Wednesday, November 30, 2011

We Argue About High-Speed Rail in California …

… and they’re building the damn thing in Uzbekistan! Does anyone else see the irony, not to mention the absurdity, in that?

Uzbekistan Railways has bought two trainsets from the Spanish manufacturer, Talgo, and will put them into service on their first high-speed run (250 km/hr) between Tashkent and Samarkand.

Meanwhile, in the United States of America, we are continuing to hear shrill voices denouncing high-speed rail as “a boondoggle” and a waste of money, and proclaiming that people won’t ride it. Then, of course, they go on to remind us all that America is the greatest country in the world.

And that reminds me of another bit of insufferable arrogance that occurred last May when members of NARP* were visiting Congressional offices on Capitol Hill to urge support for rail and for Amtrak. One of our members was meeting with an aide to a Republican congressman from Alabama and was informing him how the U.S. was falling years behind even third world countries in rail transportation. At that point, the aide interrupted and said to our member, “If you’re going to continue running down America, we have nothing further to discuss.”

See? That’s what we’re up against. No wonder this country is in trouble.

*National Association of Railroad Passengers, a non-partisan, non-profit organization advocating more and better trains for America. Go here to join.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

A Clear Message from Small Towns: "Don't Mess with our Amtrak Service!"

I’ve been struck recently by the growing number of news stories about cities and towns in various parts of the country that are agitating for more or better or even new rail service. But by far the loudest agitation is coming from areas where existing service is threatened for one reason or another.

Take, for example, the possible rerouting of Amtrak’s Southwest Chief, which runs daily in both directions between Chicago and Los Angeles.

Most Amtrak trains run on track owned by one of the freight railroads and the Chief operates on track owned and maintained by the Burlington Northern Santa Fe. The trouble is, stretches of that track in Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico are not in great shape. Oh, it’s fine for slower freights, but not so good for Amtrak. And faster trains running over any given stretch of track mean that more maintenance is required. Not unreasonably, BNSF says they’ll be happy to maintain that track to the higher standard as long as someone else pays for it.

Passengers take a break as the Southwest Chief stops in Raton, New Mexico.

But that won’t be cheap. Amtrak figures that it will take something like $94 million the first year to bring the track up to their standards and as much as $11 million every year thereafter to keep it at that level. And that’s a swat for a railroad that’s being kept on near-starvation funding levels by Congress.

The alternative being considered is to reroute the train so it will be traveling over better track that will permit it to sustain higher average speeds. Trouble is, the minute that idea was floated, mayors and town councils of cities along the existing route rose up as one to oppose that option. The last I heard, a meeting of the concerned parties was being scheduled. Could the money be raised if everyone put something in the pot?

But isn’t this interesting: while members of Congress are whining about the paltry subsidy that Amtrak receives every year*, people in three states across small-town America are apparently ready to pony up the money needed to keep the bare-minimum train service they already have.

There’s a message here, dammit! People want trains!

*Amtrak’s annual subsidy has been averaging about $1.5 billion a year. That’s just about exactly how much the U.S. gives away every year in foreign aid … just to Egypt!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Life on Maui: The Important Stuff Comes First.

I realized this morning that when it comes to the news of the day, my priorities are quite different from most folks … at least if I’m to be judged on the order of the web sites I visit after turning on the computer in the morning.

First up is the Sports Section of the Boston Globe, more specifically, any stories concerning the Boston Red Sox. This is serious stuff: the search for a new manager is nearing a resolution; free agent players are leaving; others may or may not be re-signed; and trades are under discussion.

Next comes breakfast. There is juice from our own oranges, picked five minutes earlier, fresh brewed cappuccino made with coffee grown a dozen miles from here, and a couple of slices of toast. The bread comes from a little hole-in-the-wall bakery a mile down the road.

The morning edition of the Maui News goes nicely with all that and my first news story of choice is whatever carries the by-line of ace staff writer, and daughter, Ilima Loomis.

Then it’s back to the computer to check emails and – finally – a quick review of the news of the day with a very brief stop at CNN, followed by the incredible jumble that is the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s web site, and finally the New York Times, still the gold standard of journalism.

I stretch all that out as far as possible … until 9:30, if I’m lucky. That’s when I am confronted with my to-do list for the day. Usually, it’s thrust in front of my face, blocking my view of the monitor. Today it’s finish washing windows (we have guests coming for the long weekend) and spread horse poop on the pasture.

And I have to get cracking. At 2:00, the Boston Bruins are playing the Buffalo Sabres on TV.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

About Dome Cars and Amtrak Food Service and What Not to Do About it.

Railroad passengers love observation cars! That’s certainly understandable, since a big part of the train travel experience is enjoying the passing scenery, and where better than from a rail car with oversized windows or, better yet, from a glass dome on top of the car.

The most popular place to be on one of Amtrak’s long-distance trains is in the Superliner lounge car, with its large, comfortable seats and the huge windows that extend up beyond the curve of the roofline.

