Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Little Jets Making Big Waves

The FAA predicts that the skies will fill with tiny jets over the coming decade. Seating six to either, these jets are smaller and cheaper than most business jets. The FAA expects 100 or so to start flying this year with many more under production.

The expectation is that these jets will serve as air taxis. For the price of a commercial ticket, passengers can be picked up at one location and dropped off at another. The tiny jets would open up service to small markets because they can take off and land at small airfields. The commute from, say, a rural town in southwest Virginia to DC would be an hour. The FAA cautions that for air taxis to be a success, more money must be invested in air traffic control in busy areas.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Florida's Turning Blue

The AP reports today that after Delta discontinues Song (its 3 year old discount carrier that was intended to compete with JetBlue, Southwest and Airtran) in May, it will cut 25% of its flights into and out of Florida. In the short term, this will mean higher summer fares for passengers traveling to the Sunshine State--and higher profits for the currently ailing JetBlue, Song's primary budget-airline competitor on these routes. Analysts predict that this revenue surge might prevent JetBlue from suffering its forecasted 2006 financial loss.

So, great news for JetBlue, not so great news for those of us who fly with Delta. The article also reports that Delta will trim its service to LAX and Seattle--but nothing on the scale of this Florida cutback.

Article: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/11547648/

Friday, February 24, 2006

Boston Railroading Lives On...

I was digging around the net today, looking for some information regarding the history of Boston's railroad network. It didn't take long for me to realize just how extensive and complicated Boston's network of railroads was at the end of the 19th century, and how 20th century railway consolidation has carved these systems down to what they are today.

NORTH STATION

Located today at the corner of Causeway and Nashua Streets, Boston's North Station has been built and relocated up to three times over the last 110 years. The original station, completed 1893-1895 as Boston's Union Station, replaced four smaller stations located in the same general area of what is now between Boston's North End and West End. Before 1895, railroads served by separate passenger depots included:
-The Boston and Maine Railroad, the major railway network of Boston and greater New England during the day
-The Boston and Lowell Railroad, one of the first railroads in North America and the first major one in New England
-The Eastern Railroad
-The Fitchburg Railroad, which ran through northern Massachusetts

Union Station was demolished in the late 1920s to give way to Boston Garden, built in 1928 and later home of the Boston Celtics and the famous parquet basketball court. Directly beneath thed arena was the replacement for Union Station, known as Boston North Station (to distinguish it from another major railroad hub in the city, South Station). Trains departed from beneath the arena and continued across the Charles River before they branched along their respective routes.


Boston Garden continued as the home of North Station until 1995, when the 19,600-seat Fleet Center was built directly beside the aging Boston Garden. North Station was relocated below the new arena, and Boston Garden was, sadly, demolished in 1997. Today, passengers of North Station find themselves waiting for trains in a large, dimly lit lobby infested with pigeons, facing about a dozen parallel tracks. Escalators to the arena above are walled off from the passenger area by means of movable walls, and ticketing offices for sports events at the arena are just around the corner from the terminal waiting area. One is forced to wonder why the designers of a modern arena would locate ticketing offices
and access to the arena in the same vicinity as a busy commuter train terminal waiting area!

North station today serves as the terminus for Amtrak's Downeaster' route, which follows the old Boston and Maine right-of-way to Portland, ME. The station's main use, however, is as the north terminal of the MBTA's extensive Commuter Rail system, which operates trains throughout eastern MA. While the station resembles nothing of the Union Station of 1893, the railroads of 110 years ago still are used as commuter rail routes, including the Fitchburg Line (Fitchburg RR), the Lowell Line (Boston and Lowell RR), the Newburyport/Rockport Lines, and the Haverill/Reading Lines.


(above) An Amtrak Downeaster' train waits at North Station platform for departure; the drawbridge trestle over the Charles River is visible just beyond the platform.

