Saturday, March 31, 2012

Amtrak’s Downeaster: Grassroots Success Story.


Over the years, I have made it a point to ride as many of Amtrak’s trains as I could. My list is nearly complete and one of the last ones will be crossed off in a few weeks when I will be taking a round trip on the Downeaster from Boston up to Portland, Maine.

The Downeaster story is a remarkable one. It began in the early ‘90s when a group of ordinary folks living in a number of towns strung out along the Atlantic Ocean in Northern Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine started agitating for rail service that would link their communities with Boston.

They pestered federal, state and local officials and badgered Amtrak. They kept it up for almost 10 years and simply wouldn't go away. And they got their train, with service beginning in 2001. Furthermore, ridership has steadily increased over the years, long since breaking even their own projections … tangible proof that the Downeaster is a great success.

But there’s a lot more to it that just numbers. Now people living as far north as Portland can travel to Boston for the day … for business or shopping or maybe just to visit family or see the Red Sox at Fenway Park. And they can do it affordably and in relaxed comfort.

Yo! Members of Congress! Are you listening?? Amtrak’s Downeaster is proof positive: Americans want trains!

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Cops Are Never Appreciated for Doing Their Job.

Police in Wichita, Kansas, recently decided to crack down on impatient motorists who ignore the flashing lights and drive around lowered gates at grade crossings to beat the trains.

I’ve written about this insanity before, as regulars here know. The fact is that, on average, someone is killed in this manner every day, day after day, year ’round. Often it’s because they are expecting the train to be a slow-moving freight, but it turns out to be an Amtrak train running at 80 miles an hour. Uh-oh … BAM!! In collisions like these, the train always wins. Always.

Anyway, the Wichita cops put officers up front with the engineer in the head end of freight locomotives to catch the license plate numbers of cars committing this violation. They wrote a dozen tickets in one day … and I’m quite sure a number of other violators got off because officers were unable to see the license plate number clearly.

Here’s the thing: When the story appeared in the local newspaper, many of the comments criticized the police for “wasting time” with that exercise. Really? Tell that to the families and friends of the nearly 400 people killed this way every year.

Friday, March 23, 2012

News of an Encyclopedia's Demise Prompts a Wonderful Memory.

The Encyclopedia Britannica will soon be no more, just one more print publication falling victim to the internet, I suppose. While that may give rise to some vague feelings of regret, I can never think of an encyclopedia without recalling a wonderful story related by Jim Becker, one of the great journalists and raconteurs of this or any other time.

Jim was a writer/reporter traveling the world for the Associated Press for many years. On numerous occasions over all that time, he had wished for access to a good encyclopedia. But of course it was completely impractical to think of dragging a set of 20-25 volumes around the world as he traveled from bureau to bureau and assignment to assignment.

But once he settled down in Honolulu, Becker promised himself that the very first time one of those door-to-door encyclopedia salesmen appeared, he would buy one.

Some months after he had settled into his apartment, the inevitable occurred. Jim answered a knock at his door to find a young man representing the Encyclopedia Britannica. The young fellow immediately launched into his memorized sales pitch, but Becker held up his hand.

“Never mind that,” he said. “I’ll buy one. How much is it?”

The kid gaped, and finally stammered that it would be so-many dollars a month.

“No, no,” said Becker, “I’ll write you a check right know for the full amount. How much is it?”

Telling the story years later, Becker howled with laughter. “He was completely rattled because I never let him get started on his memorized spiel, which always ended with payments of so many dollars for so many months,” Becker said. “The kid had absolutely no idea what the damn thing really cost.”

If I had to name the single most interesting -- not to mention funniest -- people I’ve ever known, Jim Becker would be right at the top of that list. He wrote about his experiences in Saints, Sinners and Shortstops, a terrific read. For instance, as a sportswriter, he covered Jackie Robinson’s debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers. And he escorted Marilyn Monroe on a 10-day tour of forward Army bases during the Korean War.

Is that interesting enough for you?

