Grant McWilliams

9 items tagged "Train"

  • 49,000 miles of high speed rail in America - it's true!

    I pondered the title of this article for a bit because we're currently struggling over the future of trains in America. One party wants to break up Amtrak into the NEC or Northeast Coridor (40% private) and then leave the current Amtrak to die on the vine trying to manage the rest of the non-profitable lines. The other party put 8 Billion into HSR (high speed rail) lines and wants to spend more. Amtrak has said it will cost about 100 Billion to rebuild the NEC. So having read Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service--A Year Spent Riding across Americaby James McCommons I know a few things about the history of passenger rail in America. For those of you who don't want to read an entire book about the history and current state of passenger trains in America I ran across a PDF entitled On the Wings of the Zephyr
    The Rise and Fall of America’s High-Speed Streamliners (click to download).
    This tells the story of the Pioneer Zephyr an advanced high speed train in America. It left Chicago in the evening and arrived in Denver first thing in the morning. The average speed was 77 mph and it topped 116 mph. These numbers look a great deal like our current Acela high speed train in the Northeast Coridor. They also look a lot like the proposed high speed rail line between Orlando and Tampa that was refused by the current Florida Governor.  As we struggle to get even single lines built it's hard to imagine that at one point in time the United States had 49,000 miles of high speed rail lines. The top 10 fastest scheduled passenger trains in the world were American. The year? Nineteen thirty-four! Yes I said 1934. Steam engines gave way to diesel and American wanted to prove it's chops so we built (using private money) a high speed rail system with entire trainsets engineered in America. The Pioneer Zephyr trainset (97 ft) weighed a total of about 200,000 lbs including engine. That's about what the engine on a modern Amtrak weighs by itself! Weight costs money - the more a train weighs the more stress on the tracks, the more diesel fuel it uses, the more it costs to pull. The freight railroads say it costs $1 to pull one ton (2000 lbs) 50 miles. With this train weighing about 1 million pounds less than our current Amtrak Superliners it makes sense that it would be drastically cheaper to run.

    It all came to an end for various reasons. Diesel locomotives were required to have a fireman onboard even though they no longer had fires to tend to. A days pay was calculated by 100 miles traveled so the Zephyr engineer and fireman were paid for one week every day they worked. This was good for the engineer and fireman but bad for the railroad. To discourage traveling during WWII 15% was added to train tickets. Between 1945 and 1953 this raised 1.4 Billion dollars for the US treasury. The tax wasn't lifted until it was all over. Speed limits  of 79 mph were placed on trains without specialized switching gear that would cost 500 Million dollars (current dollars) to install. During this same period of time the US Government started directly subsidizing airlines and indirectly subsidizing the airline industry with fixed airmail prices. In 1946 the Airport Development Act called for construction of 2000 new airports and provided 500 Million (1946 funds) to build them. By 1960 they'd spent more than 2 Billion on airports. The Federal Aid Highway act of 1944 authorized $500 Million per YEAR for highways. This however, wasn't enough so Vise President Nixon (yes tricky Dick) proposed a 50 Billion dollar highway plan (remember this is 1954 money equivalent to 1 Trillion dollars today).  The entire United States budget was 71 Billion so 50 Billion on one project was immense. This would be roughly equivalent to us spending 2 Trillion today on one project. In 13 years the Airlines portion of intercity travel went from 6% to 39%. After 28,000 miles of interstate highway was opened 49,000 miles of passenger rail track was closed.

    Was it even possible for passenger trains to compete with the deck stacked against them? Probably not. By 1971 the private passenger rail companies wanted out of the business and the government handed them a carrot. Amtrak would be created to relieve them of the burden as long as they let Amtrak run on their rails. So the next time someone complains about Amtrak's subsidies remember that the entire airline and car infrastructure was built on trillions of dollars of tax money. Ironically the political party pushing in those days for tax subsidies to create this infrastructure and ultimately kill off an entirely independent private industry were the Republicans. Quite the change of philosophy in relation to now. Now the same party wants to end subsidies to Amtrak. Maybe the goal is the same but it can't be about dollars can it?

    Current Amtrak trains average about 45 mph and have only a fraction of the track that we used to have. Most every small town in America had a passenger train station. It doesn't bother me so much that one technology would replace another, what bothers me is how much it cost American tax payers to unbalance competition and how much it's ultimately cost us in the end.

  • Amtrak provides less Agony for half the cost of flying

    I've done articles before comparing the Seattle to Portland travel options of driving vs. flying vs. the train. Although my initial impression was that driving would win on cost and flying would win on speed I was wrong. All three methods take the same amount of time from downtown to downtown if being fair (ie. you need to put gas in the car, get through security, wait in line to board the train etc..). The train ended up being cheapest for up to 3 people and by far the most enjoyable. Flying lost every comparison. When you fly you have less usable time, more interruptions  (light rail, security gates, boarding, wireless disconnect, de-boarding, light rail) and more discomfort (small seat, TSA) so it lost in every aspect. The Amtrak Cascades won in most aspects outside of freedom once arriving at the destination and frequency.