SOUTH STATION


Unlike North Station, Boston's South Station, built in 1899 at Summer Street and Atlantic Avenue, has suffered less alteration and destruction through the past century. At the time of its completion, it was touted as one of the largest railroad stations in the world, and certainly the busiest passenger station in North America. Similarly to Union Station, South Station replaced smaller passenger railroad terminal buildings in the immediate area:
-The New York and New England Railroad, a major link with Providence, RI and New York State

-The Old Colony Railroad, which ran to the tip of Cape Cod (Provincetown, MA)
-The Boston and Albany Railroad, connecting the city with Albany, New York (later to be absorbed by the New York Central RR)
-The Boston and Providence RR, Boston's major link with the Rhode Island capital



Over the years, South Station has lost its enormous train shed, giving way to an open-to-the-elements platform system. However, the original building has since been beautifully restored, with a new glassed-in waiting area directly behind the old station structure, inside of which are ticketing booths and other support services. Today, it serves as the terminus of Amtrak's Regional (to Newport News, VA), Acela Express (to Washington, DC), and Lake Shore Limited (to Chicago, IL) routes . The station also serves the extensive MBTA commuter rail system, including the Framingham/Worcester Line (the old Boston and Albany Railroad route), The Needham Line, the Franklin Line, the Attleboro/Stoughton Line (the old Boston and Providence RR route), the Middleborough/Lakeville Line (part of the Old Colony Railroad Route), and the Plymouth/Kingston Line (the old Old Colony Railroad Route).

It's sad to see that how railroad travel has decreased, at times precipitously, over the past century, but perhaps nowhere else but New England is railroading still very alive and central to interurban transportation. With the severe automobile traffic congestion in the Northeast, the inexpensive and efficient MBTA commuter rail system and Amtrak's northeastern routes have saved Boston's major train terminals from demolition and from being wiped off the map.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

In the Headlines...Yikes!

The Associated Press reports today that a controller at LAX cleared three planes to use the same runway at the same time. Had the pilot of the departing Skywest Turboprop not seen the arriving Southwest jet, a fatal collision would have occurred. In fact, the jet passed fifty feet above and less than 300 feet away from the turboprop. The AirCanada jet, over 5000 feet away, was never in jeopardy. Still no word on why the controller so severely misjudged, but this incident is merely an extreme instance of a much larger problem at LAX. Increasing air traffic combined with limited runway area make the airport one of the country's most dangerous. Logan airport in Boston, as I'm sure Evan will point out, suffers from a similar problem, as does Bob Hope Airport in Burbank, California.

Here's the story: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/10750050/
In better news, this summer Delta will begin nonstop service between Raleigh/Durham and LAX. Now if only I can convince them to initiate nonstop service from Charlottesville to California...

Delta story: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/11020274/from/RL.4/

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Gone are the brass and in comes Charlie...




In an effort to modernize the antiquated MBTA "T", Boston's underground subway transportation system, the organization is planning to replace the usage of small brass fare tokens with an automated fare collection system by the end of the year. Similarly to the fare collection methods employed by the far superior Washington DC "Metro", the new fare collection system, called the "Charlie Card", will allow passengers to purchase a clean, never-before-used cards storing however many "fares" the person chooses. As the machines exist now, they will change brass tokens for Charlie Cards, and one is also able to use his or her credit card or cash on the system. Sounds nice, doesn't it?


The turnstiles in use at Airport Station

Well, my experiences with the system have not been so positive. These machines have been installed at the Blue Line's Airport Station and on a few other stations scattered around the system, for use on a trial basis. The card vending machines are not the most user-friendly, as I have observed MBTA workers having to work the machines for confused passengers. Given the MBTA's track record for maintaining automated brass token machines (which allow patrons to bypass long lines waiting to purchase tokens from a booth attendant), these Charlie Card machines will surely pose maintenance problems in the future. They are designed to cut the MBTA workforce numbers, but it seems to me that the maintenance of these complicated, state-of-the-art machines will require the employment of additional mechanics to keep the vending machines in working order.

Other problems: unlike the DC Metro, the Charlie Card does not physically print the balance on the card after it has been slipped into the machine. Rather, one must pay attention to a small screen that is inconveniently located behind them as they wait for the turnstile gate to open to view their card balance. Also, intelligent design would have the scanned Charlie Card exit the scanner machine on the other side of the turnstile gate, where one could pick up the card after moving through the gate. This is not so, as I found the first time I used the machine at Airport Station when an MBTA employee yelled at me for failing to pick up the scanned card (which the machine spits out behind you as you move through the gate) and holding up the line. I won't even mention the amount of litter these cards have generated at these stations, as they are useless once their fare balances have been drained.

