Sunday, May 30, 2010

Still Living in Fear of the Dreaded Typo

Any of us who do any kind of writing -- for fun, for occasional income, or as a full-time living -- have our own personal horror stories involving typos … typographical errors. They’re easy to create – all it takes is inadvertently hitting the wrong letter on the keyboard – and damn hard to spot. Sometimes impossible. At least until it’s too late.

It’s not so bad if you accidentally type witg instead of with. Most of the time, even proofing quickly, you eye will spot something glaring like that.

But what if the typo actually makes some king (not kind) of sense? Not so easy to spot.

My personal horror story goes back many years when I was working at Iolani School in Honolulu, one of Hawaii’s top private schools. I had multiple responsibilities, one of which was writing and editing the Iolani Bulletin, the quarterly magazine that was mailed to parents, alumni and friends of the school. It was, if I may say so, a good looking publication and, as a matter of fact, it won top prize in statewide competition on two occasions.

One issue featured a special report by the headmaster, which was included as in insert bound into the center of the magazine. Close to the beginning of the report, to give it the import it deserved, the headmaster had written the following sentence (reproduced here as accurately as I can remember):

“Thanks to the efforts of countless alumni, parents and friends, Iolani’s new science center is now a reality.”

Unfortunately, my own personal little typo caused his words to appear in print as “ ... our new science center is not a reality.”

I personally spent a good part of that weekend blacking out the word “not” in 12,000 magazines with a marking pen, thus causing the sentence to say simply that “… Iolani’s new science center is (black blob here) a reality.” The headmaster was mollified, but remained very displeased.

I am still scarred from that experience and will probably have trouble getting to sleep tonight.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

If You Build It, People Will Come - a LOT of Them!

In November of 2007, a group of civic leaders from central Virginia, got together, formed the Piedmont Rail Coalition, and started banging the drum to get Amtrak to extend it’s northeast regional service farther south and into their area.

It took a helluva lot of work, but on October 1st of 2009, daily service began linking Lynchburg (that's the new train in the Lynchburg station) and Charlottesville with Washington, DC, and points north along the Northeast Corridor.

But here’s the thing: Before the new service began, Amtrak predicted an annual ridership of 51,000 people. That’s annual … as in 12 months. But after just six months, 55,025 people had ridden the train along its newly extended route … more than double the initial projections.

So … whaddaya think? Do people want more trains?

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Some Straight Talk from DOT Boss Ray LaHood

A month or so back, U. S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood was one of the featured speakers at a conference sponsored by the Federal Aviation Administration where, clearly, most of the conference attendees were involved in the aviation industry.

One of the speakers criticized the Obama administration’s focus on rail passenger service, which prompted Secretary LaHood to offer the following:

“Let me give you a little political advice: Do not be against high-speed rail. The administration wants it. Americans want it. It is coming. We are going to be in the high-speed rail business.”

LaHood, by the way, was a long-time Republican congressman from Illinois before accepting Obamas’s appointment to run the federal DOT.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Amtrak President Sure Has a Way With Words

I’ve mentioned here several times about Amtrak’s pressing need for new equipment. At an appearance before a Congressional subcommittee several weeks back, Amtrak President Joe Boardman put things into a pretty simple perspective:

“ … imagine that you bought a Chevy El Camino back in 1977 and proceeded to drive it from [Washington] D.C. to New York and back again, every single day since then, with a day and a half off every month for maintenance. That’s how hard we run the Amfleets and they are neither the oldest not the hardest-run equipment in the fleet.”

Amfleet coaches are used in the Northeast Corridor between Washington and Boston, up and down the east coast in the Florida trains, on the Crescent between New York and New Orleans, and on the Cardinal between New York and Chicago. They're also used and on some mid-western routes. And "used" is certainly the right word!

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Tour Guide Speaks With Forked Tongue

Hawaii is a miraculous place, unique in all the world in hundreds of ways, and a visit here should be in every traveler’s bucket list. I really do enjoy having friends and relatives show up so we can take them to a few "local" spots and give them some insights they aren’t likely to get if they stick to the usual tourist attractions and take the packaged tours.

A cousin of mine was recently here on Maui for a couple of days and, as part of their sightseeing, they took a cruise along the coast of West Maui. It’s a glorious part of this island and you also get a great view of the Island of Molokai, just a few miles off to the northwest.

