Saturday, February 27, 2010

Rule Number One: Don’t Be a Jerk. Rule Number Two: Don’t Mess With the Conductor.

A few days ago there was a news item about an Amtrak conductor who was conked on the head by a wine-bottle wielding passenger on a train in the Bay Area. Fortunately -- in order of importance -- the conductor was not seriously injured (although he did require stitches) and the boozed-up jerk who hit him was caught and will hopefully spend some time in the slammer.

This did bring to mind an interesting conversation I had with another conductor late one night on one of my long-distance train rides. We had gotten around to the subject of problem passengers -- typically people having too much to drink in the lounge car -- and how they should be handled.

“They get one firm, but pleasant warning: knock it off or I’ll put you off the train,” said the conductor. “If they keep on making trouble, the next stop will be theirs, no matter what their real destination might be.”

He went on to say that the secret is to never let the trouble-maker know that he’s going to be put off the train. That invariably leads to big trouble, especially if he (or she) has had too much to drink. In the textbook case, the conductor alerts the engineer who contacts the dispatcher who in turn calls the police somewhere up ahead of the train’s location. When train comes to a stop at the next station -- in serious situations, that could even be where a highway crosses the tracks -- two state troopers come aboard, and before the problem passenger has time to react, he’s standing on the platform watching his train rumbling off down the track without him.

As he was describing all this, I remember the conductor grinning. “It doesn't go that far very often, but when it does, the guy has been a real jerk and other passengers have been affected. The truth is, I just enjoy the hell out of it.”

Thursday, February 25, 2010

What the Hell Were They Thinking??

There has been a rash of accidents lately involving individuals being hit by trains while walking on or near -- make that too near -- railroad tracks. Some of these incidents could well have been suicides, but it appears that most were the result of carelessness. (Like grade crossing accidents involving motor vehicles, these incidents are all avoidable. Every damn one.)

In several of these cases, investigators have determined that the victims were either listening to music and wearing ear buds or talking on a cell phone while walking on the tracks. In one incident, a 15-year-old boy tried to run across the tracks ahead of the train. He didn't make it.

Obviously, these accidents have a terrible impact on the families of the victims. But, as I have written here before, the engineers involved are also victims. They see the person ahead of them on the tracks, they blow the whistle frantically, and they go into an emergency stop. But most of the time it does no good and they helplessly watch someone die. Some never recover from the experience.

Amtrak and the freight railroads, working with Operation Lifesaver, have launched an awareness campaign in an effort to cut down on these senseless deaths. Operation Lifesaver has dramatically reduced the number of grade crossing accidents involving motor vehicles. Let's hope the new campaign works, too.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Dealing With the Anti-Amtrak Stories - Again!

Having traveled by train a great deal over the past couple of decades, it distresses me to read criticisms of Amtrak by newspaper and magazine columnists that are based on ideology or misinformation.

Some of these people get their shorts in a knot because Amtrak operates in the red and receives some government subsidy. Of course it does! And so does every national passenger rail system in the world. The fact is, every form of public transportation is subsidized by government, from the airlines to sidewalks.

Amtrak gets roughly $1.5 billion a year in subsidy from the federal government. But, as we speak, the government is spending $5 billion -- that's billion, with a "B" -- for one new runway at Miami International Airport. So why the outrage over a comparatively modest subsidy for Amtrak which, by the way, generates revenue that covers 80% of it's operating costs, a record that is better than any other national passenger rail system in the world.

(Above) The southbound Coast Starlight winding through the California hills and starting its descent into San Luis Obispo.

The other complaint we hear is that Amtrak trains constantly run late. There is a basis of truth to that, but the grumbling writers are pointing their fingers in the wrong direction. The fact is, 95 percent of the time the fault is with the freight railroads over whose tracks Amtrak trains are running. It has been common practice -- Union Pacific has been the habitual and by far the worst offender -- for freight railroad dispatchers to delay Amtrak trains and give preference to their own trains, despite a federal mandate to the contrary. That said, the post-Bush feds have cracked down and most Amtrak trains are now running at or close to on time. For example, I just checked the on-time performance of Amtrak's northbound Coast Starlight, which operates daily from Los Angeles to Seattle. Guess what: that train has arrived an average of 18 minutes early over the past 30 days.

This is not to say that there isn't a lot of room for improvement in the service Amtrak provides. But most of Amtrak's problems over the past decade can be attributed to the Bush Administration's policy of doing their best to starve Amtrak to death with less-than-bare-minimum subsidies. One year, in fact, the Bush budget contain zero-zip-nada for America's only nationwide passenger rail system. If Congress hadn't interceded and provided the money, Amtrak would have had to shut down. How's that for an enlightened transportation policy? At one point about a year ago, and in the face of steadily increasing ridership, Amtrak had more than 100 rail cars in storage because they didn't have the funds to perform routine maintenance or make minor repairs. Is it any wonder that Amtrak was hard pressed to hold it all together during those times?