    The reason I'm writing about this again is that Hipmunk a travel search engine has added Amtrak to it's search results. What's also interesting about Hipmunk is that it includes an Agony filter. You can sort by least Agonizing trip. I'm not sure what criteria Hipmunk uses but I'll show the results for Seattle to Portland trips. Also keep an eye on the prices for a round trip ticket. The trip with the least agony is also the cheapest.


  • Busses rule?

    So lets get this out of the way right now, I don't like buses. I don't like them in America, I don't like them in Croatia and I don't like them in Germany. I don't like them sam I am! The one exception to that is buses in Mexico which are quite nice if you get Deluxe class or Business class. I'd even rather ride a first class bus in Mexico over any other bus I've ridden. The classes go First, Deluxe and the nicest is Business just in case you don't know. So why am I posting about buses? Because in lieu of great train or airline service in the US new bus companies are popping up. It takes roughly 4 hrs to go from downtown NY to downtown DC on a bus. It takes about the same time or more to get to JFK, go through security, board a plane, fly, leave Washington Dulles and take a taxi to the city center of DC. Here's the kicker, the bus costs as low as $1! No matter what happens in the airline world there will never be a sustainable flight from NY to DC for $1.

    So I found two companies doing this - Boltbus and DC2NY. I checked prices and Boltbus came in at $10-$20 and DC2NY the "upscale" bus company came in at $28 one way. There was a slight discount for a return ticket ($50 both ways). Both companies offer free onboard wifi internet access. So not only do you not have to go through security, you don't have to stand in line to get on the plane, you don't have to take a taxi and you don't have to be bored for the 4 hours. I didn't think I'd ever say this but buses may be the best way to get between NY and DC.

    I just checked the Amtrak website and the train takes the same amount of time but costs $144 a person. Jet Blue charges $147 and with getting to the airport 30 minutes before flying and getting away would take almost exactly 4 hrs.

    To recap I used the same days and similar times for the two bus companies, Amtrak and Jet Blue.

    New York to DC, round trip

    Bolt Bus $20 4hr 30min wifi, power outlets, reserved seats
    DC2NY $46 4hr 30min wifi, no power outlets, no reserved seats
    Megabus $16 4hr 30min n/a
    TonyCoach $30 4hr 30min Uses for cart
    Todays $35 4hr 30min Uses for cart
    Eastern $36.75 4hr 30min Uses for cart, free wifi
    Amtrak Ascela $322 2hr 45min  
    Amtrak $144 3hr 20min  
    Greyhound $75 4hr 30min Found promotion for $40 though
    Jet Blue $147 1hr 20min Taxi/Train to and from airport and going through security - 4hr travel time


    Bolt bus seems to be the winner. They have power plugs (DC2NY doesn't) 3 extra inches of legroom, wifi and a loyalty program. After 4 trips you get the fifth free. This seem like an incredibly cheap way of going between these cities. Bolt Bus also has service to Boston and Philly now.

    It looks like the fastest way to get from downtown New York to downtown DC is by Amtrak Ascela which takes just under 3 hrs. Amazingly so that train can do 150 mph but is limited by the states it goes through it averages 75 mph. Go America... You can take the standard Amtrak train and it only takes 35 minutes longer and you saved yourself a couple hundred dollars. Add another hour to your journey and you saved another $100.




  • Changes to Sound Transit bus/train service

     Note: This post will mean a lot more to those of you living in the Seattle/Tacoma/Olympia area and attempting to use public transportation. It's meant to be humorous but based in reality in a sort of depressing way.

    The original Sound Transit announcementfor reference.


    Your current transit news from your transit news correspondent Haywood Jablomey.

    Sound Transit remaps the 574 route to connect with the Sounder which goes in the OPPOSITE direction. So for those people traveling from the Airport to Seattle who want to transfer to the Sounder they can now do it at Lakewood… 35 miles from the city.

    Pierce Transit after a massive service hour cut adds the 400 route to duplicate the service offered by the Sounder. Sound Transit counters by canceling a portion of the 578 route that duplicates what the PT 400 duplicates of the Sounder route thus saving tax payers $12 which is handed over to Piece Transit and immediately applied to it’s million dollar shortfall easing the tension between Piece Transit and all the cities that pay for it but it no longer services.

    Sound Transit add Sunday service to the 578 for all the people who can’t connect to it using Sounder or Pierce Transit 400 due to there not being any weekend service on either.

    Sound Transit discontinues the downtown Tacoma portion of the 586 because countless other services cover that route including the Oly Express which doesn’t stop at Tacoma Dome on hours ending with consonants on days ending in y (unless it’s raining then there’s a 50/50 chance due to the letter y not always being considered a vowel) resulting in 605 riders to the U District moving from a 2 seat ride to a 3 seat ride either 30%, 35% or 48% of the time.

