Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Berlin's Hauptbahnhof is a very big WOW!

I was certainly impressed by several of the train stations I had occasion to see during my extensive trip across Europe and Asia last August. As is the case in the U.S., they ranged from large (make that huge) to small, classic to modern, spotlessly clean to … well, not so.

As noted in my last post, my journey began on a Eurostar high-speed train that left from an upper level of London’s classic Saint Pancras station, a Victorian marvel dating back to 1868. On my previous trip to London, Eurostar trains all departed from Waterloo station and the journey from there to the chunnel was at relatively slow speeds over track shared with trains running at conventional speeds. Not so any more. It’s a high-speed run all the way.

I changed trains in Brussels and again in Cologne (above) where I boarded this German ICE train bound for Berlin. Neither station appeared to be anything special. Ah, but then we arrived in Berlin at the hauptbahnhof, the city’s main station. Wow!

My train arrived at the lower level where there are 10 tracks and regional and commuter trains constantly coming and going. Two long escalator rides take you to past the second level, crowded with brightly lit shops and restaurants, to the street where you can step aboard city buses or, in my case, hail a taxi for the ride to your hotel.

Two days later, I returned to the hauptbahnhof for my overnight train to Moscow. (Here it comes now!) It arrived on yet another level, one more escalator ride above the street. Everything open and spacious, plenty of signs to point you in the right direction.

A confession: When I walked into the Berlin station, I headed straight to the information counter which is opposite the main entrance and staffed with several bright young people. I approached an attractive uniformed young woman to get directions to track 12 on which my Moscow train would be arriving. Trying not to take anything for granted, I opened in my very best, but very basic German: “Sprechen sie English, bitte?”

She stared at me, clearly astonished, and replied in perfect English: “Of course!!”

It was not my finest moment.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Great Train Rides Include Great Railroad Stations

One of the things I enjoy about train travel is being able to see and spend time in some wonderful railroad stations. They come in all sizes and shapes, of course, but the ones that are done right are a hub for all kinds of activity – commercial, residential and everything in between.

I think the two stations I enjoy most in this country are at opposite ends of the country. Union Station in Washington, DC, is simply magnificent. The main hall is vast, with an arched ceiling high overhead and larger-than-life statuary lining the walls, also high above ground level. There are shops and three or four restaurants, several of which feature seating right out on the main floor that provides wonderful people-watching for patrons. On the lower level there is a food court with every conceivable variety of ethnic food.

Back on the West Coast, Los Angeles Union Station is completely different but no less magnificent. Dating back to the late 1930s, it has been called the “last of the great railway stations built in the US”. No argument from me! Stand off to a corner of the waiting room, or in one of the adjacent garden areas, and you fully expect to see Errol Flynn or Greta Garbo passing through, having just arrived on the Super Chief from Chicago.

Of course, Europe has more than its (not "it's" ... I really do know better!) share of wonderful train stations. This past August, I boarded the Eurostar to Brussels at London’s Saint Pancras station on my way to Berlin. It’s a 19th century building on the outside …

… but strictly a modern transportation facility on the inside.

In the next post, I’ll dredge up some other photos of stations I passed through on my trip, including the incredible hauptbahnhof or main train station in Berlin.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Coast-to-Coast Across Canada by Rail … Part Six.

During lunch, someone at the next table is the first to spot the snow-capped peaks of the Canadian Rockies still many miles ahead, but the news prompts an exodus from the dining car as people scurry for a seat in one of the domes.

By 3:00 we’ve reached the mountains and the Canadian begins threading its way through imposing peaks – some with sheer faces of gray rock, others dark green with spruce trees somehow clinging to their flanks. Most of the mountains are topped with snow descending in white streaks toward the valley floor below, then dissolving into icy water that tumbles down into lakes offering mirror images of the peaks above.

Almost everyone in the dome car is snapping pictures through the glass. “I can’t get it all in,” complains a woman. “It’s all too big.”

After a 90-minute stop in Jasper for refueling, the train continues its climb into the Rockies, gliding left then right then left again as it winds along mountain ridges and cuts through rocky passes, in and out of shadows cast by massive mountains, the snow on their peaks now dazzling white in the late afternoon sun.

In another hour, we meet the Fraser River, swirling around boulders and plunging through crevasses as we follow it to the northwest.

Two black bears come into view on the right side of the train, rooting industriously at the base of a dead three stump.

