Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Airlines Tighten the Screws. We're the Screwees.

Just when you thought things couldn’t get worse, that the inconvenience and the discomfort have leveled off, at least a few of the airlines are considering still more ways to make us dread flying.

This is of particular concern to those of us who live in Hawaii; unless we’re on an inter-island hop, it’s a minimum of five hours aloft to LA or San Francisco, eleven-plus to the East Coast, eight to Japan, ten to Sydney … well, you get the picture.

So how would you like to spend a couple of hours straddling this: It’s called the Skyrider and it’s designed for low-cost airlines – duh! – with mostly short-haul flights.

Sounds perfect for Spirit Airlines. These are the folks who have begun installing non-reclining seats on their planes. I know, I know … it’s a pain when the guy in front of you tips his seat all the way back and you find yourself staring down on his bald pate. But not being able to tinker with the recline button in an effort to find the most comfortable position is a distressing, almost panicky thought.

When asked about these new seats, a Spirit spokesperson noted that they are made of lightweight materials which will save on fuel which, she says, means your actually helping the environment. How? By not being able to recline your seat?? How's that for putting lipstick on a pig!

Oh … and there are also reports in trade publications that Spirit will soon begin charging you for stuffing a bag in the overhead bins.

Seriously now … do you still wonder why I fly to the West Coast and take Amtrak to wherever I'm going from there?

(All the above notwithstanding, I still think Hawaiian Airlines is a great airline and the best way to visit these islands. In fact, I'll be returning to Hawaii from Asia in August on Hawaiian's new service between Honolulu and Seoul.)

Sunday, May 29, 2011

More About Amtrak’s Long-Distance Trains

I received an email the other day from someone asking for more information about Amtrak operations and, specifically, what goes into maintaining their schedule of long-distance trains.

As you would expect, it’s an immensely complicated business. Every day, day after day, Amtrak overnight trains are carrying many thousands of people all over the country, not to mention feeding and providing beds for many of them along the way. It takes a lot of people and equipment to make it all happen.

It sounds simple to say that the California Zephyr runs between Chicago and the San Francisco area. But remember that the train runs every day ... in each direction ... and it’s a two night trip. So, at any given moment, Amtrak needs six complete train sets to operate the California Zephyr: two are en route heading west, another two are somewhere out there heading east, and two more are getting ready to depart -- one in Chicago, the other at Emeryville in the Bay Area.

The westbound California Zephyr passes Gross Dam an hour out of Denver. Photo by Kevin Morgan.

Each of those six trains requires two (sometimes three) locomotives, a baggage car, a dorm car for the crew, plus coaches, sleeping cars, a lounge car, a dining car. That means, at a minimum, Amtrak needs 54 railcars and a dozen locomotives just to operate that one long-distance train.

Then, of course, there are three other western trains that run two-night trips: the Sunset Limited, the Southwest Chief and the Empire Builder. In addition, there are eleven other trains that operate over routes that require one overnight to complete.

Leaving very little to chance, Amtrak also has what they call “protect” locomotives located in strategic places around the country ready to be pressed into emergency service … in Denver, for example, in case one of the Zephyr’s locomotives should fail.
This information comes directly from the 3rd edition of my book, All Aboard-The Complete North American Train Travel Guide. Click here for the link to Amazon.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

John Mica Has an Agenda: Screwing Amtrak.

I have a big problem with Congressman John Mica (R-Florida), who, as a result of the 2010 election, finds himself chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. I have personally been present for a couple of Mica speeches and he is a preening, self-impressed and arrogant man. (I've always wondered ... why would someone wearing such a terrible rug preen in the first place?)

Anyway, there was a meeting of the T&I Committee in Washington today and, according to a first-hand report from a transportation expert who was there, Mica made at least three statements about Amtrak that were misleading at best and knowingly false at worst. Mica, of course, has an agenda: he wants to privatize Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor between Washington and Boston and to do that he has to portray Amtrak as a failure.

I don’t want to bore you with all the details that refute all three of his misrepresentations, but here’s one good example of how he distorts facts to suit his personal agenda and ideology.

Mica says Amtrak is a failure and, to “prove” it, he stated today that Amtrak’s ridership from 1977 to 2010 has not increased. Trouble is, that’s just B.S. Mica was using 1981 figures! Furthermore, he failed mention that in that year Amtrak turned two very busy commuter lines over to railroads that are now carrying 2.2 million passengers a year into New York from Philadelphia and New Jersey. But that convenient omission aside, further study – honest study, that is – shows that Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor trains carried 7.7 million passengers in 1981, and 10.4 million in 2010 …and that’s a damn 26-percent increase, Congressman!

But if we consider passenger-miles – a better, means of analysis giving a truer picture -- the increase is even greater. According to Ross Capon, president of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, Amtrak posted 932 million passenger-miles on the Northeast Corridor routes in 1981 and 1.708 billion passenger-miles in 2010. And that, Congressman, is an 83% increase!

