Wednesday, April 28, 2010

A Productive Day Meeting With the “Little Punks”

The NARP meetings – that’s the National Association of Railroad Passengers – have just concluded and we’ve ended on a very positive note. After too many years of a hostile administration, there is strong pro-rail sentiment here in Washington now, both in Congress and especially in the White House.

We attended to a good deal of regular business, and there were sessions with interesting speakers, but the really important activity was yesterday during our annual “Day on The Hill”. That’s when the 80 or 90 of us break into small groups and go knock on Congressional doors, visiting with staff members and elected officials from our own states, and even our own districts.

The message is pretty much the same for all of them: thanks for your support of rail and of Amtrak, and please do what you can to make sure that passenger rail gets adequate funding. (Or, in some cases, it’s we really wish you would wake up to the importance of passenger rail and get with the program!)

Being the only member of NARP’s Council of Representatives from Hawaii, I flew solo and called at the offices of Senators Dan Inouye and Dan Akaka, plus a visit to our sole Member of the House, Mazie Hirono. (We normally have two representatives, but a month ago my good friend, Neil Abercrombie, resigned his House seat after serving 20 years to run for Governor of Hawaii.)
And I’m proud and grateful to our Hawaii delegation: despite the fact that we’re the only state that will never be linked to the national passenger rail system, our senators and reps have always understood the importance and the value of trains and have consistently voted in support of rail in general and of Amtrak in particular.

This was the third time that I’ve gone through this exercise and I have always come away with a very good feeling: it’s democracy in action … people going to see their elected representatives and offering ideas about making this county better.

Furthermore, I have always been impressed by the staff people we’ve met and talked to. They are universally alert, smart, interested, articulate, responsive and polite. Anyone visiting any one of the senate or house offices will come away with the very same impression, regardless of the cause that takes them there.

And that’s why I was so outraged by the nasty remark made by John Boehner, Republican Minority leader in the House, who referred to the staff people for Democratic members working on the financial reform legislation as “little punk staffers.” He couldn’t be more wrong or more unfair. (Congressman Barney Frank had badges printed up and distributed to many of the staffers, who wore them proudly!)

I suppose we should probably make allowances for Boehner. Poor guy, he’s an arrogant jerk and a mindless ideologue, and just can’t help it.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

How About A Hotel Review?

I’m in Washington after taking the overnight ride on the Capitol Limited from Chicago. The night I spent there was at the “W” hotel in downtown Chicago … a hotel which is, I think, worthy of a word or two.

The first that leaps to mind is “ridiculous.”

Like the Cross Country CafĂ© cars mentioned in my previous post, I’m sure Chicago’s W made some interior designer all goose-bumpy because the people who run the W chain (It’s part of the Starwood brand), evidently gave him or her carte blanche.

The rooms – mine, anyway – are also very contemporary in appearance, but disfunctional. The bathroom, for example, features a small stainless steel basin set in a faux marble counter that is absurdly small … so small that my toiletry kit won’t fit on it. I’d set it on a nearby shelf, of course, but there isn’t one. So anyone using the sink – even the youthful, hip travelers for whom this place was clearly designed – will have to repeatedly bend over to retrieve razor or toothpaste or floss or vitamins or whatever from toiletry kits on the floor.

The queen bed is quite comfortable and comes with four thick soft pillows. Very nice. But can anyone explain the purpose of an 18-inch wide, 8-foot long piece of fake gray fur draped across the foot of the bed? In the middle of the bed is a small burgundy throw pillow, embroidered with the word “Wish.”

Mounted on the wall directly opposite the foot of the bed is a 2x3-foot back-lit sign:


Personally, that’s the spot where I would have put the wide screen TV, which is mounted six or seven feet to the left, requiring anyone lying in bed to hold the remote high in the air and off to the side when changing channels. But what do I know?

The relentless drive for hipness extends beyond the purely visual. For example, if you have a question, apparently about anything at all, you have merely to press a button on the telephone marked, “Whatever/Whenever.” I gave it a try.

Me (pushing button)
Female voice (crisply, after several rings): “Whatever, whenever.”
Me: “Yes, can you tell me when check-out time is?”
Female voice: “Twelve o’clock noon, sir.”
Me: “Thank you.”

I suppose that wasn’t a particularly severe test of the “whatever” promise, but it was information I needed. There was, you see, no mention of check-out time in the informational booklet – titled “Know It All” – provided in the desk drawer.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Ridin' On The City of New Orleans ...

With the major chunk of flying happily and safely behind me, I showed up yesterday noon at the New Orleans Amtrak Station waiting to board the City of New Orleans for the first segment of what will eventually be a seven-leg rail itinerary.

We got off to a less-than-promising start when, exactly at our scheduled 1:45 departure time, a conductor announced that one of the Superliner coaches had a mechanical problem. It would have to be left behind and a replacement car substituted ... begging the question, how is it that the problem wasn't discovered until right at departure time?? At any rate, there followed some 55 minutes of trundling off to the yard and a lot of backing and forthing while the swapping out took place.

