Friday, April 27, 2012

Warning to Politicians: Vote Against Passenger Rail at Your Peril!

I  am on my way home from the three-day meeting of the National Association of Railroad Passengers held around this time every year in Washington, DC. There are a couple of regional political events related to passenger trains which NARP is watching carefully.

 First, there is the case of Janice Daniels, the mayor of Troy, Michigan, and two members of the City Council. All three were elected with backing from the Tea Party. Taking advantage of another Council member who was away at the time, these three prevailed in a vote that refused to accept $6 million in federal dollars to build a train/bus transit center for their town. Rational residents of Troy rose up in outrage and with support from many local business-connected groups, a recall election was organized.

Then there's the case of Republican Scott Walker of Wisconsin, who won the governorship with the strong backing of that state’s Tea Party. He, of course, refused to accept $9 billion dollars from the federal stimulus package to construct a high-speed rail line between Milwaukee and the state capital in Madison, also the home of the University of Wisconsin. There are other issues involved, but it was his killing the proposed rail service that triggered the recall now underway in that state.

But here's what is so interesting about these two recall efforts:

Heretofore, Social Security and Medicare have been known as “the third rail” of politics … meaning, that politicians who propose tampering with either of those popular programs do so at their own political risk.

Suddenly the focus seems to be shifting and, should these two highly publicized recall attempts succeed, the question before the house becomes: Have passenger trains become the new third rail of politics?

Could be. And it will certainly be interesting to watch.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Banging the Drum for Amtrak and for Rail on The Hill.

As I write this, I’m halfway through the annual three-day meeting of the National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP) in Washington, DC. NARP is a non-partisan and non-profit advocate for more and better and faster trains throughout the United States. Those of us attending these meetings as officers and members of the organization are volunteers and come to these meetings at our own expense.

Today is the day when we break up into small groups and visit congressional offices, encouraging continued support for rail projects in general and for Amtrak in particular.

During our “Day on the Hill”, we run into a wide variety of responses from our senators and representatives and from their staff members. Most are polite and seem appreciative of our efforts. Occasionally, however, one of our people runs into an idiot.

Last year, three of our members were speaking to a staff member in the office of a Republican congressman from Alabama. One of the NARPers noted that high-speed trains have become immensely successful throughout Europe and across much of Asia, and he said that the U.S. has fallen way behind many of the European countries when it comes to transportation infrastructure.

At that point, this staffer in his mid-20s raised his hand to interrupt a 60-year-old businessman and said, “If you are going to continue running down the United States of America, we have nothing further to discuss.”

These are the people, and this is the mentality, responsible for frustrating efforts to maintain and improve passenger rail in the U.S. Is it disappointing when we run into someone like that? Sure … because that arrogant little twit represents the thinking of his boss. But it also motivates us to be even more determined in our efforts.

On the other side of the coin, I can report with considerable pride that this year's recipient of NARP’s Golden Spike Award, presented annually to a public official as recognition for significant efforts in support of passenger rail, is Senator Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii. The senator has supported continued and increased funding for rail and for Amtrak over many years despite the fact that there is virtually no chance that our state will ever benefit from Amtrak service. Ah, but you see, the senator – a personal hero of mine for many years – has supported rail because it’s the right thing to do for the country. What a concept!

Aloha and mahalo, Senator Dan!

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Boston to Portland and Back on Amtrak’s Downeaster.

The Downeaster’s story is an interesting one … and it provides an object lesson for those of us advocating* more and better train travel across the U.S.

Back in the early 1990s, several citizen groups in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine began talking about the need for a train connecting Boston with a number of communities to the northeast, roughly along the Atlantic coast. The asked, then they pressed, then they started demanding and, eventually, the politicians took notice. Now this train operates several round-trips a day between Boston and Portland, Maine. And guess what? Using federal stimulus money, the route is being extended farther north in Maine to Freeport and Brunswick, with service scheduled to begin sometime this Fall.

I know I’ve written about this train here before, but until yesterday I had never had an opportunity to ride it myself.

 I boarded train #681 at Boston’s North Station and we departed on time at 9:05. It was a typical Spring day – trees just starting to leaf out, temperatures crisp and in the high 50s, but sunshine taking the chill of nicely. For the next two-and-a-half hours we got a good look at New England as the Downeaster ran though a few mid-sized cities and a good many small towns and villages.

