Sunday, July 31, 2011

Day 6 – A Sobering Step Back into the Time of the Third Reich.

Today was the day – my only day, I’m sorry to say – to see a bit of Berlin.

It’s a modern city … tall office buildings, restaurants, shops, clubs, hotels … almost all of contemporary design. Understandable, when you remember that 70% of this city had been reduced to rubble by April of 1945 and the end of World War II.

The infamous Third Reich of Nazi Germany was the focus of my day today as I joined a walking tour of some remaining sites from that era.

Our first stop was one of the few buildings to survive the massive bombings and, for me, it was the most moving moment of the day. The building includes the office used by Claus von Stauffenberg, the man who planted the bomb that almost killed Hitler in June of 1944. (You may remember the movie, Valkyrie, in which Tom Cruise played von Stauffenberg.)

The building is entered through this courtyard, which is where von Stauffenberg and several of his co-conspirators were summarily executed. By the way, Valkyrie was filmed here on location and museum staff were given final approval of the script to ensure accuracy.

We also visited the place where Hitler's underground bunker was located and where he committed suicide. It is now -- by design -- a non-descript, very ordinary parking lot with no structure of any sort that could possibly be used by neo-Nazis as a shrine to glorify Hitler.

The tour ended at an empty city block that is -- also by design -- wall-to-wall gravel. This is where the infamous Gestapo headquarters was located. A museum on one corner of the parcel provides a history of the abuses -- arrests, interrogations, torture and murders –- committed by the Nazis all over Europe as well as in Germany itself.

It was all pretty sobering, but it is heartening that the Germans themselves have confronted this part of their past. In fact, our guide noted that the public schools are required by law to provide detailed instruction about the Nazi era twice: once at the elementary level and again during high school.

And, just to end on a much lighter note, regular visitors here will know that I am a devoted follower of the Boston Red Sox. (Note my cap in the small photo.) When I arrived at the meeting place for the tour, I was startled to see that the tour guide was wearing a New York Yankee cap. I soon discovered, however, that he’s from Scotland, the cap was a gift, and the only thing he knows about baseball is that the Red Sox and Yankees are “true and mortal enemies”.

Tomorrow: the overnight train to Moscow.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Day 5 – Train, Train and Train Again.

Today was my opportunity to experience three different trains: first the Eurostar from London through the Chunnel to Brussels, then a high-speed Thalys from Brussels to Cologne, and finally a German ICE (Inter-City Express) from there to Berlin.

I’ve ridden a Eurostar train several years ago and my first impression when stepping on board this morning was that this particular trainset seemed to be a bit threadbare. Nevertheless, it was an excellent trip with the train zooming through the Channel tunnel at 112 miles per hour, then picking up the pace to 187 mph most o the way on into Brussels.

And, since I was comfortably seated in first class, a simple, but very good breakfast was part of the deal. Rather amazing that you are riding along at 187 mph and the attendant is very calmly pouring you a cup of hot coffee.

The Thalys trains are operated by the national railroads of France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands and link major cities in those four countries. The equipment is very much like the Eurostar, but more colorful. Still in first class; still very nice … especially when a small bottle of very acceptable white wine is complimentary with lunch.

All the rail stations are pretty spectacular. This is Berlin and that’s my ICE train down there. One common denominator for all the stations I saw today: each had a McDonalds or a Burger King or a Pizza Hut and they all appeared to be busy. I dunno … why do I find that a bit depressing?

OK, so now I’m in Berlin and will see some if this incredible and historic city tomorrow.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Day 4 – Checking Out a Little Corner of London

St. Pancras station is directly across the street from my hotel here in London. Because my train for Brussels will be leaving at 6:45 a.m. tomorrow, I wandered over there this morning for a leisurely look at the magnificent Victorian building.

The original station dates back to 1868 and – astonishingly – came close to being torn down back in the 1960s. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed and after repairs and renovations amounting to some 800 million pounds, the result is a Big Wow!

In addition to the sleek Eurostar trains that depart from here for the continent multiple times a day, this is the main terminus for trains connecting London with other towns and cities in this part of the country. But there are also shops and restaurants and St. Pancras has clearly become a favorite stopping-off place for non-traveling Londoners who lkive and work in this part of the city … very much like the way Union Station in Washington, DC has become a focal point in the city.