    Sound Transit extends Sounder south to get closer to 820 parking spots which couldn’t seem to squeeze near the 2283 already available stalls at Tacoma Dome Station thus encouraging people to drive south to park so they can catch the Sounder north back past their houses giving working husbands and wives a second chance to wave to their spouses and check on their lawns. Nobody else notices since the Oly Express still won’t make any sort of intelligent connection to the Sounder effectively keeping the 59x buses annoyingly full.

    To discourage people from taking the Sounder Commuter Train Sound Transit has doubled the frequency of both the 590 and 594 in commute direction only thus making better use of empty parking spaces in the city that so far have not been fully utilized because in the past the buses were busy carrying people around. Coffee shops expect to see an increase in ticket sales from the hordes of ST bus drivers milling about during the day. It’s been proposed that cardboard “Occupy Wall Street” signs be added to their uniform so people won’t notice they are in fact employed bus drivers with nothing better to do.

    Afraid that there may be some good news buried in the changes somewhere for at least ONE line Sound Transit has doubled the service runs of the 592 bus but stops short of actually delivering passengers anywhere useful. Options are to take the Sounder, walk a block to board the Link and travel one or two stops further north or south. Proposed changes are intended to either leave 592 riders stranded or irritated. Either is acceptable. Rumors of a conspiracy by Jamie Oliver to force long transit connection in an attempt to “slim Americans down” go unfounded. Rumors of him being awarded a second TED prize for an upcoming speech however just will not go away.

    Not to leave a sour taste in anyone’s mouth Sound Transit has added ONE extra ST 510 run per day to Everett. It isn’t presently clear at what time a day it runs and it’s existence hasn’t been proven.

    And that’s it for this week folks. Have a happy new year.

  • China build the worlds largest metro in 5 years

    I spend enough time on Seattle Transit blogs yammering on about transit so I decided I should probably start posting something in my own transit blog. Since a blog cannot be a blog without a log.

    Part of my frustration with local transit (local as in the U.S.) is that it takes forever to do anything. In the amount of time that it will take the U.S. to build it's first real high speed rail Mexico will be done with theirs. Mexico? We're competing against Mexico and losing. The reason is that Mexico decides to do something and then does it. Here in the land of the free we decide to do something then sit in commitree meetings for the next 20 years trying to address every single person's objections. The last time we had any guts we built an amazing freeway system - that was 50 years ago.

    China is another one. Yes I understand the issues with human rights and all of that but we're talking about transit. in 2005 China decided to build a metro system in Shanghai. Now they have the largest metro system in the world having just passed London. By 2020 they plan on adding extensions to it that by themselves equal the size of the New York City subway!

    There's argument over how the size of metro systems are measured but no matter as this is a very large and they've done it in record time.

    What keeps us from doing this? We have to take into consideration everything before pushing one shovel into the ground. How much will it cost? How much noise will it make? How will it effect the environment?  These projects are expensive but so are the alternatives. How much co2 is dumped into the air now and how much wear and tear is put on the highways in addition to the cost of expanding/widening them? How much longer would our cars last if we had a faster, more reliable way of getting to work? I'd like to see a REAL cost analysis on transportation. We have had transit projects shelved because of environmental impact. Environmental Impact of million sof drivers driving to work every day? According to the U.S. Census Bureau 77.3% of all commuters drive to work and are alone in the car. What's the environmental impact of building cars that wear out in 7 years from high mileage, producing trillions of gallons of gas a year, paving roads, repaving roads and repairing roads in addition to the impact of exhaust being dumped into the atmosphere? I'd like to see these numbers but I think that digging a trench in the ground and filling it with tracks is less than the above mentioned items. Not to mention that Paris, London and Budapest are still using their 100 year old metro systems. Cost? Spread it over the next century.

    There will be more posts on China, they're also in the process of building the largest high speed rail network in the world.

  • My Regional Transit plan

    Lately I've been spending an increasing amount of time thinking about Seattle Area Transit. The answer to most transit questions is 100 Billion dollars (imagine Dr. Evil saying it). In my interest to find a different answer I've wandered around the Puget Sound area riding the mass transit that we do have with an interest in how we could improve our transit situation without spending the aforementioned 100 Billion dollars. We have many half ass transit solutions - buses that act like trains and fail, trains that go nowhere near where they're needed, light rail that only services airports, light rail that only services businesses within walking distance and monorail that only has two stops - neither of which are very far apart.

    Seattle is known for a couple of things - the Space Needle, Grunge Bands, Coffee and the Monorail. There's been many debates about the monorail and we even came very close to expanding it all over the city. It's loved and hated but most of all it's just a tourist attraction for many. People who drive or walk say the monorail is ugly. People who want to use it are frustrated that it goes "nowhere" and they can't transfer to it. Most agree that it's dilapidated and in need of repair. Some think it needs to be torn down. All are probably right. I set out to see if the monorail had any value at all and below is my experience with it.