Here's the worst decision on the part of the MBTA concerning the choice of stations for installing the trial basis equipment. As I said before, one such station is Airport on the Blue Line, where thousands of out-of-towners arriving in Boston inevitably choose to put multiple fares on their Charlie Card, thinking that the card is useable throughout the system. One of my friends made this very mistake, and I had to buy off the rest of the card from him as I knew I would be using that station multiple times in the near future. So, these people must redeem their cards for cash once they find out that the card is not used all throughout the MBTA, and only when they return to Airport Station, at the end of their stay in Boston.

Was this intentional? I most certainly think so.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Delta Lost My Dog

Well, not exactly, but Vivi, the award winning whippet that escaped from her cage at JFK airport, looks just like the whippet I grew up with (her name is Chelsea, she's 16 years old and can still run circles around most dogs and certainly around me). The story saddens me, because I imagine a sweet but scared dog--whippets are known for their skittishness--fleeing into the water nearby and drowning due to the heavy blanket in she was wrapped. Of course, Vivi may still be alive, but with each passing day the odds grow slimmer (although I read that it's not uncommon for an escaped whippet to spend as many as five days in hiding--and Vivi knows how to hunt).

Shame on Delta, by the way, for losing this beautiful creature. Surely they'll pay a pretty penny for her loss, but I always hate it when dogs are quantified like lost luggage or damaged golf clubs. In order to get a search crew to scour the woods for Vivi, her owner had to embellish the dog's worth. I'm waxing sentimental, I know, but one must allow a child an attachment to his dog. This one's for you, Chelsea.

Friday, February 17, 2006

A Delta Strike?

The AP reports today that Delta pilots are picketing alongside the passenger drop-off zone outside Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson airport. They aren't on strike, at least not yet. Their picketing, according to a spokesperson for Delta, is purely "informational," causing no service disruptions.

But if the company and its pilots union can't reach an agreement by March 1st--and if, as a result, Delta unilaterally imposes the pay and benefits cuts motivating the current picketing--then the pilots may go on strike. And if the strike happens, Delta warns, the company might go under.

This is unsettling news for me, as almost all my airline miles reside in Delta's SkyMiles program. Fortunately my next trip to California will be aboard Delta's SkyTeam partner, Northwest. Because I have elite status with Delta, I was able to snag a bulkhead seat on Northwest. Whether these privileges would survive Delta's demise, I'm not certain. Let's hope it doesn't come to that.

http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20060217/ap_on_bi_ge/delta_pilots

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Sun Sets on SunChips

I'm not certain about this, but I believe that Delta has discontinued its offering of SunChips on domestic flights. My last four trips with Delta have lacked SunChips--except one segment between SLC and SFO where I was offered them in first class. This is very disappointing, since the cheese crackers, peanuts and crunchy granola bar are less than satisfying--not to mention loaded with ingredients only a nutritionist (and a horrified one at that) could identify. I asked my flight attendant on Monday what happened to my beloved chips, and she replied, "They left." Apparently they sprang feet and marched out. Damn those potato chip unions!

It appears Delta has also made changes to its snackbox. On my last trip, I ripped into my box and sadly discovered dried papaya granola mix where Oreos used to be. We'll hope this was a temporary substitution.

Delta should really consider supplementing its meager menu with "for-sale" items such as sandwiches and salads. Other airlines have made this move, and I for one was quite satisfied by United's ceasar salad with a side of fruit. US Air's $7.00 sandwiches, by contrast, leave a lot to be desired.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Chief of Chiefs

Two evenings ago Patrick and I watched a DVD chronicling what many rail enthusiasts claim to be the best passenger train of all time--the Santa Fe "Super Chief," which carried passengers (at first once a week but later daily) between los angeles and chicago for over thirty years beginning in the 1930s and terminating in the early 1970s.

