Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Shop for fares carefully, but don’t try to figure them out.

Airline and rail fares, and how they’re calculated, have always been a mystery to me. Of course, I realize that it’s usually a case of supply-and-demand. When fares go up, it’s because there are more people wanting fewer available seats. We may not like it, but at least it makes sense.

I’ve just begun making some travel plans for attending the NARP* meetings next October in Milwaukee. A few minutes ago, I went to the American Airlines web site to check on flights back here to Maui from Los Angeles. The lowest economy fare for the day I’d like to fly is listed at $1240. Hawaiian Airlines also has a couple of flights that day … for $428. When that particular travel day is just a couple of weeks off, I can tell you from years of experience that both airlines will probably be selling economy seats for less than $350. I'd sure like to book my flights now, but that would be crazy. So I'll have to wait ... and keep checking ... and keep checking.

A large part of my itinerary will be on Amtrak, of course. After the NARP meetings conclude, I’ll catch one of the Hiawatha trains from Milwaukee to Chicago and, from there, take the Texas Eagle to San Antonio where it merges with the Sunset Limited. From there, the Eagle and the Sunset, traveling as one long train, head west to Los Angeles.

If I book my San Antonio-to-Los Angeles leg on the Texas Eagle, the rail fare is $271 and the supplement for a roomette is $448. Total cost - $719.

If I book that same portion of my trip on the Sunset Limited, the rail fare is $138 and the additional charge for the roomette is $224. Total cost - $362.

Go figure!


* National Association of Railroad Passengers

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Slow Freights = Big Problems for Small Towns.

In addition to enjoying long-distance train travel, I’ve always been fascinated by freight railroading. It’s a huge business in this country and the various freight railroads have all undergone big changes over the past decade or so. Obviously, the volume of freight being moved ebbs and flows along with the economy, but even in slow times, there are thousands of freight trains moving every day.

But for a lot of towns, particularly in the Midwest, all these trains can be a problem. In many cases, when a main rail line runs through the middle of a town, duplicate police and fire facilities have to be built and staffed on either side of the tracks. The potential problem is obvious: What if the fire station is on one side of the track and a building on the other side catches fire? And what if the fire occurs just as a 110-car coal train is rolling through town at 20 miles an hour? Worse, what if the train has stopped and is waiting for another train to pass by.

That’s a worst-case-scenario, but ordinary folks in these towns can understandably get fed up when intersections are blocked 20 or 30 times a day by these slow-moving freights. And, of course, that’s when somebody loses it and, in frustration, impulsively drives around the lowered barriers at a grade crossing … and gets killed.

The obvious solution is for these towns to construct underpasses or overpasses for the automobile traffic, but each one costs may hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Here’s an interesting account of this exact problem – residents and elected officials of a typical small town meeting with representatives from a mega-billion-dollar railroad. Genuine concern and good intentions all around, I'm sure, but no real solutions in sight.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Amtrak on-board crews are tops ... and funny, too!

I wish I had kept track of all my Amtrak journeys. It would be fun to know how many times, for instance, I have ridden the Empire Builder between Seattle and Chicago. Or how many total miles I’ve logged.

What I can tell you is that, except on very rare occasions, I have been tremendously impressed by the people who make up the on board service crews – the car attendants and dining and lounge car staffs. It’s a tough job, especially on the two-night trips. The California Zephyr, for example, leaves Chicago every day at 2:00 p.m. and gets to Emeryville, California (across the bay from San Francisco), just after 4:00 p.m. two days later.

Car attendants are pretty much on call around the clock and frequently don’t get a lot of sleep, what with passengers leaving or boarding the train at stops that come along during the wee hours. Then there are all those berths to be made up … a Viewliner (photo above) accommodates up to 30 people and there are over 40 in a Superliner sleeper if the car is full.

Dining car crews start serving breakfast at 6:30 and the last sitting for dinner often doesn’t finish up until 9:00 p.m. or even later. Attendants in lounge cars or in the Pacific Parlour Cars on the Coast Starlight (above photo) have an equally long day.