    We wanted to go into the city for the Artisan Food Festival at Pike Place Market. The problem with Pike Place is there's nowhere to park. If you want to park in the parking garage you'll quickly find out that the normal rates don't apply during special events and the "deal" they give you is about 3x more expensive than usual. This means you're looking at between $10 and $15 to park your car for half a day. Ideally we'd have light rail from the suburbs to downtown Seattle but we have to wait another 20 years for that. Being Sunday the Sounder train and all Community Transit buses aren't running so we have no other choice but to drive. It would be nice to park somewhere else and ride transit to Pike Place market and since it's Sunday we could park on the street for free - enter the Monorail. Parking at the Seattle Center is fairly easy on Sunday and the Monorail goes from the Seattle Center to Westlake Center very near Pike Place Market. The cost for a round trip ticket on the Monorail is $4 for an adult. The total cost for the four of us was $12 or roughly what it would have cost to put the car in the parking garage but this way was more interesting and fun.

    We parked on the street near the Seattle Center and walked to the Monorail near the Space Needle. Tickets are bought at a booth and boarding is done on an elevated platform. The Monorail is just that, it's a rubber tired train that rides on one tall concrete rail. On leaving the Seattle Center Station it passes through the Experience Music Project and flies through the city at speeds up to 45 mph. The Monorail was built nearly 50 years ago and is showing it's age. The concrete pillars holding it up are massive and ugly, it barely goes anywhere and yet there's something about it that only riding it will reveal - it's by far the best way to see the city. I feel sad now that they didn't expand it years ago. There's an emotional element to the monorail that you just don't have riding a bus, streetcar or light rail - you feel like you're flying.

    The Monorail is a success from an economical standpoint. It's run by a private organization for the city of Seattle and is reported to be the only mass transit in the country to make money. The reason it makes money is it's not integrated into any transit system, it's only about 1 mile long and it's mostly tourists riding it. This is all fine and good but is it a solution to ANY transit problem? I think yes, but with reservations. It does go somewhere - Seattle Center to Westlake Plaza. Westlake is the terminus to the Central Link Light Rail and also a major bus station, a Sound Transit stop and the terminus for the South Lake Union Train (S.L.U.T.). Seattle Center on the other end is of course a very popular destination for Seattlites and tourists alike. The Monorail is fun to ride, reasonably comfortable (in a early 60s futuristic sort of way) and definitely fast. The downside is that in typical Seattle form it's not integrated into the transit scene. Because Seattle has so many different transit systems it's hard to figure out who you're supposed to be paying. Downtown alone you could catch the Waterfront Trolley (run by Metro), Metro buses, Sound Transit buses, Link Light Rail (Sound Transit), South Lake Union Trolley (Metro), Pierce County transit buses, Community Transit buses and the Monorail (private). Crazy or what? We now have the ORCA card which is supposed to allow one form of payment for all of these and transfers between systems. The Waterfront Trolley no longer exists, Metro, Sound Transit, Community Transit, Pierce Transit and Link Light Rail all use the ORCA card. But InterCity Transit does not and the 603 bus shared by Pierce and InterCity does not. The Monorail and the South Lake Union Trolley also don't take the ORCA card. Less crazy? Perhaps but it's still a mess. Here's what I think should be done.

    1. The Seattle Monorail needs to take the ORCA

    2. The South Lake Union Trolley needs to be expanded to the U District and take the ORCA

    3. The Waterfront Trolley needs to be brought back, extended up the hill to Seattle Center and take the ORCA

    Let's think about this for a moment. Buses from the eastside and North of Seattle all converge on Westlake Plaza. Buses, Central Link Light rail and Sounder commuter rail converge at the International District. These two areas are connected via Central Link Light rail and the bus tunnel.

    Popular destinations for residents AND tourists with the form of transit that would service it under my plan.

    1. Pioneer Square (Central Link light rail, Waterfront Trolley, Sounder Train)

    2. International District (Central Link light rail, Waterfront Trolley, Sounder Train)

    3. Waterfront (Watefront Trolley)

    4. Westlake Plaza (Central Link light rail, Sound Transit Buses, Monorail, S.L.U.T.)

    5. Pike Place Market (Central Link light rail, Sound Transit Buses, Monorail, S.L.U.T.)

    6. Seattle Center (Seattle Monorail, Waterfront Trolley)

    Tourists coming from the Seatac airport on Link Light Rail would go to International District or Westlake. Tacoma Residents would ride the Sounder to the International District. Northend residents would ride Sound Transit buses to Westlake or the Sounder to the International District. From these locations all 6 of the popular destinations could be reached.

    In order for this to happen the Waterfront Trolley would need to be brought back. I think too that it should have it's tracks lengthened to the Seattle Center. The Monorail needs to accept the ORCA card. Since most of the current 7000 riders a day are tourists this will not impact locals and if anything would increase ridership. This would also allow us to transfer from other forms of transportation. With these changes we'd have Light Rail/Monorail from the International District to Seattle Center through the center of town and Waterfront Trolley from the International District to Seattle Center along the waterfront.

