Friday, July 28, 2006

Commuter Rail Craziness

From yesterday's Boston Globe...

This week, the the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, which manages the Boston area mass transit system commonly known as the "T", confronted the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad over its poor management of the MBTA-affiliated commuter train system that serves East Massachusetts. The MBCR took over the management and operation of the MBTA's commuter rail system in 2003, with the understanding (under contract) that the MBCR would maintain a 90% or better on-time performance and adhere to strict limits on the numbers of out-of-service locomotive and coach equipment. At a time when commuter rail patronage is at an all-time high, due to excessive prices for gasoline and a recent catastrophe in the city's underground Central Artery (the "Big Dig"), in which a tunnel ceiling panel collapsed and crushed a motorist to death, the MBCR continues failing to meet the standards set by the MBTA.

A meeting between the MBTA officials and the MBCR was scheduled yesterday, and the article notes the seriousness of the issue as the head of the MBCR was called from vacation to attend the meeting.

While at work, I often hear complaints from colleagues about their "horrible mornings" on the MBCR. Trains are late, some coaches have no air conditioning (which causes overcrowding in the cooler train cars), and some of the windows are so scuffed that one cannot even look through the glass panels. Improvements in these areas, which are being addressed through a $23.5 million grant given by the MBTA to the MBCR, have progressed at a snail's pace, much to the disappointment of the MBTA. However, the MBCR assures that these improvements will be completed in the next 18 months.

My experiences on the commuter rail have all been positive, but I have never ridden one of the trains during rush hour. I can only imagine how frustrating it would be fighting through a crowd in North Station to reach the correct train (I have also heard of the commuter crowds being so packed in there that people have missed their trains), only to find that their train has no remaining open seats, no A/C, and no operating restroom.

What's most interesting to me about this issue: The MBTA is constantly bombarded with rider complaints about its management of the subway system. The system is in serious debt and continues to make "improvements" that only add more headaches to the system (case in point: the Charlie Card). This incident strikes me as the MBTA's opportunity to point its finger at another company, deflecting blame from its own failures to offer efficient, user-friendly service.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

JetBlue Destroys Airports!

According to this article in my local newspaper, passenger loads at Charlottesville Airport--from which I depart on a regular basis--have declined by more than 5 percent over the past year. The reason: Ricmond International Airport, located only an hour and fifteen minutes away, now boasts cheap flights with Airtran and JetBlue. Richmond used to be a very expensive airport to fly into and out of, but the introduction of budget airlines has driven its prices down and increased its passenger load by more than 15 percent. Much has been written about budget carriers' effect on legacy carriers; but less has been said about their effect on regional airports, which lack the passenger loads to lure a budget carrier--which succeeds only when it packs planes to their fullest--into town. As the article explains, Charlottesville residents are now more inclined to drive to Richmond knowing that they can save over a 100 bucks. Although the commercial side of Charlottesville's airport won't shut down any time soon, it might very well lose some flights, or worse, an entire airline. Northwest recently started nonstop service to Detroit, but USAir terminated its flights to Pittsburgh and Delta cancelled an ill-conceived and ultimately unprofitable nonstop service to Orlando. It won't be long, I speculate, before USAir reconsiders its service to Philadelphia and Delta its service to Cincinnati. Planes on these routes are frequently scarcely populated, leading to cancellations, delays and headaches. Yet another reason to pack the car for Richmond.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Ex-Queen of the Sky

For an eccentric travel blog, check out this diary of an mad ex-flight attendant. She worked for Delta but was fired for posting inappropriate pictures on her weblog. You can see the pictures; she strikes some seductive poses but nothing lewd or lascivious. Apparently she's filed suit against Delta for sex discrimination--after finding pics of Delta men online that apparently hadn't drawn the company's ire--but there's no word on the state of her complaint. In the meantime, she's accelerated her blogging and become quite the crusader for blogger rights. She has even penned a book--to be released in Weblog format! Stay tuned.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

How times have changed...


How would you like to own a mansion planted at the center of your own large tract of land, bisected by a major railroad that serves your personal railroad depot?

