Sunday, October 30, 2011

Canada's VIA Rail makes a bad – No, strike that – makes a HORRIBLE decision.

Just over a year ago, I rode a twice-weekly train operated by Canada’s VIA Rail that runs almost 1100 miles due north from Winnipeg to the little town of Churchill on the shores of Hudson Bay. The reason for my journey was to see polar bears in the wild. These magnificent animals gather in the area around this time of year, waiting for the bay to freeze over. They spend the winters out on the ice catching seals, essentially their only source of food. (Yes, I took this photo of a 700 pound bear looking at a potential lunch ... me.)The two-night train ride was a wonderful experience. The scenery gradually changed from rich farmland to dense forests to semi-frozen tundra. And there was the eclectic mix of passengers I met three times a day over meals in the dining car. Many were like me, going to Churchill for the once-in-a-lifetime experience of seeing the polar bears, but most of us were from wildly different backgrounds.

One of the evening meals lasted more than two hours, much of that featuring a fascinating conversation between a Swiss man, living in Toronto and working in the freight forwarding business, and a grizzled farmer from Saskatchewan who raises vast quantities of grain and canola and peas, most of which is shipped to Asia by way of the deep water harbor up ahead of us in Churchill. The fourth tablemate was an extremely attractive Chinese woman who described herself as being “from Montreal, but sometimes Tallahassee.”
Others on the train, mostly traveling in the coaches, were locals -- many what the Canadians refer to as “First Nations people” -- heading for one of the 50 or 60 tiny villages strung out along the train’s route. Several of these folks, in fact, left the train in places without a single building anywhere in sight.

All this is by way of saying that meeting and getting to know all these different and interesting people over a good meal served by friendly staff in the VIA Rail dining car was a wonderful and rewarding experience … in fact and in retrospect, it was almost as rewarding in its own way as seeing those polar bears!

And that’s why I was so damn distressed to read that, in what is being called a cost-cutting move, VIA is laying off all the chefs on those dining cars and will henceforth be offering meals prepared in advance and heated in a microwave before being served. Once again the people wearing the green eyeshades have had their way. This move is short-sighted and will invariably lead to fewer passengers, as Amtrak executives will be more than happy to confirm from their own similar and unhappy experience with this very same issue.

Future tourists will have a disappointing experience in those VIA dining cars, but I really feel for all those local folks, many of whom make that 48-hour journey several times a year. For most of them, VIA Rail is it. There is no Door Number Two because there are no roads linking the major cities to the south with their little towns and villages. And flying is out of the question for either practical or financial reasons.

So bad call, VIA! Shame on the accountants who recommended it, on the executives who approved it, and a pox on the short-sighted, ignorant political ideologues who have been starving the railroad with less-than-bare-minimum subsidies for years, for they are the ones ultimately responsible.

All that said, would I opt for the train again instead of flying on a repeat trip to Churchill? Yes ... but I would remember my first trip and would hate the food.

And would I recommend that rail journey to anyone wanting to see those magnificent bears? Yes, again ... but I would tell them about my first trip and they would hate the food.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Using the anti-Amtrak Argument on Highways.

Over the past year or so, the Wall Street Journal has turned into a regular critic of rail transportation in general and Amtrak in particular. A recent column took Amtrak to task for not being profitable – of course! – and for needing government subsidies to operate. Essentially, it said the railroad should either break even or be shut down as a failure.

Regular visitors here have often read my response to that argument … that all forms of public transportation are subsidized by government – from the airlines to bike ways and sidewalks – as, indeed, they damn well should be in a modern, civilized society.

I recently came across a wonderful collection of pro-rail writings culled and assembled by Jack Ferry for his internet column, The Observation Car. One suggested that a good way to expose the phony arguments used by the WSJ to attack Amtrak would be to apply that same “logic” in a critique of this country’s Interstate Highway System. What a wonderful and wicked idea! I took some of those thoughts, tweaked and added some of my own, and came up with the following:

Highways – America’s Bottomless Money Pit

WASHINGTON--Despite the fact that a record number of Americans traveled by car last year, it’s time for the federal government to stop subsidizing interstate highways. It was an interesting idea back in the 1950's, but after 60 years and hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars, the Interstate Highway System has never once turned a profit.