    The odd man out is the S.L.U.T.. Outside of having an awesome name it's mostly worthless. It too meets at Westlake Plaza but only goes to South Lake Union and the reason it even exists is still a mystery. It's slow, it goes nowhere and it doesn't take the ORCA. My opinion is that they need to extend it along Fairview Ave to the University District and connect with the University Link Station that's currently under construction. When the extension to the Light Rail to University Station gets completed we'd have a light rail line from Westlake to Capital Hill and then the University of Washington. The S.L.U.T. would provide a link from Westlake to University District by way of South Lake Union. All of these changes are fairly small (in comparison to the billions being spent on Link Light Rail) and would substantially improve on what we have. First Hill and Queen Anne Hill would not be served but there's a plan for a Streetcar on First Hill that would connect Capital Hill Link station to Union Station. I haven't decided whether that's a good idea or not.

    Another interesting development is the purchase of the Eastside Rail Corridor by the Port of Seattle which gets us rail lines from Woodenville to Renton along the eastside. If those tracks could be lengthened to Tukwilla they could connect to the Sounder/Amtrak tracks. In combination with the East Link Light Rail we'd have a connection from Renton to Bellevue, Seattle to Bellevue, Bellevue to Redmond and Bellevue to Woodenville.

    My main motivation for wanting the Monorail to take the ORCA card is so I can transfer. What are the negatives to the Monorail taking the ORCA card? None really since most of the passengers now are probably tourists. I think taking the ORCA would increase ridership, allow northerners to transfer from the 511 bus to the Monorail and allow southerners to transfer from the Link Light Rail to the Monorail. This I think would be a win/win situation.

    What will probably happen is the Monorail will get torn down, the Waterfront Trolley will never run again. the S.L.U.T. will continue to be useless outside of t-shirt sales and the Eastside Rail Corridor will be made into a bike path - sigh.





  • Party train to Paris

    Ah, Paris..... How I've missed you.

    When I originally bought my tickets to Toulouse I figured I could go all the way to Toulouse then after I was done working I'd head to Paris and pick my plane up there. Air France on the other hand had other things on their mind. They said if I don't pick up my Toulouse leg I'd forfeit the entire flight and I'd have to buy another. This meant that if we were going to Paris it would have to be a round trip ticket. Natalya scoured the Internet looking for train tickets and like airplane tickets SNCF will raise and lower the prices throughout the day depending on availability. We got two tickets round trip to Paris in first class for 80 Euros which is half the cost of flying or driving either one. The ticket to Paris was on what I call the all night party train. This train officially called the idNight train is split up into thirds, one third is a lounge, the second is an area where DVD players and game machines are handed out and the third is called idZen which is for being quiet. Since it was an overnight train I figured being quiet was a good strategy and booked that ticket. I had every intention of checking out the rest of the train but fell asleep instead.

    We arrived in Paris at 6:45 am and decided to go for a hotel on the Ill de la cite which is the island in the middle of the seine river only steps away from Pont Neuf. On arriving we are told they're booked as is all the other hotels they work with. Natalya and I took our bags and headed toward the Latin Quarter where we knew of Internet cafes. I figure either we find something on the way, we find something on the Internet or we stay in the hostel on the other side of the internet cafe. It seemed like a pretty good strategy with a decent chance of success. On the way in one of the little midevil streets we find a decent hotel with wifi for 100 euros. It's more than we would have paid if we looked further but we both needed food and wanted to rid ourselves of our ballast.

    Our first order of business was to get on the Internet to see if Amber had left a message since we were going to meet her and Alex for dinner. She had so we set up a time and place (our favorite restaurant) and ventured out. Even though we've spent between 3 and 4 months in Paris there's many things we've never done like see the catacombs, Petite Palais, Grande Palais, Picasso Museum and many others. People who think they're going to "see" Paris in a 3 day stopover, or even a week or two or a month are all crazy. You don't realize until you get here that it would take you years to see Paris. There literally isn't any other place like it.

    So breakfast appeared in the form of two pan au chocolates, two apple pastries and juice. We then proceeded to walk to the Grande Palais to see the Renoir exhibit. Renoir doesn't seem to have his own museum, we've never seen the inside of the Grande Palais and he's my favorite so off we go.

    Paris is beautiful if you hadn't heard the news. I know there are places that aren't but for shear number of buildings, bridges and parks Paris can't be beat. I took pictures along the way. Upon arriving at the front door of the Grande Palais we find it closed and largely gutted. I then decide to do what I've felt like doing all morning - fall asleep on the marble stairs. Natalya after all has to deal with the stares not me since I'm asleep. She wore her fancy 1930s hat so I really think that's what people were staring at. Three ladies approached the door and gaggled back in forth in French and head off to another entrance. This Palace is huge so we think maybe they're on to something and head in the same direction. Actually scratch that, I woke up first and then headed in that direction. On the east entrance we find that not only is there a Renoir exhibit but an Istanbul/Byzantine empire exhibit so we go to both and both are decent. The photo to the right is the Petite Palais or the little one - it's petite, get it?. This gives you an idea how big the Grande Palais is. The fact that this is referred to as the small one gives you an idea of the scale of things in Paris.

