Weekly Roundup, Friday 22 September, 2017

Whether looking like this NASA drawing or anything else, sadly you shouldn’t plan on flying in an electric plane any time soon.

Good morning

It is a great pleasure to start off another week with another round of heartfelt thanks to the people who generously added their names to our 2017 Supporters list.  We are now at 126 Supporters after two weeks of this year’s annual fundraising drive, compared to 122 after two weeks last year and 118 the year before.

Special thanks are due this week to our latest ‘Super Supporters’ (people who send in $100+) :  Ken K, Larry W, Jerry K, Joe L, Lynne H, Mike S, Paul F, David B, Kelly N, and Marty S.  Wow.  As I often comment, while the money is sadly essential, it is the affirmation and generosity of all supporters which encourages me to keep going ‘the extra mile’.  It keeps me fresh and engaged, and I hope it keeps your content fresh and engaging, too.

I’d mentioned last week that our site would be down for some of last Friday; it indeed was, but hopefully now is back to its usual extraordinarily high level of reliability.  If you tried to send in your support during the down period, would you please try again now.  And, of course, if you’ve yet to do so (yes, that means you, for 98.5% of people reading this right now), may I ask you to join your fellow Travel Insiders and support our worthy enterprise.

Super supporter Mike S suggested I add another way for people to send in support, so after trialling it with his help, I’ve now added Venmo as another option.  If you use Venmo, you can see me there as David-Rowell-4.  I don’t know who the other three David Rowells are, but I’m apparently the fourth.

I added another Travel Insider Exclusive Feature on Wednesday, a seven page special report extending greatly the free feature article on Amazon’s new HD 10 tablet that follows after the weekly roundup, below.  (If you’ve already supported, go back to your special supporter page for the link to the new article, and if you’ve forgotten that page’s url, let me know and I’ll of course tell you again.)

If you’ve been considering buying a tablet, this special report tells you important things I’ve not seen discussed by any other reviewer, and helps you confidently answer the essential ultimate question – which tablet should I choose?

At the low-end, there is Amazon’s 7″ tablet for $50 or sometimes less, and at the high-end, there is Apple’s 12.9″ iPad Pro going up to $1280 in price – an enormous range of prices and huge potential to pay more than you need, for features you don’t need.  We focus on tablets costing $80, $150 and  $290, plus also consider the various iPads and other possible choices too.

That article alone could save you beaucoup bucks while ensuring you get the tablet with the best feature set for what you need.

Plus we’ve three other special supporter exclusive articles too – how to stay connected when traveling internationally (that will save you money and keep your data flowing), how to get a free Amazon Echo type device, and a six page review on streaming devices (this will help you get broadest access to the thousands of online channels at the best price).  And, as a little bonus, a story on how we got a free $10 credit from Amazon for doing nothing we wouldn’t do anyway.

So, whether it be just because you feel it is the fair and proper thing to do, or because you’d like access to these special reports, please do consider becoming a Travel Insider Supporter, and helping ensure that we continue to produce the same quality content into the future as we have for the 16 years before.


More good news for next year’s Grand Expedition of Great Britain participants.  We had four more people join our group this week, and now that we’re at 22 members, the cost per person has dropped another $100 per person.  So, our group is getting steadily better while the cost is also steadily improving – that’s my sort of win-win.  Please consider joining us and make it your sort of win-win, too.

Talking about win-wins, I managed to persuade Amawaterways to extend our special discount for this year’s Danube River Christmas cruise.  In truth, with only a very few cabins remaining, there’s no reason to leave the discount out there, but as a favor to us, they’ll allow any last-minute extra participants to also get the $750 per person discount (you won’t find this on their website), or the no single supplement, plus of course the various other special Travel Insider exclusive bonuses.


What else this week.  Two feature articles (and the special supporter exclusive report).  As I’d been predicting, Amazon released a new generation of 10″ screened tablet this week, continuing its series of astonishing value products with a good range of essential features but none of the unnecessary frills.  How astonishing a price?  How about $150.  Most people will now find themselves choosing between the $80 8″ Fire tablet, or the $150 10″ tablet, but with so many hundreds (maybe thousands) of different tablets out there, there are many more distracting choices out there, too.  This article helps you understand what to look for and how to make the best choice for you.