Even with massive taxpayer subsidies, the costs continue to rise. Roads are wearing out, bridges are falling down, and there is no money to fix any of it without huge new infusions of taxpayer dollars. In this era of record deficits, can we really afford to keep pouring billions every year into this failed venture?

The interstate highway system has not only failed to provide any return of investment to American taxpayers, but it is now clear that this government run system will never even earn enough to pay for itself. To cut its losses, the federal government should sell off the interstates to any private entrepreneurs who believe there is a possibility of turning a profit from them.

The time has come to stop throwing good money after bad and bring this failed experiment to an end.

So ... What's good for rail travel should also be good for highways. D’ya think anyone at the Wall Street Journal will get it?

Uh, no … probably not.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Lex Brodie – Doing it the right way for a long time.

I first arrived in Hawaii on the 1st of May in 1962. It's changed a great deal over the years, of course, but I remember, even then, thinking how truly wonderful this place must have been 25 or 30 years earlier … when the Moana and the Royal Hawaiian were really the only two hotels on Waikiki Beach and it took tourists almost a week to get here by ship from the West Coast.

Lex Brodie was there in those days. He was born on Kauai, but moved to Oahu when he was just a kid. As a young man, Lex gave surfing lessons to tourists and apparently specialized in young females. By his own account, he had an awfully good time for what most of us would consider a well-spent youth.

Child movie star Shirley Temple posed with Waikiki beach boys some time in the 30s. Lex Brodie is the tall one standing behind her and to the left.

Back around 1960, Lex opened a tire store in Honolulu and became a local celebrity because of his TV commercials, every one of which closed with Lex looking into the camera and saying, “Thank you (pause) very much” (emphasis on "very").

There were other tire stores in Honolulu, of course, but for me and most folks, it was unthinkable to buy tires anywhere but at Lex Brodie’s. I pulled in one day to get a slow leak fixed and, while I was waiting, couldn’t help notice that every one of the half-dozen people working there were really hustling about their work. The whole place seemed to be running on fast-forward.

Lex himself was doing some paperwork at an old metal desk sitting on a kind of platform a couple of steps above the main floor. Lex and I belonged to a couple of civic organizations together and I wandered over to say hello. During the conversation, I mentioned his hustling employees and asked how he managed to motivate them. Lex smiled at me. “It’s the ‘No Walls’ theory,” he said. “They can all see me, and I can see all of them.”

Lex was active in a great many community organizations and served for years as an elected member of the Board of Education. But he always loved surfing and for decades, Lex kept a surfboard in a locker at Waikiki Beach. He continued to surf there almost every morning for years … finally giving it up at age 90. I remember a wonderful photo on the wall of his tire store. It showed three generations of Brodies – Lex, his son, Sandy, and a tow-headed grandson – all surfing the same wave off Waikiki … and all three of them grinning happily at the camera.

Lex Brodie turned 97 a week ago, still an inspiration to us all.

Hau`oli la Hanau, Lex. And thank you … very much.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Amtrak’s Amazing Ten-Year Record … In Spite of Weather and the GOP.

Ten years ago, in 2001, Amtrak, America’s national rail passenger system, carried a total of just over 21 million passengers.

Almost every year since then, Republicans in the White House and in Congress have done their best to reduce Amtrak’s annual subsidy, several times to the point that, had their budgets passed, it would likely have caused the railroad to shut down. Even in “good times”, Amtrak has had to get along on what has essentially been bare-bones funding.

As a result, ordering of new equipment had to be postponed, new routes couldn't be added, the existing rail cars and locomotives are getting older and wearing out, and of course there are more breakdowns and delays.

This past Spring and Summer, because of unprecedented flooding and other weather-related problems, Amtrak was forced to cancel literally hundreds of trains running through and across the mid-west.

Heading west out of Denver, Amtrak's California Zephyr follows the Colorado River for well over 100 miles through the Rocky Mountains en route to Glenwood Springs and, ultimately, the Bay Area in California.

And yet, as of September 30th, Amtrak has reported an all-time ridership record: 30.2 million passengers for the previous twelve months.

Just imagine what could be done if our national passenger rail system had been given an adequate amount of funding over these same ten years: more trains running with more and newer equipment over some new and expanded routes.

Even so, the message is crystal clear: Americans want trains.

But House Republicans are still doing their best to gut Amtrak -- even kill it altogether -- with their current budget proposal. Their underwear is in knots because Amtrak averages about $1.5 billion a year in federal subsidies.

