Wednesday, June 29, 2011

A Simple Question for the Anti-Rail Folks.

Bill Ford is the head of the Ford Motor Company. When he says we’d better start looking for alternate ways of getting around … well, we’d better start looking for alternate ways of getting around!


The population in this country has more than doubled in my lifetime.

According to several research organizations, there will be as many as 438 million people in this country by 2050 ... that's 130 million more than today.

It’s estimated that we would need to spend more than $300 billion to increase the capacity of our roads and highways to handle all those additional cars. Then there’s all the congestion, all the pollution, and all the additional mid-East oil they would require.

So here’s my question to the people demanding an end to Amtrak’s subsidy and ranting against high-speed rail:

Are you OK with that?

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Future of Passenger Trains - Here and There.

Item One: The Japanese government has given the go-ahead to a private firm, JR Tokai, to begin work on a new high-speed train that will run between Tokyo and Osaka. Initial cost estimates are 9 trillion yen or about $111 billion. But here’s the thing: this train will use maglev (magnetic levitation) technology!

Item Two: At the moment, the only scheduled maglev operation is in China, taking passengers from downtown Shanghai to Pudong Airport (above photo). But on June 30th, the Chinese will formally begin high-speed rail service between Beijing and Shanghai. Express trains on the route will cover the 820 miles in something like 4:45, which is averaging over 170 miles an hour.

Item Three: Back here in Washington, Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee are getting ready to decide where the dollars will go for the coming fiscal year ... and that, of course, includes money for Amtrak. Here’s the cheerful prediction from NARP, the National Association of Railroad Passengers:

“…it seems certain that the subcommittee will impose a crushing funding reduction on Amtrak, possibly zeroing out the national network and limiting capital funding to the bare minimum needed to avoid bankruptcy.”

Really makes you feel proud, doesn’t it.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Best Choice: An Amtrak Sleeping Car.

The most common question I get comes from people planning an overnight train trip who are trying to decide whether to travel by coach or to spend the extra money for sleeping car space. Several considerations go into that decision.

How far are you traveling? If it’s a daytime trip, anywhere up to 8 or 10 hours, I’d opt for riding in coach. The seats are wide and comfortable and there is a lot of legroom … much like the first class seating on an airplane.

But if you’re going to be traveling overnight, give the sleeping cars serious consideration. You’ll have private accommodations and a real bed to sleep in at night.

Yes, sleeping car space is more expensive … often a lot more. But there are considerations (or, if you prefer, rationalizations). First, while every passenger pays the basic rail fare, the sleeping car supplement is for the room, so there is no additional charge for the second passenger in a sleeping car roomette or bedroom.

Remember that a long-distance train trip is part of your vacation experience, not just the mode of transportation that gets you to where your vacation begins. That means you’ll be saving the cost for a hotel room on those nights you’ll be on the train.

And don’t forget that all dining car meals are included in the fare when you travel in a sleeper. That can add up to considerable savings on a two-night journey aboard one of Amtrak’s long distance trains … especially with two or more passengers occupying the roomette or bedroom.

Finally, if your travel dates are flexible, check the cost for the sleeping car supplement for several different dates. Depending on how close to being sold out they are, there can be a significant difference in cost from one train to another.

Bottom line: If you can afford it, by all means go for the sleeper.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Who Says People Don't Want High-Speed Rail??

As Congress persists in providing Amtrak with bare-bones support, the railroad struggles on, doing its best to keep old equipment running and all the while serving more and more people. This past May Amtrak carried 2.6 million passengers. It was the 19th consecutive month that ridership has increased and projections are for record numbers to continue right on through the summer.

By the way, opponents of Amtrak harp on the cost of subsidizing our national rail passenger system. So here’s a question for you: Which mode of transportation is doing the most damage to our deficit problem? The answer is the automobile, and it isn’t even close. In the last three years alone, the federal government has borrowed more than $62 billion dollars to plow into the Highway Trust Fund for the building and fixing of roads all over the country. Amtrak’s annual subsidy is about $1.5 billion.

The next time a politician calls high-speed rail a boondoggle and claims the American public is against it, don’t believe it. A recent Harris poll shows strong support for high-speed trains, especially in states where high-speed rail is actively under consideration. Furthermore, that support is across party lines. While most support comes from Democrats and Independent voters, some 52 percent of Republicans want fast trains.

