Friday, September 30, 2011

No Breaks for Passengers … Except in China, Where They Break Your Head.

Airlines continue to find ways to squeeze more money out of passengers … or just to make it more difficult for us to be sure we’re getting the lowest possible fare.

You are no longer able to find any American Airlines flights on Orbitz, for example. If you’re going to or through Atlanta and are looking for cheapest fares on CheapOAir.com, you won’t see any Delta flights listed, and Atlanta is Delta’s main hub. And Southwest has refused to list any of its flights on any web site but its own.

And, speaking of Southwest, they are running television commercials ad nauseum trashing other airlines for charging fees for checked bags and claiming that “bags fly free on Southwest”. Well, yeah ... unless, of course, your bag is bigger and heavier than Southwest thinks it ought to be. Then they'll charge you a fee just like all the other airlines.

But, as much as we all complain about the way US airlines are treating us, it could always be worse. Take, for example, the case of a middle-aged male passenger on a Chinese train operating in Jiangxi Province. According to news reports, the man apparently became involved in trying to break-up a dispute involving another passenger and, for his trouble, was beaten so badly by members of the train crew that he died. I wonder if his next-of-kin got a refund for the cost of his ticket.

Passenger: “Uh, conductor … ?”

Conductor: “When you call me that, smile!”

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Here It Is: My Biggest Complaint with Amtrak.

I love to travel by train and use every possible excuse to do so. Unlike air travel, you’ll find that almost everyone on board a train is enjoying the experience. Well … OK … I will concede that those of us who usually ride in the privacy and comfort of a sleeping car may be enjoying ourselves a tad more than folks traveling in coach.

That said, it is true that there are times when things go wrong during a rail journey. Usually, that means a train is delayed, which can happen for any number of reasons. In fact, I’ve heard it said that the most commonly asked question on an Amtrak train is, “Why are we stopped?” *

And that brings me to what is my biggest gripe with Amtrak: conductors who do not keep passengers informed when there are problems and delays. I’m prepared for those things -- after all, I’m on the train in the first place because I’m not in a hurry -- but not knowing why we’re sitting on a siding somewhere in the middle of Montana drives me bonkers.

All a conductor has to do is reach for the PA system and say, “Folks, we’re stopped here on a siding because we’re waiting for a westbound freight train. It should be here in 10 to 15 minutes and we’ll be on our way again as soon as it comes through.”

Really, now … how hard is that?

*Insider Tip: If you're on a long-distance train that has stopped for no apparent reason, take a look out of both sides of the train. If you don’t see a second track out there, chances are you have caught up to a slower freight train and are waiting for it to reach and turn into a siding. If there is another track out there, your train is probably on a siding and waiting for a train that’s coming from the other direction.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The One Question They Never Answer.

Doing battle with the anti-Amtrak, anti-rail people is frustrating. They never offer solutions. They just go bonkers at the idea of tax dollars being used to subsidize Amtrak.

Of course, the Highway Trust Fund, which is where money from the federal gas tax goes, only covers half the cost of building roads; all the rest of the highway construction is paid for – subsidized! – directly with tax dollars. Why don’t we ever hear a peep about that?

And, as I have noted here numerous times before, state and municipal governments subsidize the airlines by building and maintaining airports; the federal government chips in by paying for the air traffic control system.

Furthermore, I guarantee that wherever you live your local bus or metro system is heavily subsidized. If it weren’t, fares would have to be doubled overnight … at least!

But here’s the question the anti-rail people never want to deal with:

With the U.S. population projected to increase 13 percent by 2025, how are they planning to move all those people? By building more roads?

In urban areas, the high cost of buying the land for right-of-way, of relocating utilities, and of evening work restrictions, means that every lane of new highway can cost anywhere from $17 to $76 million dollars per mile. In other words, a six-lane elevated highway running ten miles through an urban area could cost from one to five billion dollars … and the interchanges are extra.

And, finally, remember that a single track on a rail line has a carrying capacity 20 times that of a lane of highway.

Unfortunately, facts and logic and thoughtful discourse will not change the minds of the anti-Amtrak ideologues. But the least we can do is refuse to let them off the hook. We have to keep asking how they plan to move another 40 million Americans.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

News of Passenger Rail from Here and There

Through the magic of Google Search, I try to keep track of news about passenger trains from here and there and there’s no end to the news stories that pop up on a daily basis and ranging from the tragic to the absurd.

