Tuesday, March 30, 2010

A Perfect Idea: Taking Amtrak To a National Park

Last fall, my wife and I had a very enjoyable trip to the Grand Canyon, and we got there by taking Amtrak’s Southwest Chief from Los Angeles. You connect for the Grand Canyon at Williams, Arizona, and the Chief gets there awfully early in the morning, but it all worked out beautifully. While waiting for the rental car agency to open, we had a rollicking breakfast at a local diner with some fellow passengers: a couple from Australia, a woman from Germany, and a young man from England who counselled us all at some length on the selections of tea that morning.

Visiting any of our national parks is a wonderful experience and it’s amazing how many can be reached by train.

Well, whaddaya know: Amtrak has had the same thought and they've just launched a new web site called “Parks in your Backyard” that makes it very each to locate national parks and monuments and then organize a train trip to get there.

Traveling to the Grand Canyon or many of the other national parks by train makes a lot of sense to me: you get to see some magnificent scenery there ... and on the way there, too.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Amtrak Heartland Flyer Train

Crashes Near Oklahoma-Texas


Holy crap!! A train wreck!! There must be hundreds of casualties and many deaths. Better click on Tulsa TV station KOTV’s web site and check it out right away!

Well, whaddaya know. Turns out to be a minor grade crossing accident. The “report” doesn’t bother telling us what happened to the occupant of the car, but does say that none of the 90 passengers on the train was injured.

I am sorry to say this outrageous headline is just one more example of the sad -- no, wait...make that pathetic -- state of journalism in our land. And as to the person responsible for it, there are only two possibilities: irresponsible or incompetent. Maybe both.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

If You Ain’t Got an ‘Ask,’ You Ain’t Got a Chance.

I’ll be in Washington, DC, at the end of next month for a meeting of the National Association of Railroad Passengers … specifically, NARP’s Council of Representatives, of which I’m a member. There are two such meetings every year, but this is the more important one because it gives us all a chance to visit key members of Congress and bang the drum for passenger rail.

You really have to spend some time tromping among the various offices to appreciate the one great truth of life as an elected official there: An endless stream of people coming to your door and every single one of them wants something. They all, in Washington speak, have an “ask.”

NARP is no different and discussions are already under way among Council members to figure out what our “ask” is going to be this year.

There are a lot of options … a lot of choices to be made. Amtrak recoups 80% of its operating costs from fares and other income, but still needs something like $592 million in federal support to break even. (By the way, that 80% figure is the best in the world among national rail passenger systems.)

But Amtrak also needs to replace much of its rolling stock. The average useful life of a passenger rail car is about 50 years and the typical bi-level Superliner car being operated by Amtrak on trains running west of Chicago, whether coach or sleeper, is something like 37 years old. And Amtrak continues to run cars – euphemistically referred to as “heritage equipment” – that are between 50 and 60 years old.

So there are a lot of very legitimate needs … a lot to “ask” for … but full funding for Amtrak operations and additional money for new equipment will certainly be at the top of NARP’s list.

Monday, March 22, 2010

One Way to Think About Global Warming

The following* comes from columnist Charlie Brooker in the Manchester Guardian:

“Hey, I'm no scientist. I'm not an engineer either, but if I asked 100 engineers whether it was safe to cross a bridge, and 99 said no, I'd probably try to find another way over the ravine rather than loudly siding with the underdog and arguing about what constitutes a consensus while trundling across in my Hummer.”

*Credit where it’s due: I picked this up from The Reluctant Blogger, Henry Kisor.

Friday, March 19, 2010

In Spain the Brain Is Mainly On the Train

The knee-jerk anti-anything-government ideologues in this country continue to insist that money spent on passenger rail is wasted. They’re full of crap.

(Yes, I’m cranky. I've pretty much lost patience with people who are so locked into their own view of the world that they refuse to accept as fact the proven experience of other people in other countries … be it passenger rail or health care or climate change.)

Anyway, what about the argument that even after they begin running, people won’t give up flying or driving their own cars for these fast new trains?

