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Joy of Flying

I’m heading to Atlanta in a couple of weeks for my son’s high school graduation which means I have to get on an airplane. Better, I suppose, than travelling with the Donner party in a horse-drawn wagon across the Rockies- but only because it will take slightly less time to complete the journey.

I’m really looking forward to:

- The security lines
– The shoe-removal exercise
– The scrutiny of the deadly shaving cream and toothpaste I’ll have in my possession
– The nickel-and-dime charges for reserving a seat
– The charges for the luggage if the snarling flight attendant decides my bag’s too big for the carry-on compartment
– The ground-stop delays because there’s too much traffic for air controllers to handle.

This is an industry, mind you, that has to be forced by federal law not to keep their customers trapped in a hot plane on a tarmac for more than three hours and after two hours, is required to offer food and water. Imagine that; needing a law to make them give their stranded captives food and water. The airlines avoid violating the Geneva conventions only because passengers are not considered prisoners of war.

We are cattle to these people. Actually, cattle are fed. We are faceless, pain-in-the-ass cargo to the airline industry. We always have been. It’s just that they used to pretend to be nice to us. Now there are not even the pretentions.

Truth is they only pretended to be nice…to people flying first-class or business. But now that it costs so much to fly and the world wide web allows for things called video-conferencing, they barely have any business customers left.

That leaves them with stingy, vacationing families and would-be terrorists who pay cash for one-way flights to Pakistan. The families, of course, will get strip-searched. The terrorist will get to board right away because he paid top dollar and because international airlines, in particular, have apparently never heard of this thing called a “No-Fly” list.

So, I’m girding up for my big airline adventure in the next couple of weeks and fantasizing about how cool it would be if Amtrak could just build a train that goes 500 miles an hour.

Trains, Trains and More Trains

From the UK's Daily Mail- the new generation of Chinese high-speed trains

I’ve written enthusiastically on this web-blog before about Amtrak and the need in this country for rail technology that truly brings us into the 21st century. Today, I boned up on it a bit and here’s where we actually stand right now in regard to high-speed rail in the United States.
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But first…is that not an absolutely amazing sight pictured above? That’s the new generation of Chinese high-speed trains. These things can go 245 mph and actually average 217 mph between the modern Chinese cities of Guangzhou and Wuhan. Took only four years to build. Granted this is China and the government controls everything so there weren’t exactly any controversies over land rights and labor union contracts. They have a lot of cheap labor and supposedly the engineers on this project worked 14 hours a day with no weekends and no holidays with three sets of construction workers each laboring on 8-hour shifts, 24 hours a day to the get this done. The democratic process and little things like labor laws and debates over congressional funding would never allow us to accomplish anything like this anytime soon. But it is obviously in the realm of possibility, because, as you can see…it’s been done.

As for us, we plod along a little more slowly but there has been progress. Back in April, President Obama announced a high speed rail strategy plan. My new favorite web site, infrastructurist.com, has all the details. In a nutshell, this is the first-ever White House endorsed national rail plan in American history. It calls for an initial $8 billion in funding. Turns out Congress is only going to spend $2 billion in 2010, but that’s ok. It’s the first time this much money has been allocated to improving America’s rail systems and it appears these will be annual investments so more funds will be on the way.

….the administration will be spending its funds on the existing Congressionally-designated corridors, which include lines in the Pacific Northwest, California, Texas, the Gulf Coast, Florida, the Southeast, the Midwest, Pennsylvania, New York, and Northern New England. The report, unlike previous federal descriptions of high-speed rail lines, actually endorses connecting these corridors with one another, something that had been left out of previous DOT [Department of Transportation] reports.

There are critics, of course. Here’s an articulate argument against spending this kind of money on trains from the Heritage Foundation’s Ronald D. Utt. He argues there’s actually much less here than meets the eye. First, this could be a windfall for the nation’s freight railroads because a lot of the track needed to run these trains is already owned by them and they’d be in for a ton of federal subsidies to allow passenger trains on their territory. Plus, he maintains, “high speed” is a misnomer. To build a truly high-speed rail system you’d have to start from scratch and build completely new tracks. He notes, for example, that the Acela goes 150 mph for only a 35- mile stretch between New York and Washington and that it actually averages 80 mph because of roadbed deficiencies and existing rail congestion on the Northeast Corridor.

Since a lot of track around the country is in similar condition, high-speed rail in the U.S. will never truly be that high-speed unless a truly astronomical sum of cash is put out to build an entirely new rail infrastructure.

Even if the tracks were in great shape, our friends at the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute would never endorse such a thing anyway because they’re not that hot on government spending on much of anything.

But, hey, as long as we’re going to be throwing cash around like drunken sailors for everything under the sun anyway- why not an investment in rail systems? It creates jobs. It builds new modes of transportation that can help wean us off fuel-guzzling cars and airplanes. Honestly, do you really want to fly that much anyway, these days? Anxious to sit next to a guy with a bomb in his underpants? Can’t wait to put on a strip show for TSA workers when you walk through the new explosives detectors they’re going to be putting up?

Seriously, the future of transportation is not the automobile, the airplane or those flying scooters we used to see on the Jetsons. Look at China, Japan, Germany, France and England. The future there, is now. And it’s riding on high-speed rail.

Fear of Flying

December 28, 2009 Leave a comment

I suppose there’s a reason why clichés exist- there’s truth to them. Here are two that seem appropriate as we start this first week after Christmas: 1) Even when they fail, terrorists win and 2) We have to be successful every time, they just have to be successful once.