For example, in Turlock, California, a guy driving a truck and trailer, both loaded with tomatoes, drove onto the tracks and stopped with the trailer remaining in the path of an Amtrak train. Bam! No one was seriously hurt although a few people on the train, no doubt after consultation with their lawyers, reported minor injuries. The truck driver is apparently OK … well, physically, anyway.

Then there’s the incident of a train in India carrying 1500 people that somehow managed to travel 600 miles in the wrong direction before railroad officials noticed. The real miracle is that there wasn’t a horrific collision during the five hours that the train was rumbling along where it had no business being.

And, while it’s important to talk about the continuing misguided efforts by House Republicans in particular to gut funding for Amtrak, there are a number of heartening example where cooler and wiser heads have prevailed and actual albeit modest progress is being made.

The State of Connecticut will be spending $30 million to increase frequency of trains running between New Haven and Springfield, Massachusetts. And in the Midwest, a bit over 200 miles of Union Pacific track between Chicago and St. Louis has been upgraded. Testing of trains running at 110 miles per hour will take place next year and the timetable calls for Amtrak's Lincoln Service trains to run at those speeds bginning in 2014. The bottom line: People want more and better train service!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

How the Love Affair with Train Travel Began

When I was a youngster back in the late 40's and early 50's, our family would take an annual train trip from our home in Connecticut to either St. Louis or Florida, where grandparents would be waiting. Back then, believe it or not, the train was the only practical way to travel over a distance of more than 100 miles or so.

Our rail journeys began at the Hartford railroad station. We would be catching a New Haven Railroad train either south to New York, where we would change to one of the Florida trains, or north to Springfield, Massachusetts, to catch a train coming out of Boston and heading for St. Louis.

For an 8 or 9-year-old boy, those train rides were great adventures. I would impatiently crane my neck for the first glimpse of the train. The anticipation was almost unbearable, but finally, a rasping monotone would blare out over the public address system: "Your attention, please. Now arriving on Track Two . . ."

The platform came alive with that announcement: baggage carts rattling past, last-minute passengers running up the stairs from the waiting room, mothers anxiously corralling their kids.

Then, there it was! A black steam locomotive bearing down on us, even appearing to accelerate as it loomed larger and larger. It was always so much bigger than I had remembered. And noisier, although the locomotive's bell, clang-clanging slightly out of rhythm, was somehow clearly heard above the din as the train rumbled past and came to a stop.

A train ride is still a great adventure for me and it’s still the very best way to see this great country and to meet interesting people. Even after all these years, I'm always anxious to board, always sorry to get off. My next rail “fix” is coming up in mid-October. I’ll be in Los Angeles for a meeting of the National Association of Railroad Passengers and, when the meeting conclude, I’ll again be taking Amtrak’s Coast Starlight overnight to Seattle. Reports to follow here, of course.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

A Few More Thoughts About Russia and Siberia

Start to finish, there were a lot of surprises on this journey and there are a lot of little mental images that keep popping up. Some – not nearly enough, but some – I managed to photograph at the time. Here are a few, along with the impressions that remain.

First, the traffic congestion in Moscow rivals anything in any U.S. city, with the number of cars growing far faster than streets can be widened and added to accommodate them. And speaking of avenues in Moscow – they’re called prospeckts – they are often six or eight lanes in each direction, with cars whizzing along at breakneck speeds and changing lanes impulsively as openings occur. Pedestrian crosswalks are a real adventure!

Infrastructure leaves a great deal to be desired. This photo was taken in the main parking lot facing the train station in Irkutsk. Throughout Russia and Siberia, one has the constant feeling of being in a construction zone. There are small piles of broken bits of concrete, barricades in place, perhaps a piece of equipment parked off to the side. But most of the time there is no apparent work going on.

The signs are in the Cyrillic alphabet and do give you a helpless feeling. I wondered at the time if perhaps it’s a bit like how an illiterate person must constantly feel. But even in Krasnoyarsk in Siberia, you turn a corner and there’s something that reminds you of home.

