Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Amtrak Could Be Getting A Wee Bit of Competition

The resurgence in popularity of rail travel has boosted Amtrak’s ridership for the past two years, and the number of passengers being carried this year was up again for the first six months.

That’s good news for Amtrak and for all of us train travel advocates, of course, but there is another positive aspect to the up-tick in train travel: private enterprise is taking a fresh look at the business of carrying passengers by rail.

Case in point: the Housatonic Railroad in Connecticut has commissioned a study for the feasibility of starting passenger service between Danbury, Connecticut, and Pittsfield, Massachusetts, about a 90-mile run.

Assuming the study comes back with a positive report, the company is ready to spend $100 million or more to upgrade track and other infrastructure improvements.

Using commuter rail lines, passengers can now travel between Danbury and New York City to the south, but the proposed service would mean faster and easier access to New York City for virtually all of Western Connecticut. And according to public officials from town along the proposed route, that would also mean a huge boost for tourism throughout the entire area.

Over and over and over we see it: More and better passenger rail service yields multiple economic, social and environmental benefits.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Solar Power Can Translate into Big Cost Savings

The cost of electricity is high here in Hawaii because the fuel to run our power plants -- mostly oil, but also coal -- has to be shipped in from at least 2300 miles away. Our electric bills were running between $240 and $260 a month, and we have neither heating or air conditioning ... we just don't need it.

A little over a year ago, we installed a solar water heating system, the two large panels in the photo, and a photovoltaic system to generate electricity from 13 smaller panels on the lower section of the roof.
During the day, assuming there's some sunshine, the system provides power to our home, usually more than we actually require. When that happens, the excess power is fed back into Maui Electric's grid and our electric meter literally spins backwards, deducting kilowatts (and dollars) from our electric bill.

Our latest bill arrived yesterday. It was $14.56.

With tax credits and those kinds of cost savings, it's a pretty good way to save serious money and, at the same time, reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, not to mention foreign oil.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

More About Possible Daily West Coast-Texas Amtrak Service

Clearly, there is a great deal of interest in the proposal to increase service between San Antonio and the West Coast from three days a week to a daily train. For more details, here are the relevant details from a recent letter sent by NARP's president, Ross Capon, to Amtrak's board chair, Tom Carper.

June 8, 2010

The Honorable Thomas C. Carper, Chairman

Dear Tom:

This is to reaffirm our strong support for Amtrak’s proposal to institute daily service in place of the existing tri-weekly operation along the route between New Orleans and Los Angeles. We appreciate Amtrak’s initiative and effort to increase service frequency to some of the nation’s fastest growing states—both in terms of total population and of retirees that are strong passenger train users.

Please let me know if there is anything further our Association can do to support this important effort.

As you can imagine, we have had some complaints about the elimination of through service on the leg serving Houston and New Orleans, whose passengers will have to transfer at San Antonio. We have accepted this as a short-term sacrifice for the greater good, passing along Amtrak’s assurances that—if the market proves as strong as hoped—through cars will be restored there.

However, we are concerned about the possibility that a San Antonio-New Orleans train absent through cars will be treated as a short-distance train under the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008. This is because San Antonio-New Orleans is only 573 miles and PRIIA assigns responsibility for service under 750 miles to the states.

In our view, such an interpretation of the law would be nonsense because the train would:

1. be designed as an integral part of the existing long-distance network and indeed would owe its existence to Amtrak’s effort to comply with the PRIIA Section 210 requirement for Performance Improvement Plans for the long-distance routes;

2. operate with long-distance equipment;

3. be dominated by passengers making very long trips and connecting at San Antonio with the Chicago-Los Angeles train;

4. with a 38 mph average speed (on today’s schedule) be attractive primarily to long-distance passengers.

Further regarding #1, Amtrak would market and price the connection as part of the overall New Orleans-Los Angeles service—just as was the case when Boston-Albany was operated without through cars. Albany was not a route end point, but a transfer point. Amtrak should make clear from the outset that the end points are Los Angeles and New Orleans and that San Antonio is only a “transfer point.”

In short, PRIIA Section 209 calls for “equal treatment in the provision of like services” with regard to state payments. The key words “like services” should be interpreted as making section 209 irrelevant to a New Orleans-San Antonio train.

Nonetheless, we are concerned that a future administration could take advantage of a different reading of the law to kill the train. We urge you and your general counsel to take any possible steps early on to protect the train from this threat. For example, please consider making public the fact that you intend to restore New Orleans through-cars as soon as demand for this is evident. Also, in light of Chairwoman Brown’s recent comments, I should note that the distances from San Antonio to Jacksonville and Orlando are 1,194 miles and 1,341 miles, respectively.

Thank you again for the daily initiative across the Southwest.


Ross B. Capon
President and CEO

Friday, June 18, 2010

Update: Amtrak's West Coast-New Orleans Service

In my June 11th post, I wrote about the proposal to increase Amtrak service between Los Angeles and New Orleans from three days a week to a daily train in each direction.

(Doing so will involve two trains and probably creating a new one in a complicated arrangement. For details, scroll down to that earlier post.)

A reader asked if Amtrak's Board of Directors had actually approved the idea and, if so, did that mean the ball was now in Union Pacific's court. I was not sure and therefore turned to one of the best sources I know, Ross Capon, president of NARP, the National Association of Railroad Passengers. Ross has confirmed that -- yes, indeed -- the Amtrak board gave its approval to have their management open discussions with Union Pacific with that increase in service the ultimate goal.

This is really a good news/bad news kind of thing. Good news because, after years of lethargy, it actually appears that Amtrak is seriously considering an increase in service. Bad news because UP is notorious for its hostility to passenger trains, the tangible evidence of that being a fairly consistent lack of cooperation with Amtrak. I personally have experienced some egregious and lengthy delays caused by UP dispatchers which left Amtrak conductors grinding their teeth and caused serious inconvenience to passengers.