Then, tin the afternoon, I spent some time strolling around this general area, which includes rows of tidy apartment buildings, some surrounding a small park with huge old trees providing a leafy canopy for people enjoying this hazy, but bright and sunny day.

Ah well, almost time to move on. Tomorrow I’ll be on three different trains: London to Brussels, Brussels to Cologne, and Cologne to Berlin. Full report to follow.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Day 2 and 3 - Los Angeles to London

OK, I’ve had my ride on the Boeing 777. The plane itself is big, all right … but it features two-five-two seating in the economy cabin and you really do feel packed in. I still prefer the 767.

That said, the American Airlines flight was fine and, in fact, we had a tailwind for much of the way. At one point during the flight, our ground speed was well over 600 mph and that helped put us into Heathrow about 45 minutes ahead of schedule. But even reduced to 9 hours and 25 minutes, it’s still a damn long flight.

Immediately after zipping through Immigration, I almost literally bumped into a young man doing on-the-spot ticketing for the Heathrow Express, a train that is walking distance from where you pass through Customs and which takes airline passengers directly to Paddington Station in downtown London. It’s a 15 minute ride and for probably half that time the train is traveling at 120 miles-per-hour. Very slick and efficient. A train of some eight or then cars – clean, spacious and comfortable – and they run quite frequently.

I am now comfortably situated in the Megaro Hotel. It’s small, the room is quite compact, but everything I need. More to the point, Saint Pancras Station is less than 100 yards from here and it is from there that I will take the Eurostar through the Chunnel to Brussels early Saturday morning. One more thoughtful convenience arranged by Simon Hodge of Railbookers. By way of thanks,
I shall look forward to bying him a beer tomorrow evening.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Day One – Maui to Los Angeles

My American Airlines flight from Maui was aboard my least-favorite aircraft: a Boeing 757 … a long narrow aluminum tube, with a center aisle and three seats on either side. Cramped and claustrophobic. Nevertheless, the five hours en route to Los Angeles passed quickly. Happily, I found myself seated to a nice lady from San Diego who was returning home with her family from a Maui vacation. For whatever reason, most long flights are passed in silence, but we had quite a nice chat.

In anticipation of two long flights and quite a few nights on various trains, I downloaded a number of books into my Kindle before leaving home. One is “Men at Work” by George Will, which is a fascinating study of baseball based on what were clearly many hours spent with outstanding individuals representing the five principle aspects of the game: pitching, catching, fielding, hitting and managing. I detest Will’s politics, but this is a superb, very readable work and a must for anyone wanting to explore the endless mysteries of this amazing game.

Today’s flight to London will also be on American … a non-stop red-eye leaving here at 8:00 p.m. and getting to London at 2:20 Thursday afternoon. Start to finish: 10 hours and twenty minutes. It will also be my first flight on board a Boeing 777 and, from everything I’ve heard, I expect it to be a good experience.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

I'm Off -- Around the World and Mostly by Train!

I’m leaving this morning on what will be almost a month-long trip that will literally take me around the world, most of it by train. Internet access en route permitting, I’ll do my best to post photos and brief accounts on my experiences along the way.

I’ll overnight tonight in Los Angeles, then leave the following evening for a long red-eye non-stop flight to London, arriving there Thursday afternoon. By happy coincidence, my niece and her husband will be in London and I’m meeting them that night for dinner.

The following evening, Friday, I will meet for drinks with two people from Railbookers, the firm that handled 95% of the reservations and ticketing for this odyssey and did an absolutely outstanding job in every respect. They will have all my tickets and other confirmations.

Early Saturday morning, I’ll be on the Eurostar to Brussels, comfortably seated in Seat 61, my personal tip-of-the-hat to Mark Smith, the man behind this terrific train travel web site. In Brussels, I’ll connect with another high-speed train to Cologne and from there to Berlin for a two-night stay.