One of the members of our group used a wheelchair and was constantly confronted with daunting obstacles. One of us carried the chair while he gamely grabbed his cane and labored up the stone stairways and, usually, back down again at the end of each particular sightseeing experience. For all the touring we did, I can only remember once or twice when ramps were available.

Finally, I was interested to learn that the soil across most of Siberia is not very fertile. Case in point, there are millions upon millions of birch trees, but they never grow to more than 15 or 20 feet in height before withering and finally dying from lack of nutrition. Most of Siberia’s prodigious wealth comes from what’s under the surface – oil and a huge variety of minerals.

Still, Siberia was by far the most surprising place of the entire journey ... nothing like what I expected ... so very much more.

Friday, September 16, 2011

A Close Call ... Or how I almost spent 10 days learning Korean and eating kimchee.

If there’s one basic travel rule I have preached and tried to follow over the years, it’s to establish a routine … and stick to it no matter what! The specifics of the routine itself don’t matter so much; it’s whatever works best for you. But when you get distracted or start deviating from that routine, you’re asking for trouble.

To prove my point, let me tell you how I lost my passport in the Seoul Airport. Yes, I really did!

I was going through a security check after arriving on my Korean Airlines flight from Shanghai, but became distracted by a impatient, non-English-speaking uniformed guard. I had already given him my passport, but he kept demanding a boarding pass for my continuing flight. I didn't have one because I'd be getting it from the Hawaiian Airlines counter before boarding my flight to Honolulu, but I finally dug out my stub from the Shanghai-Seoul boarding pass and that seemed to satisfy him. By then, however, I was painfully aware that I had been holding up a long line of passengers. And I forgot to get my passport back.

I wandered around the airport for a while, changed my Chinese money and some euros back into U.S. dollars, and had a bite to eat. When I got to the gate where my Hawaiian Airlines flight would be boarding -- it was in a completely different terminal -- I found a comfortable out-of-the-way seat and read for a couple of hours.

With less then two hours to go before boarding, something made me reach for my passport where I always keep it: in a special zippered slot in my small carry-on bag. It wasn’t there. I quickly went through my pockets. Nothing. Next I carefully went through my bag, removing all the contents and checking every little compartment. I can tell you that when I fully realized that my passport was missing, it was a very, very bad feeling. After all, I was a "transit" passenger with no Korean visa, of course, and could easily see myself sleeping on hard plastic airport seats for a week while some clerk in the local U.S. Embassy put through the paperwork for a replacement.

Trying to remain calm, I went to the nearest Information desk and explained my problem to a very nice, very professional woman. She spent the next ten minutes making phone calls, did a lot of chattering in Korean, slowly and carefully pronouncing then spelling my name. Then, abruptly and triumphantly, she announced that the Main Security Office was holding my passport. Ten minutes later, a young man in a black suit -- there was a wire coming out of his shirt collar and a black button in his ear -- literally came jogging up and handed over my precious passport. I must say they were very efficient and very matter-of-fact about it all, but it had been a very tense 20 minutes for me. I had made a stupid rookie mistake and was damn lucky that it all turned out well.

So when you travel next, remember to stick to your routine and – most important -- do as I say, and not as I did in the Seoul airport.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Leaving Shanghai: Short, Sweet and Fast!

In hindsight, I didn’t allow enough time for Shanghai. There is just too much to see and, understandably, visitors are taken by the incredible, even breathtaking architecture of the soaring, modern skyscrapers in the Financial District.

Given more time, however, I would have liked to seen more of the traditional old parts of the city that are still around. My cousin, Steve Grace, has written an absolutely marvelous book about this city, titled simply and appropriately, Shanghai, and he spends a lot of time exploring these old parts of the city and the unique and traditional lifestyle of the people living there.

This is an exact scale model of almost the entire downtown Shanghai area. Clearly, the city government has focused a great deal of time, effort and money on urban planning and redevelopment. They have done miraculous things in a very short time. Of course, they have a huge advantage … no NIMBYs to slow things down. Typically, people living in older neighborhoods will simply be served notice that their block has been scheduled for redevelopment and they have three weeks to get out. (Not to worry, though … the government has a brand new 500-square-foot apartment on the 40th floor of a high-rise tower reserved for you. It comes with a washing machine and a dryer. You’ll love it.)

