Miscellaneous Roundup Friday 8 October 2010

Highspeedtrainnetworkb Lots more train news this week, most of it good, some of it surprising.

Eurostar have announced a £700 million (about US$1.15 billion) program investing in new train sets that will go even faster than before, cutting the journey time between London and Paris down to about two hours (currently about 2 hrs 20 mins).

The trains will have a maximum speed of 200 mph (up from a current maximum of 186 mph) and will be compatible with the overhead power supplies on most of the rest of European high speed track as well as the dedicated Eurostar track, allowing Eurostar to operate more through trains to more destinations with no change of train.  For example, a London/Amsterdam journey will be available with a travel time of less than four hours, and London/Geneva would take about five hours.

The new trains will be even larger than the current massive trains, and each train will be capable of taking 900 passengers and their luggage.

This new investment in Eurostar is being funded by various governments privately financed on commercial terms by Eurostar.  Here's a fascinating article with lots of information about the new trains and where they might go in the future.

There's even a new high speed train that will operate between Helsinki and St Petersburg – hardly a core high density route in the heart of Europe, and a route that, last time I traveled on it, absolutely had nothing approaching high speed trains or high speed track.  Clearly a lot of money has been spent on that.

Okay, sure it is moderately high speed rather than ultra high speed, with the new trains running at speeds up to 138 mph, but the journey which previously took anything from 5 1/2 hours on the fastest train and a lot longer on slower trains is now scheduled for only 3 1/2 hours.

The train itself is also massively upgraded.  It seat 344 passengers in first and second class seats and areas are available for those needing a wheelchair and those travelling with pets.  Other amenities include a restaurant car, a conference compartment and a playroom for children.  Services such as currency exchange and tax-free refunds onboard will be available.  A single-journey ticket from Helsinki to St. Petersburg costs $110 in second class.  A first class fare costs $177 and includes a snack, daily newspapers and coffee or tea from a self-service counter.  The service starts on 12 December – Amtrak eat your heart out.

Now you might think that everyone loves high speed trains, and in particular you might think the Europeans universally love these 'clean green machines' (although they're not necessarily either).

But apparently not everyone loves trains, including this aggressive mob of 20,000 protesters in Stuttgart who were objecting to a €7 billion ($10 billion) project to add Stuttgart into Europe's main high speed rail network.

Here's an interesting story the airlines don't want you to know.  You might be able to save yourself from incurring excess baggage or overweight fees, and/or you might be able to save yourself from grief when checking in with an anally retentive airline like Qantas that sets a ridiculously low maximum weight for carry-on bags and then rigidly/aggressively enforces it.  (In Qantas' case, they set a maximum weight of 17.6 lbs for a carry-on bag; with an empty carry-on bag weighing up to and sometimes over 10lbs, a laptop weighing 5 – 9 lbs and – ooops, stop.  You're already over the weight limit, and that's before you pack a change of clothing, some toiletries, a book, a charger for your computer, a phone, and so on.)

So what is the solution?  Simple.  Get a Scottevest jacket.  These jackets come with anywhere between about 15 and 25 pockets discreetly located within them, and some of the pockets are huge, but even though the jacket has a bunch of pockets and a huge carrying capacity, it doesn't look like a fisherman's vest and it doesn't bulge too obviously when loaded down.  I've one of these jackets myself, and I've loaded myself down with all sorts of things in the jacket – iPads, other electronics, books, newspapers, food, drink, and who knows what else, and have never had a problem.

The Scottevest company tried to place discreet ad in Delta's Sky Magazine, touching on the fact that by filling one of their jackets' capacious pockets, you might save on baggage fees.  That's surely a relevant message for people on planes.  But Delta refused to accept the ad in any form, and threatened Scottevest with an industry wide blacklist if they pressed their point and made a public fuss.

So, if you'd like to transfer some of your stuff out of your suitcases and carry-ons, possibly saving yourself an overweight fee, an extra bag fee, and/or a hassle with your carry-on bag, think about a Scottevest jacket The airlines will hate you, but they probably hate you already.

Talking about suitcases, happy birthday to the wheeled suitcase.  It was apparently 40 years ago this month that the first wheeled suitcase appeared – us old-timers will remember back to the days when suitcases did not all come with sturdy wheels, and we'll also remember some of the early model wheeled suitcases with tiny wheels and 'leashes' that you pulled the suitcases along with, complete with their propensity to fall over when doing anything other than going in a straight line on a perfectly smooth and level surface.

Amazingly, the first ever wheeled suitcase was rejected by the major department stores.  The bag was invented by Briggs & Riley, and their then president took a prototype around the major department stores, only to be rejected by each of them in turn.  Finally, a VP at Macy's saw the potential.  He demanded that his buyer – the same buyer who had already called the idea crazy – place an order and be the first to sell wheeled luggage.

Customers were more immediately appreciative of the bags than were the department store buyers, and the success of the concept is now obvious to us all.

Briggs & Riley's current CEO (and Travel Insider reader) Richard Krulik passes on three tips in terms of what to look for with wheels on bags these days :

1.  Worship the wheel :  A $500 piece of luggage is worthless if it sits on inadequate wheels.  You’re looking for sealed bearings and wheel encasement to protect wheels so they don’t stick or stop spinning altogether when sand, salt and other elements come in contact.  All that comes standard on Briggs and Riley luggage.

2.  Watch the warranty :  You want to make sure that if a wheel breaks it can be replaced so you don’t have to throw out the whole bag.  Briggs & Riley luggage wheels go through vigorous testing to determine durability.  But even their luggage may eventually show wear and tear, which is why they offer their famous 'No questions asked' lifetime warranty (that even covers airline damage) and htey will swap out your wheels for life.

3.  Go wide :  It’s pretty simple physics here.  Wheels that are flatter and wider will be more stable than in-line “roller blade” skate wheels found in some other luggage brands, and will last longer and provide a smoother ride.  Also, the wider apart the wheels are, the more stable your bag will be and less likely to topple over.

I've traveled the world with cheap luggage, and I've had it fall apart on me too.  The strange thing is that these bags never fail at home – they always fail at the most inconvenient place and most inconvenient time.  After adjusting for the hassle associated with bags that literally end up with big holes in them, or wheels that break off, giving one an unpleasant reminder of the bad old days before wheels, and after allowing for the regular replacement costs of cheap bags, I'm now a convert to the concept of spending more upfront to buy a quality bag that will last longer.

There's one more thing about the Briggs & Riley warranty – obviously they wouldn't offer it if they weren't confident about the quality of the bags they make.  One of my B&R bags is getting close to needing a bit of mid-life love, but it has traveled hundreds of thousands of miles with me and has successfully seen its way past use and abuse that would have destroyed a series of lesser bags.

Welcome back to the Savoy Hotel in London, surely one of the grandest hotels anywhere in the world.  After a three year £220 million ($350 million) refurbishment and total closure that was originally projected to take 17 months and £100 million, the hotel will reopen on 10/10/10 – this Sunday, a date the hotel (and many others) believe to be lucky or special.

With their best suites understood to cost around £10,000 a night, I guess it won't take too long to claw back the refurbishment costs.  I'd like to be able to promise you an indepth review and report based on an extended stay in one of these suites, but …..

Lastly, here's a 'feel good' story about air shows and the people who attend them.  If you like airshows and warbirds, you'll probably love this story.


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