Here’s a little tidbit to put that into perspective for you: a billion-and-a-half dollars is almost exactly the amount of foreign aid we send every year … just to Egypt!

Seems to me House Republicans ought to understand that keeping the transportation mode of choice for 30.2 million Americans is worth at least as much as that.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Amtrak and Transit: Big Winners in Los Angeles

LOS ANGELES – The two days of meetings here of the National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP) have concluded and, as always, it was time well spent. NARP is a non-partisan, non-profit organization that advocates more and better trains for the U.S. and I serve on the governing body, the elected Council of Representatives.

Also as always during these meetings, we had a chance to see some of the local rail transportation facilities in our host city. Several things struck me as impressive … even amazing.

We toured Amtrak’s state-of-the-art repair and maintenance facility here – brand-new and built with stimulus funds. Both short- and long-haul trains are inspected, cleaned, and necessary repairs done by crews working two shifts.

Two things struck me during our tour. First, becoming aware for the first time that in all the years before this facility opened, Amtrak workers had to do their work out in the open … in blazing sun (it was 102 degrees Thursday afternoon during our tour) and in the rain. And, second, realizing once again just how complex a passenger rail operation is … from inspecting every wheel on every car to fixing a jammed bedroom door to washing all the windows to restocking the right number of steaks and canned sodas and clean sheets … and on and on. It’s truly an amazing process.

We also heard about the huge strides public transportation has taken throughout Los Angeles county over the past 20 years. Back in the late 80s, the citizens of LA voted to tax themselves another half-percent, with the proceeds dedicated to public transportation, and today there is light rail, heavy rail, coordinated bus operations covering hundreds of miles of track with millions of people are using the system every week. And this, remember, is the Home of the Car Culture in the U.S.

Still there are strident voices opposing rail projects everywhere. Those naysayers need to be made to answer two simple questions: First, if transit is a proven a success in Los Angeles, why do you think it will fail here? And how do you plan to move people in and out of the city when your population increases by 20-25 percent over the next 30 years?


Tuesday, October 11, 2011

I Wish They Would at Least Fight Fair!

The battle continues non-stop between those of us who advocate more and better trains and the folks who are anti-Amtrak and anti-rail. But – dammit! – I do wish the other side would stop distorting their figures and misrepresenting their facts. It makes it hard to engage in serious discussions that should be helping people make up their minds. Instead, they deliberately muddy an already complex social issue.

First, there’s the recent story originating with Bloomberg and then circulating throughout the internet media about improvements to the Northeast Corridor. Someone at Bloomberg took the cost of improving a 24-mile stretch of track in New Jersey, divided that by the improved running time over the entire Washington-to-New York route, and came up with a wonderfully sensational headline: The cost to taxpayers for shaving 1:40 off the running time for those trains was $4.5 million a second. You can imagine the outrage that stirred up! Of course, the real benefit will be to several hundred passengers, on board dozens of trains running every day, every week, every year, on into the future. And let’s not forget all the jobs those track improvements will provide. Ah, but what’s all that compared to coming up with a cheap-shot headline to generate snickers from all the shallow-thinkers!

Ticketing and waiting area for Amtrak passengers in the present-day Atlanta station. Trans arrive and depart on a lower level.

Then there’s Randall Utt, who cranks out endless anti-Amtrak op-ed pieces on behalf of the Libertarian-funded Heritage Foundation. His most recent effort is a column that appeared the other day in Atlanta’s daily newspaper, the Constitution Journal. In it, he attacks the plan to build a new Amtrak station for that city as – of course! – a waste of tax dollars. He cites a 16 percent increase in Amtrak passenger traffic and says it’s wasteful to spend $38 million dollars to accommodate just 40 people a day.

See what he’s done? He’s not counting the 308 Amtrak passengers a day who are already using that station. He’s also not counting increased ridership in the future. Utt makes it sound as though just a handful of people would use that new station, but right now, today, the new station facility would serve something like 130,000 people a year. And – oh, yes – Utt also conveniently leaves out the fact that commuter trains will also use the new station.

C’mon, guys … fight fair! Of course, you won’t have much of an argument if you do.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

One way to handle the “Big 4-0”.