As I enter the dining car for my dinner seating, the steward tells us we’re passing Mount Robson, at not quite 4,000 meters, the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies. Today its obscured in mist, but many of us dutifully reach for our cameras anyway. Conversation over dinner is about the two black bears – who saw them and who didn’t.

The next morning is my last aboard Train # 1 and for almost an hour I’m content to stay in bed, comfortably propped up on an elbow and watching the mountain passes gradually give way to a broad fertile valley.

The day is beautiful – bright sun and clear blue skies over a panorama of tidy farms surrounded by lush green fields. Well behind us now, snow-capped mountains provide a magnificent backdrop.

The Fraser River is alongside again, but very wide now and moving at a gentle pace toward Vancouver and the sea. There are several large lumber mills at the river’s edge. Thousands of huge logs are simply lashed together upstream and floated down to the mills, emerging as lumber that’s stacked, wrapped, loaded onto rail cars and sent back east over these same tracks.

As the train sweeps around a long, graceful curve, the Vancouver skyline appears up ahead. In another hour, we’re in the suburbs and, minutes later, the train stops, then begins rolling slowly backwards into the Vancouver station.

A gentle stop and my transcontinental train journey is over. VIA crews are standing by to service the train for it’s return trip to Toronto this afternoon and, truth be told, if I had the time and if they had the room, I’d be with them. In a heartbeat.

(This story originally ran in International Living magazine and subsequently appeared on the SoGoNow.com web site.)

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Coast to Coast Across Canada by Rail … Part Five

Evidently freight traffic delays us during the night because we’re behind schedule by almost two hours when we arrive at Sioux Lookout late the next morning. The population here is just 3000, but it’s the largest community we’ve seen since leaving Sudbury, 1200 kilometers behind us.

Throughout the afternoon, the Canadian rocks along at a steady 70 mph across Canada’s vast breadbasket – endless fields of grain, much of which is shipped back east over these same tracks to Quebec, where it’s loaded on ships for Eastern Europe.

The city of Winnipeg comes in the early evening (that’s their wonderful train station up ahead in the photo above) and brings a new complement of car attendants to look after us from here to Vancouver. The dining cars also have new staffs – two cooks, a steward and three servers in each. Because the train is running late, the Toronto crews handled the first two dinner sittings, then seamlessly turned things over to their replacements for the third. Our new steward says cheerfully, “You got to be flexible to work for a railroad.”

My choices for dinner include onion soup followed by pork roast garnished with a glazed onion sauce and a sprig of fresh rosemary. Desert is a delicate apple torte. A very acceptable Canadian sauvignon blanc accompanies the meal and the glorious sunset occurring across the vista ahead – orange giving ‘way to pink, all streaked with wisps of purple.

VIA Rail’s official timetable lists 67 stops for Train # 1, but only eleven are regular ones. The rest are “flag stops” where the train stops only if someone is getting on or off and only on 48 hours notice. One of these is Brandon North, 140 miles or so west of Winnipeg. There’s a station here, but the building is so small it could easily be hauled away on a flatbed truck. The Canadian stops just long enough for a young man in a military uniform to board, leaving a middle-aged couple behind on the platform. The woman dabs at her eyes with a paisley handkerchief; the man’s expression is grim.

Morning finds the Canadian still on the prairie – wheat and horses and cattle and the huge grain elevators, but an occasional oil well has been added to the passing scene.

There’s more wildlife today: deer and antelope, bald eagles, wild geese and even sea gulls, congregating in what appears to be a low spot in the prairie filled with rainwater. We trundle onto a trestle crossing a picturesque little valley. A stream winds away to the south with three beaver dams and lodges clearly visible. Every so often we pass small ranch houses, most with trees planted on several sides to help break the prairie winds.

(This story originally ran in International Living magazine
and subsequently appeared on the SoGoNow.com web site.)

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Coast to Coast Across Canada by Rail ... Part Four

By mid-afternoon, we’ve entered the vast rocky area above Lake Superior known as the Canadian Shield. This is real wilderness now, a forest of oak, maple, spruce and birch. Fallen trees and saplings bent double from heavy snows have created an impenetrable tangle. Every few minutes we pass a lake, almost every one with a resident loon paddling around on it. There are occasional small frame houses, one with a man filling an inflatable pool in the backyard with a garden hose.