The reality is that most of these criticisms appear to come from people who have never ridden on Amtrak. My wish would be that they give one of Amtrak's long-distance trains a try ... the northbound Coast Starlight out of Los Angeles would be a great way to start. They can relax in the parlor car during a wine tasting. Have a steak for dinner in the dining car. Look out the left side of the train the next morning for a fabulous view of Mount Shasta. And sit on the right side after lunch for a continuing vista of lakes and valleys as the train follows a single track through the Cascades on the way into Seattle. Is there a better way to travel ... or to see America? Not in my book!

Friday, February 19, 2010

Shopping carts? Good Heavens! What Next?

I received a report the other day from a fellow NARP* board member hailing from California that’s worth sharing.

“There are growing threats to both passenger and freight rail safety from shopping carts. That's right, shopping carts! The current hazards have come mostly from a shopping center in Herndon, just north of Fresno, but other locales have seen shopping carts on the tracks. As yet damage to the trains has been light to moderate and delays brief, but Amtrak's General Superintendent, Southwest Division, Joe Yannuzzi explains that under the right circumstances a serious derailment can occur ...”

Nothing specific mentioned about how or why this latest problem is occurring, but I suppose vandalism is the most probable answer.

The trains in question are the San Joaquins, which run from Sacramento and Oakland south through Fresno to Bakersfield. Ridership on those trains has continued to increase over the last couple of years despite the lousy economy.

By the way, it’s not commonly recognized outside of California, but there is quite an extensive transportation system running throughout that state, with heavy emphasis on rail, supplemented with connecting buses. Most of it is operated by Amtrak with subsidies from the state.

*National Association of Railroad Passengers

Thursday, February 18, 2010

What Is It About Today That's So Special?

Today is the day that pitchers and catchers report to the Red Sox spring training complex in Fort Myers, Florida.

You'll forgive me if today I digress from thoughts of trains and railroads and transportation for today. Baseball fans, and especially those of us who follow the Boston Red Sox, have been waiting for this day for three long months.

Today it all begins again. And there is nothing else like it ... nothing else that even comes close to the start of Spring Training. I've spent an embarassing amount of time already today on the web sites of the Boston Globe and the Boston Herald and the Soxaholic (my very favorite sports blogger). In fact, I'm heading back there right now. Who knows? There may be some new development! And there are only 45 days until Opening Day at Fenway Park.

Monday, February 15, 2010

How Do I Love Thee, Train? Let Me Count the Ways.

It’s a sad fact that transportation infrastructure in this country has not kept pace with the population. Catching up will take money, and a lot of it, but the real question is, where will the money go?

If the decision-makers get it right, a lot – maybe even the lion’s share – will go to Amtrak and to America's high-speed rail initiatives.

Time is money, right? More rail options for commuters, will reduce the time drivers spend on the road going to work. More high-speed trains running between major cities up to 400 miles apart will dramatically reduce the number of flights, not to mention the time you might now be spending waiting in long lines to take off.

We’ll import less crude oil. Figured on a per passenger basis, an Amtrak train uses almost 25 percent less fuel than a jet plane and half as much as someone in a full-size car.

Jobs, jobs, jobs. The knee-jerk opponents to rail moan about the cost of building a high-speed rail system. But the best estimates say that more than a million and a half jobs will be created in the manufacturing sector … and that’s where they’re needed the most.

Comfort and convenience. Big, wide seats, legroom, decent food available, and you can get on and off a train smack in the heart of major cities instead of finding yourself at an airport and a $50 cab ride from where you want to be.
For more of this, and in greater detail, check out the research available at U.S. PIRG, the Public Interest Research Groups.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

So … America ... Are You Tired of Winter Yet?

Folks on the Big Island of Hawaii stepped outside this morning and looked up at the peak of Mauna Kea, topping off at 13,803 feet above sea level.

Nope … no snow … and than makes Hawaii the only state in the entire bloomin’ nation that has no snow today.

Some folks lament the fact that we have missed the chance for a perfect 50-out-of-50. Not me. One of the reasons I came to Hawaii from Connecticut almost 48 years ago was because I never, ever, wanted to shovel snow again.

As the crow flies, Mauna Kea is about 110 miles from my home here on Maui, and that’s close enough. (It's 74 degrees here at the moment. I just checked.)

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Three Cheers! Real China Is Back!

Some years ago, following another financial squeeze applied by the anti-rail Bush Administration, Amtrak was forced into another round of cost-cutting. To eliminate one food service employee from the dining car staff on every long-distance train -- the person who washed most of the dishes -- Amtrak stopped using real china and substituted disposable plastic plates. Dining car meals are just not as enjoyable if your used salad bowls and plates and cups and saucers end up being shoved into large plastic trash bags. It’s also a lousy environmental example, too.

But all that, I am delighted to say, is changing.

Amtrak is now using real china in dining cars on the Empire Builder, running daily between Chicago and Seattle/Portland. And Amtrak’s Chief of Product Development, Brian Rosenwald, has just announced that real china has returned to the Coast Starlight, with daily service between Seattle and Los Angeles. Furthermore, Amtrak is looking for ways to improve service on five other long-distance routes.