Cycle To The Sun is a once-a-year bicycle race here on Maui that draws entrants from all over the world. It starts at the little town of Paia (elevation: sea level) and finishes at the rim of Haleakala* crater (elevation: 10,023 feet). Start to finish, it's 36 miles and up hill pretty much every inch of the way. Whenever I take visiting friends and relatives up to the rim of the crater, we almost always pass a dozen or so hardy people laboring up what is billed as “the longest, steepest, paved road on Earth.” Most are training for the big race, which is held in August.

For several weeks, my son-in-law, Pete, has been training on his bicycle, too … taking longer and longer segments of that punishing route in each session. Pete turned 40 yesterday and had resolved that it would be a good, symbolic day for him to attempt the entire route. To his everlasting credit, he did it. (That's Pete in the photo above.) His time was 5:01, which computes to an average of 7.2 mph.

As he was catching his breath up at the top, accepting well-deserved congratulations and a bit of champagne from a group of friends, another rider puffed up the hill and stopped next to him.

Pete: "Good job, man!"

Guy: "Thanks."

Pete: "What was your time?"

Guy: "3:08."

Pete: "Oh."

But make no mistake: the 3:08 time means that guy is really in the “elite” category of riders. The best time among all Maui residents in this year’s race was 3:19.

Pete's my hero today.

* “House of the Sun” in Hawaiian.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Remembering Burma Shave Signs: The Best Advertising Campaign Ever.

When you grow up in Connecticut, you are heartily sick of winter by the time Spring Vacation finally rolls around. Back in the late 40s or very early 50s, that was when a visit to my grandparents in Fort Myers, Florida, sounded awfully good. We took the train a few times, but at least twice we did it by car.

In those days, a trip like that was an ordeal. There were no interstate highways and whatever route you chose, it necessarily took you right through the heart of every city and town along the way. It was about 1400 miles altogether and almost all of it was on ordinary two-lane roads. On one of those memorable journeys, my brother, Pete, probably 6 or 7 at the time, became carsick just south of New Haven. We had covered 40 miles since leaving home.

Keeping three kids occupied on a trip like that and under those conditions was a challenge. There were word games and “spotting” games … as in “Let’s see who will be the first to spot a white horse!” Before long, my father would issue another challenge: “Let’s see who can go the longest time without saying anything!”

If anything saved those interminable car trips, it was the Burma Shave signs … five small signs spaced out at the side of the road, one every hundred feet or so. The first four signs –- white lettering on a red background -- would deliver a clever rhyming message, always with a safe-driving theme.

The last one would say, simply …
We’d come up on another set of these signs every hour of so and one of us would read them aloud as we drove past. This has to be one of the most successful advertising campaigns in history. Here are just two examples of the kind of messages that appeared on those signs back in those days (there were literally hundreds):

Burma Shave

Burma Shave

Funny, isn’t it. The Burma Shave signs are what I remember most about those long trips down to Fort Myers. That and, “Let’s see who can spot the first palm tree!”

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

It's Way Past Time to Reconsider Our Priorities.

Guam is a colorful and interesting island far out in the Western Pacific. There’s a lot to see and do there, especially if you’re of an age to be interested in World War Two history. There was a great deal of bloody fighting on Guam. Today, it’s quite a lovely, very tropical island and it attracts a good number of tourists, many from Japan.

But there are no birds on Guam.

The culprit is the brown tree snake. It has no natural enemies and reproduces prolifically. And, as the name implies, it climbs trees and eats birds’ eggs ... all the birds' eggs.

That’s not all the trouble this terrible pest causes. The damn snakes also climb utility poles, slither from one wire to another and … ZZZAPP! There are power outages every couple of days occurring all over the island. The snakes are only mildly poisonous, but can deliver a painful bite nevertheless and often find their way into houses where kids and babies are bitten.

We have a great many birds in Hawaii, many quite beautiful and unique to these islands. There is constant concern that the brown tree snake will find its way here from Guam … hidden away in the wheel well of a jet plane or in a container after being offloaded from a freighter.

For years, the federal government has provided money to pay for some additional agricultural inspectors whose primary job is to inspect planes and ships coming from Guam, making sure no stowaway brown tree snakes get to Hawaii.

As part of their cost-cutting effort, Republicans in Congress have recommended cutting those funds -- the money being used to pay those few extra inspectors -- as wasteful and unnecessary.

I guess it’s all question of priorities, isn’t it. Well, in this case, Republican priorities suck!