Then it’s on to St. Petersburg and Moscow where I’ll join a group of folks taking a special train to Beijing by way of Irkutsk, Lake Baikal and Ulan Bator. Back on my own again in Beijing, I’ll take China’s newest high speed train south to Shanghai and fly home from there: Korean Airlines to Seoul and my favorite, Hawaiian Airlines, back home.

Finally, a brief commentary: The price of a first class seat on my flight from Los Angeles to London is $11,660 … one way. If the person in that seat is traveling on business, it’s a deductible expense, which means there will be no tax paid by the corporation on the income earned to pay for that ticket. Meanwhile, we’re about to cut benefits for retirees. See anything out of whack with this picture?

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Nothing Could Be Finer Than Dinner in the Diner

Eating in a rolling restaurant is what passengers remember most about their long-distance train trips. During the Golden Age of train travel from the mid-1930s to mid-1950s, competing railroads would vigorously promote the quality of the food served on board. Today, Amtrak’s dining experience is less than gourmet, but still quite good.

Amtrak passengers enjoying a wine tasting in the dining car as the Coast Starlight passes through California's wine producing region near Napa Valley.

On a recent cross-country trip, the dinner menu’s choices for a main course included a flatiron steak, pork shanks, seared salmon and roast chicken. You even can order a split of acceptable wine, usually a choice between two reds or two whites.

They start you with a small salad, and side dishes include a choice among baked or mashed potato or rice. Desert choices include chocolate cake, a really excellent cheesecake or ice cream … Haagen-Dazs, if you please!

Passengers are seated for dinner by reservation. A member of the dining car staff passes through the train every afternoon taking specific reservation times. They start this process in the sleeping cars, which means passengers there usually can decide when they want to eat–another perk that comes with that higher-priced ticket. And, as regular readers know, if you’re traveling in an Amtrak sleeping car, all dining car meals are included in your fare.

Sleeping car passengers on the Coast Starlight relax over a light lunch in the Pacific Parlour Car.

Amtrak dining cars have community seating, meaning you’ll find yourself at a table for four, seated with two or three strangers. By all means, take this opportunity to get to know some of your fellow passengers. It’s an unexpected bonus to the train travel experience and I’ve enjoyed many a meal getting to know some very interesting people.

Bottom line: The dining car experience is one of the best parts of a long-distance train trip … and it happens three times a day!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

More About John "Wasting-Time-and-Money" Mica

Those of you who stop by here on a regular basis know that Congressman John Mica (R-Florida) is not one of my favorite politicians.

For one thing, Mica never talks about Amtrak without sneering that it’s “America’s soviet-style railroad.” And then he beams when his audiences titter politely in response.

Unfortunately, as the Chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Mica is a force to be reckoned with. Some weeks back, he introduced a bill that would take the busy and profitable Northeast Corridor between Washington and Boston away from Amtrak and peddle it to private operators.

That certainly caused a stir among folks who understand that the U.S. needs the national passenger rail system Amtrak is now providing. They realized immediately that once the profits generated by the NEC are taken away from Amtrak, the railroad’s annual losses would increase dramatically … and that, in turn, would allow Mica and the rest of the anti-subsidy ideologues to justify Phase Two of their plan: killing off Amtrak altogether.

But wait! Comes now the respected, non-partisan Congressional Research Service with a report that says Mica’s privatization scheme is without doubt unconstitutional!

Think of the time and money that have been wasted on a proposal that isn’t legal and won’t work anyway … just so John Mica can generate some headlines and score political points with his conservative base.

Is it any wonder people are fed up and have lost faith in our political leaders?

Saturday, July 16, 2011

A Travel Horror Story Comes With a Big Price Tag

When you travel, things can go wrong. Stuff happens, and when it does we just have to deal with it the best we can.

But here’s a tale of woe that still has me shaking my head at the cold-hearted, just-plain-dumb treatment given a friend of mine and his wife by Air France.

Every year, for the past six years, my friends have swapped homes with someone in France. And on each of those occasions, they have flown from Honolulu to Los Angeles where they connected with a non-stop Air France flight to Paris. They are also "silver status" members of the Air France frequent flyer program.

