Tuesday, December 27, 2011

West Coast to East Coast and Back – by Amtrak

It’s time to begin thinking about attending the Spring meeting of the National Association of Railroad Passengers held every year in Washington. In addition to the usual amount of business, these meetings include a Day on the Hill, when we knock on Congressional doors seeking support for rail in general and Amtrak in particular.

Those of us who serve NARP as officers or directors or elected members of the Council of Representatives pay our own expenses when attending these meetings. Happily, because of NARP’s non-profit (501C-3) status, those expenses are tax deductible. I am unashamed to admit that I will use that fact to rationalize yet another cross-country train ride.

My current itinerary, subject to further tinkering, includes flying to Los Angeles and connecting with Amtrak’s Sunset Limited for the two-night trip to New Orleans, where I will make another memorable visit to the D-Day museum, enjoy a couple of superb meals at Irene’s, and spend an evening listening to one of the city’s great jazz bands.

From there I’ll take the City of New Orleans overnight to Chicago, connecting with the Lake Shore Limited to Boston, yet another overnight ride. Of course that will mean attending a couple of Red Sox games at Fenway Park. By happy coincidence, April 20, 2012, will mark the 100th anniversary of the first major league game played in this venerable old ballpark and there will be an appropriate celebration to mark the occasion. I will probably have to pay a scalper three or four times face value to get a ticket to the celebration and game, but I wouldn’t miss it for the world!

From Boston, I’ll take one of Amtrak’s high-speed Acela’s to Washington for the NARP meetings. Then return to Chicago on the Capital Limited, where – Is there no end to these happy coincidences? – the Red Sox will be in town to play the White Sox. After two ballgames there, I’ll be aboard the California Zephyr en route to the Bay area and my flight back home.

All of this serves to illustrate, I hope, my contention that a long-distance train ride is not just another mode of transportation. Far from it! An overnight train journey is part of your vacation experience, except there is no hotel bill to pay and, assuming you’re riding in an Amtrak sleeping car, no meals to pay for either.

I’m already looking forward to the April trip. And don’t worry: I’ll tell you all how it goes.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas Greetings from Maui!

Mele Kalikimaka! How's the weather where you are?

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Hey! You Can Swap Air Miles for Amtrak Miles!

UPDATE: Apparently this offer is only good through December 31st. Get cracking!
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According to the boingboing blog, anyone with frequent flyer mileage on Continental can swap those miles for points in Amtrak's Guest Rewards program. I have no idea how long this opportunity will last, but it would certainly be worth considering.

I'm a member of the Amtrak program, of course, and I love it. For example, 25,000 points will get you a roomette in a sleeping car for a two-night trip no matter which train, no matter what the fare ... just as long as there's a free room for those nights.

This is unlike the airlines who limit the number of seats on every flight to be used for their frequent flier program. When the allocation is gone, that flight is no longer available for mileage. And, of course, they also vary the number of miles you have to pony up depending on how full the flight may be. For example, American Airlines has two flights a day from Maui to Los Angeles. Last time I checked on a specific date in April, they wanted 60,000 miles for the daytime flight and 25,000 miles for the red-eye. And that was for one-way!

So by all means sign up for Amtrak's Guest Rewards program. And, while you're at it, if you're not already a member of NARP*, become one. You'll get a 10-percent discount on all Amtrak rail fares. Just a few trips a year will pay for your membership ... and you'll be helping NARP in their advocacy of more and better and faster trains for the U.S.

*National Association of Railroad Passengers

Monday, December 19, 2011

Which Amtrak train offers the most scenic route?

That’s probably the question I’m most often asked, and it’s a tough one to answer. Certainly all of the western trains have plenty to offer. But pressed to pick just one, I’ll probably go with the westbound California Zephyr.

Originating in Chicago, the Zephyr departs in the mid afternoon and right about dinnertime, crosses the Mississippi River at Burlington, Iowa. Denver is there the next morning right around breakfast and for the rest of the day you’ll be passing through some really glorious areas … first climbing up into the Rockies and under the Continental Divide via the Moffat Tunnel, then following the Colorado River through a whole series of canyons to Glenwood Springs and then Grand Junction.

There’s plenty more to see the next day, too. The Zephyr runs along the Humboldt River which finally just spreads out and disappears into the Nevada desert east of Reno. From there is up into the Sierra Nevada Mountains, across Donner Pass (photo above)and down into Sacramento and finally the Bay Area.

Will Chicago to San Francisco on the Zephyr cost more than flying? Of course! But that two-night journey in a sleeping car is much, much more than simply an alternate mode of travel. It’s part of your whole vacation experience. You not only get your transportation, you get all that magnificent scenery and the time to savor it, plus two nights with no hotel bill to pay and – don’t forget this! – your sleeping car fare includes all your dining car meals. For husband and wife in either a roomette or a bedroom, that means a total of twelve meals.