I’m not sure why, but I was a bit surprised that the train ran at what I assume was at or close to the maximum allowed of 79 mph along much of the way. It was a scenic ride, too, although in another few weeks, when trees along the tracks are fully leafed out, much of the scenery will be obscured.

There was one brief delay, but we arrived in Portland only a few minutes behind schedule. By the way, Portland has recently opened a new inter-modal transportation facility where passengers can literally step off the Downeaster and onto a bus to continue their journey to other points to the north and west.

After long and relaxed lunch with an old and dear school friend of mine – Peter Parnall, a well-known author and artist, specializing in wildlife illustrations and marvelous children’s stories – I was chauffeured back to the station and enjoyed the return trip to Boston.

* Please check out and consider becoming a member of the National Association of Railroad Passengers.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

An Amtrak Bonus: Making New Friends Three Times a Day.

I always look forward to dining car meals when I'm traveling on Amtrak. Family-style seating is the drill, which means you will usually be seated with strangers at one of the tables-for-four.

Some people – but very few, in my experience – are uncomfortable with the arrangement so they will spend a half hour or so in silence, staring out the window … particularly awkward when it’s after dark and there’s nothing to see out there.

The rest of us – people who have traveled by train on previous occasions – look forward to mealtime: Who’s it going to be today? What interesting stories will I hear? Will my dinner companions include a Japanese doctor specializing in organ transplants or a 300-pound biker in a tank top? (Both are actual examples my earlier train travels and, of the two, the biker was by far the more interesting.)

So far, this trip has been no exception. In an earlier post, I mentioned that tablemates at one of the meals on the Sunset Limited included a retired Amtrak conductor. From him, I learned that, assuming last-minute space is available, he can travel in a roomette located in the train’s dorm car at no charge. Now that’s what I call a great benefit!

(Dorm cars are Superliner sleeping cars located at the front of the train immediately behind the baggage car. They have been converted to include all roomettes on the upper level for use by crew members and little offices on the lower level for the conductors, plus additional storage areas for supplies. Sometimes, if the train is really full, three or four of those roomettes will be sold to paying passengers.)

Encounters in an Amtrak dining car can also yield some wildly improbable coincidences. Some years back, aboard the Southwest Chief, I discovered that a man seated across from me, at the time a resident of Las Vegas, had lived for some 30 years about a half block away from my house in Kailua on the windward side of the Island of Oahu.

Then, just the other night en route to Chicago aboard the City of New Orleans and a full 30 minutes into the conversation, I was startled to learn that the man sitting next to me was also an active member of the National Association of Railroad Passengers and we would both be attending the NARP meetings in Washington later this month. Furthermore, although we had never met before, he and I had exchanged NARP-related emails several weeks earlier.

I mean, seriously … what are the odds??

Sunday, April 15, 2012

A Good Time NOT to Visit New Orleans.

Apparently, there are not one, but two festivals taking place this week here in New Orleans. The biggie is the French Quarter Festival, but the annual Strawberry Festival is also going on.

I suppose it’s a sign of advancing age, but next time around I will check to be sure there are no festivals happening when I visit here. It’s just too damn crowded.

Some years back, I was given a restaurant recommendation by a woman who is a long-time New Orleans resident. Have dinner at Irene’s in the French Quarter, she said, adding that it was a bit out-of-the-way, but a huge favorite with the locals.

Boy, was she right! I have had wonderful meals at Irene’s on previous visits here, and was looking forward to two dinners there on this trip.

But – alas! – I had failed to consider those festivals and the crowds they attract. I called Irene’s for a reservation and the man actually laughed. “We’re completely sold out for the entire weekend” he said. “Of course, we do set aside a few tables for walk-ins, so you can always come at 5:00 or 5:30 and stand in line.” Right! I’m sure they’ll have a table-for-one any minute now.

Last night, there were lines out the door at every restaurant for blocks around my hotel when I went looking for dinner at around eight o’clock. I finally found a small Italian restaurant with a table the size of a frisbee in a far corner of their bar. The food? Let’s just say this place wouldn’t last a week in Boston’s North End.

