Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Train Always Wins -- Always!

In order to stay up-to-speed on transportation and, more specifically, rail issues, I use Google Alert which collects and sends me emails several times a day with links to news items involving Amtrak or train travel. And almost every day, day after day, there is a story about an Amtrak train striking a car or truck at a grade crossing or hitting a pedestrian walking along a track somewhere. Freight trains are also involved, but not as often since they typically are traveling at slower speeds.

About 500 people are killed by trains every year. And here’s the thing: every single one of those deaths is avoidable. Not one of those deaths is the fault of Amtrak or whichever one of the freight railroads might have been involved (this ridiculous judgment notwithstanding).

People insist on being careless or reckless or inattentive … and they get killed or, if they’re very, very lucky – just badly injured. They drive around the crossing gates … or the car in front of them stops, leaving them sitting on the track … or they’re speeding at night and can’t stop in time to avoid running smack into the side of a moving train. Young people are hit and killed while walking on the tracks; they’re usually listening to loud music through ear buds and can’t hear the engineer frantically blowing his horn as the train comes up from behind them. And, sadly, it’s quite true that many of the so-called pedestrian accidents are, in fact, suicides.

I feel real sympathy for the engineers, who are the forgotten victims in these incidents. With the speed and weight and momentum of their trains, there is no possible way they can stop in time to avoid hitting a car trying to beat them across the crossing. They do try, of course. Some are able to deal with these gruesome events better than others, but they all pay an emotional price.

OK, so what’s the answer? Well, many years ago, the railroads formed Operation Lifesaver in an effort to promote more awareness. And railroads have added warning lights and gates at more crossings. It’s helped, too. Statistically, the number of accidents has just about been cut in half over the years.

But 500 people a year are still dying. It’s an awfully high price to pay for carelessness.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Amtrak – Once Again a Target of Conservatives

In every new session of Congress, Republicans talk about reducing or even eliminating the federal government’s subsidy for Amtrak. But now the GOP has taken control of the House and that means they're chairing important committees, and the anti-rail, anti-Amtrak talk is getting louder and louder.

I really don’t get it. The pro-rail, pro-Amtrak arguments are so conclusive, so persuasive to any objective person . . .

Wait! That’s it, isn’t it! The critical missing ingredient: objectivity.

The real problem, I think, is that conservatives hear the word subsidy and, as in the cartoons, their eyes bulge and start spinning in their sockets. The knee-jerk conservative ideology immediately rejects the idea of subsidies.

Yes, of course Amtrak is subsidized. But the gasoline tax subsidizes highways. The airlines are subsidized by specific taxes on every ticket and by government in other ways. For example, the federal government provides the air traffic control system. And municipal governments build and maintain airports. If there are buses operating in your town, your taxes are subsidizing them. For that matter, who paid for that sidewalk in front of your house?

According to Congressman John Mica (R-FL), the feds are shelling out five billion dollars for one new runway at Miami International Airport. That's three times Amtrak's annual subsidy for just one runway at just one airport!

When it comes to a transportation policy, what’s needed – badly needed – is a large dose of objectivity in Congress. And there’s a lot at stake, because eliminating Amtrak’s roughly $1.5 billion annual subsidy would effectively cause the shut-down of our national passenger rail system at a time when every other country in the world is building and operating more and better and faster trains.

And, by the way, Amtrak carried some 27 million passengers this past year … a ten percent increase in ridership. Kill Amtrak and all those folks are back on the highways or in the very unfriendly skies.

Yes, what we need is objectivity. We need a little old-fashioned common sense. And we need trains!

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Traveling Around the World … by Train!

I’m in the final stages of planning what can legitimately be called a once-in-a-lifetime trip, built around a private train from Moscow, through Mongolia, to Beijing. I’ll spend a few days in Beijing, then take the train to Shanghai, flying home from there.

But first I’ll fly from here to London and take the train from there to St. Petersburg, with a two-night stop in Berlin. Then to Moscow for the special train that will take a leisurely 12 days en route to Beijing, including stops to allow some sightseeing at Irkutsk in Siberia and Ulan Bator, the capital of Mongolia.

I had seriously thought about starting out on the West Coast, taking Amtrak across the country and flying to London from Boston to be able to claim that I had literally traveled around the world (at least across all of the land masses) by train. Alas, I really can’t afford the extra several days that would require and, besides, I have made the trip across North America – both on Amtrak across the US and by VIA Rail across Canada – more than once. I’ll still be able to say I’ve traveled the around-the-world by train, but with an asterisk.

I’ll write more about this as plans are firmed up, but there are two rail-related items worth talking about now.

First, the Chinese government has announced that their new high-speed rail link between Beijing and Shanghai will open in June, several months ahead of schedule. I was planning to take an overnight train on that segment, but am switching to the fast train, which will not only give me (and then you) a look at that train, but will also mean an extra half day to see something of Shanghai.

Second – and I have written about this before – the Chinese are now operating the only regularly scheduled maglev train in the world, which runs from downtown Shanghai to Pudong airport. Of course, I won’t pass up that opportunity.

OK, I'll admit it: I can't wait!

Thursday, January 6, 2011

NARP has the FACTS about high-speed rail.

The National Association of Railroad Passengers is a non-partisan, non-profit organization with some 20,000 members nationwide and a paid staff in Washington, DC. NARP has, from the get-go, suported President Obama's high-speed rail initiative, a bold program which is providing some $8 billion in federal funds for preliminary work on high-speed rail lines linking a number of high-traffic corridors around the country.

Pedictably, there has been an outcry from the knee-jerk naysayers and -- why are we not surprised? -- a grat deal of misinformation. To counter that, NARP has recently posted a fact check on its web site. Check it out. I think you'll find it informative. And, while you're there, please consider joining NARP to add your support for more and better passenger rail service around the country. Thanks!

(For the record, it's my privilege to serve as an elected member of NARP's Council of Representatives.)

Monday, January 3, 2011

Amtrak Knows How to Deal With Problem Passengers.

I came across a news item this morning about a boozed-up jerk who boarded an Amtrak train in California and began causing problems.

Incidents like this don’t happen very often, are handled quickly and quietly by Amtrak crews, and usually go unnoticed by the rest of the passengers.

Most of the infractions involve the flouting of Amtrak’s strict no-smoking policy. I remember one conductor who used the train’s PA system to remind passengers that smoking is not permitted anywhere on board. He concluded his announcement by saying, “If you are found smoking on board this train, the very next stop will be yours.”

And they aren’t kidding. Passengers violating the smoking prohibition or who cause trouble in other ways are indeed put off trains. And that means bag and baggage, with no refunds.

Troublemakers are given one warning and told firmly to shape up. According to a veteran conductor, the secret – especially if the troublemaker could physically resist – is never informing them that the decision has been made to put them off at the next stop. When the train reaches that next station, two conductors appear with his baggage and say “Off you go.”

In some cases – especially if the troublemaker is belligerent – the conductors will have the engineer contact the railroad’s dispatcher and arrange for police to meet the train. I was on a western train one time when a passenger was drunk and loud and being quite aggressive. It was several hours to the next scheduled station stop, so Nevada state troopers met and boarded the train at a highway crossing in the middle of nowhere. When last seen, the drunk was in the back seat of a police cruiser on his way to the slammer in Caliente, Nevada.

Again, I want to emphasize that incidents like these are, in my experience, not very common. And, when problem passengers do surface, Amtrak crews deal with them quickly and very effectively. And good for them, too!