Yeah, I’ll admit it- I’m a little spooked. It struck a nerve; the near-disaster that was averted only when a faulty detonator prevented a bomb from taking out 278 passengers aboard a plane headed for Detroit from Amsterdam on Christmas Day. I know 40 thousand people die every year in car accidents in the United States so, technically, the automobile is a bigger killer than terrorism.

But stuff like this becomes personal when your kid arrives from Atlanta for Christmas week and all is right with the world. Five days later he flies back from New York’s La Guardia airport and- just like that- we now have to get to the terminal an hour earlier with a freshly renewed specter of terrorism in the back of our minds.

And I’m frustrated at the workings of a seemingly incompetent bureaucracy. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s own father had warned U.S. officials of his son’s increasing radicalization and associations. That’s how he got on a terror list data base to begin with. Why wasn’t that also good enough to get him on a no-fly list? Why, exactly, was he issued a U.S. entry visa?

I heard Homeland security chief, Janet Napolitano tell ABC News’ Jake Tapper on Sunday: “The system has worked really very, very smoothly.” She lauded the passengers and crew for their actions. What? Passengers putting out a fire and subduing a man who just tried to set off a bomb, are an integral part of “the system?” I’m really glad the passengers did what they did, but I do believe their mission on that flight was to sleep, eat some pretzels and get home, not wrestle some maniac to the floor who wanted to kill them.

Napolitano also said on ABC’s This Week that there are no indications the screening in Amsterdam was not properly done. She has since pulled back from that statement. Clearly, somebody messed up. This fellow got on board an aircraft with pentaerythritol (PETN), the very same plastic explosive material al-Qaeda operative Richard C. Reid used in 2001 when he tried to destroy a U.S.-bound airliner by igniting a homemade bomb in his shoe.

As for terrorists failing and still winning- Richard Reid, of course, was an abysmally failed terrorist, but his legacy lives on with every shoe we’ve had to remove at airport security screening for the past eight years. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab apparently had these explosives sewn into his underwear. I can only imagine what his legacy will be on the traveling public. Is it too much to ask for airport screening that works and is effective- that’s minimally smart and profiles people and behavior instead of profiling their luggage? It seems to work for Israel’s El Al airlines just fine.

I hate that I’m even slightly spooked as I take my son to the airport. I’m frustrated that these deranged losers can affect our lives in so many ways, large and small. I’m not proud that in feeling these things, I’ve let these guys win even a miniscule victory by stoking my own, mostly irrational, fears for my family and friends.

But at least now I know how it works. Next time I put my kid on an airplane, or board one myself- turns out he and I and our fellow passengers are a primary line of defense in a system that works so “very, very smoothly.”

(Note: On NBC’s Today Show this morning, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, completely reversed her comments on ABC’ s This Week and specifically stated “Our system did not work in this instance. Nobody is happy or satisfied with that. An extensive review is underway.” The President has also decided to address the nation later today about the incident.)

Amtrak- Riding the Rails

November 25, 2009 Leave a comment

I know this is a bit of an esoteric area for discussion, but I traveled between New York and Washington yesterday for a series of meetings and took the high-speed Acela down and the Regional train back up. The experience has confirmed that I am, most definitely, a first class, or rather, business class- snob. But more importantly, why is this country and our government so loathe to support rail travel? Anybody heard of Europe? It’s a region of the world that is dependent on rail and it works wonderfully.

The distinction between travel on the Acela and the Regional is like the difference between savoring caviar and wolfing down a hot dog. And at least judging by my particular one-way fares, it was only a $26 difference. On the Acela you get air conditioning (perhaps too much of it). On the Regional, you get a packed train and it feels like something approaching body temperature. Suggestion to Amtrak: Add the temperature on the Acela to the temperature on the Regional, divide by two and disperse equally between the two services.

I will say this though (and I’ve been doing it for years); either experience beats the hell out of taking the air shuttles. On the rails, you line up and board. Initially, you’ll see a cute dog sniffing around the aisles on the leash of a heavily armed, uniformed individual. By air, you’re treated like a terrorist, have to take off your shoes, and get busted for carrying too much tooth paste or shampoo. On the trains, you get leg room, don’t even have to buckle up, can stand up and move around, hit the café car and get micro-waved cheeseburgers and a bottle of wine if you want. On the plane, you’re lucky to get a stale bag of pretzels served with a snarl. Ok, on the shuttle service you do get complimentary alcoholic beverages and coffee. But for a round-trip it’s also about $70 or so more expensive. That’s a lot to pay for a Sam Adams.

At least for travel between NY and DC, time is not a factor. Door-to-door it’s about the same. In regard to usage, A LOT of people use Amtrak. New York’s Penn station is, by far, the busiest counting 6.4 million arrivals and departures in 2008. Washington’s Union station handles 4 million.

Plus trains offer alternately dramatic or serene scenery along the way. It is very cool to be chugging (on the Regional) or gliding along (on the Acela) and see Philadelphia’s One Liberty Place, the Mellon Bank Center, and the Verizon Tower suddenly come in to view as you round the bend. Wilmington looks like a comfortable and pleasant little town. Baltimore is a little freaky, especially the burned out row houses as you approach the other Penn Station. And, of course, there’s Union station in Washington which is a superb and breathtaking piece of architecture. The other way, the New Jersey approach to Manhattan is like a scene right out of the Soprano’s. And there’s a moment when out of nowhere, you spot the Empire State building in the distance and realize, wow, man- that’s friggin’ New York!

I know flight attendants and the airline industry at large will hate me for saying this (but then again it feels like they’ve always hated me anyway) – but when traveling the mighty Northeast corridor, nothing beats Amtrak.

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