But you know what I remember most about the time I sat through one of Mica’s dissertations on transportation? After bemoaning as wasteful Amtrak’s annual subsidy of about a billion and a half dollars and referring with a smirk to “America’s Soviet-style railroad, Mica said he had more important things to do: trying to get a five billion dollar appropriation for a new runway at Miami International Airport. How’s that for prioritizing!

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Sometimes, on Hawaiian Airlines, getting there is just half the fun.

Today I've got an airline story for a change and regular readers will not be surprised to find that it involves Hawaiian Airlines. After all, it's our very own airline and, however parochial we might be, it's a damn good airline and we're proud of them!

This story has nothing to do with their planes or service, however. In fact, it’s about an incident that occurred a year or so ago in Los Angeles and on the ground.

I had just flown into LA on a Hawaiian flight and was riding to the Marriott near LAX in the hotel shuttle. The flight had been fine and the only thing in any way out of the ordinary was all the fog we had flown through on the approach into LAX … in and out of the soupy stuff for the final seven or eight minutes, almost to touch-down.

As I boarded the crowded van, I noticed two Hawaiian pilots seated a couple of rows behind me.

I nodded and asked if they had been the crew on flight 2. The younger one, the first officer, said yes, they were and he and I chatted a bit … mostly about what parts of which island we came from.

Suddenly other guy, the captain, who looked like he had come directly from Central Casting, piped up and exclaimed, “What did you think of all that fog as we were landing. Jeez ... it scared the hell out of me!”

There was a pause for a couple of beats as the rest of the people on the bus turned to stare, goggle-eyed. The two pilots stared back, then cracked up.

I dunno ... maybe you had to be there. But it was awfully funny at the time.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Is That a Light at the End of Amtrak’s Tunnel?

Amtrak turned 40 years old earlier this month, and of the several crosses our national rail passenger system has borne through all those years, by far the heaviest has to do with funding.

Despite all the blathering you hear from the anti-government ideologues, Amtrak actually runs a lot closer to break even than any of the other national passenger rail systems around the world. In fact, about 85 percent of Amtrak’s annual operating cost is covered from the “fare box”, meaning ticket sales, and other revenue.

Still, that 15 percent difference, which has been running around $1.6 billion a year, has to come from the federal government. Under the current system, it comes from Congress in two steps: first is the annual authorization (what Amtrak is promised), next is the annual appropriation (what Amtrak actually gets). As you would suspect, the sack of money behind Door Number Two is often a lot smaller.

But the key word here is annual. Every year for 40 years, Amtrak has had to go to Congress hat in hand asking for next year’s sack of money. Which means that for 40 years Amtrak has not known from one year to the next how much money to budget for. How the hell can we expect Amtrak to do any serious planning if they have no idea how much money they’re going to have in any of the years ahead? Who among us could run our families that way? It’s stupid and it’s wasteful.

But wait! A new approach has now been proposed by the Obama Administration. They want to put Amtrak into the executive budget -- specifically, under the Federal Railroad Administration -- which would remove Amtrak funding decisions from Congress and from the politicians who care more about political posturing* than they do about the 29 million long-suffering rail passengers who ride Amtrak trains every year.

There is still a ways to go because the gears of government grind exceeding slow, but this could be a breakthrough that finally brings some stability to Amtrak. A hearing is going to be scheduled so, if you’ve a mind to, drop a note or an email in support of this idea to your senators and your representative back there in Washington. You could also consider joining NARP, the National Association of Railroad Passengers, which lobbies for more and better trains.

I thank you … Amtrak thanks you … and 29 million train riders thank you.

* The most annoying in this bunch is Congressman John Mica (R- FL), who insists on referring to Amtrak as “America’s Soviet-style railroad”. Please John! It might have been mildly amusing the first time you used the line, but that was 20 years ago. Knock it off, already!

Monday, May 16, 2011

Budget Cuts in Congress Frustrate Amtrak Growth.

I’ve just returned from the annual NARP* meeting in Washington, DC, and as always there was a great deal of interest to absorb.

I suppose it’s my background in advertising and marketing, but I am always drawn to the concise statements of fact that clearly illustrate the point to be made. Certainly that’s important in advertising when one or two key points have to be made within the context of a brief 30-second radio or TV spot. Trust me: it ain’t easy!

So here are a couple of factoids that serve to illustrate Amtrak’s pressing -- even critical -- need for new equipment.

The Long Island Railroad is one of the country’s busiest, carrying more than 12 million commuters a year. The average LIRR rail car is run for 62,000 miles each year. By comparison, the average Amtrak rail car piles up more than 180,000 miles a year … and most of those cars are more than 30 years old.