    After getting our fill of women who all look the same we head for E. Dehilerin near Les Halles. This is my favorite cooking store and I'm curious about what more I can cram into my bag if I for some reason lose my ability to reason and judge capacity. Les Halles is quite a ways from the Champs Elysees and the tourists are starting to get to me so we take the back streets and arrive in time to price the Staub Dutch ovens (too pricey) and carbon steel pans before being shooed out the door. Stomachs growling we head for Le Escarogot which we find is only serving cheeseburgers and grilled cheese sandwiches. I won't even go into that. Tired of duck and knowing we're having it for dinner we eat at my favorite Indian restaurant near Pompidou Centre which has excellent Jalfrezy.

    Dinner didn't come that much later... We arrive at our favorite restaurant only to find they've removed all references to duck from the menu. These guys made duck that was better than anything we had in Lang doc which is famous for it. Saddened we look at the other restaurants in the area and choose one. This was our neighborhood one summer and Le Square Cafe has been calling us back each year since. So much for that. I'm not sure why a restaurant would remove the one dish that made them stand out from the rest. I just don't get it.

    Amber and Alex arrive and we head to the new restaurant. Amber's this cutesie looking girl that's sharp as a tack and a bit height challenged. I'd say that Alex probably has probably a foot on her in that department. I've not met Alex in person before but was impressed with him as he seems like a really decent guy and has a good sense of humor as well. Dinner was OK but a little disapointing because nobody had the Meg Ryan reaction to the food. sigh.

    We split off and went two directions - Amber and Alex proceeded down a dead end divider in the middle of the street and we toward the Eiffel tower. I hope they figured out that going that direction was about 24,000 miles longer than the other way. I also hope they survived the traffic circle - those can be a tad dangerous when you're running across them in flip flops.

    Our intentions with the Eiffel tower were to pick up more materials for Natalya to make earings out of. Unfortunately they only had the large keychains so we went home empty handed. We did pick up several flashing glass Eiffel towers though for gifts. A late metro ride returned us to the Latin Quarter were we preceded to speak Latin and get no response. I'm not sure the label is appropriate. It's Halloween (or alloweeen as the French say)  and the Latin Quarter is where the party people go so you can imagine the streets. I've never been more ashamed to be an American in my life. The streets were flooded by Americans being more obnoxious and rude then I thought possible. Thankfully we had triple pane windows so we slept immediately. Tomorrow we return to Toulouse.

  • The United States first real high speed rail?

    We have the Amtrak Acela that's capable of 150 mph but it hasn't exactly caught the rail world on fire because the states it passes through limit it's speed to just above what a normal Amtrak train could do. In addition to that the Federal Railroad Administration dictated ridiculous changes to the design in order that it never be competitive to other forms of travel. It was a failure from the design stage on. Of course they'll say that doubling the weight of the train artificially makes it safer for the passengers but we know that doesn't make sense because the builders of it are the same companies (bombardier and Alstrom) that have been building the famous TGV trains for 30 years. If anyone knows about safety it's these guys.

    In their defense the Amtrak team just bought what was basically a proven TGV design and had planned on running it on upgraded rails. The FRA changed all of that and made them modify the design in case it came in contact with a Freight train. I don't know about you but I don't think that adding weight to a passenger train traveling at 150 mph is going to make the situation that much better if it ends in a head-on collision with a freight train – I really don't. The best practice is to just give the passenger train right-of-way which never happened. In addition to that the extra weight has shortened predicted equipment times between failures from 400,000 miles to 20,000. The Acela can not succeed no matter how hard Amtrak tries.

    With President Obama's 10.5 Billion dollar shot in the arm high speed rail looks more promising even if it will be state owned and local. It's not a perfect situation but at least we're taking one step forward. I was sure that California would be the first to have a high speed train but $2.5B just went to Florida which has already purchased the right-of-way from Orlando to Tampa. Eventually they want to have high speed rail from Pensacola to Miami and most other major cities down both coasts. Two and a half billion dollars doesn't build much but it will get them started.

    Florida's first train will only do 120 mph but also will only cost $3.5B so they only need to raise 1 Billion dollars.The trip between Orlando and Tampa will take less than an hour which will make it faster than driving. See Florida's high speed rail site.

    If you're curious about how the nearly bankrupt California is faring check out their High Speed Rail site. Their proposal is a lot more agressive and will cost a great deal more but with the amount of people living there will be in greater need.

    Washington, the greenest state in the Union has Rapid transit as well in the form of buses that get to their destination in exactly the same amount of time as the old ones, are uncomfortable to ride on (irritating regenerative breaking), stop half as often, have very little room because of a horribly inefficient design where bikes are lined up not unlike a bike rack, the drivers are rude, the stations are extravagant when a platform and shelter would have sufficed, are NOT in the same places as normal bus stops making transfers difficult and it only cost us $34,000,000. We love you WA but why do you have to be so stupid?


