Saturday, February 26, 2011

A New Law Is Signed ... and Sealed With a Kiss.

This story has absolutely nothing to do with trains or travel, but is just too good not to pass along. It involves the recently elected governor of Hawaii, Neil Abercrombie, and Clayton Hee, a State Senator here who chairs the Senate’s Judiciary Committee. Both are very old friends of mine and of course they have been friends and colleagues for years.

Several days ago, at a formal ceremony, Neil signed into law a bill that makes Hawaii the seventh state to officially recognize civil unions between gay and lesbian couples. He used three pens for the signing and, as he was about to affix his signature to the official document, announced he was going to present one of the pens to Clayton Hee, who expedited getting the measure through his committee. Neil noted that the two of them go back a long way and he referred to Clayton as a "special friend" …

... whereupon Clayton leaned over a planted a kiss on top of Neil's bald head. It provoked a huge laugh from the assembled crowd, of course, but was especially funny because Clayton is a good looking, very macho Chinese-Hawaiian -- he owns horses and is a regular participant in horse events around the islands -- and is happily married to a lovely former TV anchor lady.

Could something like this have happened in another state? I suppose so … but it was a wonderful example of the warm, relaxed, and very genuine feeling of aloha we have here. It’s unique to Hawaii, and we treasure it.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

China Says ‘All Aboard’ to High-Speed Trains

I’ve frequently written about the many countries around the world that have put a high priority on building high-speed rail. Over the past decade, for instance, the Spanish have linked most of their major cities with their AVE trains. And of course the French TGV system has been the gold standard for years.

But when it comes to making high-speed rail service a priority, no one anywhere can match China, where a system of high-speed trains will soon extend to some 10,000 kilometers.

The Chinese will open their latest segment around the middle of June and it will link Beijing with Shanghai. That distance -- a bit over 800 miles -- will be covered in something like 4 ½ hours. One of the trains ran at 300 miles-per-hour on a test run recently, although speeds on the Beijing-to-Shanghai run are expected to top out at 200 mph for the near future.

I have a special interest in this particular train because it will be the final link in the European-Asian rail journey I have planned for next August. I’ll also be experiencing what is still the only magnetic levitation (maglev) train in regular passenger service; it links downtown Shanghai with that city’s international airport.

I won’t go into my usual litany of reasons why this country should look at and learn from what rest of the world already knows about high-speed trains, but I will certainly be posting accounts of those experiences. Wouldn’t it be nice if the knee jerk nay-sayers and conservative ideologues could join me and see these modern rail systems for themselves?

Friday, February 18, 2011

Overnight Train Travel: the Civilized Way to Go

I have frequently noted in these posts that the Europeans have had transportation issues figured out for 30-plus years: they take trains.

Throughout Europe, most inter-city travelers make use of the extensive network of high-speed rail lines, with trains routinely running between most major cities at speeds of 186 miles per hour. Many of these travelers have figured out that taking the slower overnight trains can take much of the hassle out of travel and save serious money, too.

Let’s say you live in Paris and have a business appointment in Munich. You can leave Gare de l’Est (East Station) in Paris at 8:30 p.m., have a very good meal in the dining car, then a drink or two in the lounge car, sleep in a comfortable berth and arrive in Munich just after 7 o’clock the next morning. Sure, you could have flown, but by taking the train you have saved the cost of a hotel room and the jet flight.

Furthermore, you’ve also saved the expense and the hassle of getting from your office in Paris to the airport and from the outlying airport in Munich into the city center. The train, of course, departs from the center of Paris and delivers you to Munich’s Hofbahnhof, also in the middle of the city.

And believe it or not, it’s even possible to do that here in the U.S. You can hop Amtrak’s Capital Limited in Washington, DC at 4:05 in the afternoon and get to Chicago before 9:00 the next morning.

Or leave Washington at 7:30 p.m. on the Silver Meteor and be in Jacksonville, Florida the next morning by 9:30. Or leave Chicago at 2:00 this afternoon on the California Zephyr and be in Denver for breakfast bright and early tomorrow morning.

I know, I know … it’s a bit of a stretch, but it can be done! America could develop a national rail system that would take cars off the road, make both business and personal travel fast, safe and convenient, and have significant environmental benefits. But it would mean our politicians would have to summon up a little foresight, a little resolve, and enough humility to acknowledge that there's a helluva lot we could learn from the Europeans. Unfortunately, that appears to be too much to expect from the current crop in charge.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

A Memorable Dining Experience Aloft.