I had also been given the name of the Palm Court as a spot for terrific jazz. When I called there for a reservation, someone picked up the phone, shouted “Sold out all weekend!” over a din in the background, and hung up. Another bus’ egg.*

Finally, what is it about festivals that makes people drink and yell and dress sloppy and hang out on the street right under my hotel room window until past 2:00 a.m.?

Probably way too many strawberries.

*Hawaiian pidgin: busted egg, meaning a failure, a really big flop.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

LA to New Orleans on Amtrak’s Sunset Limited

First: My apologies for the lack of photos. I took a bunch -- a few are decent! -- but for some reason my laptop is running v-e-r-y slow and I have given up trying to upload any photos for this post.
Los Angeles Union Station is a great place to begin a rail journey. Built in the late 1930s, it’s right out of the Golden Age of rail travel and you half expect to see Carol Lombard or Douglas Fairbanks come sweeping through the main hall, just arrived on the Super Chief from Chicago.

The Sunset Limited is waiting on Track 10 and my sleeper is right there at the top of the ramp when I reach the platform. But this consist is actually two trains in one and there is another sleeper at the far end of the train which, along with one of the three coaches, is designated as the Texas Eagle. Tomorrow evening, those two cars will be uncoupled in San Antonio and added to the daily Texas Eagle for the run north to Chicago while the rest of us on the Sunset Limited continue east to New Orleans.

Today, however, the combined trains depart on time at 3:00 and once again I’m struck by how long it takes us to pass through these wall-to-wall cities before reaching some actual rural areas. I opt for a later dinner seating in the dining car and, as always seems to be the case, have some interesting tablemates. Tonight, it’s a retired librarian from Los Angeles, a woman born in Sweden who married an American and now lives in Longview, Texas, and a retired Amtrak conductor.

By the time we finish dinner and I return to my roomette, the Sunset has crossed the Arizona border and we’re slowing for our stop at Yuma.

The next day is all Texas, all day. In fact, the Sunset takes something like 25 hours to cross this one huge state and – believe me – the dusty, dry, barren desert of West Texas just goes on for-ever! Still, I’ve taken this train several times and once again find it all fascinating. The train passes within just a few yards of the Mexican border just a few minutes before stopping in El Paso.

By late afternoon we reach the Pecos River where the Sunset slows to cross over on a bridge built toward the end of World War II. The slower the better, too … because the view is spectacular.

Once again I score interesting companions for dinner. Tonight it’s two young men, both journalists working for a Swiss newspaper, and we spend a fascinating hour discussing the current state of that industry. Interestingly, the observe that European newspapers are not yet facing same the financial difficulties confronting American publications. Why? Because, says one, Europeans are still reluctant to trust news that doesn’t come on a printed page.

I choose an New York steak for dinner which comes medium-rare, exactly as ordered. There is, however, one big black mark for Amtrak tonight: they have run out of red wine. The waiter shakes his head. “Folks on board this trip? Thirsty!”

The second night passes comfortably and, thanks to some padding in the schedule, we arrive in New Orleans spot on time. By the way, he approach to New Orleans from the west means crossing the Mississippi River on he spectacular Hughey Long Bridge, which is well over four miles long and reaches a height of 280 feet. Not that’s what I call an entrance!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

I'm “On The Road Again” … Just Like Willie Nelson.

Postings may be a bit irregular here over the next three weeks because I'll be traveling. I’m off to the airport in a couple of hours for a flight to Los Angeles where I will catch Amtrak’s Sunset Limited for a two-night journey to New Orleans. Ahh … dinner at Irene’s, followed by jazz at the Palm Court.

From there, I’ll head to Chicago aboard the City of New Orleans, connecting there with the Lake Shore Limited for Boston, where I have a precious ticket for the 100th Anniversary game at Fenway Park. On April 20, 1912, the Red Sox opened that wonderful old ballpark against the New York Highlanders, later to be re-named the Yankees. One hundred years later to the day, they will be facing – you guessed it – the New York Yankees. How could I miss that?

From Boston, I’ll head to Washington, DC, for the annual three-day meeting of the National Association of Railroad Passengers. Day Two, by the way, involves meeting in Congressional offices to urge Members of Congress and their staffs to continue and expand support for rail projects in general and Amtrak in particular.