But during the cruise, the kid running the boat and providing the narrative pointed to the West Maui mountains behind Kapalua and toldhis passengers that “the wettest spot on earth” was back up there, adding that the rainfall there totaled some 400 inches a year.

Trouble is, that is absolute, total, 100 percent outrageous BS.

And potentially confusing, too, because the wettest spot on earth, which does indeed get 400 inches of rainfall every year, really is here in the Hawaiian Islands … but it's 200-plus miles to the west atop Mount Waialeale on the Island of Kauai. And everyone living here knows that!

It really angers me when I hear about visitors getting bad information. No doubt in this case it was coming from some smart-alecky 20-something kid -- probably from the mainland and here for a year or two of sun and fun -- who’s working a few days a week as a tour guide to pay for his burgers and beer and some occasional pot.

I wish to hell I had been on that boat. I would have asked him if he knew what the Hawaiian word okole means. And if he didn’t, I’d have taught him by booting him there. Hell, I’d have booted him there even harder if he did know!

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Amtrak Trains In Two Incidents, Both Avoidable.

Two new grade crossing accidents to report today … both unfortunate and both all-too-typical.

In Pinole, California (near Martinez in the Bay Area), a man and his dog were killed when hit by an Amtrak train. This accident is still being investigated, but there is speculation that the man could have been trying to save the dog, perhaps snatching it out of the path of one train, only to be hit by a second train coming the other direction. This is a classic occurrence: one train passes and a car or a pedestrian crosses the track not realizing there’s a second train coming.

Meanwhile, in North Carolina, a low-boy carring some heavy equipment bottomed out at a grade crossing and became stuck on the track. It was stuck by Amtrak's Piedmont en route to Charlotte. Diesel fuel spilled on impact and the engine caught fire. A dozen passengers and one crew member were hurt although reports say none seriously.

As is the case in virtually 100% of these occurrences, both were entirely avoidable and neither of these incidents would have occurred had the victim or the truck driver used caution and common sense.

By the way, these photographs, by the way, were taken by a young woman who is taking a photography course at her local high school.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Saving BIG Bucks on Amtrak Travel

I’ve recently helped some friends here on Maui plan a ride on the California Zephyr next Fall around Thanksgiving time. As always when I do Amtrak booking, I came across some interesting insights.

These folks will be traveling from Denver to San Francisco and their ideal schedule has them leaving Denver on Friday morning, the day after Thanksgiving, which is smack in the middle of that long, four-day weekend.

An hour west of Denver, the California Zephyr passes Gross Dam as it climbs into the Rockies. (Kevin Morgan photo)

By booking well ahead of time, and because they’ll be traveling on what will obviously be a slow travel day, they were able to get a large bedroom for that entire trip for just under $600 … that includes rail fares for one senior and one adult, plus the cost of the bedroom. And, since they’re traveling in sleeping car accommodations, all their dining car meals will be included in that fare. WOW!

By comparison, I priced that very same trip in those same accommodations exactly one month earlier and one month later. The cost for travel in October was $1175 and for that same trip in December, $1027. Double WOW!!

Interestingly, and as testimony to the popularity of sleeping car accommodations on Amtrak’s western trains, I had to check on a few different dates in October because all the bedrooms on several of those trains in October were already sold out.

The obvious lesson here? When booking sleeping car space on Amtrak, (1) book as early as possible and (2) look for off-peak days.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Two Amtrak Employees Come Through in a Pinch

There always seems to be some little glitch in the course of every journey. Especially mine –- at least that’s the way it seems –- because I enjoy traveling and my trips always include a lot of logistics: taxis, trains, connections, hotels, meetings, taxis, more trains and a long flight or two on either end.

The glitch on this trip occurred when I left a pair of reading glasses on the Cardinal, my train from Baltimore to Chicago. I didn’t miss them until I’d been camped in Amtrak’s Metropolitan Lounge in Chicago for a while. Fortunately, I always bring a spare pair, but they’re old and have a few scratches and are a poor substitute.

So there I was in La Plata, Missouri, on an overnight stop, just finishing up the previous post and squinting at the laptop screen through my old glasses when my cell phone rang. It was a nice guy named Steve from Amtrak in Chicago. Jay Wright, the terrific car attendant I had on the Cardinal, had found my glasses and turned them in to Amtrak’s Lost and Found. Using the train and room number from the Cardinal’s passenger manifest, Steve tracked me down, found my profile, and called my cell phone.