Hosted by Michael Gross, whom you'll remember as Steven Keaton from TV's "Family Ties," the DVD examines the amenities and on-time service that earned the Super Chief a place in railroad history. An all Pullman-car train, the Super Chief consisted entirely of sleepers--no coach--and spoiled its passengers with exotic cuisine, prepared from scratch aboard the train, and fancy dining facilities, including the Torquoise Room, which seated only 12 passengers and provided a more intimate, on-board dining experience (the Champagne brunch sounded fantastic, as did the French toast, which apparently took hours to prepare!).

I didn't realize the extent to which the Santa Fe Railroad used American Indian names, culture and iconography to cultivate its image and sell its product. For example, the railroad's mascot was an American Indian cartoon boy named Chico, whose image appeared on countless advertisements, brochures and timetables. Elza Gross, whose self-indulgent testimonials to the Super Chief's grandeur reveal more about her privileged childhood than about the train aboard which that privileged childhood found its elitism fully actualized, waxes nostalgic for the train's "exotic" American Indian decor. Whether any American Indians possessed the pecuniary means by which to ride the train whose mystique borrowed so heavily from their culture is a story left untold.

The only story left untold, I'm afraid. Rather than take us inside the train and life on-board (What did people do in the evening hours, for example?), the DVD spends most of its time interviewing ex-employees and passengers who, quite frankly, are now too old and contemplative to weave an interesting and properly paced narrative--and who indulgently, though understandably, tell more about themselves than about the train. Sure, the celebrity sightings are interesting, but wouldn't it be more interesting to learn what Harry Truman did onboard (did he mingle with the passengers? did he dine in the Turquoise room?)than how he arrived at the station?

As a rail enthusiast, it's sobering to realize that first-class service is a thing of the past. No one who rides Amtrak, even aboard its sleeper cars, would mistake it for first class service. What's worse, the deterioration in service hasn't gone hand in hand with speedier or more efficient transit. The Super Chief made its run between Los Angeles and Chicago in 39.5 hours. Today's Southwest Chief, its heir (if one can call it that--more like its bastard child) takes 43 hours to cover the same distance, and it rarely runs on schedule.

Before David Gunn's departure from Amtrak, the company appeared to be interested in upgrading its sleeper service (for example, it refurbished sleeper cars on the Empire Builder and introduced a wine tasting)--but the future of said improvements are uncertain, and with budget airlines offering cheaper fares between an increasing number of cities, we rail enthusiasts may soon find ourselves with nothing to enthuse about.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

The "Big Dig"

The magnitude of its undertaking has been compared to the building of the Panama Canal, the Alaska Pipeline, and the English Channel “Chunnel”. It was designed to replace an aging, deteriorating 6-lane highway, often called Boston’s “Second Green Monster”, that was serving twice its designed capacity and crawled upwards of 10 hours a day. The “Big Dig”, the massive project begun in 1991 to plant Boston’s Central Artery, Interstate 93, underground, was the answer to all of the city’s problems.

The Big Dig project consisted of two stages: 1) to complete an extension of I-90 (the Mass Pike) east under Boston Harbor and onto Logan Airport, and 2) to bury the city’s congested north-south Central Artery, I-93, underground to reunite Downtown Boston with its waterfront and North End (the city’s version of “little Italy”) communities, which had been severed by the giant overhead highway, built in 1959, from the rest of the city. Such a project presented major challenges, including the building of the underground highway while still keeping the existing highway open to traffic, the countless rerouting of exit ramps and detours (often on a monthly, or even weekly, basis), the novel design of a crossing over the Charles River that incorporates a network of complex traffic patterns, and the application of novel construction methods at such a large scale (not to be discussed any further in detail…refer to the MTA’s site here for further information).