Furthermore, those trips are all “turn-arounds” for the crews. For instance, a Chicago-based crew will work the two-day, two night trip to Los Angeles on the Southwest Chief, spend one night in a hotel, then do it all in reverse back home. It can be an exhausting grind, but there is an up-side: typically, they’ll get five or six days off before their next trip.

Another plus is that they all – every single one of them – have some hysterically funny stories to tell. One car attendant told me about a young couple – newlyweds – who were disappointed and upset to discover that their bedroom on the California Zephyr did not include a fireplace.

And I recently heard from another car attendant who said he once had a seriously overweight woman passenger who became stuck trying to get through the door of her roomette and demanded he give her a push. Probably wisely, he declined.

That same attendant also wrote about another female passenger he encountered on a recent trip – he described her as “blond” – who asked him if the train had cable on board.

He responded, “Yes, we do … for about two miles.”

Evidently, he was able to keep a straight face, because the women then asked, “What happens after two miles?”

He said, "The cable pops out at the back of the train."

See what I mean? You just can’t make up stuff like that!

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Hawaii residents: 2nd Class Citizens (sometimes)

If you’ve lived in Hawaii for as long as I have – It’ll be fifty years in May – you've become used to being treated differently from folks living in the continental U.S. … or, as we say, “on the mainland”.

For instance, when we order some kind of merchandise on line, we are often gouged for unnecessary additional shipping charges. It irritates me that my new Boston Bruins T-shirt would be shipped for $6.50 if I lived in Oregon, but costs $19 to send it to me out here to Maui. (Three days later, it’s delivered by Sheila, our mail lady. The padded envelope had a measly $4.50 in postage on it. Now that, as my old college roommate was wont to say, “is enough to piss off a preacher”.)

Blackouts of sports events on TV provide another example. No less than five major league baseball teams – all on the west coast – have designated Hawaii as part of their "home territory" and the bottom line is that their games cannot be shown on TV here. Huh??

Short version: the San Francisco Giants want me to (a) attend their games in person or (b) watch the games on the local San Francisco station that pays them for the broadcast rights. To make sure I do either (a) or (b), the Giant games are blacked out here on cable and on the internet at MLB.com. The fact that I can’t see the games in person because they are being played 2000 miles away and that I can’t watch the San Francisco TV station for the same reason, is of no interest to the Giants or to Major League Baseball.

Stupid? Yes. Arrogant? Absolutely. But I’m delighted to say that this issue has finally come to the attention of a group of United States senators – all Democrats – including a personal hero of mine, Hawaii Senator Dan Inouye. They have written the FCC asking that the commission look into this whole issue of professional sports blackouts.

Major League Baseball’s commissioner, Bud Selig, often talks about how important the fans are. Yeah? Try telling that to Giant fans here in Hawaii, Bud!


Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Amtrak delays. Whose fault is it?

Ask a hundred Amtrak passengers what's the biggest problem with long-distance train travel and I’ll bet you a box of donuts that the most frequent answer will be that trains often run late.

I’ll also wager that most of those people don’t know – and probably don’t care – that Amtrak doesn’t actually own the tracks they’re riding on. The fact is, except for the Northeast Corridor from Boston to Washington, Amtrak trains run on track owned by one of the major freight railroads.

Yes, of course, sometimes delays are caused by equipment failure or weather conditions. But, most of the time, when Amtrak trains run late it’s because they are delayed by the dispatchers who put the passenger train on a siding until a slower freight comes by. But can we blame them? After all, it's their track, be it Union Pacific or BNSF or CSX.

Well, yeah, actually … we can. According to federal law, passenger trains are supposed to be given priority. And Amtrak is even required to pay bonuses if the freights meet and surpass specific levels of on-time performance for Amtrak trains.

The trouble is, when there is a lot of freight traffic, any bonus the private railroad may get from Amtrak doesn’t begin to make up for the money they say they lose if their trains are delayed.

Truthfully, I’m not sure I believe that. After all, most of Amtrak’s long-distance trains only run once a day. So, for example, there are only four Amtrak trains running at any given time along the Southwest Chief’s route, two in each direction. How hard can it be -– really -- to keep those four trains on schedule?