He said they would put my glasses in a box and send it out on the Southwest Chief, the very train I was catching that same night in La Plata on the final leg of my trip to Los Angeles. The station in La Plata is unmanned, so getting something out of the baggage car there would have been dicey. Instead, I picked up the little package when we arrived in Los Angeles this morning.

Two terrific Amtrak people went to a lot of trouble to see that I got a $100 pair of glasses back … one more example confirming my belief that 99% of Amtrak employees do tough jobs and do them very well indeed.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Cardinal Is One of Amtrak's Most Scenic Rides

I’m a third of the way through my return to the West Coast, currently on a one-day stop in La Plata, Missouri. This small town is the site of what is planned to be an impressive and extensive railroad-themed facility called the Silver Rails Resort. More about that later after I’ve had a chance to look around.

In the meantime, I had another opportunity to take what has to be one of Amtrak’s most enjoyable trains, the Cardinal. It runs three-days a week in both directions between New York City and Chicago. I boarded in Baltimore for the westbound run.

After almost an hour’s stop in Washington, the Cardinal swings southwest and begins a very scenic run across Virginia and West Virginia, over the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Allegany range, then winding through the amazing New River Gorge. You can see the train tracks along the left bank of the gorge in the photo above.

There are two other options for traveling to Chicago from major East Coast cities -- the Lake Shore Limited from New York or Boston, or the Capitol Limited from Washington – but the Cardinal offers a wonderful and much more scenic option.

The one drawback is that this train doesn’t operate daily, and the thrice-weekly schedule can make connections awkward or expensive, if the Cardinal’s schedule means having to overnight in Chicago. True, there has been talk of making the Cardinal a daily train but, once again, Amtrak’s shortage of equipment becomes the major obstacle.

As it is, there is only one sleeping car on the Cardinal and several of the rooms are necessarily occupied by crew members. And – the law of supply and demand at work – the cost of a roomette on the Cardinal can be as much as double that of a roomette on the Capitol Limited.
Nevertheless, it’s a glorious trip and I recommend it enthusiastically. One caveat: I think the eastbound trip is preferred because you’ll spend more time passing through the New River Gorge during daylight hours than when coming from the other direction.

Either way, however, the Cardinal is a wonderfully scenic rail journey and should be on every train traveler’s bucket list.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Taking Amtrak 300 Years Back in Time

With the NARP* board meetings over, and a day-and-a-half to kill before a Red Sox-Orioles game in Baltimore, I hopped Amtrak regional train #67 in Alexandria and headed south to Williamsburg, Virginia. The train was just a few minutes late arriving in Alexandria, but no matter. It was a lovely morning, the air still crisp, when I boarded just before 8:00 and settled into a comfortable, leather seat in Business Class, the last unoccupied pair of seats with a full window view.

Ten minutes after leaving, the 60ish lady sitting behind me began humming -- no recognizable tunes, just up a few notes, then down a few, then back up again. She'd stop for a while, then start up again, and after three or four of her "sets," I decided it was time for a pastry and some hot coffee in the cafe car. Twenty minutes later, as I returned to my seat, she looked up at me, smiled sweetly, and said, "I so enjoy riding the train. Isn't the countryside lovely?" She got off in Richmond an hour later.

We had had two long delays before Richmond because of CSX crews doing track work and by the time we arrived in Williamsburg, train 67 was 55 minutes behind schedule. But no matter, for the part of town that draws visitors from all over the world is a step back in time -- back to the mid-1700s -- when an hour's delay was of no consequence. Colonial Williamsburg includes hundreds of buildings carefully and lovingly restored, lots of people in period costumes wandering around and working in authentic shops: shoemakers, carpenters, and other artisans demonstrating their 18th century skills. (During my first visit many years ago, I watched a cooper making a barrel by hand. Fascinating!)

On this trip, however, I had just a half-day plus an evening, and I spent the daylight hours strolling around the town, poking my head into a shop here and there, admiring the lovely gardens, and stopping frequently to sit under a shade tree on one of the many wooden benches. It was an absolutely lovely and thoroughly enjoyable afternoon.

I had an excellent dinner at the King's Arms Tavern, then returned to the room I had reserved in one of the original old buildings three blocks away. Comfortably tired from all that walking, I crawled into bed early. As I lay reading, a company of red-coated militia marched past under my window to the rhythmic beat of a snare drum , heading for the green in the center of the old village. I drifted off a half hour later ... a very happy camper.
* National Association of Railroad Passengers