Monday, May 28, 2012

Taking a Few Days Off for a Little Repair Work

Well, not "off" exactly ... I'm hopping over to Honolulu this afternoon and have a date early tomorrow morning with a bright young orthopedic surgeon who is going to give me a brand new knee. I am taking my laptop along and will try to knock out a post or two while I'm in Honolulu. Otherwise, I'll resume things here in about a week. Y'all come back, now ... Hear?

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Air Travel Indignities Continue to Pile Up

It is “conventional wisdom” that among the several reasons for the steady increase in Amtrak ridership is the corresponding increase in the hassle that now comes with air travel. Once – and not that long ago -- it was actually fun to fly. Today the most we can hope for is that any given flight won’t be unpleasant.

It’s not one thing; it’s the gradual accumulation of all the little indignities that have made it so: security hassles, crowded flights, over-bookings, loss of legroom and on board “service” that has become all but nonexistent. Ah, but as the TV pitchmen say, “But wait! There’s more!”

Some of the airlines are apparently going to start charging extra for window or aisle seats.

(Note, please, that at this time my favorite airline, Hawaiian, has no plans to implement these extra charges.)

Truth is, even though I’ve lived in Hawaii for 50 years and have probably taken 200 trans-Pacific flights, I still feel uncomfortable – even a bit claustrophobic – if I’m not in a window seat. Fortunately, I have accumulated enough miles with both American and Hawaiian Airlines that I will most probably not be affected.

But it’s just one more reason why I will continue to fly to the U.S. mainland and switch immediately to Amtrak!

Monday, May 21, 2012

Hello? HELLO?? The GOP Pols Aren't Listening!

When I read about efforts by Republicans in Congress to reduce Amtrak’s pitifully small subsidy, or hear Mitt Romney promise to eliminate it entirely, I can’t help wondering what they’re thinking!

They sure as hell aren’t listening to their constituents, because all across the country, in any number of different areas, people – the traveling public – are demanding more rail service.

Public officials and community leaders in Mobile, Alabama, and numerous other communities across Florida’s panhandle, are pressing for the resumption of Amtrak’s Sunset Limited service east of New Orleans. It was “temporarily” discontinued as a result of damage to miles of track from Hurricane Katrina. The track has long since been repaired, but the Sunset still only runs between Los Angeles and New Orleans.

The slam-dunk feasibility of rail service linking Houston, Dallas and Austin has been talked about for years. It was killed some 20 years ago by heavy lobbying (meaning big-time political contributions) by Southwest Airlines, but the idea is back with renewed interest and enthusiasm.

And when the Federal Railroad Administration solicited proposals for high-speed rail projects, with $75 billion to divvy up to get them rolling, the agency received five hundred applications.

At the time, FRA administrator, Joe Szabo, csaid that “rising fuel prices have got people thinking differently about how they travel” and he noted that transit ridership has hit an all time high and he pointed specifically to a 212-percent increase in ridership on Amtrak’s Chicago-St. Louis route over the past five years as track improvements have shortened travel time between the two cities.

Given the obvious desire of America’s traveling public for more and better and faster trains, the continuing anti-rail and anti-Amtrak rhetoric from Republican candidates is hard to understand.

And it’s deplorable.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Seeing the US in a Private Rail Car. Now That’s Doing It in Style!

In railroad lingo, private varnish is the name used to describe classic old rail cars that have been refurbished and brought back to the luster of their glory days. There are more than a few people who do exactly that as a hobby. And make no mistake, it takes big bucks, not to mention hours and hours of time spent on locating old parts, fabricating new ones, and lovingly sanding, painting, polishing … well, you get the idea.

Then, of course, what do you do with these beauties once you’ve finished? I’m sure a lot of these folks spend hours entertaining friends … hosting poker parties … or just sitting in there soaking up the nostalgia. I know I would.

But here’s the thing: To help pay for the costs involved in restoring and maintaining these classic old rail cars, many of the owners lease them to people who organize rail tours. And that means it’s quite possible for ordinary folks like you and me to spend a day or two riding around the country in a classic rail car hooked onto the rear of an Amtrak train.

I jumped at the chance to do that several years ago following a NARP* meeting in Washington, when a lounge car and sleeper were hooked to the rear of the Capital Limited and a bunch of us rode back to Chicago. Now that is the way to travel!

But you want to know the best part? When the train stopped at stations along the way, of course our two old rail cars invariably drew a crowd. And there I was … sitting in the window of that classic lounge car gazing down at all the rubber-neckers on the platform, doing my best to appear both lordly and ever-so-nonchalant all at the same time. I was absolutely shameless. And I admit it.

Want to know more? Then contact AAPRCO, the American Association of Private Railroad Car Owners.

What the hell … go for it!

*National Association of Railroad Passengers

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Guess Who’s Paying for All That Pampering!

Last August, to begin my extended rail journey across Europe and Asia, I flew from Los Angeles to London on American Airlines. It was, in fact, my first flight on the nifty Boeing 777.