A couple of months ago they left Hawaii for their most recent French get-away. After their Air France flight landed at Charles DeGaulle airport in Paris, they went on from there to where they were staying near Dijon.

Two days later, while coming down a flight of stairs in a Dijon shopping mall, the woman slipped on a broken tile and fell, breaking one leg in two places and severely spraining the other ankle. After surgery and ten days in a French hospital, she was still in pain, but ready to undertake the long flight back home to Hawaii.

To prevent potentially deadly blood clots from forming, her physician here in Hawaii provided a letter insisting that both of her legs needed to be elevated for the two long flights, especially for the 10-plus hour flight from Paris to Los Angeles. That meant they had to fly first class.

Here comes the sock in the eye.

Air France refused to discount either of the first class fares, even under these unfortunate circumstances.

But the airline also refused to give them credit for the cost of their economy class ticket … so that was something like $1200 down the drain.

And – here comes the insult-to-injury part – Air France also charged both of them a $150 change fee … even after sticking them for their unused economy class tickets!

Finally, when they wheeled the dear lady onto the Air France flight, they discovered only one of the six seats in first class cabin was occupied, so there had been plenty of room in first class anyway.

The cost of those two first class seats from Paris to Los Angeles? Nine thousand bucks … EACH!

A polite letter to the Air France customer service department drew a curt response stating that the airline had acted properly and that no further accommodation would be forthcoming. And, by the way, they misspelled the lady’s name.

A subsequent letter to the head of the airline remains unanswered.

How’s that for sensitive customer relations!

There is a lesson to be learned from this sad, infuriating story, however: If an interruption were to occur to one of your trips for whatever reason -- but especially illness or accident –- and if that would result in severe financial loss, buy travel insurance before you leave. (More about that in a subsequent post.)

In the meantime, let’s have a big round of Bronx cheers for les idiots inconsidéré at Air France!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Thinking about Amtrak and Irony and Ideology

I had an extraordinary English teacher way back in boarding school. Norris Orchard loved the complexity and the subtlety of the English language and somehow managed to pass that along to those of us fortunate enough to be in his classes.

We played word games over meals at his table in the dining hall. And he had a standing offer of $25 – a helluva lot of money in the early 50s – for any student who could come up with two perfect synonyms. Orchard, you see, maintained that there are no two words in the English language that mean exactly the same thing … and he emphasized exactly.

On one occasion, I came up with “menace” and “threat” and thought I had him. Orchard looked at me pensively for a moment and said, “A rather good effort, Mr. Loomis, but for the fact that one cannot send a menace through the mail.” The he added, “Unless, of course, it were possible to pack and ship a five year old boy.”

On another occasion, Orchard gazed around the table and said, “Who can provide us, using no specific examples, with a definition of irony?” It really can’t be done, but it was sure a fascinating and stimulating lunch hour.

That was more than 50 years ago – a testimony, I guess, to the impact a truly inspired teacher can have on a young mind, however ordinary it might be.

I thought about Norrie Orchard today when I considered how ironic it is that Amtrak is now projecting 30 million riders for the calendar year, which would be an all time record. It’s ironic because Republicans in Congress, led by Rep. John Mica of Florida, are proposing drastic cuts to Amtrak's already meager subsidy and are seriously talking about privatizing the Northeast Corridor between Washington to Boston, the only profitable route in Amtrak’s system.

Of course, peddling the Northeast Corridor to some private company would mean that the rest of Amtrak’s operations would immediately show much greater losses. And that, in turn, would give John Mica and others of his ideological ilk the excuse they’re looking for to begin calling for a shut-down of America’s national rail passenger system.

And that, in the vernacular of today’s youth, is an irony that really sucks.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Stopping and Starting Trains - A Science and an Art

From my very first train trip – I was about nine years old and headed to Florida to visit my grandparents – I’ve loved traveling by train. I’ve also been fascinated by the details of train travel, starting with ... well ... the starting and the stopping of those huge machines.

Being able to stop a train that's moving at high speed and with tremendous momentum was a big issue from the get-go. The first trains were slowed and stopped by brakemen, literally riding on top of the rail cars, manually turning cranks that pressed brake shoes against the wheels. Clearly, it was a very dangerous job and the sad fact is that literally hundreds of these men were killed every year.