Meanwhile, the know-nothing yahoos in this country are still arguing that people won’t patronize high-speed rail if we ever build it here. If they’re right, does that mean everyone else throughout the rest of the world is wrong? Hardly. They’ve got it figured out in France, where people have preferred to travel between their cities on the TGV for more than 30 years. The Russians have a new high-speed line operating between Moscow and Saint Petersburg. The Chinese will inaugurate their latest fast train, running between Beijing and Shanghai, at the end of this month.

And the Koreans – South Koreans, of course – have just announced another expansion of their high-speed system at a cost of almost $15 billion. One reason there isn’t massive support for fast trains in this country is that fewer than 20 percent of Americans own a passport and an even smaller number of our people have ever been to a country with high-speed trains, let alone ridden on one.

One way to support high-speed rail in this country is to join the National Association of Railroad Passengers. (Disclaimer: I'm an active member.) NARP is non-profit and non-partisan, and maintains an office in Washington with a professional staff that lobbies Congress for more and better and faster trains. You can join NARP by clicking here. Thanks!

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Making the Case for More Trains.

Writer James McCommons spent the better part of a year traveling around the U.S. on Amtrak trains to interview a variety of knowledgeable people about this country’s transportation problems. And if you are under the illusion that we don’t have problems, let me quote just one paragraph from his terrific book, Waiting On A Train:

"California has big transportation problems: it contains three of the nation’s most congested urban areas, transportation accounts for 40 percent of its air-quality problems, congestion costs $20 billion a year in fuel consumption and lost productivity, and the state may add another 20 million people over the next twenty years, reaching 50 million. These statistics have staggering implications. If the trains system is not built, studies show the government will have to build 3,000 additional miles of freeways and expand all major airports at a cost of $82 billion."

What’s so maddening about the anti-rail people is their shallow “arguments”. They object to a subsidy for Amtrak, but ignore the fact that every form of public transportation is subsidized. They claim “no one will ride” proposed new transit systems when, once completed, every new system in the country has exceeded ridership projections. Every one! And they never, ever discuss the consequences of not expanding and improving our national transportation infrastructure. If “gummint” is involved, they’re against it. If Obama proposes it, they hate it. We can only hope that eventually facts will become relevant to the decision-making process and that the clear thinkers will prevail.

Once again, the book is Waiting On A Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service--A Year Spent Riding across America. Go here to order your copy. It’s an terrific read. And it’s an important work.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Coming Up: The Ultimate Rail Journey

For most rail enthusiasts, the Trans-Siberian Express – covering 5,753 miles from St. Petersburg through Moscow to Vladivostok – is the ultimate train travel experience. It’s certainly been on my must-do list for years.

In less than two months, I’ll be taking off for an extended rail journey and a version of the venerable Trans-Siberian route is included: St. Petersburg and Moscow for the start, but switching to the Trans-Mongolian line in Ulan Bator and going south from there to Beijing.

Interestingly, Russian trains run on wider track than the standard width between rails found most everywhere else in the world. Russian gauge is 4 feet, 11 5/6 inches, which is about 3½ inches wider than standard gauge. The original idea behind the extra-wide gauge was to make it difficult for invading armies to transport their military machines and hardware into Russia by rail.

At any rate, according to Mark Smith, the Man in Seat 61, the Moscow-Beijing route is more scenic and more interesting than the traditional one to Vladivostok. This photo from Wikipedia is the Chinese train in the Gobi Desert.

From Beijing, I will be taking the brand new Chinese high-speed train to Shanghai. How new is it? Its inaugural train is due to run sometime this month. Finally, and in one way the highlight of the trip, I’ll take the world’s only regularly scheduled magnetic levitation (maglev) train on the brief but very fast ride from downtown Shanghai to Pudong, their international airport, for my flights home.

And, yes, I’ll be taking my laptop along and, as time and internet connections permit, will post here about my experiences along the way.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Knee-Jerk Opposition to Amtrak's Subsidy is Nuts!

The budget battle goes on (and on and on) in Congress, and the issue of Amtrak’s annual subsidy keeps coming up in the course of those discussions. There are ideologues in Congress for whom the word “subsidy” is anathema, and they are demanding cuts or even elimination of federal dollars for Amtrak.

OK, may I offer a little bit of perspective?

Amtrak needs about $1.5 billion next year to continue operation of this country’s national rail passenger system.

The U.S. is going to spend $1.5 billion next year in foreign aid
... just for Egypt!

What the hell are those bozos thinking?