Sharing my table for lunch is a couple from Scotland and we wonder aloud about the people in these little houses. Who are they? What brought them here? How do they make a living? We pass a number of hand-lettered signs for “outfitters,” so at least some are catering to visiting campers, hunters and fishermen.

Back in the observation car, a half dozen people are relaxing with soft drinks. I settle into a seat next to an American couple from North Carolina. He’s a chemistry professor and a model railroad enthusiast who happily describes the elaborate layout that has taken over their garage. “It keeps me occupied,” he says. “And out of my hair,” his wife says emphatically.

Outside, the landscape is more barren now, almost desolate, with trees struggling up out of rocky ground. We are, in fact, in the middle of a large area rich in minerals, the result, scientists say, of a meteor strike millions of years ago.

After a 30-minute stop in Sudbury, the Canadian resumes its journey, swinging more to the west and plunging back in the forest. Wilderness or no, a massive infrastructure is required to keep the trains moving. For instance, every switch along this route is connected to a tank of propane gas fueling burners that ignite automatically to prevent the switches from freezing in the winter.

After an excellent meal in the dining car, I collect my toiletry kit and a towel provided by VIA and walk to the head of the car for a delightful hot shower. My bed is made up in the meantime and I drift off to sleep as the Canadian passes above Lake Superior.

(This story originally ran in International Living magazine
and subsequently appeared on the SoGoNow.com web site.)

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Coast-to-Coast Across Canada by Rail … Part Three

(This story originally ran in International Living magazine and subsequently appeared on the SoGoNow.com web site.)

Toronto’s downtown skyline is dominated by towering high-rise office buildings as befits this center of business and banking. With more than 5 million residents, this is Canada’s biggest city and the fifth largest in North America. And, as local folk are quick to tell you, Toronto boasts both a high standard of living and a low crime rate.

The dominant feature here is the freestanding CN Tower, over 550 meters high. On a clear day you can see the far shore of Lake Ontario from an observation deck featuring a glass floor. If you don’t have a fear of heights before you step out onto it, you likely will forever after.

The next morning brings clear blue skies and bright sun, a perfect day to begin the last and longest leg of my trans-continental rail journey, a three-night trip to Vancouver aboard VIA Rail’s premier train, the Canadian, appropriately designated Train #1.

We’re not yet in the peak travel season, but this is nevertheless a very long train: three diesel locomotives pulling 21 cars, including coaches, sleepers, two dining cars and four lounge cars, each topped with the classic sightseeing dome.

Well before our 9:00 departure time, a gaggle of passengers has filled the lower level of the bullet-shaped observation car on the rear of the train and every seat in the upper-level dome is taken.

At 9:15, a woman asks, with a touch of petulance, “When are we going to leave?” Her husband shrugs then, pointing forward, says, “Whenever. At least we know it’ll be in that direction.” Not 30 seconds later, the Canadian starts moving, but it’s backing up. There’s laughter all around, but it’s an effective icebreaker. A minute later we come to a stop and, after a brief pause, the Canadian begins moving forward, clattering its way through a maze of switches and out onto the main line.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Coast-to-Coast Across Canada by Rail -- Part Two

(This story originally ran in International Living magazine and subsequently appeared on the SoGoNow.com web site.)

I waken in the morning to a splash of yellow sunlight on the forward wall of my compartment. We’ve crossed above the State of Maine during the night and are now heading southwest toward Montreal. I’m about to leave the Ocean, however, and catch a connecting train to my next stop, Quebec, capital city of Quebec Province.

We follow the broad St. Lawrence River approaching Quebec through suburbs of tidy little houses with steep-sloped roofs. Up ahead, the city is now clearly visible with the distinctive tower of the Chateau Frontenac dominating the skyline.

This city is thoroughly, proudly and defiantly French. First settled by French traders in 1608, it will celebrate its 400th anniversary next year. The British captured Quebec in 1759 and it remained under British control until Canada was formed in 1867.

It’s the only fortified city in North America thanks to the British who built the massive stone Citadel on a bluff more than 100 meters above the St. Lawrence. The ritualistic changing of the guard takes place here every morning at 10 o’clock – a British tradition presented by French Canadians to mostly American tourists.