The second article dares to be politically incorrect, and here’s something I hope you’ll consider.  If it makes you uncomfortable, please consider donating twice as much as you otherwise would (although, sadly, twice zero is still zero!).  The chains of political correctness are muting open honest discussion far more effectively than abolishing the First Amendment ever would – and if we’re to be fairly and fully informed, we need to have access to both sides of an issue, and to be allowed to, and trusted to, then make our own judgment.

In this case, I felt it necessary to tell the other side of the story as it relates to airlines and their self-proclaimed eagerness to switch to ‘better’ and more ‘eco-friendly’ fuels than regular kerosene style jet fuel.  The main stream media cooperates unquestioningly and loves to run stories of airlines trialing alternative bio-fuels and to report on airlines professing eagerness to switch away from ‘nasty dirty’ kerosene to cleaner burning eco-friendly alternates.

I call BS on this.  And see also my quick report on electric airplanes, below.

This is part of The Travel Insider’s essential contribution to public debate.  We provide the other side of the story, and hopefully, in small part, an element of accountability.  As I list at the start of the fuel article, the airlines have a huge war-chest of meaningless ‘feel good’ stories they continually re-use, aided and encouraged by the mainstream media.  So next time you read of an airline spending millions on a new cabin configuration, or developing new menus with some famous chef, or any of the other various canards often offered to us, laugh to yourself and think ‘The Travel Insider warned me of this’.

Our role is one that doesn’t exactly encourage airlines to generously support us, does it.  So, unless you want to start reading gushing stories on our pages too of the latest color changes in the latest multi-million dollar cabin update, please do help keep us independent and snarky!

What else this week?  Please keep reading for :

  • Electric Passenger Planes?  Not in Our Children’s Lifetimes
  • DoT Surprises Everyone By Fining Frontier
  • A Canadian Air Passenger Bill of Rights?
  • Virgin Atlantic Possibly Sets World Record for the Most Expensive Taxi Ride Ever?
  • The US Navy Apes Alice in Wonderland
  • Amtrak Ads Attack Airlines
  • A Muslim’s View of Israeli and US Security
  • And Lastly This Week….

Electric Passenger Planes?  Not in Our Children’s Lifetimes

The article that follows suggests we’ll not see bio/alternative fuel powered planes in our lifetimes.  But what about electric airplanes?  There’s a growing level of uncritical pieces predicting the arrival of marvelous electric-powered planes.

We can understand why people feel this could be so.  Mr Musk and his Tesla cars have changed the public’s perception of electric-powered vehicles.  They’re no longer an impractical oddity.  They’re the highly desirable future, they’re increasingly the inevitable future, and best of all, they’re becoming part of the present too.

Adding fuel to this fire are Musk’s plans to announce an electric battery-powered truck, (expected to be announced in October).

If we can have cars, now with ranges comparable to that in a regular gas-powered car, and if we are now starting to develop trucks too, why not also airplanes?  It seems logical and a direct extension to impatiently call for electric-powered planes to start appearing at our airport gates.

Unfortunately, fueling and powering a plane is totally different to fueling and powering a car or truck.  And fueling anything to make it capable of traveling 5,000 or even 10,000 miles on a single ‘tank’ of fuel, whether it be by land or air, is totally different to fueling something to allow it to travel 500 or even 1,000 miles.

Let’s talk facts, rather than aspirations, when it comes to electric battery-powered planes.  Three facts alone starkly show the utter impossibility of battery-powered planes (at least, based on present and foreseeable battery technologies)

  • Batteries store 40 times less energy per pound than jet fuel
  • While jet fuel gets consumed during flight, a battery weighs the same at take-off and landing, charged or discharged
  • A battery needs 20 times more space than jet fuel for the same energy content

And that’s just the start of the problems.

If you still think that electric planes are possible, here are a couple more startling facts.  Battery powered systems have four times higher maintenance costs than current gas turbines.  And while electric cars are more fuel-efficient than gas-powered cars, electric planes are not.  This is because the efficiency in an electric car comes from recapturing the ‘wasted’ energy every time we brake.  But planes have almost no wasted energy.  When they slow down and descend to land, they are not braking, they are merely generating less power than the plane needs to maintain its speed and altitude, so the plane gently ‘falls out of the sky’ in a controlled manner.