And, folks, you just can’t beat that!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Death on the Tracks – And the Forgotten Victims

About a dozen years ago, I was on my way to Florida and relaxing with three or four other passengers in the lounge car on Amtrak’s Silver Star. We were just north of Savannah, Georgia, when suddenly I felt the train braking hard. Four or five seconds later, there was a jolt and the train came to a stop. Everyone knew we had just hit something.

The lounge car attendant, a woman of about 40 and obviously a long-time Amtrak employee, said quite dryly, “Well, I sure hope we didn’t kill ‘em.”

I must have looked at her strangely, because she said, “You don’t understand. If we killed the damn fool, we’ll have to sit here and wait for God knows how long until a coroner shows up and tells us what we already know – that he’s dead. But, if he’s still alive, the paramedics will come, haul his sorry ass to a hospital, we’ll be on our way and I’ll be home in time for dinner.”

The more I’ve learned about the continuing tragedy of what are typically referred to as “grade crossing accidents”, the more I can understand what appeared at the time to be a callous and unfeeling attitude from that lounge car attendant.

In truth, the term “accident” is a misnomer. With very rare exceptions, every last one of these incidents is avoidable. Almost always, they involve someone in an all-fired hurry who stupidly ignores the flashing lights and clanging bell and drives around the lowered gates … and into the path of a locomotive.

Sadly, some are suicides but, whatever the cause, these incidents are not only tragic for the families of those killed, but they can have a devastating impact on the forgotten victims – the Amtrak or freight engineers, who see it all coming and know there is not a damn thing they can do to prevent it.

The New York Times recently carried a story about this problem. Very much worth reading.

By, the way ... that incident on the Silver Star? The guy was driving a VW van and the train cut it right in two. The guy was drunk. He was also dead. And we were 2:45 late into Jacksonville.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Maui's Weather - Something for Everyone.

We’re getting into the time of year on the mainland -– that's how we here in Hawaii refer to the 48 contiguous states -- when friends and relatives start making envious comments about our weather.

Truthfully, we do tend to rub it in a little. When I lived on Oahu, I remember walking down to the beach, usually around the middle of February, and wading out to my knees in the ocean to call my brother in Illinois and inquire solicitously if he had grown tired of winter yet. He always seemed to take it in good humor.

Then I quit work and we moved to Maui.

Maui is different. If you don’t like the weather where you happen to be, there will always be something completely different going on just a few miles away. Something is at work here – the topography, wind patterns, or maybe ancient Hawaiian gods – that creates little micro-climates all over the island.

I took this photograph about twenty minutes ago from our front deck. It’s chilly here in the Ha’iku area -– at least, by our standards -– and the rain is being driven across our pasture at a 45-degree angle by strong gusts of wind. We’ve had a fire going all morning in the little wood-burning stove in the corner of our living room.

Meanwhile, chances are the tourists are lolling on the beach under clear skies and a warm sun over on the far side of West Maui at Kaanapali or Kapalua. That's just an hour's drive from here.

Curious, isn’t it? And quite wonderful, too.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Our Travel Options To Be Pinched Even More.

Comes now the news – hardly a surprise – that the nation’s airlines are slowly but surely cutting back on short-haul flights. That makes sense, of course, because a modern jet aircraft uses relatively little of that expensive jet fuel sailing along at 35,000 feet. Most of it is consumed on take-off and climbing to cruising altitude. Ergo: short trips = expensive trips.

Last I heard, something like 30-percent of flights in and out of Chicago’s O’Hare involve destinations 400 miles away or less. Think of the environmental benefits if we could drastically reduce the number of short-haul flights in and out of our major airports! And then there's all that imported oil we wouldn't be using.

Well, gee ... as we speak, all over Europe and Asia, high-speed trains are routinely running at speeds of 187 mph and up. I recently rode a Chinese train from Beijing to Shanghai and we topped out at 220 mph. Begging the question: Why can't trains replace all those short-haul airplanes?

A high-speed train could take passengers from Dallas to Austin in an hour and 20 minutes … or from Cleveland to Chicago in just under two hours … or from downtown Chicago to Minneapolis in two hours flat. And in each case, you would leave from downtown and arrive in the center of the city. Try doing that, in those times, by plane! And you can also forget about the $30-$40 cab ride on each end.

So, with airlines in the U.S. cutting back on short-haul flights, we have just one more argument in favor of rail … specifically, high-speed rail.

D’ya think this’ll help convince those anti-rail Republican ideologues in Congress?

Nah.