Furthermore, I’m convinced that sometimes Amtrak is delayed out of sheer spite. I was on the Coast Starlight a number of years back, and we sat on a siding somewhere in Oregon for almost a half hour. Finally, a Union Pacific freight lumbered by in the opposite direction and we were allowed to proceed … one whole mile into our next station! The conductor was fuming over what he said was a completely unnecessary delay.

For years, all any of us could do was grin and bear it. But the other day, Amtrak fought back, filing a formal complaint with the federal Surface Transportation Board against Canadian National Railway for habitually delaying Amtrak trains going in and out of Chicago. Good for you, Amtrak! And about damn time, too!

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Truck Day: The Only True Harbinger of Spring Across New England

No one who was not raised as a pup in New England truly understands the obsession the rest of us have for the Boston Red Sox. We grew up with the team. We lay in bed on warm summer nights, listening to games being played under the lights of Fenway Park. We kept score on home-made score sheets; we swapped baseball cards with our pals; and we swore that one day we would see the Sox play in person. At Fenway Park.

I saw my first Red Sox game there in 1946. I’ll see my next Red Sox game there on April 20th. It will be the 100th Anniversary of the first game ever played in Fenway Park. How could I miss that?

You want to know just how obsessed we are? Well, today is known as Truck Day and it is observed and celebrated every year throughout New England as the first true sign of Spring. Truck Day is dutifully and thoroughly reported with video on the local TV stations and with text and photos in the Boston Globe. (Both of these are from the Globe.)

Today is the day when boxes and bags and computers and a seemingly infinite assortment of gear and equipment is trundled out of Fenway Park, loaded into a cavernous semi-trailer truck, and hauled away on the 1500-mile journey to the Red Sox Spring Training facility in Fort Myers, Florida.

Truck Day in Boston, you see, means that the official start of Spring Training is just a week away.

In our home, that day-of-days has been observed in pretty much the same way for the past 35 years. I walk into the kitchen where my wife is reading the newspaper.

I say, “What’s the most important event happening in the world today?”

And, without looking up, she will reply, “Pitchers and catchers report.”

Is that terrific, or what!

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Why Is Amtrak Always on the Chopping Block?

OK … here’s a question for you:

With more people riding Amtrak trains than ever before, and with Amtrak repeatedly setting new revenue records, why are some members of Congress still trying to gut, if not actually kill, our national passenger rail system?

In the House, Florida Republican John Mica chairs the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. The Republican draft of the current transportation bill (H.R. 7) has just been released and it reduces the federal operating grant for Amtrak to the point it’s hard to imagine cutbacks in service wouldn’t be the inevitable result. (For years, Mica has sneeringly referred to Amtrak as “America’s soviet-style railroad”, which tells you where his head is at.)

Furthermore, the political party that constantly demands less interference from government has included a provision in this bill that would mandate privatizing all food service on Amtrak trains. Go figure!

Presidential aspirant Mitt Romney, also a Republican, says he’ll do away with Amtrak’s federal subsidy entirely if he’s elected. A number of the more popular routes would probably survive, including the high-speed trains running between Washington and Boston. But other trains, in particular the long-distance trains? Well, they would almost certainly be history. And with them would go any semblence of a national passenger rail system. (I wonder if Romney knows that they’re starting to build a high-speed rail line in Uzbekistan!)

How can politicians seriously propose these ideas when all across the country the people they are supposed to represent are demanding that existing routes be extended and new routes added. Anyway, opponents of H.R. 7 have popped up immediately, even including, I’m delighted to say, a couple of Republican governors.

What I find most frustrating is that these anti-Amtrak attacks are mostly a matter of ideology. It’s certainly not a serious effort at cost cutting because the roughly $1.4 billion operating grant Amtrak has been getting from the feds annually is but a tiny fraction of one percent of the federal budget.

Putting it into perspective, the U.S. sends a bit more than that amount every year in foreign aid just to Egypt! Really, now … can’t we manage to do at least as much for the 30-plus million Americans who choose to ride an Amtrak train every year?

