Archive for the ‘High Speed Rail’ Category

Air Worst

vintage airlinePerhaps you are as confused as I am about the recent mixed messages from the federal government about cell phone use on airplanes. (I know, you’re shocked that our government is sending mixed messages.)

Let’s just say this: I know what the policy should be – no cell phone calls on airplanes. None. Zilch.

With so very much glamor involved these days in hauling your body on to a Canadair regional jet – the planes with tiny overhead bins and a restroom right sized for the Munchkins from Oz – or spreading out in the sleek Airbus 310 with its expansive five inches of leg room (or less when the jerk in the row ahead of you insists on putting his seat all the way back) why risk diminishing the sophistication of modern air travel with something as crass as a public phone call originating from 11B?

If you have any doubt about how cell phones in the air might work just check out the boarding area for your next flight. The worst airport boarding area I know – west of Mogadishu – is the “E” concourse at Salt Lake City’s airport. My frequent air travel companion has dubbed the area “the Gulag,” as in the place were Stalin sent political prisoners to live out their days in mind-numbing discomfort, devoid of even a remnant of human dignity. If you hit the schedule just right in Salt Lake you might find a seat in this air travel prison camp, but if you do chances are that you’ll be next to the kind of chatty fellow I found myself involuntarily listening in on recently.

I now know that this total stranger, thanks to his very public cell phone call, was “headin’ for Billings.” I wasn’t really trying to listen in, but I couldn’t avoid hearing the weather report from every vantage point of his journey, I noted his reaction to the forecast for southern Montana – “damn cold, damn cold” – and listened with rapt interest as he speculated on college football bowl games and the fate of Obamacare. Then he called his wife. I’m delighted to report that the problem with their credit card has been cleared up. Someone in the family, also happy to report, with a serious medical condition has taken a turn for the better.

I’m not sure why the guy had to actually go to Billings, he seemed to have all the bases covered with a few cell phone calls from the E gate waiting area.

I’m old enough to remember when air travel actually did have the patina of glamor, when people wore their best clothes to make a flight and real food, as in the illustration, was available as part of the trip. My first flight was on Frontier Airlines – the old Frontier, not the current Frontier – in a Convair 580, a twin-engine 48-passenger prop plane that, as I recall, had big comfortable seats. It’s been downhill ever since. Actually, I date the real demise of decent air travel to an abysmal airline once owned by the weird billionaire Howard Hughes.

Hughes Airwest was really Hughes Air Worst. The airline went out of business in 1980 and somewhere they are still looking for checked bags. One running joke had it that Air Worst offered a tri-weekly flight to Lewiston, Idaho. The punchline: the plane goes up one week and tries to come back the next.

Others, including former American Airlines CEO Robert Crandall, date the decline in air travel quality and comfort to the deregulation of the industry in the late-1970′s. In 2008, admittedly a particularly bad time for airlines, Crandall said: “The consequences (of deregulation) have been very adverse. Our airlines, once world leaders, are now laggards in every category, including fleet age, service quality and international reputation. Fewer and fewer flights are on time. Airport congestion has become a staple of late-night comedy shows. An even higher percentage of bags are lost or misplaced. Last-minute seats are harder and harder to find. Passenger complaints have skyrocketed. Airline service, by any standard, has become unacceptable.”

Of course since Crandall made those comments his old airline has merged with US Airways to create “the world’s largest airline.” I hope never to fly with them.

The U.S. airline business is a trillion dollar industry that is vital to the country’s and the world’s economy. Air travel is safe, can be – if you’re careful booking your ticket – a relative bargain, and for much business and leisure travel it is really the only game in town. It is also uncomfortable, often unpleasant and almost always a hassle. It’s hard to think of a consumer-oriented business anywhere where the creature comfort of the consumer is given so little attention. For that reason alone – keep the cell phones off, but also think for a moment about a different kind of travel experience.

In virtually every other developed nation in the world there are serious competitors to airlines. They are called trains. The United States is so far behind the rest of the world in the development and implementation of a national passenger train system that we might as well be Argentina, a country like the U.S. that once had a working national rail system, largely funded by British investment, that has now mostly been dismantled.