The final rail link in my itinerary was the shortest, but also the fastest: the magnetic levitation (maglev) train that carries passengers from downtown Shanghai to Pudong International Airport. It’s a 20-mile trip that takes just seven minutes. The top speed I noted on the way out to Pudong, according to the digital display in the front of each car, was 431 km/h, or 268 miles per hour.

Given my very limited understanding of the maglev technology – using the opposing force of huge magnets to lift the train off the track and propel it forward – I was expecting an almost silent and very smooth ride. It was neither. It produced what is best described as a rumbling sound that was, in fact, noisier than the high-speed train I took from Beijing to Shanghai. And the ride was rough enough so that I had to grip a seatback to stand up when we were moving at top speed.

Still, at least for an advocate of more and better trains, it’s a thing of beauty. And without doubt, it’s a technology with tremendous potential. For me, it was a fitting conclusion to my rail travels that started a month earlier in London.

The final stretch of my ‘round-the-world journey would all be by air: first from Shanghai to Seoul on Korean Airlines, then home in two hops – eight-plus hours from Seoul to Honolulu and the 22-minute hop from Honolulu back home to Maui – both on Hawaiian Airlines.

But there was still time for one final, brief and very scary adventure.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Ride a bicycle? Now there’s a bulls-eye on YOUR back!

Whenever I run into one of the knee-jerk conservative ideologues who goes bonkers at the very idea of a federal subsidy for Amtrak, my standard response is, “But in a modern civilized society, all public transportation is subsidized, from the airlines to bike lanes and sidewalks." (In fact, see previous post!)

Well, now one of the chief crazies, United States Senator Tom Coburn, Republican from Oklahoma, is proposing that we eliminate federal monies used to build bike paths and sidewalks. Yes … really!

Just when you think we may have finally hit bottom, some damn fool like Coburn starts digging again.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Uh-oh! The Inmates Are Loose in the Asylum Again!

Sorry to interrupt my trip narrative, but I must report that House Republicans in Congress have recommended a budget reducing Amtrak’s annual subsidy to a level that would, in effect, ultimately force the railroad shutting down.

The root of this idiocy is the Republican ideological obsession with the whole issue of a federal subsidy for Amtrak. Eye balls start spinning in their sockets and all objective, rational thought disappears.

I’ve written about this before, but let me mention just three quick points regarding the federal subsidy for Amtrak:

First, all forms of public transportation are subsidized, from the airlines to bike lanes. If the GOP is so damn set against subsidies, they should demand that the airlines start paying for the air traffic control system.

Second, Amtrak generates about 80% of its operating costs from fares and other income, which is a better record than any other national rail passenger system anywhere in the world.

Finally, and to put the issue into some kind of rational perspective, over the years Amtrak's annual subsidy from the federal government has been around $1.5 billion, in return for which we have a national rail system that carries 30 million Americans every year. As it happens, $1.5 billion is just about exactly the amount the U.S. gives in foreign aid every year ... to Egypt!

We can only hope that this proposed budget will be amended and Amtrak will once again end up with a bare-bones budget … enough to continue operations, but short of what is needed to properly maintain equipment and certainly not enough to improve let alone increase service to meet a still-growing demand.

Please take a moment, go to the NARP web site, and use the link provided to send a message to your member of Congress asking for continued support of this country’s national passenger rail system. And, if you’re not already a member of NARP, please consider joining.

Thanks!

Friday, September 9, 2011

Day 30: Shanghai - the Past, the Present, and the Future.

Government and politics in China are centered in Beijing, but Shanghai is the heart of business and commercial activities. That was apparent right away when I stepped off the high-speed train and once again found myself in the middle of a huge, new train station.

Shanghai is a city of striking contrasts. For instance, there are a number of classic old buildings, most from the early 1900s, that were built by the French or the British or the Germans, all early colonizers of this city.

But turn 180 degrees and there, right across the Yangtze river, are some of the more spectacular examples of dramatic modern architecture you’ll find anywhere in the world. That building with the rectangular opening at the top is the 1614-foot tall Shanghai World Financial Center, a mixed-use structure that contains office space, shopping malls and, from the 79th to the 93rd floors, the Park Hyatt Hotel. By the way, and no doubt to the dismay of the building’s architect and owners, it’s universally referred to as “the bottle opener” by the locals.