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Russian Train Stations: Some Pros, Some Cons

OK, enough about depressing politics and more about some of the railway stations I encountered on my recent train trip across Europe and Asia. In truth, most of the stations we passed through while traveling between major cities were pretty ordinary.

Here’s a good example: the station in the town of Vyazma, a busy railway junction. The train I took from Berlin to Moscow stopped here for servicing. The station itself is a good-sized building, reasonably well kept, but strictly utilitarian. Two main line tracks with basic concrete platforms.

The station in St. Petersburg – formerly Leningrad – has a large waiting room, but there’s nothing special about it. However, unlike the U.S., at major Russian stations, passengers pass their bags through a security check prior to boarding trains. By the way, Russian Railways ballyhoos this as a high-speed train, but it didn’t appear to me that we ran at much over 100 mph at any point during the 4-hour ride to Moscow.

Maintenance, anyone? This is the parking lot outside the Kazan station in Moscow, where we boarded the train that would take us all the way to the Chinese border. To be fair, this is not one of the main stations in Moscow, but the building itself also appeared to be pretty much neglected.

Despite that, a nice incident took place while we were waiting inside the station near the platform for our train. For no apparent reason, I was approached by a middle-aged man who had obviously spotted us as tourists. He spoke almost no English, but we soon established that I was an American and from Hawaii and he was from the Ukraine and had two children. Then, suddenly, our train arrived and we had to leave. My new Russian friend shook my hand and beamed. “Long live friendship!” he said. And he walked away.

I took this photo from a pedestrian overpass at one of the Russian stations along the way. That’s our train to the right. To get to the station’s waiting room in the brick building, we climbed a long flight of steps (72 by my actual count), continued along this overpass, and clambered down another flight of 72 steps. I mention this because one of the men in our group had limited use of his legs and was in a wheelchair ... and because this station was typical. At most of these stops, the poor man had to get out of his chair and, with one of us on each arm, struggle up one flight and down the other. In the U.S., we take wheelchair ramps for granted as we pass through our airports and train stations. The entire time I spent in Russia, I didn’t see one.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Impending Disaster Looms for Transit Projects

UPDATE: follow this link to hear brilliant and passionate criticism of this bill on the house floor by Congressman Peter DeFazio (D-OR) .
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I have a couple more posts about a few of the railroad stations I passed through on my extensive rail journey last summer, but would like to interrupt that by sharing the following with you. This came by email today from Transportation for America, a non-partisan, non-profit organization advocating a nationwide, integrated transportation system.


A key House Committee is threatening to kill three decades of successful investments in mass transit — originally started under President Ronald Reagan — by ending the guarantee for dedicated funding for public transportation, leaving millions of riders already faced with service cuts and fare increases out in the cold.

In a stunning development late last night, House leadership and the Ways and Means committee made a shocking attack on transit that would have huge impacts for the millions of people who depend on public transportation each day.

They proposed putting every public transportation system in immediate peril by eliminating guaranteed funding for the Mass Transit Account and forcing transit to go begging before Congress for general funds each year — all while highway spending continues to be guaranteed with protected funds for half a decade at a time.

This incredible move would roll back 30+ years of bipartisan federal transportation policy and reverse a decision made by President Reagan in the 1980’s to fund our nation’s transit system out of a small share of gas tax revenues. This change would mean no more guarantee of funding each year and no long-term stability for public transportation. States, cities, communities and their transit systems could lose billions.

It seems there is no end to the short-sightedness and even monumental stupidity that exists within large segments of our elected officials in Washington. (Please note that I do my best to keep this blog non-partisan, but the plain and simple truth is that, when it comes to transportation issues, 99 percent of that short-sightedness and stupidity comes from members of the Republican Party.)

Emails and phone calls to your Members of Congress are very important and have a powerful impact. Go here for a fast, easy way to do that.

May I also suggest that a membership in NARP, the National Association of Railroad Passengers, is another way to actively work for more and better trains throughout the United States. Thanks!