Back in the late 70s, I worked for the City of Honolulu. I was a member of the mayor’s cabinet and it was a high-profile job. Whenever we talk about those days, my wife invariably begins every anecdote by saying, “Well, when Jim was somebody … ”

Anyway, as one of the unofficial fringe benefits to the job, I was often upgraded when I had to travel on city business. Back then, I almost always flew either Pan American or Western Airlines. Both are now long gone, of course, but I particularly miss PanAm. At one point, at least in terms of service, PanAm was very simply the best.

Once, on a PanAm flight from Honolulu to San Francisco – it was in 1974 – I was upgraded to 1st class. An hour into the flight, after relaxing with a glass of excellent scotch, I was tapped on the shoulder by a flight attendant. “If you’re ready for dinner, Mr. Loomis,” she said, “we have a place reserved for you upstairs.”

I dutifully followed her to the upper level of the 747, where three tables had been prepared – two set with four places and one ready to seat two people – each with crisp white linen tablecloths and place settings of real china.

I was ushered to a table-for-four and, to my great surprise, found myself seated opposite former California governor Pat Brown and his wife. Their son, Jerry, had just been elected governor of California and they were returning from a trip to Asia to attend his inauguration. And there I was, a political junkie of the highest magnitude, discussing government and politics with Pat Brown over dinner and wine and an espresso at 35,000 feet. Imagine that!

By the way, the fourth person at the table was an executive with Levi Strauss on his way back from China. He had been looking into the wild idea that maybe the Chinese could make levi jeans cheaper than we could. Imagine that!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Spring Comes to New England … from Ft. Myers

No one not born and raised in New England can understand what the Red Sox mean to those of us who do have roots in that part of the country. When one baseball season ends, we spend a week or so pondering what went right and brooding over everything that went wrong. Then, even before the snow flies, we shift our focus to the next season, looking ahead to several special days that are official checkpoints marking our passage through the winter on the way to another Opening Day at venerable Fenway Park.

The first occurred a week ago -- Truck Day. That’s when a huge moving van pulls up to Fenway Park, is loaded with all the equipment and other gear, and heads off to the Red Sox Spring Training complex in Fort Myers, Florida. Truck Day is thoroughly covered by the Boston media and marks the official end of winter, blizzard conditions notwithstanding.

And forget about the spring solstice ... today, not March 20th, is the First Day of Spring. This is the day pitchers and catchers are required to officially report in at the Fort Myers facility, although probably a dozen or more other players have already been working out at the facilities for several days.

Spring Training officially begins this coming Saturday when all players have to report. There will probably be someone missing -- invariably a player from Venezuala, the Dominican Republic or elsewhere in Latin America who has experienced "some confusion over his visa."

The first couple of exhibition games are traditionally played against college teams -- usually Boston College and Northeastern University. (Reporter: "Tell me, kid, how did it feel to give up a 450-foot home run to David Ortiz? BC player: "It was awsome!")

Next come the exhibition games against other big league teams. Veteran players are in the starting lineups, play at 3/4 speed, and are gone after three or four innings. The purpose of these games, after all, is to give the coaching staff a chance to see the rookies perform against big league competetion. Of course, the other team is doing to same thing, so our rookies end up playing their rookies.

Probably 60-70 players will report on Saturday and the harsh reality is that most will be released or traded or assigned to one of the Red Sox farm teams. Only 25 will make the final squad and travel north to begin the 2011 season. And that is when New Englanders, who have been battered and frozen and are fed up with winter, will rise up and cry out in one voice: Let the games begin!

Go Sox!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Obama Wants Billions for High-Speed Rail

President Obama has stepped up and announced a major high-speed rail initiative that would allow the United States to begin catching up with most of the rest of the world. Given the times and the current emphasis on government deficits, it was a startling announcement: $53 billion to be spent over the next 10 years.

It took guts, too, because a Republican committee recently recommended completely eliminating Amtrak’s annual subsidy, a proposal which would essentially kill America’s national passenger rail system. On the other hand, transportation experts and rail advocates such as the National Association of Railroad Passengers have applauded the president’s bold proposal.

The thing is, there really is no argument. High-speed rail systems like the famous TGV in France and the Shinkasen in Japan have been operating successfully for more than 30 years. Most other European countries have extensive high-speed rail networks and comparable new systems are being built at a furious pace throughout most of the rest of Asia. Within just a few years, China will have more miles of high-speed rail than any other country in the world!