  • To rail or not to rail, that is the question.

    You don't realize how bad things are until you experience the opposite. Without darkness there is no light. I have mixed feelings about rail travel in the US. If it seems as though I'm bouncing around between topics bear with me, they'll come together in a moment. To give some background before I start I have to say that I've logged about 15,000 miles on Amtrak in the past and about another 5,000 to 10,000 miles on other train systems all over the world. In addition I've flown about a quarter of a million miles or enough to circumnavigate the earth 10 times. I took my first train ride in 1993 from Pasco WA to Las Vegas. For about the first day of the trip I felt a bit embarrassed because I always thought people who took mass transit were poor uneducated folks with little other choice. - a train was just a bigger Greyhound. If you were someone you drove of flew. How little did I understand trains. I started noticing business people taking the trains, grannies seeing family, workers commuting and more. I realized that normal people took the train.


    Back to the future... We started our most recent journey by taking a bus to downtown Seattle to the historic King Street Station. Seattle is like many cities in that we had competing rail companies who built competing passenger rail stations. The interesting part is they built them across the street from one another. Union Station got funding to renovate because it is used for the new Light Rail Station. King Street Station across the street is just starting the process of restoration and the Venetian Piazza St. Marks style clock tower definitely looks better as does the new roof tiles. It might be easy to say that Seattle really only needs one passenger rail station and we should combine our money but how do you decide which of the 100 year old stations to keep? The answer is you keep both as comical as that is.

    At some point during the last couple of decades some idiot decided to modernize the King Street station and put in lowered ceiling tiles covering up a truly amazing molded ceiling and a second story balcony. What's worse is they actually chipped molding from the walls so they could plaster over it to get a smooth surface. There used to be a beautiful wooden ticket booth which is no longer and a Lady's waiting room which doesn't get used. The stairway from the street is closed off and the street level parking lot is a hangout for bums and trash. However, funding is starting to tickle in and the clock tower is being cleaned, the clay roof tiles are being replaced and new lighting for the 15 ft clock is being fitted. Inside the station they have a media board showing the future plans which include tossing out the water stained roof tiles, restoration of some of the marble pillars, a new walkway up to street level and a restoration of the outside of the building which will open up space for businesses etc.. The old Lady's only waiting room may be made into a cafe or restaurant.


    So let's get to the meat of the question here. Why? Why bother with this old crap when we have at least three eligible airports that could service the area? OK, now the part about my mixed feelings with rail travel. I spend a lot of time in Europe and especially France where high speed rail has all but killed air travel and I have to say that I love trains. The idea of taking a taxi to some airport where I have to take my shoes off, scan my bags and then wait at a gate to be crammed into a tin can with a bunch of other half sick travelers coughing on me and babies screaming is very very unappealing. Because of the amount of time it takes to get to airports, get checked in and get your bags and get away makes any journey under 6 hrs subject for replacement by high speed rail. Longer journeys the planes speed overcomes it's inefficiencies. So is there any hope for Amtrak and why am I yammering about such things? I just spent 4 hrs on the Coast Starlight for the first leg of our journey so it's fresh in my mind.


    What Amtrak does wrong.... Let's start by the ridiculous and painful process of going from the idea of taking the train to actually walking on. I went online and bought my tickets with a promotion code (Never pay full price for Amtrak, there's always a promo code somewhere). I then had to go to a station to pick up the tickets where they made me sign each one to combat fraud as they said. Fraud? What, someone is going to masquerade as me on the train? If Safeway did this we'd have to sign each squash to keep someone else from cooking it. Anyway with tickets in hand we proceeded to the King Street Station two days later. My perception may be skewed a bit but in France I show up at the train station 15 minutes early (or whenever to be honest) and walk up to a kiosk to buy my ticket after which I walk onto a train. The whole process takes 15 minutes tops from the time I decide to take a train and get one one. With Amtrak having a ticket is only the beginning. You now have to stand in a long line to turn it into a boarding pass. Once you have your boarding pass you need to move to a new line which is waiting to get on the train. Why would there be a rush to get on the train? Because seat assignments are done at the train car door! Thats right, a person is standing there with a map and a market to scratch off where he wants you. A kiosk that can assign seats on purchase would replaced this entire thing. The one nice side effect of this process though is you don't have conductor coming through to punch your ticket. With Amtrak when you're on you're done. The other thing Amtrak does wrong and I'm not sure they can fix it is the train routes are generally slow and not very frequent. However there are 4 trains a day from Seattle south which isn't wonderful but it's good enough that you can choose a schedule.