A real breakthrough occurred when the railroads began using compressed air to apply the brakes against the wheels. That worked fine … until there was a loss of air pressure. Then – oops! – no brakes at all. Very unpleasant consequences usually followed.

It was George Westinghouse who got the bright idea to simply reverse the process – using compressed air to keep the brake shoes off the wheels. Then, should air pressure be lost for some reason, brakes would automatically be applied and the train would stop safely. Certainly seems obvious today … with 20/20 hindsight.

But what about starting a train … especially a long fully-loaded freight train that can weigh more than 10,000 tons? Theoretically, it's just not possible for a locomotive to move all that weight. It does, though, and the secret is in the coupling mechanisms between all those freight cars.

There's roughly a foot of slack between each car in the train. When he wants to start his train moving, the freight engineer first gets rid of all the slack by backing up enough to compress the entire train. Then, when he starts the locomotive moving forward, the slack is gradually taken up and the train starts moving literally one car at a time. Once all the cars are moving, the locomotive can keep them rolling, even speed up and slow down. But it was the slack that got them all started.

Now comes the shameless plug: Lots of information like this -- along with a great deal about Amtrak, VIA Rail and train travel throughout the U.S., Canada and Mexico -- is contained in the 3rd edtion of my book, All Aboard-The Complete North American Train Travel Guide. If you enjoy train travel, I really think you will like the book. (End of commercial!)

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Inconsiderate Yahoos and Their Carry-On Bags.

Everyone knows that most of the airlines are now charging most passengers for checked baggage. One result – entirely predictable – is that more and more passengers are lugging their bags aboard when they fly.

Another result, also predictable, is that people are now bringing more than the required minimum size and number of carry-on bags aboard. Most get away with it because the beleaguered flight attendants don’t want to be convenient targets for the increased resentment all this nickel-and-diming has generated among passengers.

But the increase in carry-on bags has also brought another scourge to air travel.

(photo from National Geographic Traveler on line)

Many airlines ask passengers seated in the rear of the plane to board first. That includes the thoughtless creep assigned to seat 36B in the rear of the plane, who stops just back of the first class section and stuffs his two oversized carry-on bags into the bin above row 8. He does this for his personal convenience, of course, because when we get to our destination, he won’t have to drag his bags down a crowded aisle for the length of the plane.

Unfortunately, as a consequence, when the person assigned to row 8 finally gets to board, there’s no room in the bin above his seat and the poor sod has to drag his carry-on bag to the rear of the plane before he can find available space in an overhead bin.

Then when the flight lands, like a salmon heading upstream, Mr. Row 8 has to work his way back through all those passengers hurrying to deplane in order to retrieve his bag. As a result, the entire deplaning operation is confused and no doubt takes longer.

What can be done about this latest among the ever-increasing number of annoyances with which air travelers must deal? As far as I can tell, not a damn thing.

But whenever possible, I’m still taking Amtrak!

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Another Luxury Train Ride for Our Bucket Lists

The Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, is pretty much the ultimate get-away, and has been for a hundred years. Very classy ... very tasteful ... very, well, very. It’s a beautiful facility in one of the most beautiful parts of this country.
The first hotel was built on the property in the early 1800’s and 100 years later construction was begun on the facility that’s there now. As with many of the great hotels around North America, the resort was owned by the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad. Today it’s owner is the Justice family of West Virginia.

OK, what do you want in a luxury resort? Spas? Golf? Fine dining? How about a casino? Well, it’s all there. And, starting somewhere around the middle of next year, Greenbrier guests will be able to arrive at the Amtrak station in White Sulphur Springs after a six-hour ride aboard a luxury train that will originate in Washington, DC. What a perfect touch!
According to a news release sent to me by Lynn Swann, the resort’s PR lady, “the 15-car train will accommodate up to 240 passengers and will feature a board room car, salon car and even an open-air car.” (This is one of the artist renderings she sent along to tantalize me even more.)

I’m hoping to get more specific information about the consist and will include it in a subsequent post.

Oh, boy ... another train ride for my to-do list. My wife will be thrilled!