For a look at other systems around the world, take a look at this terrific slide show. If you would like to add your voice in support of high-speed rail un the U.S., consider membership in NARP. You can join by going here. Thanks!

Monday, February 7, 2011

Travel Web Sites – Some Wheat, Some Chaff

I do a lot of searching on line when preparing to travel, and that includes spending time on travel-related web sites that include reviews from people who have stayed at that hotel or taken that tour or eaten at that restaurant. TripAdvisor, Travelocity, and many other similar web sites include such a feature.

But think for a second: if you were the general manager of the Podunk Plaza and your job depended on the occupancy rate, could you resist the temptation to post fake reviews raving about your hotel? I don’t think so.

Furthermore, the London Times didn’t think so, either. To test their theory, the newspaper created rave reviews for a half dozen London hotels widely known to be second-rate, disreputable properties and sent them to TripAdvisor. Sure enough, the fake reviews were posted verbatim.

Still, after reading through hundreds of these reviews while researching an upcoming trip, I do think I figured out how to sift through all the reviews and pick out the ones that were probably real ... emphasis on the probably.

If there are several bad reviews, you can be pretty sure that hotel is one to avoid. (It did seem, however, that some were clearly written by people with unrealistic or unreasonable expectations.)

I also decided I could probably trust reviews that we generally favorable, but did include a couple of relatively minor negatives … room service taking too long to deliver, for instance.

And when I came across a glowing review that sounded as if it could have been written by a PR firm, I took it with a large grain of salt.

Bottom line: these web sites are very helpful and so are the reviews, but only if you realize that some are undoubtedly fake. Read them by all means … but carefully.

Friday, February 4, 2011

NARP Comes to Amtrak's Defense.

Regular readers know that I'm a member of the National Association of Railroad Passengers and have the privilege of serving as a member of NARP's elected Council of Representatives. NARP maintains an office in Washington with a paid staff that lobbies members of Congress and advocates more and better passenger rail service in the United States. NARP issued the following statement today.



Ending federal funding for passenger trains—as Republican Study Group urges—would increase American dependence on imported oil

As democratic unrest sweeps across North Africa and the Middle East, the National Association of Railroad Passengers is asking Congress to sweep aside a proposal that would gut passenger rail and transit. Instead, U.S. leaders should focus on policies that give Americans real travel choices and reduce the nation's massive dependence on imported oil in the transportation sector.
The democratic uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Syria—and perhaps elsewhere—highlight the risk of America’s overreliance on oil and the potential inability of Middle Eastern nations to maintain current oil export levels. It also serves as a reminder that gas prices could rise above $4 a gallon more quickly than previously expected.

Despite these developments, the Republican Study Committee is urging an end to U.S. intercity passenger train service, eliminating federal funding for Amtrak and high-speed rail. The proposal also has huge mass transit cuts, including elimination of New Starts, a vital resource in building new transit lines. The Committee includes over two-thirds of House Republicans.

The House Budget Committee is considering drastic reductions in passenger train funding which could also lead to a service shutdown.

If adopted, these policies would deprive Americans of important transportation choices, make America more vulnerable to uncontrollable events overseas, and lead to substantial layoffs at Amtrak and transit agencies.

NARP calls on Congress to fully fund intercity passenger trains ($2.65 billion for Amtrak, and at least $3.5 billion for the high-speed rail program) to build a truly national rail passenger system and embrace President Obama's goal of putting high speed rail within reach of 80% of Americans within 25 years. Passenger trains and transit will help address the consumption side of our oil dependency by providing energy-efficient transportation choices, while creating good paying, non-exportable jobs for our citizens.

Energy consumption facts:

· The U.S. transportation system is 96% petroleum dependent, accounts for 71% of the country’s oil use, and consumes 25% of the world’s net output.

· Amtrak is 30% more energy efficient than cars, and 20% more efficient than air travel (based on BTUs per passenger mile).

· Public transportation saves the U.S. 4.2 billion gallons of gasoline every year—more than three times the annual amount imported from Kuwait.

· U.S. motorists’ fuel consumption alone accounts for eleven percent (11%) of the world’s total oil production.

· Trains are the only mode which can run on electricity over long distances at high speeds.

To add your voice to those protesting this absurd and short-sighted proposal, go here. Thanks!