These are the conclusions published at the end of what is, in places, a very deep dive and technical analysis of the issues surrounding battery-powered planes.  You can see the last part of what is a thirteen part article series here (the previous parts are of course linked from the website too).

DoT Surprises Everyone By Fining Frontier

Ever since the DoT gained the ability to fine airlines for breaking its ‘Thou Shalt Not Strand Passengers on Parked Planes’ rule in 2010′, it has consistently turned a blind eye to infractions of this requirement.

In theory, if an airline causes passengers to be stuck on a plane for three hours or longer (or four hours on an international flight, because, apparently, we’re all that much happier to sit trapped on an airplane if it is an international rather than domestic flight), they can be fined up to $27,500 per passenger for the incident.  On a full 200 passenger plane, that is $5.5 million.  That’s an absolutely enormous potential censure, and the DoT seems to have been terrified to use it, even though it is clear that the DoT doesn’t need to go the full $27,500 per passenger per violation.

It has also always been a strange rule.  Think of this.  A plane load of passengers are forced to suffer a nightmarish delay on the ground, with the usual sort of terrible things happening.  No food or drink.  The toilets overflow.  The a/c fails.  People faint.  And so on.

Now let’s just suppose, in this very hypothetical situation, the DoT then turns around and fines the airline, maybe even ‘only’ $10,000 per passenger, say $2 million in total for the breach.

How much of that $10,000 do the passengers get as recompense for the delays and agony of the multi-hour involuntary imprisonment?  Do they get it all?  Does the DoT keep a 10% handling and administrative fee?  Well, being the government, perhaps we should allow it 20%.

Does the DoT split it down the middle and give half to the passengers and keep the other half?

Nope.  The DoT keeps it all.  The passengers get nothing.  Not a single solitary penny.  The entire $2 million goes to the Department of Transportation.

Now you might think that this makes the DoT very trigger happy and fast to fine airlines.  Peculiarly, this utterly does not seem to have been the case.

Additionally, you might think that the requirement to allow passengers to get off the plane within three hours, timed from when the last airplane door through which passengers pass is closed, would mean that 180 minutes after the timer started ticking, you could stand up, walk to an exit and get off.  But, you’d be wrong.  The DoT has decided to define the 180 minutes as ending at the point where the airplane pilot decides to go back to the gate, or is given permission to return back to the gate.  The actual travel time back to the gate could be another ten or twenty minutes (more in the snow or in congestion), then the time to find a gate, find someone to get an airbridge or stairs to the plane, unlock the door to the terminal, and so on – this can add another hour to the time.  And then the time it takes for you, in seat 317Z, to finally get off the plane, that might be another ten or fifteen minutes further.

So, in the wonderful world of aviation, if you’re inconvenienced, the government benefits.  And three hours might actually be four.  And even if all this happens, maybe the airline is given a ‘get out of jail free’ pass for inexplicable reasons of government kindness.

Which is why the news of the DoT actually fining an airline is indeed notable.  Frontier were fined a total of $1.5 million for two violations during bad weather in Denver last December.

Well, actually, by the DoT’s own reckoning and according to this article, there were 12 Frontier violations on that particular day, and for the month, 21 flights in total violating the three/four hour rule.

But, let’s do the math.  In total, in December, 14 Frontier flights violated the delay rule.  Two were fined, $1.5 million in total (but then rebated to reflect compensation given by Frontier to passengers).  Two more were excused because they started returning to the gate within three hours.

So, DoT, what about the other ten Frontier flights?  And the other seven flights operated by other airlines?

A Canadian Air Passenger Bill of Rights?

In related news, the Canadians are looking at introducing an air passenger bill of rights which they say will, if/when finally passed (the bill has been kicking around for a while – it had its first reading back in May – and might be passed next year, it seems) prevent atrocities such as a recent flight that sat for six hours after landing before proceeding to a gate.  Currently in Canada there is nothing requiring airlines to get their planes to the gate at any point, no matter how long the delay or inhumane the conditions on the plane.