Still, all that notwithstanding, this is definitely a positive step. Keep those fingers crossed.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Getting Down to the Basics of Conservation

We’re going through drought conditions in many areas here on Maui. In fact, a lack of rain all around the State of Hawaii has the various county governments asking folks to conserve water. As they say, it's in all the papers.

Strangely – although I will explain – that reminded me of a wonderful trip we took to France a dozen or so years back. We stopped for a week in the very small town of Breel. It’s about 30 miles south of Falaise, the closest city of any size. We had rented a small stone cottage and I remember being fascinated by the simplicity of the appliances in the place, including a hand-cranked wooden coffee grinder.

And there was no water heater … at least, not the kind we’re used to in the U.S. Cold water flowed into a metal box mounted on the wall where it entered a labyrinth of copper tubing surrounded by gas jets which ignited like a barbeque grill the moment the hot water tap was opened anywhere in the house. That instantly heated the copper tubing and by the time the water passed through the maze of pipe and came out the tap, it was also hot.

We take a different approach in he U.S. We have 40 gallon tanks hidden in closets or down in our basements and we use electricity or gas to keep all that water hot 24 hours a day. That’s in case we want to take a shower at 3:00 a.m.

The owner of the cottage, Madame Grandorge – a pleasant woman in her 50s – gave us detailed instructions for operating the water heater and the other appliances. It took a while because it was all delivered in French and my facility with the language is marginal. She recognized that early on and slowed down and spoke very carefully when she got to the part about asking us to be careful not to waste water. She said her most recent water bill had been very high … no doubt the fault of previous tenants.

I don’t remember the actual cost she was complaining about, but I was startled to learn that the minimum unit used to compute her water bill was one liter.

By comparison, in most of this country, the minimum unit we use to compute our water bills is a thousand gallons.

That says a lot about this society’s approach to the conservation of our natural resources, doesn’t it.

Friday, June 11, 2010

More Amtrak Service Between LA and New Orleans? Yes, It Could Be Happening!

Most of Amtrak’s long-distance trains run daily. Just two trains – the Cardinal (New York-Chicago) and the Sunset Limited (Los Angeles-New Orleans) run three days a week, although there has long been talk about increasing both to a daily schedule.

The eastbound Sunset Limited stops to pick up passengers in Palm Springs, California.

The Sunset Limited, operated for years between Los Angeles and Florida, most recently to Orlando. Then came Hurricane Katrina, which wiped out and undermined a lot of the track through Mississippi and the Florida panhandle. Of necessity, then, the Sunset began terminating in New Orleans.

Considering the scale of the project, the track was repaired quickly, but Amtrak has never resumed the New Orleans-Florida segment of the Sunset’s route, even when prodded to do so by Congress and by rail passenger advocacy groups such as NARP, the National Association of Railroad Passengers.

A new plan is beginning to emerge, however, which could provide daily service between Texas and Los Angeles. In the current schedule, the daily Texas Eagle (Chicago-San Antonio) joins the Sunset Limited in San Antonio where, three days a week, it becomes one train from there to Los Angeles. The proposal being kicked around would run the Eagle every day all the way to California – three days a week as part of the Sunset’s consist, and as the Eagle on the other four days. A new connecting train would provide service between San Antonio and New Orleans, presumably on the four days each week when the Sunset does not operate. (Confusing, eh?)

It’s estimated that the new daily service between San Antonio and the West Coast would bump ridership along that route by more than 100,000 passengers a year, which would also improve the financial performance of the train.

No word yet, but some decision is likely within the next several months. Fingers crossed, everyone!

Sunday, June 6, 2010

A Freight Train Comes Out Second Best

It's been around a while, but I just came across this recently. It's a startling bit of video that graphically demonstrates what can happen when a tornado intersects with a moving train. It was taken from a rear-facing camera mounted on a locomotive hauling a Union Pacific freight near Harvard, Illinois, in January of 2008. Take a look ... and fasten your seat belt!

Quite incredible, isn't it! Especially considering that a moving freight train has all that momentum and can weigh as much as 10,000 tons. Clearly, this tornado-train collision created a big mess, but very fortunately no one was injured.

The word is terribly over-used, but in this case "awesome" certainly applies to the power of a tornado.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Once Around Again on the Subject of Typos

In my former life I owned and ran an advertising agency in Honolulu and was occasionally asked to speak to marketing students at the University of Hawaii. On one such occasion, I was asked what I looked for when reviewing resumes from prospective employees.

"Typos," I said. "If I find a typo or a misspelling or a grammatical error in a resume, I trash it immediately."

That prompted some startled looks and several in the class reacted with something bordering on anger. The gist of their objections seemed to be that it wasn't fair to reject an otherwise eager and presumably intelligent candidate for an insignificant error.

Well, I said, suppose someone on our staff overlooked a mistake in a full-page newspaper ad we had prepared for a client -- just one little digit in the client's phone number, for example -- and it wasn't discovered until after the ad appeared. And suppose, too, that because of the error the client refused to pay for the ad. In that case, the agency would have to eat the $10,000 cost of the space. Now, would I want someone with typos in his or her resume proofreading ads we send to the newspapers? (Several seconds of silence followed.)

My daughter popped in this afternoon with another wonderful example. She is a staff writer with our local daily newspaper, the Maui News. They're looking for a copy editor, whose job is to read over articles submitted by reporters, editing the copy down to available space, and catching any errors. The job requires good writing ability, a strong background in style and grammar, and a sharp eye for little details.

My daughter says they're getting a lot of resumes ... many with misspellings, typos and other mistakes.