Canada’s premier long-distance train is the Canadian. It’s operated by VIA Rail and runs three days a week in both directions between Toronto and Vancouver on the Pacific coast. During the busy times of the year, that train features as many as three of the classic dome cars and – trust me on this – seats up in that glass bubble are always at a premium.

Way back in it’s early days, when it was having to make do with a fleet of mismatched rail cars collected from the various private railroads, Amtrak obtained a few of those classic old cars. Alas, only one remains. But, as a rare treat, passengers traveling next week on Amtrak’s Wolverine between Detroit and Chicago may find this vintage car as part of their consist.

Again and again for the past 100 or more years, it has been proven that the more pleasant train travel is, the more people will choose to ride. Makes sense, eh? But, and this certainly should be obvious, the reverse is also true: If the train travel experience is allowed to deteriorate, a loss of ridership will inevitably follow.

Notwithstanding that which is clear to you and to me, Representative Jean Schmidt, a Republican Member of Congress from Ohio, has introduced H.R 3362 which would drastically curtail food service on Amtrak trains.

What is not clear are Ms. Schmidt’s motives. Does she simply fail to understand the obvious and inevitable consequences of this measure? Or does she understand very well that fewer riders will mean the need for higher subsidies … which, of course, would further “justify” calls from many of her Republican colleagues to shut down Amtrak’s long-distance trains altogether.

Either way, it’s a terrible idea and shame on her.

Oh, by the way, the most scenic train ride anywhere east of the Mississippi is Amtrak's Cardinal. It passes right through Jean Schmidt’s Congressional district. Go figure!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

A Big Plus to Many Amtrak Long-Distance Trains

For any long-distance trip, especially for family vacations, there are many reasons for taking Amtrak instead of flying or driving. But certainly at or near the top of that list is the opportunity to see new and wondrous parts of this vast country of ours. There is just nothing comparable to the experience of relaxing in a wide comfortable seat as the U.S. of A passes by right outside your window.

For three or four hours out of Denver on the westbound California Zephyr, for instance, you’ll be following the Colorado River all the way to Glenwood Springs. Most of the year, rafters will wave at you as they float along a hundred feet below.

Or you could be on the Cardinal – my favorite train in the Eastern part of the U.S. – as it crosses the Appalachian Trail or snakes its way through the New River Gorge.

And, as the folks on TV are wont to say, “But wait! There’s more!” On those trains, as well as several others passing through other scenic areas, members of the National Park Service and other historical societies board Amtrak trains and provide running commentaries about the history and geography of the areas passing by outside.

What a bonus that is! And it all underscores my argument that families can easily justify to cost of a long-distance train trip by realizing that the rail journey is not simply a means of transportation taking you to where your vacation begins … the train trip is, in fact, a big part of the whole vacation experience. Your Amtrak ticket doesn’t simply cover the actual transportation, but it saves the cost of a hotel room for those nights and, assuming you’re traveling in a sleeping car, it also includes the cost of all your family’s meals, too.

And you can’t beat that with a stick!

Friday, November 11, 2011

People Attacking Amtrak's Long-Distance Trains Mostly Get It Wrong.

The people who constantly generate anti-Amtrak editorials and op-ed pieces in the media drive me crazy ... especially when they go after Amtrak's long-distance trains. In most cases, they either make unsupportable statements or get their “facts” completely wrong.

The former group reminds me of the line that originally came from Lucy in an old Peanuts comic strip: “If you can’t be right, be wrong at the top of your voice!”

Case in point: the people who immediately and loudly blow off those trains with “Just a big waste of money ... another damn gummint boondoggle!”

See? No further thinking required. Now they can all go back to their football game.

Then there are the people – more often than not the anti-rail members of Congress who should know better – who love to beat up on Amtrak’s long-distance trains. To hear them tell it, U.S. taxpayers are picking up the tab for wealthy seniors who are traveling in subsidized luxury from, for example, Chicago to Los Angeles on the Southwest Chief.

The fact is, most of the passengers on all of Amtrak’s long-distance trains are traveling between two mid-points along the route. And they are doing so because there is no alternate means of public transportation or because it’s cheaper to go by train than by air.

The Southwest Chief is Amtrak’s daily train that runs between Chicago and Los Angeles, a trip that takes just over 46 hours. But, on average, 60 percent of the Chief’s passengers are aboard the train for 10 hours or less.

Some may be traveling from Kansas City to Chicago, a total of 437 miles. An Amtrak coach seat for that trip costs $52. Want to fly? Last time I checked, that’ll cost $121.

Or, if you live in Flagstaff, Arizona, and have to travel 350-plus miles to Albuquerque, New Mexico, a ticket on the Chief will cost you $58. If you’d rather fly, the cheapest ticket I could find was $108, and the flight included one stop.

And here’s the punch line to all this: Most of those short-hop, regional airlines get federal subsidies to provide that service! When was the last time you heard one of those rabid anti-subsidy members of Congress complaining about that?

Ironic, eh? Frustrating, too, because many of the people spouting all that nonsense were elected – and are being paid with tax dollars – to know better.