Well, Spain has linked most major cities with high-speed rail and the Spaniards have accepted these fast new trains in a very big way. Take the 325-mile run between Barcelona and Madrid. Two years ago, 90 percent of the people flew between those two cities. Not any more. Today, AVE (Alta Velocidad Espagnola), the Spanish high-speed rail system, is carrying more than half of the passengers between those cities. A trip that takes 6 hours by car, is now covered by rail in 2 hours and 38 minutes.

Here in the U.S., Amtrak is carrying half of the traffic between Washington and New York even though their high-speed Acela trains aren't nearly as fast, averaging just under 90 mph along that route.

Another argument we keep hearing is that high-speed rail may work in Europe, but the U.S. is too large and our cities too far apart for it to be successful here. Puh-LEEZE!

The LA-to-San Francisco high-speed line is well into the planning phase and the 432 miles between those cities will be covered in just 2 hours and 38 minutes. Can you make that trip -- from city-center to city-center -- by plane in just over 2 ½ hours? No way!

In most cases, the precise routes for other city-to-city corridors have yet to be determined, so I’ve used driving distances for the following illustrations. I’ve also assumed a conservative average speed of 150 mph for the high-speed trains. Therefore, these numbers are approximate, but still more than enough to prove the point:

Dallas-Austin: 195 miles (1:20)
Orlando-Miami: 235 miles (1:34)
St. Louis-Kansas City: 250 miles (1:40)
Chicago-St. Louis: 295 miles (1:57)
Portland-Vancouver: 314 miles (2:05)
Chicago-Cleveland: 345 miles (2:20)
Los Angeles-San Francisco: 432 miles (2:38)
Washington-Charlotte: 400 miles (2:45)
New Orleans-Atlanta: 465 miles (3:05)

Of course, logic and facts have never deterred the anti-rail crowd. The challenge for the rest of us – and for rail advocacy organizations like the National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP), is to keep knocking down their phony arguments so the vast majority of folks are well-informed on this critical issue.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

When the Numbers Lie, Bad Things Can Happen.

One of the most frustrating problems rail advocates face is the continuing misinformation about Amtrak that appears in the media. Most of that comes from individuals who simply don’t know what they’re talking about. Some, however, comes from sources and people who should know better.

For instance, the Pew Research Center recently reported that Amtrak trains are subsidized by something like $32 for every passenger carried. Of course, all the knee-jerk anti-rail ideologues pounced on that and, predictably, used those numbers to renew attacks on Amtrak's long-distance trains.

The mistake the Pew people made was in not understanding Amtrak’s accounting system. Just one example …

More than half of the depreciation reported by Amtrak is along the Northeast Corridor (Washington-New York-Boston), but those costs are allocated equally throughout the entire system.

I suppose one can defend that as acceptable accounting practice, but it’s certainly not fair to do so, then claim those numbers show that the long-distance trains are losing that kind of money.

At any rate, one phone call to NARP, the non-partisan, non-profit National Association of Railroad Passengers in Washington, would have cleared that up and ultimately resulted in much better information for the public.

The Pew organization has a good reputation, but their failure to make that phone call meant their research generated misleading information that was repeated by all major news services throughout the country and it unquestionably resulted in a set-back for more and better passenger rail service in the U.S.

And that’s a damn shame.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Story of a Very, Very, Very Hot Hotbox.

Back in 2002, a Union Pacific coal train near Sharon Springs, Kansas, stopped when a journal bearing went bad causing the car near the middle of the train to derail.

The crew stopped the train and walked a half mile or so back to assess the problem. As bad luck would have it, the derailed coal car was sitting on a bridge which, like the crossties under the rails, had been constructed with wooden beams treated with creosote. The red hot bearing had come to rest on the tracks, the ties had been set afire and … well, the photos tell the story.

