Friday, December 31, 2010

Introducing A New Generation to Amtrak

When my daughter was about nine, we took a 10-day trip together -- just the two of us. It was designed to let her sample two of my great passions in life: train travel and the Boston Red Sox. The itinerary included Oakland, Seattle and Chicago, ending up in Boston where we saw the Red Sox play several games in Fenway Park. And it was all done by Amtrak. In her 30s now, with a 3-year-old daughter of her own, she still remembers that trip and says she wants me to take her little girl on a long-distance train ride as soon as she’s old enough.

I have another granddaughter living in San Diego who is old enough, and in late April she and I, along with my other daughter, will be taking Amtrak’s Coast Starlight on the overnight ride from Los Angeles to Seattle. The two of them will fly back to San Diego from Seattle, while I continue on to the East Coast for a NARP* meeting in Washington, DC.

That’s where my Honolulu brother-in-law comes in … literally. He’s heard me talk about both train travel and the Red Sox over the years and has finally decided to see what it’s all about. He’ll join me in Washington as the NARP meetings conclude and from there the two of us will take Amtrak’s high-speed Acela up to Boston where we’ll see several Red Sox games. Then it will be the Lake Shore Limited to Chicago, connecting with the Empire Builder to Seattle. We’ll overnight there, then ride the Coast Starlight down to Los Angeles before hopping separate flights back home … me to Maui, him to Honolulu.

There are no guarantees, of course, but I’m betting that by the time he gets home, he’ll be convinced that trains are the only civilized means of travel left to us. As for my 9-year-old granddaughter? Well, that’s a crap-shoot, but if she’s as smart as I think she is ...

* National Association of Railroad Passengers

Saturday, December 25, 2010

High-Speed Rail – Pro and Con

When it comes to choosing sides on any issue, it’s always a good idea to compare arguments, whether it’s health care reform or tax cuts or high-speed rail. Often, when a comparison is made, it becomes clear that there are simply more and/or better arguments supporting one of the points of view … be it hard data or theory or historical precedent.

Take, for instance, the issue of high-speed rail. The Obama Administration has allocated something a bit over $8 billion to several states for preliminary work on high-speed rail corridors. And in 2008 the voters of California approved a $10 billion bond issue to start work on a high-speed rail line linking Los Angeles and San Francisco. Opponents of all of these proposed projects have essentially three arguments:

1. People won’t ride it.
2. It costs too much.
3. I don’t want it in my backyard.

Those of us supporting more and better passenger trains, including high-speed rail, counter with arguments that are, to my mind, a lot more thoughtful and a lot more compelling:

1. High-speed rail will dramatically reduce the number of short-haul flights in and out of major airports.
2. High-speed rail will save energy, reduce our use of foreign oil, and cut air pollution.
3. High-speed rail is safe, reliable and provides people with an alternative to flying or driving.
4. High-speed rail projects will create jobs and boost local economies.
5. High-speed rail will redirect growth to those corridors and minimize urban sprawl.

(Of course, we could always respond to the other side’s points directly: (1) Yes, they will; (2) No it won’t; (3) Too damn bad!)

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A Look at the High Cost of Free Parking

I came across an interesting item from the other day. It has to do with the extent to which we go as a society in order to provide parking for the infernal automobile. The numbers are necessarily imprecise, but even the best guesses are staggering.

For example, one estimate is that there are three parking spaces available for every car in the country. Stop and think about that: in our garages, or at meters on the street, or in public parking lots, or at shopping malls … and on and on.

In fact, they estimate – conservatively - that, at any given time, there are 500 million empty parking spaces in this country. Empty ones! I did some rough math, estimating 200 square feet for each of those empty spaces, and came up with this: in this country we have set aside 3500 square miles of land in case someone would like to park there!

Interesting, isn’t it? We know about the environmental impact of the automobile, but this is an aspect of the issue I’ve never really thought of before. And it is, of course, just one more reason why we should be moving much more aggressively toward public transportation, including transit, intercity rail, Amtrak, high-speed rail ... the works.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Amtrak’s Cardinal May Run Daily. Yes … Seriously!

The Cardinal is not a big train – usually just one sleeping car, three coaches, and a diner – and it runs over a meandering southerly route between New York and Chicago. But in between those frenetic metropolitan centers, the Cardinal passes through some of the loveliest rural and wilderness areas in the entire eastern United States and is one of my favorite Amtrak routes.

Swinging west after leaving Washington, DC, the Cardinal crosses the Blue Ridge Mountains, climbs into the Allegheny Mountains, crosses over the Appalachian Trail, and bores through a long tunnel as it passes under the Eastern Continental Divide. From that point on, all water flows westward toward the Mississippi and into the Gulf of Mexico.

A bit later on, the train enters the New River Gorge – thickly wooded mountain walls on either side of the train and, just a few dozen yards off to our left, the river tumbles and foams through the gathering darkness. Every mile or so, we pass fishermen and backpackers who look up from their flickering campfires and wave.
With all this fabulous scenery passing by, the Cardinal should be better known and, more to the point, it should be carrying more passengers. Everyone understands the problem: the Cardinal, you see, operates only three days a week and many potential passengers just don’t want to deal with the connection problems that creates on either end. If you’re heading to Chicago from the East Coast, would you wait an extra day or two for the Cardinal? Or would you just take the Lake Shore Limited from New York or Boston, or the Capitol Limited from Washington? Both of those trains run daily?

The same problem exists on the other end. If you’re continuing westward on one of Amtrak’s western trains, would you stay over an extra day in Chicago just for the pleasure of traveling on the Cardinal? Well, I would – and I have – but most folks don’t want to take the extra time and there’s the extra expense to consider.