Finally we were off, however ... an hour late, but it's hard not to begin an overnight train ride on a beautiful day after spending some time in the French Quarter of that extraordinary city.

After skirting Lake Ponchartrain, Amtrak's train # 58 entered a long sweeping right turn and headed due north across Louisiana, Mississippi, through Memphis in the late evening, and on up into Illinois ... about 98 percent of which is rural farming country with gravel or dirt roads crossing the tracks at intervals of two or three every mile.

The net result was the train whistle blowing almost constantly throughout most of the journey and damn near all night. Since my sleeping car was second in the consist, the whistle was not only constant, it was loud. Nevertheless, after several hours, although well after midnight, I did indeed drift off.
Earlier I had another enjoyable dining car meal, by the way -- crab cakes, rice and green beans, all quite tasty and accompanied by a half-bottle of a decent chardonay -- but featuring a delightful conversation with a 60ish couple from Mississippi on the way to visit their daughter in Lake Tahoe. They connected today here in Chicago with the California Zephyr. It's their first long-distance train ride and both were having the time of their lives and vowing more train travel in the years ahead.
By the way, the City of New Orleans features the Cross Country Cafe car as a diner and once again I must note that this re-designed arrangement was not a good idea. It may be attractive in appearance, but the seating is not comfortable for passengers. There is really no possible way four people can sit and dine comfortably at the so-called "table for four" shown here at the left of the photo. There simply is not enough room and the Amtrak service crews don't even bother seating four people in those booths unless they're all from one family, preferably including smaller kids.
Further, when sitting comfortably all the way back in the booths, most people of normal size find themselves a bit too far from the tables, which are fixed to the floor. And, of course, the booth seating cannot be moved. I suppose the extra few inches could have been added to accommodate patrons who are, shall we say, "circumferentially challenged" -- and there are, God knows, plenty of them -- but if so the result is that dining in the Cross Country Cafe car is a bit awkward for the rest of us.

And, finally, the dining car crews don't like this new arrangement because they can't serve as many people in each sitting ... which means there are more sittings ... which means an already long day becomes even longer for those folks.
I have an idea: Let's find the guy who designed this new configuration, and the two or three Amtrak execs who approved it, and make them ride the City of New Orleans and the Capitol Limited back and forth non-stop a dozen times. The could bring back the traditional dining car to those trains in double-quick time!
All that said, the trip was fine and, while we made up time lost in New Orleans, severe windstorms in the wee hours brought down power lines and ultimately caused us to the 90 minutes late into Chicago this morning. Not a big deal ... in fact, it meant time for a more leisurely breakfast and a shorter connection to the Zephyr for those Mississippi folks.
See? That's why I keep saying that the train is the only civilized way to travel left for us.
Sorry! For whatever reason, blogger will not let me created spaces between these last several paragraphs. The result is a visual mess, for which I apologize. Anyone know how to work around this problem??

Monday, April 19, 2010

South to North to East to West ... All By Amtrak

I’m leaving here tomorrow and will be en route to Washington, DC, for the annual director’s meeting of NARP, the National Association of Railroad Passengers. The first leg is the worst: an eight-hour red-eye flight to Dallas and a connecting flight to New Orleans.

Once I hit the French Quarter, however, things start to turn around: a return visit to the terrific D-Day Museum, an exquisite dinner at Irene’s Cuisine, and a good long night’s sleep.

The next day, I’ll catch Amtrak’s City of New Orleans for the overnight ride up to Chicago, where I have a meeting scheduled with my publisher* and will have dinner with some old and dear friends. I’m overnighting in Chicago on this trip to be sure there will be time to tour the U-505, a German submarine captured by the U.S. Navy in May of 1944.

Then it’s overnight on the Capitol Limited to Washington for the three-day NARP directors’ meeting. I will post developments of interest every day from there.

By happy coincidence, the Boston Red Sox will be playing in Baltimore right after the meetings conclude, so I’ll take in two of those games, then head back to Chicago on the Cardinal, one of Amtrak’s more scenic rides across the Blue Ridge Mountains and through the New River Gorge.

In Chicago, I’ll connect with the Southwest Chief for the ride back to Los Angeles, although this time I’ve scheduled an overnight at La Plata, Missouri, which is home to the Silver Rails Resort, an ever-expanding railroad themed facility.

Again, there will be reports posted along the way as time and facilities permit.

* All Aboard - The Complete North American Train Travel Guide, 3rd edition; Chicago Review Press; publication date, January 2011 (plus or minus).

Friday, April 16, 2010

They Just Don't Make 'Em Like That Anymore

There were quite a few comments and responses to the previous post -- all much appreciated, by the way -- including one from a man who said he thought the quote I used at the end of the post came from humorist Ring Lardner, not Casey Stengel.

It certainly sounds like something Lardner would say, but several sources I checked all credit Stengel with that thought, albeit as part of a longer Stengelism:

"Most people my age are dead at the present time. You could look it up."

That said, I can't resist the opportunity to pass along two more of Casey's pearls:

"There comes a time in every man's life, and I've had many of 'em."

"The key to being a good manager is keeping the people who hate me away from those who are still undecided."