The new legislation, as described in the press, would appear to be excellent news and to be commended, and we hope the Canadians might be more effective at enforcing their legislation that we are with ours.

But there is every reason to fear the Canadian legislation may prove to be a paper tiger – and this is before the airline ‘friends’ in parliament finish attacking and weakening the bill’s provisions.

To start with the bill doesn’t actually set out any obligations or requirements, but instead commands the Canadian Transportation Agency to make regulations about matters such as tarmac delays, passenger bumping, and so on.  The nature of those regulations are left unspecified – a curious abdication of Parliament’s prerogative.

But the bill does hint that perhaps some cases might see less liability flowing through to the airline, including situations involving ‘natural phenomena’ (a fancy way of saying weather) and security events and for safety reasons and mechanical malfunctions.

So, if there is snow falling in Toronto, will that give flights in and out a blanket excuse and waiver for any tarmac delays?  Wasn’t that the entire point of the US legislation?

If weather is an airline’s favorite delay, its second most favorite is ‘mechanical problems’ and ‘flight safety’.  The Europeans have decided that almost all mechanical delays are not acceptable excuses for airlines to proffer as a way of avoiding liability for delays.  It is only extraordinarily unforeseeable mechanical delays that might be considered outside the airline’s control in Europe.  Here, as we well know, an airline merely needs to hint at the ‘safety’ word and is immediately given a free pass.

Bottom line – the legislation neither sets out specific provisions nor penalties, but does broadcast a big ‘hint’ to the Canadian Transportation Agency that a range of dubious excuses should be allowed to exempt airlines from liability.  Even though this is a toothless and almost useless piece of legislation, it still has the airlines up in arms and is making very slow progress.

Sometimes, bad law is worse than no law.  Bad law allows the politicians to pretend their job is done, and then allows them to redirect pressure away from them and to the non-elected bureaucrats in the Canadian Transportation Agency.

Virgin Atlantic Possibly Sets World Record for the Most Expensive Taxi Ride Ever?

Manchester Airport is 190 miles from Heathrow Airport, just outside of London.  To travel between the two airports, it is a one hour flight.  To travel by car, it is about a three hour drive.  Trains are two hours between London and Manchester, plus maybe another hour to get between train stations and airports at each end.  BA offer a bunch of flights each day, there are lots of trains, and of course, taxis can leave at any time.

A BA flight is about $100, maybe more, maybe less.  Uber would charge perhaps $300 for the journey.  Trains are similar in cost to flying.

So, now that you know all these complicated confusing facts, lets say that you’re in charge of an airline – Virgin Atlantic, if we must be specific.  Let’s say your airline finds itself short a pilot in Manchester, but has a spare pilot in London, able to fly the plane, but only if he can get to Manchester, of course.  What do you do?

Oh, one more point.  Because you’re in charge of an airline, you’ve got flights leaving London on a regular basis, but, alas, none going to Manchester.  They’re all international flights, mainly to the US, and in huge big international planes.

So, how do you get your pilot up to Manchester as quickly as possible?  Do you put him on the next flight by any airline up to Manchester, and even offer to pay full retail price for the ticket?

Or, remembering that you also own a railroad, do you have him go by train?

Or do you hand him a taxi chit and some petty cash and bundle him out the front of the terminal and into a cab?

Maybe you decide to charter a helicopter for the flight – perhaps that’ll cost you $1000.

But, we forgot.  If you’re an airline executive, you don’t need to think these things through logically.  Instead, you send the pilot to hop on your next flight to anywhere (just so happens to be to Boston) and get the flight to Boston to divert to Manchester to drop the pilot off, en route.

That’s what Virgin Atlantic did last week.  While this article, telling the story, reports that the diversion caused the Boston flight to arrive 96 minutes late into Boston, it can only speculate as to the cost of the diversion to Virgin Atlantic.

Remember the story, a couple of weeks ago, of the man who was fined $98,000 as being the cost of causing his smaller A330 plane to fly back to Honolulu to drop him off due to his being unruly?  Well, for sure, a diversion to Manchester would cost much less than that, but also for sure, it probably cost $10,000 or more.  An additional take-off and landing cycle, possibly the need to dump fuel before the plane could land in Manchester, probably the need to put more fuel onto the plane again, and of course, the inconvenience (but no compensation) to the Boston flight’s passengers, now arriving 96 minutes late.  If the hapless passengers missed a connecting flight (the flight arrived at 9.11pm) there almost certainly wouldn’t have been a later flight, that same day, to their ultimate destination.