Happily, that could all be changing. There are serious plans afoot for Amtrak to start running the Cardinal on a daily basis. It’s not an easy decision because rolling stock is already in short supply and there are a lot of other issues to be worked out.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Honolulu Symphony Orchestra -- Two Highlights, Of a Great Many

My wife and I attended performances of the Honolulu Symphony irregularly over the years. I’m not a huge fan of classical music, but two of those occasions stand out, indelible in my memory.

The first was the time that AndrĂ© Watts, the incredible concert pianist, appeared as guest artist with our symphony. He performed the first movement of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto # 2 in C Minor. The movement builds to an absolutely thrilling climax and with the final crashing notes, I impulsively and quite spontaneously leaped to my feet, applauding wildly. Then, in the next split second, I was struck by the paralyzing thought that I had made an ass of myself in front of that sedate, classical music crowd. But I turned and fully half of the audience was doing exactly the same thing – standing, applauding, even cheering. I went out and bought a recording of that miraculous piece of music the next day. I still play it regularly.

Then there was the occasion when the great Armenian composer Aram Khachaturian appeared as a guest conductor. I can’t recall the specific music they played that evening – certainly some of it was his own – but as the applause died down after one particularly thrilling piece, the great man turned to the audience, spread his arms wide as he gestured to the orchestra behind him, and said in his thick Russian accent, “ With an orchestra like this (pause for effect), one … can … make … miracles!”

Yesterday came the news that, despite the urgent appeals and the fund raisers and the anonymous gifts and the pay cuts and all the rest, the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra is shutting down after 110 years.

It's a pathetic and feeble and useless thought: I wish I'd attended more of their concerts over the years.

But the collapse and demise of an institution and cultural resource like the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra should never, ever be allowed to happen. And we, as a community -- and as a society -- should be deeply ashamed.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Update: Outgoing Ohio Governor Nails It.

Democrat Ted Strickland, Ohio's current and soon-to-be ex-governor, has just written a powerful letter to his successor, Republican John Kasich, defending the proposed Cleveland-Columbus-Cincinnati rail link and urging Kasich to reverse his decision to scrap the project and send $400 million back to Washington.

Kasich would have to be completely closed-minded and a fool not to see the wisdom of Strickland's argument.

Oh ... damn ... I keep forgetting ...

Thursday, December 9, 2010

It’s Official: The Two Newbie Governors Blew It.

To re-cap: back a year ago, the Obama Administration announced that $8 billion under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act would be given to a select number of states to get them started on plans for high-speed rail corridors within their borders.

A very large chunk of that money – almost $1.2 billion – was awarded to Wisconsin, for a rail line joining Madison with Milwaukee, and Ohio, where there have long been hopes of linking Columbus, the state capital, with Cleveland and Cincinnati.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the quorum: both states had incumbent Democratic governors who lost their bids for re-election. And both were replaced by Republicans: Scott Walker in Wisconsin and John Kasich in Ohio. Both of these bozos had trashed their state’s rail plans and both had said they would tell the feds they didn't want their filthy lucre.

Today, Obama's Secretary of Transportation, Ray LaHood, officially said, “Fine. We’ll take the money back and give it to someone who wants it.”

Just wondering:

A lot of people in Wisconsin and Ohio would have been hired to work on those two projects. Do you think they’re happy to see that money going somewhere else?

And Talgo was planning to build a plant in Milwaukee to produce the locomotives and rail cars for those and other rail lines. Do you think they’ll build the plant there anyway?

Nope … neither do I.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Hawaii Inaugurates a New Governor

My apologies for neglecting this blog for more than the usual few days, but I have been in Honolulu to attend the inauguration of a long-time friend, Neil Abercrombie, as Governor of Hawaii. This is really the culmanation of a 35 year career in public service for Neil -- Honolulu City Council, Hawaii State House, Hawaii State Senate and, 10 terms in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Neil Abercrombie moments after being sworn in as Governor of Hawaii. I was right there cheering with the rest of the crowd of several thousand.

The inauguration took place on the grounds of Iolani Palace, the home of Hawaiian monarchs and for many years the state capitol, housing both the governor and the legislature.

Neil is a man of great wit, who takes his responsibilities very seriously. But he does not take himself seriously ... for instance, claiming to be "vertically challenged." Neil is, you see, just a bit over 5'5".

At his first news conference as governor, when introducing his new budget director, Neil lowered his voice conspiratorially, mugged at the assembled reporters, and said, "Budget and Finance is a deep mystery, you must be very wary and not cross them; the only one you have to fear more is the Department of Accounting and General Services, everyone knows they secretly plot."

At any rate, it was a wonderful, joyous, uniquely Hawaiian -- and uniqely Abercrombie --occasion.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

John Kasich: Another state, but just another Bozo.

This time it’s Ohio, where Republican Governor-elect John Kasich says he’s not going to let people in a “train cult” stop him from killing a proposed passenger rail line that would connect Columbus, the state capital, with Cincinnati and Cleveland.

As does the just-elected governor in Wisconsin, Scott Walker, Kasick refers to the project in his state as a boondoggle and is apparently prepared to return the $400 million in federal dollars Ohio received for the project. And, like Walker, Kasich had harbored some thoughts of redirecting those funds to other projects. But, as noted in our earlier post, that will not happen -- the money will go back to Washington and the DOT will allocate it to one of the other states with a rail project that is moving forward.

Passenger rail advocates reacted promptly to Kasich’s condescending and insulting “cult” remark, with one of the better comments coming from Jack Shaner of the Ohio Environmental Council: “Most Ohioans would call someone wanting to invest $400 million in rail infrastructure and grow 8,000 potential jobs a capitalist, not a cultist.”

It’s just a matter of time, of course, before we read about Kasich crying crocodile tears for the unemployed in his state. (He will no doubt propose tax cuts as the solution.)