Well, evidently this was a reality at the turn of the century, when certain wealthy Virginians built their own railroad depots to serve their estates. Thorn Cliff, pictured above, was located on the mainline of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway at milepost 112.9, which I have determined to be along the James River, not far from the present-day river crossing of Route #522. Although the picture above is of poor quality, it is a reminder of what was once the extent of luxury in domestic travel - personal service - even a scheduled stop just for you - on a railroad. According to the caption of the photo,

"It is unknown how many depots were erected around Virginia as private stops for estates of the wealthy. THORN CLIFF (MP 112.9) is one of at least four survivors and is probably the smallest enclosed structure to have been built in Virginia. Its stone construction and hipped roof, which includes colorful decorative tiles and a curved dormer, indicate the amount of thought and money expended on it. There's even a small fireplace inside!"

A wonderful example of American vernacular architecture, indeed!

This photo comes from a book titled Virginia Railway Depots by Donald R. Traser, published by the Old Dominion Chapter, National Railway Historical Society (1998). It is a fantastic survey of railway depot architecture throughout the state of Virginia.

For those of you who are interested in reading about the history of the nation's railways, there are a number of fascinating, and beautifully illustrated, books available that range from color catalogues of railroad passenger and freight rolling stock to chronological histories of individual railways. One of the more popular publishing companies is TLC Publishing,
which offers a wide selection of titles that covers many of the nation's major railroads. Many of the books are hardbound and well-priced (most under $30) given the quality of their binding and content.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Barf and Buy?




This news item is truly hilarious. USAir, which recently merged with America West, will soon place advertisements on its barf bags. That way when air-sickness sets in, you can distract yourself with glossy ads promoting yet-unnamed items. Someone should really alert the makers of Dramamine; they could make a fortune. Clearly the airlines are struggling to cut costs and invent new modes of revenue collection. But this particular initiative reeks of desperation--thus the laughter among the customers who have seen these aestheticized barf bags in their trial runs.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Richmond's Triple Crossing

Now that the blog has recently turned away from the air and toward the rail (due to unfortunate circumstances), I thought I'd add a little post about one of the most famous railroad crossings in the world.

It's located in Richmond, Virginia, and most train enthusiasts from all over the country know it simply as the "Triple Crossing". It is believed to be the only location in the world where three Class I railroads (rated based on their freight operating revenue) cross at a singular point. According to Wikipedia, the crossing has existed here for over a century, and given the wealth of photographs of vintage railroad equipment available on the internet, this location is also one of the most desirable for railfan photography.

The pictures below (courtesy of piedmontsub.com, the official historical website of the Piedmont Subdivision of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway) are in chronological order. The first appears to be from the turn of the 20th century, given the all-steam locomotives and rolling stock popular at the time. The second picture was dated 1926. The third was taken during the era of transition between steam and diesel locomotive power, which would place the photo sometime in the 1950s. The middle locomotive appears to be a Seaboard E unit, which pulled passenger trains at the time and complemented the similarly shaped F ("freight") units of the time, while the lower engine is an early diesel-powered switching unit...both types of engines ushered in the diesel age of railroading in the 1950s. Finally, the bottom photograph was taken in the mid 1990s, during the completion of the James River Floodwall in downtown Richmond. The crossing today is dwarfed by the ramps of the double-tiered Downtown Expressway, but the crossing is visible roughly in the center of the photograph, just in front of the gray concrete floodwall that holds back the river in the background.

The lowest level of the crossing is today the Norfolk Southern Railway, but was once part of the Southern Railway (which began as the Richmond and Danville Railroad). The middle level was once the Seaboard Air Line Railroad, which became part of the Seaboard Coast Line and now serves CSX Transportation. Finally, the top level is part of the 3-mile viaduct that served the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway (now part of CSX). The viaduct replaced the aging Church Hill Tunnel, which was undergoing reopening in 1925 when it collapsed, entombing an engine and some work cars as well as a few unfortunate workers. The viaduct is believed by some to be the longest such rail viaduct in the world.

No Sleeping on the Tracks



I rarely share stories from my hometown of Charlottesville and the college it houses--The University of Virginia--but this story seemed sufficiently relevant (and for Evan, perhaps redolent). A recent graduate of UVA nearly lost his leg after falling asleep on train tracks that cut through UVA's undergraduate social center--"The Corner District." Fortunately the conductor spotted him and used lights and horns to rouse him; unfortunately, he wasn't able to fully remove his body from the tracks as the train approached.