Next, if you turn around again and walk a few blocks past the main thoroughfare, you’ll find yourself in one of the many older parts of town, still looking like it has for a great many years – charming, comfortable, and moving at a pace that seems to be much more leisurely than the rest of the city.

My guide, Jean Liu, led me around a corner, down an alley and through a side door into a noisy, crowded market where, even in the middle of the afternoon, local people were shopping for that night’s dinner.

I had expected bustling markets and skyscrapers in Shanghai, with lots of people hurrying here and there. I did not expect to find tranquil parks, beautifully designed and meticulously maintained.

Back across the river and away from the financial district, with all its big-name chain hotels and office towers and international conglomerates is the real heart of this city of some 23 million … stores and shops and businesses of every kind, with taxis, delivery vans and vehicles of every possible type stopping, starting, honking and zipping about, usually at breakneck speeds. It only takes a few hours to realize that this has to be one of the most vibrant cities in the world … and most definitely worth another visit.

Next: A very short, very fast maglev train ride.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Day 30: A High-Speed Ride from Beijing to Shanghai

I tried, but there is absolutely no way one photo can begin to convey the immensity of the new Beijing South train station which, I was told, is the largest in all of Asia. The best I can do is show you the photo I took of an artist’s drawing to scale of this amazing building.

Sleek high-speed trains use this station and, in fact, their newest high-speed line linking Beijing and Shanghai had its inaugural run at the very end of this past June. But there are many other trains coming and going here … carrying commuters and people traveling between this capital city and southern provinces at more conventional speeds.

Here’s a shot of the electronic board providing departure information. Note that it lists a total of 34 trains that were scheduled to leave Beijing for a variety of destinations in just over a four-hour period.

The newest, fastest Chinese trains have pretty much the same streamlined aerodynamic design typical of high-speed equipment in Europe. These trains are rated for 350 km/h (218 mph), but are being limited to top speeds of 300 (187 mph) for the time being. There is a digital read-out at the front of every car and the highest speed I noted during the 4-plus hour ride to Shanghai was 304 (189 mph). For the record, the ride was quite smooth and pleasantly quiet.

This photo was taken from the train about 20 minutes after leaving Beijing South station. It seemed like an exceptionally smoggy day, although it could also have been that we were passing through an area containing a lot of industry.

It’s obvious to even the most casual tourist that the Chinese government has two main priorities: feeding and housing people. There are massive high-rise apartment buildings going up everywhere and, from where this shot was taken all the way to Shanghai, every square foot of tillable land was being used for growing vegetables, including a great deal of corn. (I’m not sure why, but that surprised me.), And, unfortunately, it’s equally clear that environmental concerns are at or very near the bottom of their list of priorities.

Next: Shanghai … Another Big WOW!

Monday, September 5, 2011

Day 29: A Visit to the Really, Really Great Wall.

According to our guide, the Great Wall of China is the Number One tourist attraction in this country … and I believe it. After the heat and the pressing crowds of Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, we all were a bit put off at the thought of coping with more and even bigger crowds. Not to worry, we were assured: we’re going to a section of The Wall that is farther out of town, but will be less crowded.

That was the good news. The bad news? Getting there meant slogging through more than 90 minutes of bumper-to-bumper traffic. Thankfully, there was A/C, but it just cooled the smog before sucking it into our lumbering bus. Our guide remained unfailingly cheerful, however, assuring us that we had missed morning rush hour, but then noting apologetically that we would probably be in the middle of the heavy going-home traffic on our way back.

Finally, there it was. Climbing a steep slope, swinging on upwards past one of the watch towers, and continuing through the haze and over a distant ridge out of sight. Just these few miles of wall are nothing short of astonishing, but try to imagine: when finished and intact, it stretched for some 4,000 miles! (By the way, it is not true that the Great Wall is visible from outer space.)

This is one of a dozen or more very ancient cannon that are positioned along several stretches of The Wall here, all aimed at the valley below. This would have been a marginal photo until a little girl hopped up and struck a feisty pose for her father … and instantly turned it into an interesting shot in several different ways.