Everyone knows that Amtrak’s ridership has been steadily increasing and will probably exceed 29 million people this year. A growing appreciation of rail travel accounts for some of that, but $4.00-a-gallon gasoline has had a great deal to do with it, too. All that increased demand means that Amtrak needs to increase the number of cars on existing trains and there is mounting pressure to add more trains and even new routes.

But here is the harsh reality: Amtrak has about 1300 cars in its fleet. To maintain the existing level of service, a minimum of 1015 cars are needed. On any given day, there is an average of about 193 additional cars in one of Amtrak’s shops undergoing regular maintenance. The remaining 112 rail cars are located around the country in various locations to be used as last-minute replacements when something goes wrong with a car in use and it has to be taken out of service.

So do the math. How is Amtrak going to meet all this demand for more service? What is it about those numbers -- those facts -- that those members of Congress who keep voting to slash Amtrak’s budget don’t understand?

*National Association of Railroad Passengers

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Best Way to Deal with Amtrak Delays

SEATTLE – My brother-in-law, Peter, and I have almost completed our trans-continental rail journey, the last segment being our ride to Los Angeles today aboard Amtrak’s Coast Starlight.

We arrived here yesterday at 12:30 p.m. on the Empire Builder from Chicago, just about two hours late. It was one of those trips when the Amtrak crew really earns their money.

Not more than five minutes after leaving Chicago’s Union Station, the train abruptly slowed to a stop and a terse voice came over the PA system announcing that there was “a problem with the air”. Translation: an air hose had broken. (Air pressure holds the brake shoes away from the wheels and, when pressure is lost, the brakes are automatically applied.) After a delay of some 15 minutes, the parted hose was located and reconnected, and we were once again underway.

Ten minutes later it happened again. Apparently, two broken air hoses in the first half-hour of the trip was too much for one of the kitchen staff in the dining car. He threw screaming tantrum and walked off the train when we pulled into Glenview, Illinois … meaning, of course, that for the next two days other crew members would have to pitch in and cover his duties in addition to their own. Hardly an auspicious start: two mechanical breakdowns and a mutiny in the first 17 miles of a 2200-mile journey.

Later that night, there was another delay – this time about a half hour – caused by a coach passenger who had been trying to convince a conductor that he should be allowed to travel without a ticket. Overflowing with indignation, he finally left the train in Winona, Minnesota, ably assisted by a burly police officer on each arm.

Later, across most of North Dakota and into eastern Montana, the Builder repeatedly slowed to a crawl while rolling over stretches of track where the roadbed had been softened by flood waters caused by the melting of an unusual amount of snow.

When I woke up this morning, we were just leaving Spokane. While the schedule calls for a 2:15 departure, it was almost 5:00 a.m.

There was a very bright side to all of this, however: because we were so late, it was daylight as we passed through rugged western Washington, ran along the rim of the magnificent Columbia River gorge, and rolled passed the Grand Coulee Dam. Had we been on time, all that magnificent scenery would have slipped by us in the dark.

That good fortune reminded me that about 15 years ago, also on a Seattle-bound Empire Builder, I was having lunch with an English gentleman in the dining car somewhere on the Montana prairie. One of the conductors was passing through the train and stopped at our table to inform us that a freight train up ahead had broken a wheel and as a result we would probably be arriving in Seattle four hours behind schedule.

The Brit absolutely beamed. “Jolly good!” he exclaimed. “Then we really are getting our money’s worth, aren’t we!”

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Just One More Reason to Take Amtrak

I am, at the moment, in Alexandria, Virginia, attending a semi-annual meeting of the National Association of Railroad Passengers. My brother-in-law flew in from Hawaii this morning and tomorrow the two of us will take Amtrak’s high-speed Acela up to Boston where we’ll see four Red Sox games, then take the train back to the West Coast for our return flights to Hawaii.

When he walked in this morning, Peter had a glazed look about him … understandable, because air travel from Hawaii to the East Coast necessarily involves at least one red-eye flight. In his case, it was on United, non-stop from Los Angeles. Still, I thought Peter looked pretty beat and I asked if he had been able to get any sleep on the plane. Nope, he said … not a wink.

Turns out, there was a fellow in the seat immediately behind him, whom Peter described as well over six feet, of massive girth and with a look about him that instantly discouraged any conversation.

Furthermore, Peter said this behemoth spent most of the nearly six-hour flight singing or whistling either Engelburt Humperdinck’s “Please release me, let me go…” or “Santa Clause is Comin’ to Town.” Not surprisingly, no one – passenger or crew – asked him to shut up.

I’ve occasionally seen inconsiderate or disruptive characters on an Amtrak train, but invariably they are politely-but-firmly asked by a conductor to behave. If they don’t, there is no second warning and a couple of super-sized cops will be meeting the train at the next stop.

In the interim, you can always go have a beer in the lounge car.