengers. We board members meet in Washington every April for three days, one of which is spent knocking on doors in the halls of Congress asking our elected representatives to support passenger trains … everything from long distance to short haul to commuter service.

When you go looking for money in Washington – in this case, we’ll mostly be urging increased financial support for Amtrak – it’s critically important to figure out ahead of time what the specific “ask” should be.

When it comes to passenger rail, there’s a very long list. Just a very few that have been mentioned so far:

* Restore the New Orleans-Florida portion of the Sunset Limited’s route, which was discontinued as a result of damage to the tracks by Hurricane Katrine … damage that has long since been repaired.

* Increase the Sunset schedule to daily service. The train now operates three days a week between Los Angeles and New Orleans. (This photo was taken as the Sunset was loading passengers in Palm Springs, California.)

* Folks in New England want to re-establish overnight service from New York to Montreal and extend existing routes to cover more communities.

* The Cardinal also operates only three days a week and many rail advocates are pressing for daily service for that train. It’s one of Amtrak’s more scenic rides, running between New York and Chicago over a southerly route through Washington, across the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia and through the New River Gorge in West Virginia.

* There are infrastructure needs – a lot of them: bridges need repair, ingress and egress for trains must be improved at major stations like New York and Chicago, hundreds of miles of double track must be laid where single track is now causing delays.

* And for my money, the most pressing need is new equipment. The typical life expectancy of a passenger rail car is 50 years, and most of Amtrak’s fleet of bi-level Superliner coaches and sleeping cars are now some 35 years old.

The problem, of course, is that there is a helluva lot more need than there is money to pay for it all. Still, our loins are girded and, come April, we’ll be ready to make the case for our "ask" ... and to do battle if necessary.

Monday, December 21, 2009

That’s What They Call an Improvement??

The feds have laid out a rule that will slap airlines with big fines if they let a plane full of passengers sit on the tarmac for more than three hours waiting to take off.

That means the line between an acceptable and an unacceptable delay is … three hours??

If that isn’t a good example of how bad things have gotten in the aviation industry, I don’t know what is. We’re now dealing with fewer flights, crowded planes, unpleasant crews, a bare minimum of service, more and longer delays, additional fees for checked bags or making any change, and – of course – higher and higher fares.

Still I feel obligated to note here that, for the most part, Hawaiian Airlines remains an exception to most of those problems. They still give you a meal – yes, it’s airline food, but pretty good nevertheless – the crews are young and enthusiastic, and they fly my favorite airplane, Boeing 767’s, between here and the mainland.

OK, that said, the problems we routinely encounter when flying around the mainland are more than enough for me to recommend Amtrak as an option. Here’s the key: A long-distance train is part of your vacation experience … not simply a means of reaching the place where your vacation begins. (I took this photo aboard the southbound Coast Starlight as we were passing through a horseshoe curve about 20 minutes before arriving at San Luis Obispo, California.)

My next train trip will be in April: New Orleans to Chicago to Washington back to Chicago (by a different route) and from there to Los Angeles. Whee! I can’t wait.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Today's Weather on Maui … In Two Snapshots

Hawaii’s weather can be quite changeable … particularly here on Maui where little micro-climates can occur in many different parts of the island.

When it rains here, it really rains. I took this photo from our deck at about 7:30 this morning … sheets of rain were just thundering down. After it stopped, I went out to check our rain gauge: almost an inch-and-a-half … in just 40 minutes!

Now, just a few hours later, skies are blue, the sun is shining, and there’s a light breeze. The temperature is a balmy 76 degrees. Anyone for the beach?

People back in New England are fond of saying, “If you don’t like the weather here, just wait a couple of minutes.”

Maybe … but I’d guess we run a close second. And they can keep all that cold and snow.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Don't Raise the Bridge, Lower the Water!

Grade crossing accidents have been the subject of several previous blogs in which I’ve pointed out that reports of these incidents always seem to be written from a “train smashes car” point of view.

A few days ago, an Amtrak train hit a car that was caught between gates at a grade crossing in Durham, North Carolina. A woman was injured and her two kids were killed.

Tragic? Of course. But the focus of the news story was on the speed of the train, which was traveling 74 miles-per-hour in a 79 mph zone. Local residents, prompted by the TV reporter, all agreed that the speed limit for trains passing through grade crossings should be reduced.

Would the result have been any different if the train had hit the car at 60 mph instead of 74? Of course not!

An Amtrak engineer once told me that a train hitting a car would be equivalent to your family car running over a mailbox. How's that for a graphic comparison!

There is only one cause of this accident: the woman foolishly went around the gate and was caught on the tracks.

Oh … by the way … neither of the two kids was belted.

Slower trains? How about smarter drivers.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

And Speaking of Flying …

The several airlines that have purchased the huge new Airbus A380 have been bragging about the amount of space and the luxurious accommodations enjoyed by first class passengers.

Well, OK, they have a right to do that because, depending on each airline’s specified configuration, passengers in business class and especially those riding in first class are indeed surrounded by unprecedented amounts of space and luxury.

But, with first class fares for trans-Atlantic or trans-Pacific flights running upwards of $800-$1,000 per hour-in-the-air, how many of us normal folks will actually be able to enjoy all that luxury?

As a visual reminder, here’s a look at where most of us will be riding if and when we find ourselves on one of these winged behemoths.

