Thursday, August 14, 2008


I enjoyed most things about my trip on Amtrak's Sunset Limited train. I liked the price, the seat (relative to an airplane) the way your luggage stays with you the whole time, the Vista-cruiser snack-bar car, the Diner car (food was actually pretty good: Tasty veggie omelet!), and so forth.
Here was another big trains-are-better-than-planes for me: The train stays cool sitting still or running, unlike an airplane which barely stays cool at all till it is at altitude. That may mean little in Alaska or Greenland,but in the Texas Gulf coast region, or the high desert of the Southwest US... heck, pretty much anywhere in the south now that I think about it, this is huge.
One other thing surprised me: There was no clackity-clack. I last road on a train in the early 1970's as a young puppy, and one of my main memories of that experience was the sound of the steel wheels as they clacked over the rails. We would stop and start on this train, and I would not even notice it unless I happened to be looking out the window. While sitting on a siding waiting for a freight train to go by in the other direction (because apparently we are too stupid to build tracks that run both ways) I was listening to an audio book called "Axis", the sequel to "Spin". A pretty good read/listen except the the hypno-reader Scott Brick was reading it, and in his other professional life at carnivals he makes people go into trances than then cluck like chickens. In any case, I felt a slight sway, looked out the window, and we had gone from sitting still to moving at over 50 MPH without me noticing at all till there was athe sway. Those double decker cars are tall, so a gentle sway is to be expected.
Last year I sat in a cafe in Alpine watching the Sunset Limited arrive in station, and it had just a few cars on. This time they had 10 cars on, and Anthony the conductor told me that this was getting to be one of the short trains, so it looks like trains are benefiting from the cost of fuel. I had bought the very last seat available over a week in advance
While the train cars were big, the seats OK for sitting (but not sleeping), there were enough bathrooms, there were no stupid preflight instructions, and so forth, it does seem to me that Amtrak is missing a beat here. They need to overcome their one major problem relative to air travel: How long it takes.
I am not proposing faster trains (although bi-directional track would be nice). Instead, I think they need to take a few things they already have and expand on them.
  • First off: 110V power.
    Every seat. It exists on the upper seats, but not on every row. On the lower level where I was, it did not exist at all
    • Failing 110V at every seat, at least put the airplane style connectors in place. I had my full airplane setup with me just in case... but there was no case.
  • There were no tray tables, therefore no place to set my computer.. but without 110v or airplane style power, that was not important. The Macbook battery is getting aged and lasts a little over an hour these days. On a 17 hour train ride, that is next to worthless.
  • Internet:
    RV's have domes available that let them access the Internet full time. They stay auto-aimed at the Hughes satellites. Couple with with inside the train Wifi. Trains are not so uber-tech like planes that any of this microwave radiation will mess with them. Actually, it doesn't with planes either: That whole no-cell-phone thing is a bunch of non-technical malarky. If a plane is so sensitive to EMI, why in the world even get on one? A good thunderstorm and the EMI from a lightning bolt anywhere near the plane and you are dropped from the sky. That never happens though does it? Planes are the safest form of travel... but not because you can't use a cell phone. I don't know why the regulation exists, but I think it probably has more to do with the plane companies wanting to sell people on using their own inflight telephones, not to mention the annoyance of having someone chatting on the phone the whole time you are in flight. On a train, you can step out of the seating area, and make a call. Sweet. Slight digression though. Back to the Internet thing: If Avis can make a rental car into a mobile hot spot, then so can Amtrak do the same for a train, and at a much larger, more cost effective scale.
  • Add conference-cars that business-people can use to make, practice, or do presentations or work in groups while traveling.
  • When I flew to India, that plane trip took about the same amount of time as this train trip, yet the plane had In-flight Entertainment. Really, a few LCDs, a Linux computer with a fast hard drive, and you are set! And with Internet access combined in the choices expand
    hugely: Folks don't even need to break out their computers. Just have an Internet channel. Simple.
Idea here would be to use the time a train takes to their advantage. You can't make the train go faster cheaply, nor can you do it and maintain the carbon footprint and cost advantages. You can add services at price increments and still far undercut the cost of flying.
The point of the train as a way to travel is not actually going really really fast. The point is not having to drive or fly, and to be able to make effective use of your "downtime". With a few changes it does not even have to be downtime. What is viewed as a disadvantage can be an advantage, at least for those who have the ability not to run their lives at 200 KPH at all times. Type A personalities probably need not apply.

There are some days at work where I have so much stuff to work on that I just work from home. Sit down at the iMac, and just start typing. eight or ten hours later, I knock off for the day. Reports, reviews (back when I was a manager), studies, email, spreadsheets, teleconferences, etc. Nothing that required I actually be in the office. With a few changes, that same work could be done from the train just as well. In many ways, such time is *more* productive. Fewer interruptions.


Back to that Bi-directional track thing: With a single set of rails running East-West in many parts of the Sunset Limited's route, our safety, in the sense of our ability to *not* run head on into a train running the other direction appeared to have been limited to the talents of the people and machinery doing to the scheduling to keep two trains going the opposite ways off a single stretch of track. That just feels like an accident waiting to happen. Neither people nor computers are 100% reliable.
This also affected our ability to make good time: It took almost as long to run from Houston to San Antonio (where we had a 2.5 hour layover and picked up some cars) as it did to run from San Antonio to Alpine. But Houston-S.A. is maybe 180 miles or less, and S.A. to Alpine is over 400 miles. A big part of that Houston-S.A. time was spent on sidings waiting for freight to go by.
There are also too many train crossings. Trains and cars do not mix. We really need to spend some time and money on this critical infrastructure and get this kind of thing straitened out. Cars don't like to wait for trains (OK: Their drivers don't) and trains have to slow down "just in case". Slowing down and speeding up is the enemy of low carbon footprint for both cars and trains. Build a bridge... with rails going both ways.

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