In his lively and engaging recent book One Summer – America, 1927 author Bill Bryson recounts the kind of rail system the nation once had and should strive to have again. “The most extraordinary feature of rail travel was how much choice there was…a customer in 1927 could buy a ticket on twenty thousand scheduled services from any of 1,085 operating companies.”

Actually sleeping on a train in 1927 wasn’t all that glamorous, Bryson acknowledges. It was often noisy with plenty of bumps, but then again try sleeping on an airplane these days. “To keep customers distracted, and to generate extra income in a crowded market, nearly all trains put a great deal of emphasis on their food,” Bryson says. “On Union Pacific trains, for breakfast alone the discerning guest could choose among nearly forty dishes – sirloin or porterhouse steak, veal cutlet, mutton chop, wheat cakes, boiled salt mackerel, half a spring chicken, creamed potatoes, cornbread, bacon, ham, link or patty sausage, and eggs any style – and the rest of the meals of the day were just as commodious.” You’re lucky to get a tiny packet of pretzels on a flight today. Most airlines now insist on cash only and if you are lucky enough to be on a flight where you can buy a snack good luck navigating enough room to eat it on the tiny tray table. Remember that guy in the row ahead. His seat will be all the way back.

There are a multitude of reasons that contributed to the demise of a national passenger rail network, including the fact that, like airlines these days, railroads in the 1930′s and 1940′s were in awful financial shape. But the nation’s fixation with cars and planes, and the massive subsidies we lavish on both, also helped drive the passenger train off the tracks. The next time you hear a politician say we can’t afford to subsidize rail transport ask him what we’re doing with cars and airplanes? Who builds the runways and freeways? We have subsidized the modes of transportation we value and generally left passenger rail off the list. Nearly everywhere else in the world from Beijing to Berlin it’s a different story.

If you could go from Seattle to Portland or San Francisco to L.A. or Chicago to St. Louis as fast and comfortably as a French businessman goes from the heart of Paris to downtown London you’d never think of flying. And most trains, I should note, have quiet cars where the cell phones are always turned off.

I admit to getting a bit nostalgic at Christmas time, so it may be fair to write off my longing for time when travel was more comfortable, more elegant and more interesting to a certain yearning for the days when men wore hats and suits on intercity trains. Today you’ll more commonly find stocking caps and flip flops. Rather than the Pan-Am Clipper they seem dressed for a trip to the landfill, and not to worry – given the ubiquitous cell phone – you, dear traveler, will almost certainly hear about their trip.

And, of course, I’ll keep flying – what choice do I have – but, please I have no need for a weather update from Billings either in the boarding area or on board. I have a personal device for that. Which I will use. Quietly. Off in the corner.

 

Railing Against Rail

trainThe Politics of Trains

I’m going to admit my obvious bias right up front: I love trains. I love travel by train. I collect visits to train stations. I am enamoured with the rails.

I’ve ridden the overnight Red Star from St. Petersburg (Leningrad in those days) to Moscow. I’ve taken the train from London’s Victorian-era Kings Cross Station to Edinburgh. I vividly remember a warm day in Italy and the leisurely train ride from Milan to Florence and on to Lucca. I once flew to Los Angels purely for the pleasure of riding what may be Amtrak’s best train, the Coast Starlight, from LA to Seattle. I shared a cigar break on the platform in Eugene with the sleeping car attendant. In New York, I go to Grand Central Station just to watch the people and have a drink at the famous Oyster Bar.

One of my earliest memories – I must have been about four years old – is of an overnight train trip with my brother and mom and dad. We had a double sleeper compartment and, while I would have liked the upper berth, my older brother got it. Still, when dad took my Buster Browns and sat them in the passage outside the compartment and informed me that the sleeping car porter would shine them and return before breakfast, I thought this is what the good life must look like.

As a junior high schooler growing up in the old railroad town of Rock Springs, Wyoming, I loved to go downtown – the Union Pacific mainline actually divides the heart of Rock Springs – and watch trains, particularly passenger trains, whistle through. In the late 1960′s American long distance train travel was in its last gasp, but the wonderful City of Portland still ran through Rock Springs and the romantic sounding Portland Rose made the daily run from Denver to the Rose City.

Now intercity passenger trains in the United States are about as scarce as the American manufacturing sector. The once great network of trains that existed to carry the mail and people has essentially shrunk to a few routes between major cities. Amtrak limps along with regular threats to its budget and often second-class service. The rest of the world is leaving us in the dust.