Monday, March 19, 2012

More Iowa Crossovers Means Good News for Amtrak Passengers

Most people traveling around the country on Amtrak don’t realize that their train is running on track owned by one of the nation’s freight railroads. But the implications to that are many. If you’re a passenger on the California Zephyr, bound from Chicago to Denver, for instance, and you spend 40 minutes sitting on a siding in the middle of Iowa waiting for an eastbound coal train to come lumbering by, it’s because a BNSF* dispatcher elected to put you there and gave priority to his company’s train.

The freight railroads are supposed to expedite passage for Amtrak trains and create “slots” in the schedules for them, but if there’s a long delay somewhere, a passenger train can find itself outside that slot. That’s when the problems start compounding and the delays begin to pile up. Specifically, the Zephyr has had a history of delays, and most often it all starts in the State of Iowa.

One of the solutions is to provide more crossovers, where trains can be switched from one track to another. In this case, that would mean allowing an Amtrak train to pass a slower-moving freight with neither train having to stop and wait on a siding. All that track work costs money, of course, and the freight railroads understandably don’t want to spend anything to improve Amtrak’s on-time performance. And Amtrak, as we all know, has barely enough money just to keep operating.

But today we learn that some federal stimulus money – more than $17 million – is going to be spent adding several such crossovers to the BNSF tracks through Iowa. That means jobs for the people who will do the work and it’s good news for those of us booked on the Zephyr in the months ahead.

*Burlington Northern Santa Fe

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

This Kind of Stuff Makes Me Crazy!

Regulars here know that I have occasionally – all right, frequently – been critical of Republicans in Congress and presidential candidates named Mitt for advocating the reduction or even the elimination of the modest annual subsidy Amtrak has been getting from the federal government.

Every year for forty years, Amtrak has had to go hat-in-hand to the administration and to Congress for the money to continue its operations through the following year. Who among us could run our households not knowing how much income we would have from one year to the next? It’s nuts!

Not surprisingly, and as a result, Amtrak has often had to cut corners, putting off ordering new equipment and postponing needed maintenance and repairs. Has service suffered? Yes, of course. And yet, in spite of the obstacles, Amtrak’s ridership continues to increase year after year because – and this is the simple fact that these politicians have somehow failed to grasp – Americans want more and better and faster trains!

Last year, the same politicians who whine and complain about Amtrak’s subsidy passed a law mandating that passengers be allowed to transport guns in their checked baggage. Amtrak complied, of course, and implemented a system-wide procedure to do so in a way that would be safe and secure. According to Trains magazine, the new law is costing Amtrak $2.1 million a year.

Here’s the thing: the same people responsible for the law are still trying to chop Amtrak’s subsidy.

My wife has the perfect expression when something like this happens. She says, “They’re throwing tacks in your path.”

Indeed they are.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Politicians Aren't Listening to the Traveling Public.

It’s interesting and frustrating that so many candidates for federal office continue to denigrate rail travel in general and Amtrak in particular. Makes you wonder how someone can aspire to serve the public while advocating the opposite of what the public is demanding.

(In an effort to remain as non-partisan as possible, I am doing my best to not mention Mitt Romney by name.)

Virtually all transportation experts agree that eliminating Amtrak's federal subsidy would almost certainly mean the end of most of Amtrak’s long-distance service across the country. Yet the roughly $1.4 billion that Amtrak has been getting every year is a tiny faction of one percent of the federal budget anyway. It is, in fact, less than the U.S. gives every year in foreign aid just to Egypt!

While some politicians continue to talk of killing off Amtrak, I am constantly finding links to news stories reporting grassroots citizen campaigns for more and better rail service.

Cities and towns across the Florida panhandle are joining in a campaign to restore Sunset Limited service between New Orleans and Orlando.

A study is underway to look into new rail service linking Shreveport, LA with Dallas and Fort Worth.

Communities in Colorado or upset that because of poor track conditions, Amtrak’s Southwest Chief might be rerouted and bypass their towns.

And several communities in Iowa are asking that existing Amtrak routes be extended in order to provide rail service for their citizens.

What’s up with that? The people are speaking … how come the politicians aren’t listening?

Friday, March 9, 2012

Transportation Choices = Mobility = A Better Economy.