Two days later I’m off again, heading west on a three-hour train ride to Montreal, the second-largest French-speaking city in the world. The skies are clear and the forest trees are leafing out in the warm sun. Halfway to Montreal we enter dairy country – large farms with herds of black and white Holstein cattle wandering in verdant pastures.

Exactly on time, the train comes to a stop in the Montreal station, which teems with people bustling to and from trains. I’ll only be here overnight, so I spend the balance of the day walking around the old town and along the riverbank, with a stop for lunch at Schwartz’s Delicatessen,a Montreal institution for 75 years. Their famous beef brisket sandwich is a euphoric experience that must have registered on my face because a young man next to me at the counter nods solemnly and says, “Extraordinaire, n’est-ce pas?”

Another day, another train – this one from Montreal to Toronto. The countryside along the way is rural, but the farms are large and prosperous. We pass a picture-postcard horse farm, with a stately main house and several out-buildings. The pastures and paddocks are delineated by pristine white rail fences. Minutes later we flash by an orchard with hundreds of fruit trees – apple or pear – each a giant snowball of white blossoms.

Lake Ontario appears and reappears on our left and seagulls, silhouetted against a mist that shrouds the lake, swoop lazily in and out of the haze.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Coast-to-Coast Across Canada...4,000 Miles by Rail.

(This story originally ran in International Living magazine and subsequently appeared on the SoGoNow.com web site.)

In the broad protected harbor of Halifax, Nova Scotia, General Sir William Howe organized the invasion fleet that captured New York City in 1776. During two world wars, convoys of merchant ships loaded with the men and material of war assembled here before setting out for England across the North Atlantic through the terrible gauntlet of German submarines.

This morning, Halifax is also the jumping-off point for a 6,500 kilometer rail journey taking me from Canada’s Atlantic Coast all the way to Vancouver on the shores of the Pacific.

The double glass doors of the Halifax train station swing open and passengers begin moving in small clusters along the platform where VIA Rail’s Train # 15, the Ocean, waits – a dozen cars, in blue and teal livery.

Precisely on time at 12:35 p.m., the train begins to move and my trans-continental train odyssey has officially begun.

An hour later, we’re speeding through wooded countryside, forests of pine and birch interrupted occasionally by small farms. Every few minutes we cross streams running at the top of their banks, swollen from the Spring thaw. Freshly plowed fields have standing water in low spots.

Around 4:00 in the afternoon, under lowering clouds, we cross into New Brunswick Province and run along the shores of Chicnecto Bay. Farther to the south, it empties into the Bay of Fundy, known for tides that can rise and fall as much as eight feet an hour.

When I appear for my 7:00 reservation in the dining car, the steward seats me with a young woman named Veronica. She’s a Montreal native who works for a pharmaceutical company, translating everything from advertising to medical texts from English into French.

Somehow our server instinctively knows to address me in English and Veronica in French, switching languages effortlessly in mid-sentence saying, as she presents me with a menu, “The special tonight is beef stroganoff and (shifting her glance to Veronica) vraiment, il est tres bon.”

When I return to my compartment, I find that the car attendant has lowered my bunk, turned down the bedcovers and plumped up my pillows. A dozen pages into a paperback book, my eyelids close.

(More to come)

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Treating the Grandkids to an Amtrak Adventure.

Mealtime in an Amtrak dining car is almost always a surprise. With family-style seating, you never know who’ll be sharing your table; and in the course of many long-distance train trips I’ve drawn everything from a Japanese doctor specializing in organ transplants to a 300-pound biker in a tank top.

A couple of years ago, I was having breakfast in the Crescent’s diner, en route to Washington, D.C., from New Orleans. I had just ordered breakfast when the steward appeared and seated three youngsters at my table: a brother and sister, plus a cousin – all between 9 and 13 years old.

It took a few minutes, but we finally got a conversation going. All three were from Calhoun, Georgia, and they had boarded the train the night before in Atlanta. They were being treated to an overnight train ride to Washington by their grandmother and were going to visit relatives and tour the Black History Museum. And they were pumped!

That struck a chord: my grandparents had treated me to my first overnight train ride. It was unimaginably exciting and was clearly the start of my love affair with train travel. What kid wouldn't love eating in the dining car and snuggling down into a real bed at night while cities and towns and fields and mountains pass by just outside!

And so, sitting there across from those wonderful kids from Georgia, I resolved to take both of my granddaughters on overnight train rides. The older of the two, Olivia, is nine and lives with her parents in San Diego. She got her ride last April.