This photo was taken about halfway up to the top of this stretch of The Wall and I will tell you without any apologies that I was lucky to get this far. As I sat there huffing and puffing, I had fun imagining a Chinese non-com back in the 14th century summoning one of his soldiers and barking an order:

“Qang! Run up there and tell Lao that dinner will be at 7:00 tonight, not 6:30. Hop to it!”

As I was sitting and catching my breath in one of those little niches in the wall, this Chinese woman with a little boy about four-years-old rushed up to me and thrust him onto my lap … frantically gesturing that she wanted to take a photo of me holding her child. I was happy to oblige – actually, too surprised not to – the photo was taken, and the little boy scurried back to his mother.

But now, a queue of parents and babies began forming and, before I knew what was happening, there were more kids on my lap and more photos taken. I felt like a department store Santa working at fast-forward!

Finally, I was able to wave them off, break away and head back down The Wall and into some shade. Later I asked our guide about the experience. He laughed and said that those people were probably from one of the outer provinces where they rarely if ever see a white face and they wanted a photo of the strange-looking man they had seen during their visit to the Big City.

I’m flattered … I think.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Day 28: Cheek by Jowl in the Forbidden City.

If you’re fortunate enough to visit Beijing, by all means plan to see the Forbidden City, home to 14 Ming emperors and 10 more from the Qing Dynasty. Like Tiananmen Square, it’s big, almost 180 acres in all. That means there will be a great deal of walking. And it’s not all flat. There are flights of stone steps. Lots of them.

The Forbidden City dates back to the very early 1400s and wasn’t opened to visitors in 1925, almost 15 years after the last emperor was overthrown. But for all those years when emperors were in residence, the Chinese were serious about protecting them. There is a 30-foot wall around the entire area. And a moat – 50-plus feet wide and six feet deep.

Expect crowds if you go … big crowds. It was just over 90 degrees on the day I was there and by the time our tour of the place ended, I was very tired and more than ready for a cold beer. Looking at these photos now, I’m sure that the constant press of all those people for several hours contributed to the fatigue we all felt. Our guide estimated the crowd that day at 40,000. But, he said, it’s often twice that or even more on big holidays. Wow!

There are dozens of these huge copper and iron vats located throughout the Forbidden City, the oldest ones dating all the way back to the late 1400s. The buildings, even the emperors’ quarters, were built of wood and the vats were kept filled with water used to fight fires. And there were fires, ultimately reducing the entire complex to a mere 8700 rooms, down from the original 9,999. (Nine, you see, was considered a lucky number.) By the way, charcoal fires were built around the bases of these vats in winter to keep the water from freezing. Amazing what you can do with no limit to the money or manpower at your disposal, eh?

I mentioned earlier that the Chinese guide for our group carried a small transmitter and microphone and that each of us heard his narration and comments through a little receiver and ear bud we’d been given. Indeed, most tour groups used that excellent system. There were other groups, however, that got their information from tour guides screeching through little bullhorns and any ear-bud narration was obliterated when these obnoxious people came within 100 feet. With a repressive government able to do any damn thing it wants, cracking down on these devilish devices would be an excellent place to start.

We entered the Forbidden City through the South Gate and headed straight ahead: up long flights of stone stairs, through crowded passageways, into courtyards, down other stairs, out onto huge open areas, up still more stairs and through decorative arches -- plodding on and on and on. By the time it came in sight, the North Gate wasn’t just another interesting structure, it was a goal. Our finish line! Hot, tired and seriously in need of cold beer, we staggered through the gate desperately looking for our big, beautiful air-conditioned bus.

But it was not to be … at least not yet. Instead, we found ourselves in the Imperial Gardens, quite a beautiful area mercifully shaded by very large trees and, truthfully, a very nice way to decompress from the press of crowds and the heat within those 30-foot walls behind us.

Bottom line: The Forbidden City absolutely must be on your list of places to see in Beijing. And the very best advice I can give you is to make it the only place you visit on that day. Most especially if you happen to be there on one of the big Chinese holidays! Take your time ... bring bottled water ... and (I'm quoting our guide here) keep one hand on your wallet. But go!

Next: The Great Wall.