Friday, January 29, 2010

Being a U.S. Senator Means Never Having to Say You're Sorry.

Many of us have come to expect the irrational from Senator Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma). This, after all, is the guy who says a doctor who performs an abortion should stand trial for murder. Of course he’s already on my kukai list for his goofy attacks on Amtrak, including the false claim that the railroad pays $6 a bottle for the beer it sells in their dining cars. He was proven wrong and so informed, but continues to make that accusation in his anti-Amtrak blatherings.

One would have hoped for more and better from John McCain, but he has recently joined with Coburn in attacking – are you ready for this? – the Napa Valley Wine Train. Coburn and McCain are claiming that some $54 million in stimulus money is being spent on the train -- for the benefit of rich tourists -- and they have oh-so-cleverly renamed it the Stimulus Waste Express.

One small problem: They … are … wrong!

The money, you see, is for a badly needed and long-overdue flood control project which will require a section of track used by the Wine Train to be moved and elevated. It’s either that or put the Wine Train out of business. (Can you imagine the anti-government howls that would have provoked!)

The error was pointed out to Coburn’s staff, but his office refuses to admit they screwed-up. So far, no comment from McCain despite a thoughtful, respectful appeal from officials of the Wine Train.

And that’s too bad, because the flap generated some negative publicity which apparently caused a drop in business for the Wine Train, and a formal acknowledgement of the mistake could help to turn that around. Clearly, an apology would be asking too much.

I know these guys are heavy into self-promotion, but I thought they were pro-business, too! Apparently not when they have to choose between the two.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Finally! Passenger Rail Advocates Can Cheer.

As anticipated, the Obama White House has announced a total of 29 rail projects to be funded with some $8 billion in stimulus funds.

The biggest hunk – almost $3 billion – will be going to California. That’s appropriate, too, because voters there have already passed a $10 billion bond issue for construction of a high-speed rail line linking Los Angeles and San Francisco. When completed, that will reduce travel time between those cities to something like two hours and forty minutes.

Florida gets $1.25 billion to start work on the first phase of a high-speed line linking Tampa and Orlando and another big chunk -$1.1 billion – will go to improving tracks and signals along the Chicago-St. Louis route. Once completed, that will reduce the running time between those two cities for several Amtrak trains, including the Texas Eagle, and thereby increase ridership.

Another long-anticipated route in the mid-west is getting $400 million … not a big amount in the overall scheme of things, but it’s a down payment and should mean a commitment that will eventually bring about a rail link connecting Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton and Cincinnati.

You can get a look at the entire list by clicking here. And you can go here for a run-down and reaction from NARP, the National Association of Railroad Passengers.

Wow! What a difference it makes to have a few visionaries holding the purse strings in Washington!

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Now tell me this isn’t absolutely gorgeous!

It’s a photo of the head end of the original Texas Eagle when the train was operated by the Missouri Pacific Railroad. I found it on what has become a favorite blog, The Reluctant Blogger, who happens to be one Henry Kisor.

Henry retired a few years back as the book review editor for the Chicago Sun-Times and has written a number of murder mysteries.

But more to the point for those of us who enjoy train travel, in the mid-’90s, he wrote a wonderful book, Tracking a Dream Across America, an account of his cross-country trip on the Amtrak's California Zephyr. It's terrific and I heartily recommend it.

In fact, I recommend anything with Henry Kisor’s name on it.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

How About Socking It to the Speeders?

It’s a simple and probably obvious theory: We have the graduated income tax, so why not apply the same idea to speeding tickets? Take, for instance, a guy worth multi-millions blowing through a 55 mph zone at 80 or 85 in his brand new Mercedes sports car. A $200 fine is chump change for someone like that and would certainly not convince him to change his ways.

But how about a speeding ticket that costs the offending driver $290,000? Wow! That’s the amount the millionaire owner of a Ferrari was recently fined by a Swiss traffic court for a flagrant speeding violation.

Several other European countries have also adopted this approach … adjusting traffic fines according to a violator’s income and ability to pay.

Seems fair to me and I dare say it would cause the motoring scofflaws to think twice before endangering themselves and, more importantly, others. And isn’t that the purpose of these laws?

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Proof Will Be In The Ordering

It has long been my opinion – not to mention my hope – that a major effort would be mounted both by and for Amtrak to get some new rolling stock for the railroad. The typical life expectancy for a rail car is 50 years and most of Amtrak’s fleet is nearing that mile marker.

Personally, I would like to see a major emphasis placed on a lot of new bi-level Superliners – coaches and sleepers – because it will be impossible for Amtrak to add frequency to any long-distance routes, much less open any new ones, without literally hundreds of new Superliners. Same thing with single-level coaches for eastern trains and short-haul routes.

The good news is that Amtrak has now announced plans to order more locomotives and railcars. What remains to be seen is what kind of cars, although Amtrak’s news release did say the would be ordering both single- and bi-level cars.

The big problem, of course, is how will Amtrak pay for all that new equipment? Through all the Bush years – and, to be honest, through the Clinton years, too – Amtrak was given barely enough money to survive, let alone to think about new equipment.

So, with bated breath, passenger rail advocates are waiting for the promised specifics: what kind of cars, how many cars, and how will they be paid for.

Stay tuned.

Friday, January 15, 2010

A Little Snow Removal – All in a Day’s Work

Amtrak’s California Zephyr, which runs daily between Chicago and the Bay Area, was cancelled for two days last week because of a huge snowstorm that blew across the Midwest and onto the western plains.

The Zephyr operates over track owned by the Burlington Northern Santa Fe and of course the terrible weather affected all their freight trains, too. BNSF crews did everything possible to clear the tracks and get everything moving again.