From my seat in the third row of economy class I could see into the business class section and got a good view of those privileged travelers getting their free drinks and their multi-course meals … a dinner and a breakfast on the 10-hour flight. I wasn't able to see all the way up into first class, but could only imagine the extent of the pampering that was going on up there.

Gee, I thought, one of these days maybe I should really treat myself and use a jillion miles or spend the umpteen dollars to actually fly first class on an international flight. What the hell …

For some reason I thought about that again today, and I went on line to see exactly what a first class ticket costs on that same American Airlines flight from LAX to London’s Heathrow.

It's $11,923 ... one way!

Frankly, I was astonished. And I started to wonder: who are these people willing and able to spend almost $1200 an hour for a flight to London?

Well, I thought, no doubt many of them were traveling on business and their companies were paying for their tickets.

That’s when it hit me: corporate accountants would be deducting the cost of those tickets as a business expense. Get it? The rest of us taxpayers, shoe-horned into narrow economy seats and munching our ten-dollar turkey wraps, were actually subsidizing all those free drinks and canap├ęs and fancy food and hot towels.

And that, as an old college pal of mine was wont to say, is enough to piss off a preacher!

Tax reform, anyone?

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Good Luck and a Horseshoe Needed to Catch Amtrak's Coast Starlight

As a youngster, I always tried to catch a glimpse of the locomotive during train rides. As soon as I felt the train starting to lean into a curve, I'd press my cheek up against the window to see as far as I could up ahead. The longer and sharper the curve, of course, the better the view, meaning the best possible locations for seeing the locomotives are on so-called "horseshoe curves".

There are several horseshoe curves on Amtrak routes throughout the U.S. Probably the best known is near Altoona, Pennsylvania. But there's another just north of San Luis Obispo in California and this time, on my recent trip aboard the Coast Starlight from Emeryville to Los Angeles, I was ready for it. As Amtrak train #11 was winding its way down through the mountains, probably ten minutes out of the San Luis Obispo station, I headed for the last coach, clambered down the stairs and stood by the vestibule window at the ready.

 Sure enough, just a few minutes later, there were the two locomotives heading in the opposite direction that I was traveling. Ready ... and ... gotcha!

Monday, May 7, 2012

A Near-Miss by Amtrak's Coast Starlight

For years now, whenever I travel on one of Amtrak’s long-distance trains, I carry a scanner. It's a device that can pick up radio transmissions among the operating crew members (conductors and engineers) and between the engineer and the dispatchers who control the train’s movements. Probably 98-percent of the conversation is brief, routine and boring.

But every so often, it can get interesting. You learn why a delay is occurring or hear the engineer asking the dispatcher to contact the state police to have a couple of cops meet the train at the next station and remove some clown who is annoying other passengers in the lounge car.

I had my scanner on last week when I was aboard the Coast Starlight en route from the Bay Area to Los Angeles. Just as we were departing Santa Barbara, I picked up the following:

     Engineer: Whoa! Look at this idiot on the bike!

     Conductor: Yeah.

     Engineer: Rode about eight feet right in front of us.

     Conductor: That’s Santa Barbara for you.

     Engineer: He had a Giants hat on. Maybe that’s the problem.

     Conductor: Yeah!

I’ve written here on several occasions about the terrible problem of grade crossing accidents and, especially in recent years, the increasing number of people hit by trains while walking on the tracks and listening to music through ear buds. And, also tragically, there are the suicides.

Then there are the idiots ... candidates for the Darwin Award. I happened to see this one. As soon as I heard the conversation between the engineer and the conductor, I looked out my window. Sure enough, there he was, a young man probably 18 or 19, nonchalantly peddling off down the street with a book bag slung casually over his shoulder. He was damn near killed and didn’t even know it.

Friday, May 4, 2012

A Few Trip Notes and Photos

Back home, safe and sound, and thinking once again how wonderful it is that I can come back to Maui when I finish my travels.

My ride from cold and windy Chicago to the Bay Area on the California Zephyr was excellent, start to finish. Good crew, good food and spot on time the whole way.

During the 40-minute pause in Denver, I was delighted to see the windows being washed. Alas, because of where the train had stopped, with only narrow access to the right side of the train, only the windows on the left side received the scrubbing. Care to guess which side of the train my roomette was on?

The ride from Denver west is spectacular, or course, as the Zephyr climbs up into the Rocky Mountains and winds its way through a series of canyons before pausing in Glenwood Springs. Because the Colorado River is on the left side of the train (!!) for almost all of the three hours that journey takes …

… I spent most of the time in the lounge car or in the dining car, comfortably and happily settled at a table – all on the left side of the train, of course.

The great scenery on the following day occurs as the Zephyr climbs over the Sierras via Donner Pass, but before we got to the mountains, the Nevada desert offered some pretty spectacular viewing, too.

The rock formations are really quite amazing. For that matter, the Zephyr’s route is pretty amazing and varied from start to finish. I suppose, if I had to pick the one Amtrak route that offers the greatest variety of scenery and some of the most breathtaking, it would be this one. The California is a must-do from anyone wishing to experience a great train journey here in the U.S.