Making this all the more extraordinary is that there were two scheduled flights operated by BA that Virgin could have put their pilot on, but decided to ignore, while commandeering their own flight instead.

Is it any surprise that Virgin expects to make a loss this year.

If this was the US Navy, one would expect three or four executives to be instantly fired.  But, it isn’t, so as far as we know, there were no negative consequences attached to this strange decision.

And talking about the US Navy…..

The US Navy Apes Alice in Wonderland

In Alice in Wonderland, the Queen demands a prisoner be sentenced first, prior to the jury reaching its verdict.  Noting her propensity of ordering the cutting off of people’s heads, once the probable sentence had been effected, the verdict becomes somewhat less relevant.

This reminds me of the US Navy’s ongoing actions in response to its four ship collisions earlier this year.  After summarily firing the commanders of the relevant ships – perhaps (although equally perhaps not) a fair thing to do – it then started firing admirals too, and this week we’re told how a second Admiral has been fired while a third has been permitted to ‘request early retirement’.  They’ve also fired a captain.

All of this before they know what the ultimate root causes of any of the four incidents are.  Is this extraordinary rush to judgment proving how responsibly responsive they are, demanding accountability, or proving how knee-jerk reactive they are, demanding scapegoats?

A word of caution to the people writing out the firing orders.  If you’re pushing the doctrine of ultimate command responsibility way up the chain of command, when do you think your own letters of dismissal will arrive?

We’re all for accountability, but an interesting thing about an effective safety culture is that you’re more likely to find out the truth if there is no culpability associated with major screwups that caused an accident to happen.

Any mistake is as much a learning opportunity and a chance to close procedural loopholes and improve processes that clearly have some shortcomings.  But if everyone is frantically trying to save their careers, you’re never going to fairly and fully find out what the root causes were, and you’re never going to correctly and completely resolve the vulnerabilities that resulted in the accident.

Let’s hope the Navy shows better sense and judgment when deciding when to fire on unknown targets than it does in deciding when to commit fratricide within its own ranks.  We trust these guys with nuclear missiles, and at present, their command judgment is being displayed as a rush to find the executioner’s axe and some necks to attack with it.

I’m as troubled by the Navy’s cashiering of crew before the facts have been ascertained and evaluated, as I am by what appear to have been shocking failures to observe basic seamanship standards.  Their rush to fire senior personnel in no way impresses or reassures me, and instead leaves me wondering how three admirals rose to become admirals if they are now seen to be deserving of summary dismissal.  And if one thinks about that for too long, one wonders who else, with how many more stars, should also start thinking about their own early retirements.

Details here.

Amtrak Ads Attack Airlines

Amtrak is in the process of handing over its reins to a new CEO, Richard Anderson.  Anderson is a former CEO of Delta Air Lines.

So what does Amtrak’s new ad campaign do?  It attacks the airlines and promotes Amtrak as a better way to travel.  It says that traveling by train means no middle seats, no baggage fees, no ticket change fees, no restrictions on cell phone use, and no inexplicable extended periods of requiring your seat belt to be fastened.  “It’s time we stop putting up with travel’s every last headache”, the campaign tells us.

The amusing thing about this is it seems to prove that airline executives know just how dreadful the travel experience they’re forcing on us is.  Clearly Anderson knew exactly the ‘pain points’ to focus on in this campaign.

But equally clearly, the airlines know that for almost every city-pair route in the US, Amtrak, no matter how wide its seats may be, is not anything within a country mile of being viable competition.  Anderson seems to have forgotten the earlier total immunity from rail competition he enjoyed at Delta.

So Anderson can rabbit on all he likes about no baggage fees and power points at every seat, but that’s not going to persuade any one of us to change from a choice of half a dozen flights each day to where we wish to go, and a four hour journey; and substitute it with one train, every other day, that takes two days (and two nights) to make the same journey.