If you stop and consider, that's real wisdom, isn't it!

Monday, April 12, 2010

Refurbished Rail Cars Rejoining the Amtrak Fleet

For all the talk of adding new Amtrak routes and restoring others that were dropped over the past couple of decades, one unpleasant fact has always stood in the way: Amtrak has barely had enough equipment to maintain the reduced services, let alone add more.

This problem was at its worst in the final months of the Bush Administration, and no wonder: for eight years, Amtrak had submitted bare-bones budgets, only to have Bush’s pencil-pushers cut back even more.

The most egregious moment came in 2006 or ’07 when a Bush budget was submitted with zero dollars for our national passenger rail system. Congress intervened and provided minimal funding, of course; otherwise, it would have been the end of Amtrak.

By 2009, with Amtrak carrying record numbers of passengers thanks in part to $4-a-gallon gasoline, things had just become ridiculous: Amtrak had more than 100 desperately needed passenger cars sitting in storage because there wasn’t the money for the minor repairs or the required maintenance needed to get them back into service.

But by then, Barack Obama had taken office and his administration’s stimulus package began kicking in. To every rail advocate's delight, Amtrak was awarded several million dollars for exactly that purpose. And within the past couple of weeks we have learned that one of Amtrak’s most popular trains – the Empire Builder, operating daily in both directions between Chicago in the east and either Seattle or Portland in the west – is about to get a fourth sleeping car added to each train ... each day, both ways.

What does one more sleeper mean in terms of additional revenue for Amtrak? Consider: for a trip covering that entire distance, and depending on the time of year, bedrooms in those Superliner sleepers sell for anywhere from $800 to $1100, with the range for roomettes running from $150 to $600 depending on the time of year.

So that’s 5 bedrooms times two trains a day times seven days a week times 52 weeks … and add to that 14 roomettes computed the same way. And, in addition, every passenger
pays a basic rail fare that will average about $200. You do the math: ka-ching, ka-ching!

By the way, I tried to come up with exact numbers for this example, arbitrarily picking travel dates in the middle of July and in early December. Whaddaya know! Many of the roomettes and most of the bedrooms for those dates have already been sold out!

All of which brings to mind the now-infamous quote from Norman Mineta, who served as Transportation Secretary in the Bush Administration. He said, "Amtrak operates trains no one rides to places no one wants to go." Yes, he really did! And, to quote the legendary Casey Stengel, "You could look it up!

Saturday, April 10, 2010

To Tweet or Not to Tweet...Why Is That Even a Question?

I suppose this could be nothing more than a generational gap, but I really don’t understand the attraction to tweeting.

I suppose celebrities, especially those of the younger generation, think that everyone is desperately interested to hear about the minutia of their daily lives.

But why do so many people find all that stuff fascinating? Shouldn't they GET A LIFE! ... or am I missing something?

Saturday, April 3, 2010


Earlier today, the web site for Houston television station KHOU reported a runaway train traveling through that city’s downtown area. Here’s their report:


HOUSTON — Officials are trying to find out what went wrong after a Union Pacific train started moving Sunday morning with no one at the controls. The runaway train traveled through downtown Houston on its own for about 15 minutes before crews could get it to stop. The train traveled from 902 Washington to the 2000 block of Rothwell, where it stopped just south of Interstate 10 East. No one was hurt.

Scary? Dangerous? A disaster in the making? Well … uh … no.

It’s quite true there was no one in the cab of the yard locomotive, which appeared to be pushing a number of freight cars, but that’s the only thing this “news organization” got right. In fact, the engineer and conductor were at the front end of the train operating the helper locomotive by remote control.

I suppose the person scaring the bejeezus out of folks with this report assumed that there just had to be "officials" somewhere that would be looking into this potential disaster. Nevermind checking it out to be sure, though.

Depressing, eh? One more example of the half-assed, slip-shod news coverage we are subjected to on a daily basis. No wonder half the country gets up in arms over issues about which they are sadly misinformed.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Amtrak: Stopping, Going and Partying

Service Interrupted. As of today -- and it would appear for at least several more days -- Amtrak service through Rhode Island has been suspended because of severe flooding that has hit that state. Trains affected include those running between New Haven, Connecticut, and Boston and from New York City to Boston.

And Service Extended. Amtrak has long been providing service between Seattle and Vancouver, British Columbia, but it’s been limited to one train a day, plus several buses. That meant spending extra time in either city to catch the next day’s train – certainly not a hardship! – or opting for a four-hour bus ride. However, timed to coincide with the Winter Olympics, Amtrak added a second daily round-trip and it has proven to be very popular … so much so that the second train will be kept on the schedule at least through September. Both of these daily trains are part of Amtrak’s Cascades service.

Celebrations Planned. Saturday, May 8th, has been designated National Train Day and, if I recall correctly, this will be the 3rd annual such event. Amtrak is planning major events for that day in four major gateway cities: Washington, Philadelphia, Chicago and Los Angeles. But other celebrations are scheduled for something like 150 other locations around the country. To find out if there’s an event near you, go to the National Train Day web site … and keep checking, because new events are being added every day.