Life can be very frustrating for those of us trying to convince elected officials at all levels of government that rail has an important role to play in bringing mobility to the American public.

And “mobility” is the key … one of the major factors in building an expanding and stable economy. Because the more mobile people are, the greater their opportunity for finding better, higher-paying jobs.

Let’s say, hypothetically, you’re offered a good job at a great company with offices right in the center of a major city. The job pays well, offers stability, and there’s real opportunity for advancement.

But you live in a suburban community and the daily commute would be 45 miles … each way.

Would you take the job if you had to drive to work every day? Through bumper-to-bumper traffic? An hour and a quarter each way on good days? With gas heading north of four bucks a gallon? And in all kinds of weather?

Maybe. But, then again, maybe not.

However, what if there’s a transit system? A train, running on an elevated track, immune to automobile traffic and pretty much impervious to weather? It gets you from suburb to a downtown stop in under an hour and you can read the morning paper on the way.

See? That’s what transportation choices -– mobility -- can do for you and for your family. And, multiplying that by thousands of other families, that’s what mobility does for our economy.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Trying to make sense of the anti-rail arguments.

Various Honolulu city administrations have been trying to get a transit system built in Hawaii’s capitol city since the mid-1970s. Twice the project failed by one vote on the Honolulu City Council, but a few years back it finally got the green light.

That, of course, brought out the crazies and they have been relentlessly attacking the project ever since.

Last week, a member of the City Council, noted for periodic episodes of bizarre behavior resulting in an occasional arrest, organized a town hall gathering featuring two people brought in from the mainland and billed as “transportation experts”. They are, in reality, frauds who have for years made their livings peddling one-size-fits-all anti-rail studies to groups opposing transit around the country. At one time or another, they have been in the employ of Libertarian “think tanks” and/or the highway lobby.

The problem is that the media reports what they say without disclosing their suspect backgrounds and biases, leaving the public to believe their opinions are objective and based on serious study. They are, in fact, neither.

At any rate, at the recent town hall meeting, all the usual anti-transit arguments were trotted out, including the following (summarized by me, but the gist is accurate):

1- Ridership projections have been wildly exaggerated and will be far less than projected.

2- Interior design of the rail cars is faulty and will not provide enough seats for riders.

Uh, wait a minute, fellas … did you mean there won’t be enough seats to handle all those people who are not going to ride the train?

Yes.

Oh.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Whoa! Here's Someone Who Really Understands Rail Fares.

In response to my previous post, I received the following email from Greg Fischer. It contains such a wealth of information, I didn’t want it to be obscured as a comment. For lots of great information, check out Greg's terrific blog. And I enthusiastically second his praise for the Amtrak reservations people (1-800-USA-RAIL). I have always found the agents friendly, competent and happy to rummage through all these complexities to come up with the lowest fare.

Jim,

The rail fare portion of your trip from San Antonio (SAS) to Los Angeles (LAX) should never be anything other than $138 when you are booking a sleeper.


When occupying a sleeper accommodation, Amtrak always assesses the lowest rail (coach) fare, regardless of whether the fare would be available if you were only buying a coach ticket.

The lowest coach rail fare from SAS to LAX is $138 (before discounts such as senior, AAA, etc.) and the fare basis code is DOF1. It makes no difference whether it is on train 1 (Sunset) or train 21/421 (Texas Eagle).

The accommodation charge for rooms is a different thing. Amtrak has 5 different levels, which like airline seats (or Amtrak's coach seats), are yield-managed.The five different rates for the roomette (formerly called economy bedroom) between SAS and LAX are as follows from low to high: ED - $149, EC - $224, EB - $299, EA - $273, ES - $448. So depending on the availability of roomette inventory, the add-on ranging from $149 up to $448 would be added to $138.

Since functionally, trains 21/421 and 1 operate as a single train between SAS and LAX it really doesn't make much difference which one you booked.Rather than use Amtrak.com, you might just call Amtrak's call-center since unlike most airlines, they do not charge a fee for working with a reservations agent.

You may find a blog series I'm writing useful in understanding how Amtrak fares work. I'm in the process of writing the chapter about fares for sleeping accommodations.

Greg Fischer