How bad was it? Today I was sent some photographs taken just as the storm had let up.
Pretty impressive gear, eh? Note that it takes two locomotives to power the huge blower and move the units through the heavy drifts. (Sorry, I have been unable to find out the name of the photographer.)
One of the Zephyrs that did get through arrived in Chicago many hours late. Typically, news reports quoted passengers ranting about the inconvenience and swearing they would never travel by Amtrak again.

Sorry, but I have no patience with that attitude. Having been through all that weather and seen the conditions firsthand, you would think that those passengers would have been more appreciative of the effort, not to mention expense, put out by both Amtrak and BNSF. They were damn lucky they got through at all!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Amtrak Discounts Fares … and Does Some Clever Advertising

Amtrak has announced discounts up to 20 percent off of one-way fares for all long-distance routes. The discounts will be offered from now until the 25th of this month and will apply to travel taking place between January 19th and the end of March. Details are available on Amtrak’s web site or by calling one of their reservations people at 1-800-USA-RAIL.

By the way – have I mentioned this before? – I really like the re-design of Amtrak’s web site. Nice graphics, easy to use, AND LARGER TYPE ... an important consideration for those of us with old eyeballs.

And, finally, you know those plastic trays into which the TSA makes you toss your cell phone, nail clippers, belt, shoes, pocket change and Tootsie Rolls when checking in for a flight? I came across a photo of one of those trays which had an advertisement for Amtrak in the bottom.

Pretty clever … a reminder that you don’t have to go through security with all that aggravation and inconvenience when taking the train. (At least not yet!)

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Full-Service Dining Cars Return to the Lake Shore

I’ve written here on several occasions about the serious need Amtrak has for new equipment. Some time back, the “Heritage” era dining cars were taken out of service because of constant problems with every conceivable kind of breakdown … from purely mechanical to electrical to whatever.

However, those classic dining cars have been overhauled and renovated and are now being put back into service, initially on the Lake Shore Limited, running between Chicago and either New York or Boston.

The eastbound Lake Shore divides at Albany, New York, with one section heading down along the Hudson River into New York City, and another staying on an easterly course and terminating in Boston. That scenario is reversed on the westbound trip. An educated guess is that the newly renovated dining cars will stay with the New York City train, so Boston passengers will be without those diners for the 5½-hour run between Boston and Albany. Unfortunately, that’s right through the dinner hour on the eastbound train. Not to worry: Amtrak does provide a "cold meal service" for sleeping car passengers on that train. I'll let you know if that changes once all the renovated dining cars are in service.

It's not perfect, but since dining car meals are – and have always been – the experience rail passengers most remember and most enjoy, the return of these refurbished dining cars is good news indeed.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Vice President Joe Biden ... He GETS It!

As just about everyone knows, Joe Biden is a big supporter of Amtrak. Throughout his entire career in the U.S. Senate, Biden continued to live at home in Wilmington, Delaware, commuting by train every day to his Washington office.

There’s an excellent piece written by Biden in Arrive magazine – published by Amtrak for Acela passengers on the Northeast Corriidor. Here’s a brief excerpt:

"Support for Amtrak must be strong--not because it is a cherished American institution, which it is--but because it is a powerful and indispensable way to carry us all into a leaner, cleaner, greener 21st century.

"Consider that if you shut down Amtrak's Northeast Corridor, it is estimated that to compensate for the loss, you'd have to add seven new lanes of highway to Interstate 95. When you consider that it costs an average of $30 million for one linear mile of one lane of highway, you see what a sound investment rail travel is. And that's before you factor in the environmental benefits of keeping millions and millions of cars off the road."

Right on, Joe!

Uh … sorry … Very well said, Mr. Vice President.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

A Bit of a Digression Today …

I’ve become a Netflix junkie. We watch a movie of our choice after dinner almost every night. Start it whenever we finish the dinner dishes. Put it on “PAUSE” if we want to get a bit of desert. No commercials. Perfect!

Last night, we watched The Sting, with Paul Newman and Robert Redford. An absolutely terrific film. We’d seen it before, of course, but it’s one of those special films that’s well worth seeing multiple times.

While rinsing off our desert dishes, I remembered the very first time I had first seen The Sting. It was shortly after the film came out and it was offered as in-flight entertainment on a Western Airlines flight from Honolulu to the West Coast.

Let’s see … when was that? Well (checking the blurb on the Netflix DVD sleeve) The Sting was released in … in … in 1973. And that was thirty-seven years ago!


Saturday, January 2, 2010

More Grade Crossing Tragedies

Once again, we get word of two incidents in which people have been killed by Amtrak trains. The truth is, there is a fatality at a railroad grade crossing almost every day. Senseless … stupid … and all the more tragic because every damn one is unnecessary and avoidable.

Yesterday in North Carolina, for example, a young woman drove around the gates, onto the tracks, and into the path of an Amtrak train. She was killed. So was her 5-year-old son. She was talking on her cell phone at the time.

Also yesterday, near Orlando, Florida, a young man was killed when he apparently walked into the path of another Amtrak train. The news story doesn’t say so, but this could very likely be a suicide … one of many like this that occur every year.

Off subject, and admittedly trivial in comparison to this tragedy, the news report out of Orlando repeatedly referred to this incident as a “collision,” a terrible misuse of the word. A collision is contact between two bodies when each exerts a force on the other … doesn’t matter if the bodies are atomic particles or a freight train hitting a cement truck. But, clearly, a speeding train striking a single human being is not a collision.

Who writes this stuff, anyway!