There are stories of this incident circulating on the internet and one falsely claims that the Union Pacific dispatcher refused to allow the crew to move the train off the bridge because rules prohibit moving a train with a defect … proving once again that emails with startling “information” should routinely be checked with the good folks at snopes.com. It’s amazing how often those sensational emails turn out to be wrong … and even more often, especially, on political topics, deliberately faked. So internet surfers beware!

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Some True Facts* About America’s Railroads

For most of last year, I was working on the new edition of a book I wrote in the late 90s about train travel in North America. As you can imagine, there was a helluva lot of updating to do. In the course of all that, I contacted the folks at the Association of American Railroads for bits of information I thought people would find interesting: how many miles of track, the number of freight cars rumbling around the country at any given time, something about what’s in all those rail cars … things like that.

And that, of course, got me on the AAR mailing list – I am quite happy about that, by the way – and some of the info I received a week or so ago seems worth passing along.

- Over the past 30 years, the freight railroads have plowed more than $460 billion into infrastructure improvements and maintenance, which is a hefty 40¢ out of every revenue dollar.

- The freight guys employ a lot of people … something like 165,000 jobs for the several largest railroads alone. And every one of those jobs supports another four-and-a-half jobs in construction, manufacturing, agriculture, retail, food service, health care and other fields.

- Here’s one you’ve probably seen in TV commercials: A modern freight train can haul a ton of stuff – coal or lumber or whatever – for 457 miles on one gallon of fuel … and that represents an improvement of 95% in fuel efficiency since 1980.

- If 10% of what they refer to a "long-haul freight" were to be shipped by rail instead of by truck, it would reduce the amount of greenhouse gas blown out into the air from exhaust pipes by 12 million tons … and that’s in one year.

Yes, I'll grant you that this information comes from an organization that exists for the purpose of telling us good things about railroads. Nevertheless, if anyone wants to dispute any of this information, feel free to email me.

* Back in a high school, I used this term in one of my English essays and was docked by one full grade by my teacher, Norris Orchard. It was a lesson learned the hard way and, as things have turned out, I owe him much for it.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

This One Is Really Hard to Believe!

I have written here on several occasions about the idiots who drive around the gates trying to beat trains at grade crossings. Here's another one ... but with a twist.

Yesterday, in Detroit, a fire truck responding to a fender bender had to deal with some spilled fuel. One of the fire fighters parked the rig with the rear end sitting on the train tracks.

Yep, you guessed it: along comes Amtrak and … POW!

The ladder truck is worth $600,000. No, wait … the ladder truck WAS worth $600,000.

The fire chief is not happy. The fire fighter is in very deep kukai (as we say here in Hawaii).

By the way, the fire truck was Number 13.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Smart and Dumb … And All At the Same Time

When you need to blow your nose, you almost certainly ask for a “kleenex” and not for a “facial tissue.”

Likewise, you ask for a “Q-tip” and not a “cotton swab.”

And that is the ultimate marketing goal for the maker of any retail product … to have your brand dominate the marketplace to such an extent that your brand name eventually becomes the generic term for all products in that category.

Well, the marketing people may think that way, but evidently the lawyers do not.

In a recent story appearing in the Maui News, the reporter noted that an early morning bargain hunter showed up at a local garage sale with a “coffee-filled Thermos.”

Well, sure … there’s another one of those brand-to-generic descriptors: a Thermos bottle!

Ah, but the legal department for the maker of Thermos bottles clearly doesn’t care that their brand has reached the Mecca of marketing. The company’s legal pooh-bah has sent a finger-wagging letter to the newspaper saying that the name Thermos may not be used with a capital letter unless that usage is required by a rule of grammar -- at the beginning of a sentence, for example. Otherwise, says this legal beagle, it’s an infringement on a copyrighted name. Here’s a funny re-cap of this idiocy … a blog posted by an ace reporter at the Maui News … who also happens to be my daughter.

Somewhere back there in Rolling Meadows, Illinois, where they make vacuum bottles with the brand name I dare not mention, a vice-president of marketing is muttering obscenities and banging his head on the wall of his cubicle.