Amtrak will persuade almost no-one to add four days and four nights to travel roundtrip, at inconvenient times of day/night, when the alternative is quick convenient flights, no matter how uncomfortable and awkward (and expensive) the flight experience.

Anderson needs to focus utterly and totally and single-mindedly on building some high-speed routes.  When he can offer comparable travel times, and an incomparably positive travel experience, he can truly slam-dunk the airlines with his advertising.  Indeed, he won’t even need to advertise.

But until he has that, he has nothing more than all his predecessors have also struggled with.  A perennially loss-making cash-bleeding enterprise, and also – sorry to say – Amtrak’s service is far from shining.  Trains are often late, equipment is often not working properly, food has a poor reputation, and staff can be every bit as surly as on a flight.

For every article I write decrying the US’ extraordinary inactivity when it comes to build out a decent rail infrastructure, he should be writing ten.  He should be on the talk shows, and camped outside the offices of congressmen and senators, day and night, pushing the need for a program of national rail investment.

Instead of advertising irrelevant comparisons with airlines that persuade no-one, he should be investing in public affairs promotion to build up a huge groundswell of popular support and demand for better faster rail.

Our current president has even promised his own version of shovel-ready projects and infrastructure investment.  Now some eight months into his presidency, has a single penny of that been allocated or spent?

A Muslim’s View of Israeli and US Security

One would think there would be few experiences less pleasant than for a Muslim to travel to Israel.  As we all know, the security is famous for its extraordinarily strict measures, and as we also all know, being a Muslim is going to guarantee you an extra dose of super-security.

But, maybe, what we think we know is not correct (a truism that we should be more aware of).  Here’s a very well written account by a Pakistan born gentleman (now apparently resident in Canada) and his travel through Israeli security when going to and from Israel recently.

And, just to complete the narration, he contrasts it with US border security.  His observations are telling.

And Lastly This Week….

Here’s yet another ‘Watch you, Tesla, your competitors are catching up’ story – this one about Porsche due to release a high-end Tesla competitor in 2019, and offering a very similar fast-charging capability to that which Tesla love to boast about (but which the typical Tesla owner never uses).

I wrote last week about a pilot displaying amazing Photoshop capabilities.  Apparently, pilots in general often have an interest in photographic pursuits, although some pilots and their interests are slightly less mainstream than others.  Such as, well, this.  (We’re waiting for the pilots to say it is lack of sleep and insufficient earnings that is causing them to do such things.)

I’m sure the good old days of flying – and the good old pilots – were never like today.  But flight attendants and their clothing have, at least with some airlines, generally been consistently attractive.  Here’s an article that suggests China is now invading yet another field, by claiming to have the worlds most stylish flight attendant uniforms.

Whatever you think of the Hainan Airlines uniforms, do scroll down a bit to the series of 18 lovely images of former flight attendant finery.

And lastly this week, how’s your general knowledge about the air travel industry.  For example, can you name the world’s busiest airport?  But get ready to learn a new airport as answer to this question; although Atlanta has been the world’s busiest every year since 1998, we’re within a year or two of that title being taken by Beijing, and with Dubai vaulting up the rankings too.

Okay, so that was a fairly easy question.  What about the world’s busiest air route?  Or the airline that flies to the most different countries.  Or, talking of Hainan Airlines, the world’s least punctual airline (yes, there’s a clue in that sentence somewhere).  How about the airline with the most ‘powerful’ brand.

Answers to these and assorted other questions, here.

So, have you enjoyed the newsletter this week – and keep in mind there are two more feature articles to follow.  If you’re reading it with a cup of coffee in hand, how much did you spend on your cup of coffee?  How much is it worth to keep The Travel Insider bursting into your email inbox every Friday morning, the same as we’ve done for most of the past almost 850 weeks?

Please would you too ‘put your money where your mouth is’ and join the current 126 of your fellow Travel Insiders and help support us in our efforts to give you some Friday morning enlightenment, information, advice, and amusement.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels





6 thoughts on “Weekly Roundup, Friday 22 September, 2017”

  1. Walter W. Stumpf Jr.

    Good Morning David!