Several years ago, Evan and I--along with another friend (Hey Dennis, if you're out there)--walked these very tracks, as a shortcut, before finding ourselves perched precariously atop a bridge. Luckily, we weren't drunk enough to keep going, but I recall keenly the moment of panic that ensued--fueled perhaps, by our over-invested memories of that horrible scene from Fried Green Tomatoes in which the man's foot gets caught in the tracks. Anyhow, we survived to laugh about it. But to any misinformed readers out there who think that trains don't run late at night--think again! Freight traffic is very heavy overnight and not all prostrate carousers are lucky enough to hear the horn or see the lights in time to escape.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Thin Air for Airbus


The New York Times spins the Farnborough International Air show, starting Monday near London, as evidence of trouble for Airbus. The European aircraft maker has been rocked by falling stock prices, the departure of its co-chief executive, and questions about two of its aircraft that are in production. The double-decker A380 is behind in its production schedule, and there are questions about the demand for such a large aircraft, which many airports would have to expand their runways to accommodate. Airbus’ midsize plane, the A350, may undergo a complete overhaul to compete with Boeing’s Dreamliner. Friday’s Wall Street Journal ran a story with a similar angle, critical of Airbus’ problems. Does the European press have the same perspective?

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

No Dogs in the First Class Lounge

This story is a bit dated, but I figured I'd relate it anyway. A few months back, rapper Snoop Doggy Dog and his posse (the dogpound?) scuffled with police in Heathrow airport after British Airways denied certain members of the group entry to its first class lounge. Turns out Snoop flies first class but certain of his minions do not--and coach tickets, surprise surprise, don't gain one entry to a first class lounge. The ensuing dispute resulted in injuries for seven police officers---and although no one was arrested, Snoop is no longer allowed to fly British Airways. So, for those of you with hip-hop allergies, BA might be your best bet. The snob in me says that Snoop--currently featured in a gum ad where minty freshness purifies his profane mouth and saves him from a fiery hell alongside acid-tongued old maids--belongs on Southwest where, no doubt, he'd find ample opportunities to sing, curse and cause mayhem. Gin and juice, anyone?

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

They may be cheap, but the ads are priceless...

Europe's largest and first low cost air carrier, Ryanair, may receive a lot of flack about its philosophy of how to offer cheap fares. The airline is famous for its cramped (yet new) 737-800 planes that feature plastic upholstered seating, the lack of seatback pockets, emergency instructions pasted on the rear of the seats, no seat reclining capability, and very little legroom. However, the airline embraces the lack of passenger amenities, and even has gone so far as to present the following ads to the public...
Needless to say, these ads, as well as others that misrepresent the airline's performance with regard to check-in procedures and on-time departures, have presented problems for the company. They don't care...the advertising still works (and one can see the airline poking fun at its criticism in the second ad, which reads "let's keep producing tacky advertising"). Isn't it brilliant?

...A different philosophy compared to that of Jetblue's, indeed.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Airport and Airline Rankings

Last week, JD Power and Associates released its consumer rankings for the nation's domestic airlines and airports...

Airlines are rated on six categories: overall satisfaction, flight reservations/scheduling, check-in, aircraft interior, flight crew, and in-flight amenities. Among the low-cost carriers, JetBlue, not surprisingly, came out in the lead, with top ratings in each of the categories. This also makes it the best airline overall (including both low-cost and "network" airlines). Continental tops the "network" airline category, closely following JetBlue. Delta Airlines also made a strong showing in the study, earning maximal ratings in all but the "check-in" category. Among the weakest: United and US Airways, with Northwest not far ahead.

Airports are organized into three categories: small, medium, and large. They are rated on five categories: airport accessibility, check-in process, security check, terminal facilities, and baggage claim. The "JD Power Award Recipients" are...

small airports: Dallas Love Field (DAL) and Houston Hobby International (HOU)

medium airports: Laguardia International (LGA) - this is surprising to me...it was here that I experienced an aborted landing just a few feet from the runway, although I guess "runway traffic" isn't taken into account in these ratings

large airports: McCarran International (LAS)

Obviously, they are doing something right in Texas.

How did my airport (Boston Logan International - a medium airport) do? "About average" in all categories except "airport accessibility", in which it performed "better than most"- identical to Washington Dulles International and Toronto Pearson International.

The intro page to the rankings can be accessed from this link.