Then it’s back aboard Amtrak: the Capital Limited overnight from Washington to Chicago where, by a happy coincidence, I will see the Red Sox in a pair of games against the White Sox. Next I’ll board the California Zephyr for the two-night ride to the Bay Area, connecting there with Amtrak’s Coast Starlight which will take me full circle back to Los Angeles.

Full reports on each segment to come as soon as I land somewhere with an internet connection.

Oh … and Go Red Sox!

Friday, April 6, 2012

Communities Organizing to Keep Amtrak’s Southwest Chief

Many Amtrak passengers are surprised to learn that almost all the track actually owned by Amtrak is along the Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington. Anywhere else across the U.S., their train is traveling on track owned by one of the major freight railroads.

There are ongoing and inherent problems from this arrangement, mostly passenger trains running behind schedule because dispatchers – employees of the freight railroads – have given priority to their company’s slower-moving freights.

But another, bigger problem is emerging and is affecting Amtrak’s popular Southwest Chief, which runs daily in both directions between Chicago and Los Angeles, mostly on track owned by the BNSF, the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad. A long stretch of that track, some 300 miles between Trinidad, Colorado, and Albuquerque, New Mexico, needs to be upgraded. BNSF doesn’t use it very much and certainly doesn’t want to spend a lot of money repairing it just for the Chief.

So some years back, the State of New Mexico made a deal to buy the track from BNSF and assume responsibility for maintaining it. That was when Bill Richardson, a Democrat, was governor. Ah, but there’s another governor now, Susana Martinez. She's a Republican, and you know what that means: she’s against rail and, furthermore, she is trying to renege on the deal. That possibility has been enough to raise serious questions about the future of the Chief – at least along that portion of its route.

Amtrak wants to keep running the Chief – as noted, it’s one of their most popular trains – and has suggested an alternate route. But that would bypass a number of cities and towns along its traditional route, including Lamy, NM (the stop for tourists visiting Santa Fe and Taos), not to mention some spectacular scenery as the train crosses from Colorado into New Mexico over the Raton Pass.

Mayors, other public officials, chambers of commerce and rail-oriented organizations are up in arms, combining their efforts and contributing funds to keep the Chief on its current route … a genuine, spontaneous grassroots support for trains.

Yo … Governor Martinez! Please … set aside your conservative ideology for once and listen to the people. You know what? They want the Chief! They want trains!

Monday, April 2, 2012

Public Wants Amtrak’s Sunset Service Restored.

Amtrak’s Sunset Limited operates three days a week between Los Angeles and New Orleans, and it’s a wonderful trip. In fact, I’ll be on the eastbound Sunset in a bit over a week, on my way to the annual meeting of the National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP) in Washington, DC.

For quite a few years, the Sunset ran a trans-continental route past New Orleans and all the way to the east coast, terminating in Orlando, Florida. I’ll have to leave the Sunset in New Orleans, however, because that eastern segment was discontinued when Hurricane Katrina damaged many miles of track east of New Orleans and into Mississippi.

The Sunset Limited crosses the bridge at Escambia Bay outside of Pensacola, Florida. (Amtrak photo)

CSX, the freight railroad that owns the track, made all the repairs and actually moved much of the track farther inland, but Amtrak has never restored that portion of the Sunset’s route and there has been some grumbling about that in the years since. NARP has consistently advocated restoration of the service and, in addition, has urged that the service be upgraded to operate on a daily basis. At the request of Congress, Amtrak did do a study on the feasibility of restarting the service, but for whatever reason they are clearly half-hearted about doing so.

For a while it seemed as though not that the public really didn't care very much one way or the other, but suddenly and spontaneously all across the Florida panhandle, people have started to speak up. One after another, mayors of cities and towns are joining with community organizations in a rousing chorus asking Amtrak to reinstate Sunset Limited service east from New Orleans to Jacksonville and Orlando.

Eventually, government begins to pay attention. After all, look what happened with the Downeaster! (See previous post.) So if you happen to live anywhere in that 700-mile stretch of the South that would benefit from restored and expanded service by the Sunset Limited, please contact your elected representatives at all levels of government – local, state and federal. And, while you’re at it, please consider becoming a member of NARP, too. Thanks!