The end results (as of Feb 2006):

1) The construction and opening (in 1995) of the I-90 Ted Williams Tunnel under Boston Harbor, connecting South Boston to Logan International Airport

2) The construction of the Leverett Connector Bridge, which parallels the main I-93 Central Artery

3) The building of the Zakim/Bunker Hill Memorial Bridge, the widest cable-stayed bridge (10 lanes) in the world at the time of opening (2003/2005, in stages of 4 lanes, 4 lanes, and 2 cantilevered lanes)

4) The opening of the Central Artery tunnels, 1.5 miles of I-93 in addition to an underground knot of access roads, entrances/exits, and pull-off lanes, in stages in 2003

5) The demolition of the 1959 elevated Central Artery, completed in 2004, linking the North End and Waterfront with downtown Boston

According to the Big Dig official site, 98% of the project is complete, albeit well over budget and over two years past its initially targeted date of completion. Since its opening, the tunnels have been plagued with problems, mainly severe leaking that revealed faulty construction in Boston’s notoriously wet ground (after all, most of the city exists on artificial landfill that was once a vast bay). Motorists traveling through the tunnels in the dead of winter still notice enormous ice sheets and stalactites hanging from the crude tunnel ceiling. Above-ground construction projects have penetrated the tunnels on some occasions, at one time dropping large boulders onto an ambulance transporting a patient to nearby Massachusetts General Hospital. The healing of the new, now obsolete, tunnels continues.

However, the benefits of the project are already being felt. Boston’s atmospheric carbon monoxide levels have begun to drop (12% since before the project began). The giant, conspicuous scar left by the elevated roadway is soon to give way to the Rose Kennedy Greenway, a vast, green park designed to weave through Boston’s growing skyline. This project, as far as I can tell, is slated to continue well into 2007.

I have mixed feelings about the project, but overall, I think it will ease the city’s efforts to facilitate pedestrian and automobile access through and around the city, as well as improve the overall aesthetic of Boston. Although these results have yet to be seen, residents of Boston are assured they are soon to come.

PICTURES:

The I-93 Central Artery weaves through Downtown Boston before its demolition starting in 2003...


The I-90 Ted Williams Tunnel, opened in 1995, completed the Mass Pike Extension into East Boston.


The Zakim/Bunker Hill Bridge carries I-93 over the Charles River. It is one of the widest cable-stayed bridges in the world...


The newly opened Central Artery Tunnels began to spring large leaks within the first year of its opening. These failures uncovered faulty construction and corruption on the part of the MTA and local government officials. Safety concerns over the tunnels prompted Gov. Mitt Romney to publicly declare that he felt the tunnels were not safe for general public use (damage has and continues to be repaired).


I took the next two pictures last Sunday (Feb 5, 2006). The first is looking over a tunnel portal, and the second shows the scar left from the demolition of the elevated Central Artery.



Below: an artist's depiction of the Rose Kennedy Greenway in front of Rowes Wharf, in the same general area as where the above picture was taken.

Low Fare Pioneer Passes

Freddie Laker, the Englishman who launched a successful low fare carrier between the UK and US during the days of heavy government regulation died Thursday at age 83. His business savvy hastened deregulation of the US airline industry and his irreverence inspired a host of other low fare airlines, from Southwest Airlines to Virgin Airways.

(Note the Feb. 2 post on Laker, "Deregulation: How big is your sandwich?")

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Transportation knot...

Where in New England can a plane fly over a car driving over a train trailing over a boat?



Boston's BU Bridge over the Charles River!

'More entries to come in the near future from Beantown.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Rail Steals

Before booking a coach trip on Amtrak, be sure to check their "Weekly Specials" page. You access this page by first clicking on the mainpage's "Hot Deals" link. It's amazing how discounted certain fares are; for example, I priced a ticket from New Orleans to Chicago for next Monday (February 13th) using Amtrak's mainpage and turned up a fare of $100. But when I priced the same one-way fare using the "weekly specials" page, I generated a fare of $58.00, a $42.00 savings.

In other words, you have to pursue the fare special--Amtrak does not automatically give it to you when you book a ticket using the regular method. Also, weekly specials are not available over the phone. And finally, if you're booking a round trip, be aware that you'll have to book each leg separately. It's a bit of a hassle but certainly worth your time. Sometimes the rail sale seats sell out before Amtrak updates the site, so you may have to tinker with different dates to get the rock-bottom price. "Weekly specials" are great for people with flexible itineraries.