You can help support more and better trains for America by becoming a member of the National Association of Railroad Passengers. Click here to learn how.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Amtrak Passengers Catch a Break, and a Fool Speaks Up

Papers, Please!

Over the past couple of years, there have been several stories (and –ahem!blogs) about U.S. Border Patrol people boarding Amtrak trains in the middle of the night and rousting passengers who look as though they might be illegals. Many of the complaints have come from passengers on the Lake Store Limited, the daily Amtrak train running between Chicago and either New York City or Boston.

Mind you, the train never comes within 50 miles or so of the Canadian border, but that’s apparently close enough. Obviously, passengers rousted from sleep in the middle of the night and being asked to produce identification have not been happy about the intrusion. Now comes word that the practice has apparently, and quietly, been stopped.

Open Mouth, Insert Foot

Mark Twain said it’s better to let people think you’re a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt. Case in point: In today’s Washington Post, columnist Robert Samuelson tells us how to go about cutting the federal budget and, specifically, refers to Amtrak as “non-essential transportation.” I find it astonishing that it’s possible to display such monumental ignorance and ideological bias in just three words.

Here’s an idea: Let’s test his theory by shutting down the entire Amtrak system for three days this week, and giving Samuelson’s home phone number to everyone affected.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Two great ways to save or travel FREE on Amtrak.

We all look for travel bargains … especially so for those of us living in Hawaii, because traveling anywhere outside of the state means five-hours in a jet … at the very least. I’ve been into the frequent flyer programs of both American Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines from Day One and use mileage for many of my out-of-state travels. Of course, once I get to the U.S. mainland, I usually switch to Amtrak.

I’m always surprised to discover that many people are not aware that Amtrak, too, has their version of a frequent flyer program. It’s called Amtrak Guest Rewards and, compared to most of the airline programs, it’s generous and – even better – it’s simple!

As with the airline programs, you earn points for every Amtrak trip and those points can be exchanged for Amtrak travel. And, also like the airlines, Amtrak offers a credit card which earns still more points for every purchase.

But here’s what I like so much about Amtrak Guest Rewards: It takes 25,000 points to book a roomette on the Empire Builder from Chicago to Seattle no matter when you travel and no matter if there’s only one space left on the train for your travel date. Same thing for the two-night trip between Chicago and LA on the Southwest Chief: it’s 25,000 points any day there’s a vacant roomette. And that’s true for all other awards for all other Amtrak trips.

By contrast, the airlines limit the number of seats on any given flight that will be available for frequent flyer miles, and the closer those get to being used up, the more miles the airline will whack you for that seat.
And here’s another way to save on the cost of Amtrak travel: become a member of the National Association of Railroad Passengers. As a NARP member, you’ll get a 10% discount on your rail fare every time you travel. Just a few trips a year will more than pay for your membership and, of course, you’ll be helping to advance the cause of more and better trains, too. You can go here to join. Thanks!

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

A Story About Ray Kroc, and McDonald’s, and One Insight Into His Success

There was an article in our local media recently about the 15-acre Kroc Center that's about to open on Oahu. Among other things, it will include a pool, a gym, a theater, an athletic field and a banquet facility. It all comes with a $133 million price tag, most of which has been paid for by the late Joan Kroc, widow of Ray Kroc, founder of the McDonald’s hamburger empire. There’s a Kroc Center in San Diego and others in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho and Salem, Oregon. Eventually, there will be some 50 centers around the country, all the result of a $1.6 billion bequest.

You’ve got to sell a helluva lot of hamburgers and fries to give away money like that.

Anyway, the article reminded me of a time when, by sheer chance, I spent 20 minutes sitting on a bus next to Ray Kroc himself. Bear with me now … it’s a bit complicated.

It was in December of 1978 and I had just been named General Manager of the Hawaii Islanders, our local professional baseball team in the Pacific Coast League. At that time, the Islanders were the Triple-A farm team for the San Diego Padres, who provided our players … and Ray Kroc owned the Padres.

My first official duty as the new Islander GM was to attend the baseball Winter Meetings, which were held that year in Orlando, Florida. I flew to San Diego where I joined a lot of other people who either worked for the Padres or for one of the minor league teams connected to the organization. Together, we flew from there to Orlando on – ahem! – the Padre’s private jet.

In Orlando, we all boarded a bus and headed into town to the hotel where the meetings would be starting the next day. I was in a window seat on the bus and who should climb aboard and plunk down in the seat next to me, but Ray Kroc himself. I introduced myself and we chatted as the bus left the airport and headed off into the city.

About ten minutes later, and right in the middle of a sentence, Kroc suddenly pulled himself up and lunged across me, pressing his nose against the bus window. It took me a second, but I realized that we were, at that moment, passing a McDonald’s restaurant … and he was counting the cars in the parking lot!

After a few seconds, he sat down, glared at me and said, “There oughta be more cars there this time of day!” He fished around in his coat pocket for a pen and a small notepad and scribbled a few words on a blank page. Then he muttered, "I gotta call the manager of that store."

And now you know how Ray Kroc sold all those burgers.