    What they're doing right.... This is also from my experience today. The Coast Starlight is a double decker Superliner train similar to their flagship Empire Builder. I've always been a fan of the double decker trains. An Amtrak Superliner is a completely different product than say a French TGV. The TGV is an all business experience more like an airplane ride (but not so Walmart). TGVs have about as much room per passenger in economy as airplanes have in business class. There's very little difference between first class and second so unless the ticket prices are close we always ride second class. Unless you knew the specific differences you wouldn't be able to tell. The TGV experience is about getting to your destination as quick as possible with relative comfort. The Amtrak Superliner experience is drastically different. Immediately upon entering the train you will notice that you have an insane amount of room in your coach seat. I measured 5 softbound novels from my upright setback to the one in front of me. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that is a lot of room. I'd estimate roughly 45 inches between seats or roughly equal to a first class airplane ticket. The seat width is as wide as the first class airplane ticket as well. When you fold down your tray you have to then slide it toward you about 6 inches before you can put anything on it. The seat reclines about 2-3 times more than an economy airline seat and a second lever props up a leg support and a third pops up a bar for your feet. The overhead luggage compartment has enough room for a rugby team and if that's not enough there's more space at the car entrance. Because they're double decker the second level (the main level) doesn't have to deal with train wheels so there's 37 rows of seats in the car which is amazing considering the space between them. The lower level is for first class and sleepers in addition to the bathrooms which also will surprise you. A couple (that's right, a couple per car) are small like airplane bathrooms and then there's at least one large one where you can plug in all your electronic shavers, blow driers etc... The lower level also houses additional luggage storage although if I were you I'd lock my bags if I couldn't monitor them.


    Not only do you have way way more room than on an airplane the train gets going quickly because they can load all cars at the same time. I think we were off about 15 minutes after we started boarding. Each seat has power plugs which are a godsend and a quick stroll through the cars will show many people taking advantage of them with laptops and pods everywhere. Speaking of which if you get bored in your oversize seat you can take a walk. The Coast Starlight also has a bar/lounge car with observation deck which is where I love to just sit and read and watch the scenery pass by the wraparound glass windows. Downstairs from the observation car is the food counter where they have the usual cardboard pizzas and AMPM quality hamburgers. There is about 12 tables where you can sit an eat your food before returning to your seat. If you want more of a personal experience (and more costly) you can snag one of the attendants as they walk through the car and get a reservation to eat in the restaurant. The restaurant car is complete with white table cloths and nice food but you have to be fast because there's several seatings and if you don't get a reservation you're limited to the bar car or bringing your own. Speaking of which you can bring your own food and drinks (yes liquids!) avoiding the whole can of soda for two bucks situation completely. I remember times when I was passing through Portland and had a layover when we'd run down the street to the Burger King and buy a couple of $1.39 Whoppers and take them on the train. I'm sure there's probably limits to what you can take on board (like your weber smoky mountain smoker) but they're not real strict about it. The train ride goes by very casually and without disappointment. On the Amtrak you feel like you can take as much time as you want to get where you need to be and for good reason, you have to. The trip from Seattle to LA takes 40 hours. Amtrak is not crappy rail travel, let me just say that right now. However, they're rarely on time, they're not fast and they're not always cheaper than flying. My first Amtrak trip cost me $177 from Washington to Nevada round trip. That was cheaper than any plane ticket then. Now I can fly for less than that. The train would probably cost more.


    So back to my original quandary. Should we do something about rail in America or let Amtrak go the way of the dodo? I say do whatever to bring us up to the same level of Japan, China, France and Germany or leapfrog them. A modern train with right a way could do Canada to Mexico in 10 hours or less and would be full the whole way because unlike an airplane they pick up people on the way. Before people jump on me about taxes and subsidies let me say one thing, the TGV system in France makes money. That's right it makes money and is usually full. The TER (inter region) do not make money and need to be subsidized. So in this country where we're afraid to pay one cent in taxes unless it's put to good use bombing a small country to protect our civil liberties we should think about just using rail for these high profit lines. I would think that Vancouver BC to San Diego would be one such line as well as Boston to Miami and Chicago to NYC.

    On a less idealistic dreamy note Amtrak would do well with newer rails and more right of way. It took us 4 hrs to get from Seattle to Portland which isn't that much slower than driving and a heck of a lot more enjoyable. If the Superliner could get up to speed or stay at top speed longer it could equal driving and still be more comfortable. More trains, a bit more speed and keep them full so the ticket prices could be lower and I think we'd have a winner. It's no TGV but I think it could be profitable. Also there's the feel element. I just like riding trains. I like the rhythmic rocking motion and I like the fact that I can do other things on them. Buses are cheaper but I hate them. A good bus can't compete with a bad train in my book.

    On arriving to Portland we exited the always nice restored Union station. A short walk to the Chinatown station put us on the red line light rail. Thirty minutes later we're at the airport. I'm fairly impressed by how much light rail Portland has put in compared to Seattle. We've managed 1/5 the amount of mileage and only after two decades of talking about it and it still doesn't really go anywhere.

    Tomorrow we fly to Georgia. Yes you heard me Georgia then we turn and fly to Mexico City. It's the long way but I'll pick up some miles and I got the tickets for a song. The plane leaves at 6:30 and our Comfort Suites is going to start breakfast at 4 so off to count sheep I go.

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