Spain has now become the world’s leader in high speed rail. King Juan Carlos opened the new Madrid – Valencia line over the weekend. The 219-mile trip will take 90 minutes.

China – big surprise – is investing billions in its intercity trains and has entered into agreements with GE to manufacture equipment. The Chinese have a plan in place to link, by high speed rail, China with Laos, Thailand and Singapore. In the USA, we can merely watch as the strategic Chinese leadership comes to dominate the world market for rail equipment and then uses that dominance to economically rule all of southeast Asia, in part, thanks to a modern, high speed rail system.

The universally hated Obama stimulus package contained $8 billion for high speed rail construction, but newly elected Republican governors in Wisconsin and Ohio have refused the money that had been set aside for new routes in those states. Even as congressional Republicans, as well as some Democrats, are talking about reducing the commitment to rail, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has re-directed the Wisconsin and Ohio money to developing rail systems in Florida, California and a few other states. Conservative media voices are almost unanimous in opposition to this type of rail development and the safe betting is that even maintaining existing rail funding in the new Congress will set off a major fight.

The administration has sold high speed rail development a a jobs initiative than as a long-term transportation investment. And, while it is difficult to argue with the jobs that rail construction will create – Wisconsin is already facing job losses from the Spanish company that had set up shop in Milwaukee to build equipment – the real issue here is a long-term transportation strategy for the country.

Here’s a question for American policymakers: why is the rest of the world investing in this technology, even at a time of severe fiscal constraint, while we can’t arrive at any consensus about rail?

I think the answer rests in a different way of thinking in Europe and Asia about transportation. For economic and environmental reasons, countries like Spain, France, China and India are de-emphasizing the automobile and seeking other strategies. While the rest of the world is getting on with the work of finding new ways to get along entirely, or almost entirely, without a car, the U.S. can’t even come together on a strategy to streamline big city to big city transportation.

This may present a pivotal moment, ironically not unlike the moment in the 1950′s when Dwight Eisenhower committed the United States to a comprehensive interstate highway system. That decision, unfolding over years of planning and construction, transformed the country, uniting the nation with a modern surface transportation system. For good and bad – mostly good – we are living with that big highway legacy today. Secretary LaHood, a Republican and respected former Illinois Congressman, makes a compelling case that a new, national high speed rail network is this generation’s legacy transportation and infrastructure project. But, given our lack of ability to create a national vision about almost anything, can we possibly seize the moment?

Gov-elect Scott Walker in Wisconsin based some of his opposition to high speed rail on the on-going costs to the state of maintaining the system that was to connect Milwaukee with Madison and eventually Minneapolis. That is a legitimate long-term planning issue, but no different than the cost every state now incurs to maintain Ike’s interstates. The point is that 60 some years ago, the country made a strategic, long-term investment in transportation and, of course, the interstate highway system was incredibly costly. The federal share alone, not to mention on-going maintenance was close to $120 billion, but that cost pales in comparison to the jobs created, the people moved and the commerce facilitated. What will we do for transportation in 2050? China and Spain may be sending us a clue if we are smart enough to listen.

One of the great train stations in the world is the Gare de Lyon in Paris, the terminus of the French high speed trains that connect the heart of Paris with France’s second largest city, Lyon, and the great port city of Marseille. A high speed rail trip on the sleek and comfortable TGV from Lyon to Paris takes about 2 hours, intercity to intercity the 250 miles is covered in comfort and safety. Trust me, arriving at the Gare de Lyon, home to the fabulous Le Train Bleu restaurant, and grabbing a cab at the station beats the heck out of battling the crowds and traffic at Charles de Gaulle airport in the outskirts of Paris. When I made the trip a few years ago, the Paris bound passengers were a mixture of day trippers, business people and tourists. There were as many laptops and cell phones as backpacks and cameras. It was a first-class trip at a fraction of the time and cost to fly or drive.

I’m nostalgic about that first rail trip from Alliance, Nebraska to Omaha more than 50 years ago, but fond memories aside, I can’t escape the thought that Americans would come to value quality intercity train service if our policymakers could get their heads around the idea that we really can go back to the future.