I am unashamed to admit that the thought of being one of 700-to-800 passengers – again, depending on how each individual airline configures their version of the A380 – does make me very uncomfortable. Of course, back in the late 1950s when American Airlines first introduced the Boeing 707, I clearly recall a friend and veteran traveler saying, “I will never get on a plane that can carry 150 people!”

Friday, December 11, 2009

Pan American - Gone, But Fondly Remembered

For years – well, until the start of the flying-is-no-longer-fun era – the airlines have tried to provide restaurant-like food service in their first class cabins. I had that experience on a memorable Pan American flight years ago when the travel gods contrived for me to be upgraded on a flight from Honolulu to San Francisco.

About 90 minutes out, I was silently gloating on my good fortune and sipping a very nice scotch when a smiling Pan Am flight attendant tapped me on the shoulder. “Mr. Loomis,” she said, “if you’re ready for dinner, your table is waiting in the upstairs lounge.”

Is that classy, or what!

She led me up a flight of stairs to a cozy table-for-four and I spent the next 90 minutes chatting – mostly about politics – with the former governor of California, Pat Brown, and his wife. Dinner was a delicious roast beef, cooked to perfection and sliced right there beside our table. And a very nice California pinot noir, too.

First class on Pan American really was first class and really did include restaurant-quality meals at 35,000 feet.

But an entrepreneur in Taiwan has put a reverse spin on all that, opening a restaurant that’s supposed to make you think your at 35,000 feet in an airplane … specifically, in one of the new monster Airbus 380s. Some of the meals are actually served on plastic plates.

As we say here in Hawaii, go figgah! I'll take an Amtrak dining car any day!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Honolulu’s Transit Opponents Have No Shame

Honolulu has had three shots at a transit system over four decades. The first two times, the project lost on 5-4 votes by the Honolulu City Council. The third time proved to be the charm when transit was approved by Honolulu voters last November.

Is transit needed on Oahu? You tell me. This shot was taken a month or so ago after a three-car accident occurred on a local freeway during afternoon rush hour.

But, as expected, the rail opponents still rant and rave.

And lie.

Yesterday, an organization called Small Business Hawaii trotted out a study that actually claims the city’s transit system will be more polluting than automobiles … a statement so easily and so often disproved as to be patently absurd. (As testimony to the depth of work going into this document, Small Business Hawaii paid the princely sum of five thousand dollars for it.)

Standing behind the clown who wrote this disgraceful screed was Hawaii State Senator Sam Slom, a Republican, who has also headed Small Business Hawaii for several decades. Slom, an arrogant, inflexible libertarian ideologue, is heartily detested by most people holding differing views who have ever had to deal with him.

Years ago, when Honolulu was debating transit for the second time, I briefly served on the board of directors of Small Business Hawaii. Opening the paper one morning, I read to my great surprise that SBH had come out in opposition to the city’s transit project.

I immediately called Sam and asked how a policy decision like that could be made without board approval. “It’s my prerogative,” Sam said. “Well,” I replied, “if that’s the way decisions are made, I may have to reconsider my participation as a board member.” “I’ll have a membership refund check in the mail to you this afternoon,” Sam snapped. And he hung up.

That’s who is behind this absurd, embarrassing, insulting, biased, half-baked, fraudulent “study.”

But what’s truly shocking is that the Honolulu media actually bought it … at least to the extent that they gave it equal play on the TV news last night. No skepticism, no questions, no checking the credentials of the guy who prepared it.

Somewhere, Walter Cronkite is spinning in his grave like a goddam top!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

So What Do YOU Do for Fun and Relaxation?

Thanks to some winter storms in the Western Pacific, we are having some very big surf here in Hawaii.

The Eddie Aikau competition is underway as I write this. This particular event is only held when wave heights exceed 30-35 feet and other conditions are favorable, a combination that doesn’t happen very often. In fact, the last time they held this event was in 2004.

There is an ongoing monumental traffic jam on Oahu’s North Shore as local residents and visitors crowd the beach to watch. (Honolulu Advertiser photo.)

Eddie Aikau, by the way, was a well-known big wave surfer from Hawaii who was part of the original crew of the hokule’a, a replica of a Polynesian voyaging canoe that eventually made numerous trips to Tahiti, the Marquesas, and other areas of the South Pacific. But during a shakedown trial many years ago, the canoe was swamped at night somewhere between Maui and Lanai. Eddie set out for help on his surfboard, but was never heard from again. A local line of surf wear and gear has long been marketed here under the theme, “Eddie Would Go.”

Meantime, here on Maui at a spot known as Jaws, a handful of the best (and the craziest) big wave surfers were braving waves that exceeded 50 feet. (Photo from The Maui News)

The waves at Jaws are so monstrous that surfers must be towed out beyond the break by jet skis. Apparently, three of these watercraft were swamped and lost yesterday.

The very best of these big wave riders are quick to tell you that they are scared witless every single time. Ya' think??

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Isn’t There Something Wrong With This Picture?

I was in Honolulu this past week for some surgery … having what my general contractor brother-in-law would call some “interior remodeling” done.

After a three-day stay, I found myself back at Honolulu International Airport for my Hawaiian Airlines flight home to Maui. I was dealing with a necessary-but-annoying catheter and was worried that I would have a problem going through security.

After all, the TSA will stop you if you have a water bottle or a tube of toothpaste with more than 3.5 ounces, and here I was with a plastic bag strapped to my leg. It was out of sight under my baggy sweatpants, but it has a capacity, I would guess, of some 12-14 ounces.

I sailed through without the slightest problem.

Give you pause? Sure did me.