It's not clear, however, that these "rail steals" will be around for long. Experts point out that Amtrak deploys them only to inflate their ridership (to impress state and federal governments) and to fill seats on what would otherwise be empty trains--trains that, some argue, would be better off not operating at all. Although I've benefited from these cheap tickets, I must concur that their existence and surprisingly wide availability point to deep flaws in Amtrak's operations--and, inauspiciously, to a troubled future for the already beleaguered and besieged company.

N.B. While pricing these rail sale tickets this morning, I discovered that Amtrak's website is now available in Spanish.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Free WiFi? Why not?

This post comes from a friend...

As a frequent user of wireless internet in my home and in public spaces, including Harvard Medical School, Boston Public Library, and in hotels, I have often lamented that I am unable to use wireless access while delayed (usually) flying out of Boston's Logan International Airport. You see, I don't fly out of Logan frequently enough to warrant subscribing to Massport's expensive WiFi service. Little did I know, other airports offer this service for free, and local organizations are concerned that Massport's actions may possibly establish a dangerous precedent.

Massport's reasons for charging for WiFi? Here's an excerpt of an article from Ars Technica...

"...Massport inists that it needs to devote time and effort to monitoring WiFi access points to ensure that they do not negatively interfere with airline and security communications. Of course, it's just a coincidence that Massport installed its own WiFi network at Logan in 2004, for which it charges customers US$8 a day. Its own system is apparently in no danger of interfering with communications, though free systems installed by the airlines might be."

It also doesn't help that Massport shut down WiFi systems owned by Continental and American at Logan. The airport won't even allow Delta to fire up the system it installed in its own terminal, which opened last year after being renovated.

So should landlords (in this case, Logan Airport) force clients (the airlines) to use their network? Many feel that Massport is guilty of running a monopoly over wireless internet access, "blatantly contrary to federal law," according to a representative of the CTIA, an organization that backs wireless supporters like Verizon and Sprint.

Lastly, a few words on the safety issue...is airport WiFi use safe? According to the FCC, "...WiFi posed no in-flight danger to planes even as the FAA decided to continue its ban on the practice." If it's safe for use on planes, so should it be on the ground.

Read the entire article here.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Deregulation: How big is your sandwich?

With the news of Delta's emergence from bankruptcy and Jet Blue’s troubles, you might wonder whether airlines’ topsy-turvy financial situation is good for passengers. Wouldn’t service be better if the airlines could make a long term plan?

It might, but prices would certainly be higher, and service would not necessarily be better. Under regulation, airlines couldn’t compete on price so they attempted to offer better and better services and, especially, sumptuous meals. But the Civil Aeronautics Board could not let any airline have an unfair advantage, so the government regulated service, too. In the 1970s the federal government even regulated the size of the sandwiches served in flight.

All that came to an end in the US with the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 and the reorganizations that followed.

One of the spurs to deregulation was Laker Airways, whose transatlantic flights from London to the US lured passengers away from Pan Am and British Airways. While discount airlines have followed in the jet trails of Sir Freddie Laker by offering low cost domestic service, the world still has no substantial low fare international airline. That was Laker’s niche in the 1970s.

For the best single book on US deregulation, see Martha Derthick's The Politics of Deregulation:
http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0815718179/ref=sid_dp_dp/002-2902995-7761651?%5Fencoding=UTF8&v=glance&n=283155

For background on Freddie Laker, see:http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/2283244.stm

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

The Skies Over Bankruptcy

The big transportation news from today, reported widely in the major newspapers, is United's emergence from bankruptcy. The Washington Post offers a particularly revealing article on the role United's Chairman played in creating a fitter, leaner airline. Although he eliminated the pension plan, fired thousands of employees and cut salaries, apparently he enjoys some popularity (though not among the flight attendants) due to his affable demeanor and ubiquitous presence at airports and company offices--where he gives pep-talks and explains that what appears like a "sacrifice" is in fact an "investment" in the company's future. Has this guy considered politics? Critics are doubtful that United's bankruptcy troubles are over--citing high fuel prices and severe competition from Southwest and JetBlue--but for now the airline's recrudescence, however short-lived, gives us reason to smile.