Rosenwald, by the way, has long been a driving force behind more and better service on Amtrak long-distance trains and is considered a hero by all who have followed the trials and tribulations of Amtrak over the years. Among other things, he’s the person most responsible for the Pacific Parlour cars that have become a regular part of the Coast Starlight’s consist. These cars are for the exclusive use of sleeping car passengers and offer meal and beverage service, wine and cheese tastings, and a place to relax in comfortable chairs during the trip.

If you have yet to give Amtrak a try, I would recommend your first experience be a ride in one of the sleeping car accommodations on the northbound Coast Starlight. You’ll spend the first day running up the California coast, passing some of the time in one of the over-stuffed armchairs in the Parlour car. You’ll wake up the next morning to a stunning view of Mount Shasta. And you’ll enjoy your meals served on real china on white tablecloths in the dining car.

And that, my friends, is the only way to travel!

Monday, February 8, 2010

New Equipment for Amtrak? OK, SHOW ME THE MONEY!

Well, as promised, Amtrak has announced plans for the purchase of new equipment. The first phase of the program, which Amtrak describes as “priority,” will include the purchase of a number of different locomotives and passenger cars.

They plan to replace all of the AEM-7 locomotives (these are the electric locomotives that operate along the Northeast corridor) with new ones that have an Acela "look" to them.

About 90 Heritage coaches will be replaced with new single level cars.

They Plan to replace more than 400 Amfleet coaches with a new single level coach. (I take this to mean a newly-designed car.)

And some 250 Superliner cars – coaches and sleepers -- will be replaced with “a new bi-level vehicle.” (To me, that phrase also implies a re-design of the existing equipment, although that has not been expressly stated.)

In addition, Amtrak wants to move into a new generation of high-speed diesel locomotives that will be more fuel-efficient. Furthermore, an RFP has already been put out for a bunch of new Viewliner sleeping cars.

This is an ambitious program that will take time and money … and a lot of both. Amtrak’s estimate is that it will be almost 25 years before they’re able to retire all of the equipment earmarked for replacement. The cost estimate is $28 billion in today’s dollars.

But this absolutely must be done! I have mentioned here on other occasions that the expected life of a rail car is 50 years. I can’t say for sure, but Amtrak’s “heritage” equipment has to be that old and they started adding Superliners to the fleet back in 1975.

The trick, of course, is the money. How will Amtrak be able to make a commitment to prospective manufacturers for all that new rolling stock? That’s the big question and the answer will have a great deal to do with the future of passenger rail in this country.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Another Great Train Trip Coming Up Next Fall

It’s great fun and a good feeling when you’re able to fulfill a long-held desire to visit or see some specific place or event. Over the years, I’ve been awfully lucky in that regard.

For instance, a dozen or so years ago, during a three-day stop-over in Vienna, my wife and daughter and I managed to get front row seats for a performance by the famous white horses … the lipizzan stallions that perform there at the Spanish Riding School. Only one word will do: Magnificent!

A few years later, we got a “two-fer” … rides on both the Bernina Express and the Glacier Express in Switzerland. Either one is an unforgettable experience, but both within a matter of days? Wow!

And that's my lead-in to report that I’ve just made arrangements to visit the little town of Churchill in the Canadian province of Manitoba next October. Churchill is located on the shores of Hudson Bay and is famous for the polar bears that wander in and around the town at that time of year. When the bay freezes over, the bears go out onto the ice and spend the winter hunting seals.

To reach Churchill, I’ll be taking a twice-weekly train from Winnipeg that’s operated by VIA Rail, Canada’s equivalent to Amtrak. In each direction, the trip covers 1063 miles and takes two nights. The train’s timetable lists 27 stops and 54 “flag stops,” where the train stops if someone is standing there waving at them.

It's one of the rail journeys I've had on my to-do list for years. I can’t wait!

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Sometimes, the Only Solution is Whatever It Takes

Matt Hannes photo

News reports don’t always – no, make that almost never – tell the whole story. Case in point is the story of a difficult run made by Amtrak’s California Zephyr which operates daily in both directions between Chicago and the Bay Area.

Two of the Zephyr consists encountered some pretty ferocious weather early last month. Much of the media focused on the eastbound Zephyr which arrived in Chicago on January 6th some 19 hours late, generating predictable references to “the train from hell”, etcetera and so forth.

But the westbound train that day also had some big-time problems and an excellent story about it in the current issue of Trains magazine offers some real insight into what it sometimes takes to get trains through to their destinations under some pretty taxing conditions. Click here to read it.

In particular, note the extraordinary level of cooperation and assistance BNSF Railway provided to Amtrak in this case … and, of course, to the passengers aboard the westbound Zephyr.

Freight railroads get a lot of blame for delays to Amtrak trains operating on their track, and it’s well-deserved when it comes to several of the companies ... Union Pacific probably being the worst offender. But for the past several years, BNSF has really been doing an excellent job of keeping Amtrak running on time and the railroad deserves recognition and praise for its efforts.