Along with her mom, my eldest daughter, we rode Amtrak’s Coast Starlight from Los Angeles overnight to Seattle. The trip was a big hit with both girls.

My other granddaughter, Lehua, who lives here on Maui, is not yet 5. But her trip is now tentatively scheduled for the summer of 2013.

She can’t wait.

You know what? Neither can I!

Monday, January 2, 2012

How come it’s Amtrak’s fault that some parents are stupid?

Anyone who has spent any time in government – especially in a role that offers a chance to develop policy – has acquired a loathing for the person who looks at a brief news report of your effort and says, “Well, that’s a stupid idea!”

And, if pressed to offer his own solution to immigration or nuclear proliferation or Iran, he’ll start by saying, “All you gotta do is …”

Well, you can take it to the bank: there are no simple solutions to complex problems.

Recently, Amtrak has taken a lot of heat for its new policy covering unaccompanied minors.

Old policy: the kids traveling alone couldn’t be under eight years old.

New Policy: Any kid under age 13, must be accompanied by someone at least 18 years old.

This has seemingly brought the Wrath of God down upon Amtrak and much of the criticism has started and ended with: “Well, that’s a stupid idea!”

But there is no simple answer to this issue. Some eight year olds are perfectly capable of traveling alone on a train; others are not. Not even close. Is it right or fair to put the responsibility for looking after an immature eight-year-old on some Amtrak employee … someone who also has to board passengers, help others detrain, and deal with a myriad other distractions throughout a journey of several hundred miles and perhaps a dozen stops?

And, regardless of age, a great deal depends on how well the parents prepare the kids for their solo journey. Pick any Amtrak conductor or car attendant at random and ask them about this problem and they will roll their eyeballs at some of the criminally careless and, yes, stupid parents who have sent their kids off alone on a train trip. And guess who would be the first to scream for a lawyer in the event something did go wrong!

Still, people are mad at Amtrak over the change. Here’s an idea: instead of referring to this as the “Unaccompanied Minor” rule, maybe Amtrak should give it a more accurate title: the “In Case of Stupid Parent” rule.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Americans speak up loud and clear: We want Amtrak! We want more trains!

More and more Americans are riding trains. And to handle those people, more trains are being added to existing routes.

Two examples: to accommodate increasing passenger demand, more frequency is being added to Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner service on the Los Angeles-San Diego run. And additional equipment is being ordered to add capacity to Amtrak’s Cascade trains running between Portland, Oregon, through Eugene to Seattle, Washington. Oh … and, by popular demand, a second daily train is now operating in both directions between Seattle and Vancouver, British Columbia.

Yet Congress – let’s face it, most of the Republicans in Congress – continues to try to kill Amtrak by slow starvation.

How weird is that? How maddening? How frustrating!

That just means Amtrak continues to struggle and, unfortunately, those struggles affect the service Amtrak is able to provide. Equipment is getting older and it’s hard not to notice the fraying around some of the edges. Breakdowns are occurring … overworked locomotives quit and passengers end up being bussed and inconvenienced.

Still, Amtrak is clearly a travel choice millions of Americans want. More than 30 million of us rode an Amtrak train this past year, yet another record.

And no wonder! Train travel is relaxing. The seats are big and wide and comfortable. You can get up – there’s no seat belt to unhook – and walk around whenever you feel like it. If you’re in a sleeping car, there’s a real bed to sleep in on overnight trips. When you get hungry can wander into the dining car, have a surprisingly good meal, and get to know some of your fellow passengers in the bargain. And, all the while, the United States of America is passing by right outside your window.

It’s costing the U.S. taxpayers about $1.5 billion a year in federal tax dollars to have Amtrak available as a travel choice for you and me. To hear some of those bozos in Washington talk, that subsidy is what’s driving this country into bankruptcy. Oh yeah? Here’s a little perspective, a little reality for you: That billion-and-a-half is almost exactly the same amount the U.S. is giving away every year in foreign aid … just to Egypt!

Here are three New Year’s resolutions for all of us:

Jot a note to our members of Congress and urge more support for Amtrak and for passenger rail.

Join the National Association of Railroad Passengers, a non-profit, non-partisan organization actively promoting more and better and faster trains for the U.S.

And take a long-distance train ride.

Happy New Year everyone. Haole Makahiki Hou!