    Some errors or misinformation in your story below on Amtrak:(

    Amtrak does compete very well with the airlines in a few markets.  The Northeast corridor is a prime example.  Amtrak years ago killed off the ‘shuttles’ and last I heard carry more passengers that the airlines between Washington, New York, and Boston.  The Surfliners in California are equally successful between LA and San Diego.  A few other places like around Chicago and by you in the Northwest they hold their own.

    Food on board long distance diners is reasonably priced and equal to a decent restaurant.  Snack bars, like on the Heartland Flyer give you better than fast food inexpensively and with a friendly smile.  

    And speaking of smiles, MOST employees are friendly, willing to help, and not at all like MOST inflight crews.  

    Also, you need to consider that you do not have to check in 2 hours in advance, 15 minutes is usually fine, and no long rush hour traffic drives to the airport, they leave from either downtown or a suburban station near you.  Door to door time say from one’s office in NYC to DC via train is at LEAST an hour if not three shorter.  AND a heck of a lot more comfortable on the train.  I have had clients give up flying from the HQ in NJ to an office in Richmond VA because the train was much more reliable, business class a fraction of the cost and included breakfast or dinner and a newspaper, the suburban NJ station was 15 minutes from home, they got a lot of work done in their comfortable seat with free wifi, and oh yes, a free movie!  The VP changed the policy to require all travel between Richmond, Boston, Albany, DC, and the NJ headquarters to ONLY be via Amtrak.  [and it didn’t hurt that NJ HQ was 2 blocks from a NJTR station which was less than a 30 minute train ride from NYP or NWK]

    You cannot compare NJ-CA train travel versus an airplane, granted that will not happen, nor an ocean liner to Europe versus an airplane, IF you only consider speed.  Comfort, enjoyment, better food, and more need to be considered.  

    Equipment, yes, some are old and newer equipment is needed, but that is coming within the length of their cable tow.  New diesel locomotives are in operation, new long distance equipment is being introduced-some in operation, and other new equipment and trains are on the drawing board.  You are up in the Seattle area if I recall.  Take your daughter on a trip to Portland on one of the new Cascades trains.  See how much better they are than the cramped regional jet.  Try going south on the Starlight and check out the dining car, come back on the Cascades.  It will change your mind.

    As for money, NO passenger railroad in the world makes a profit.  The difference is that the governments outside North America heavily subsidize the railroads, freight and passenger.  They pay for the tracks, they don’t charge real estate taxes-bet you didn’t know that the track near your home is paying property taxes?  And gets NO benefits except when some idiot thinks they can beat the train [train always wins].  Airlines receive huge subsidies that would bankrupt even the most profitable overnight if they paid their fair share.  Cars and trucks also if you had to pay your fair share to drive on roads [your taxes only pay a fraction].  Operationally, Amtrak breaks even or is close every year.  

    On time can be a problem, trains can get caught in ‘rush hour’ traffic too, just like you do in your car.  An accident up ahead causes a bumper to bumper standstill doesn’t it?  Well that idiot who tried to beat a train and got hit can cause a huge delay and back up of trains for 100’s of miles.  Its unfortunate, but unfortunately a daily event in this country.  

    The real problem is Amtrak is 90% political and 10% railroading.  Amtrak has no long term financing or grants.  EVERY year its threaten to be shut down so they have a 24/7/52 job campaigning in the Capital for money.  Can you imagine if the airlines where told every year that Air Traffic Control funding was being eliminated?  What the trucking industry would do if their subsidies were eliminated?  How about for you car?  What would you do if you couldn’t drive more than 10 miles a week say?

    David, over many years I have enjoyed your articles, many many well written.  However, I needed to call you out that you completely failed on this one.  You not only ignored the facts, you printed so many falsehoods and innuendoes.  You really need to do some more research in facts and rewrite this article.


    1. Hi, Walter

      Thanks for your comments.

      We’re actually on the same side of this issue. If you’d carefully parsed my article – and yes, perhaps I should have been clearer – I wasn’t referring to Amtrak’s marginally/maybe profitable Northeast Corridor services. My reference to ‘one train every two days’ and ‘two day and two night’ journeys clearly doesn’t describe a 3 hour journey between New York and Washington DC, offered every hour on the hour for most of the day.

      As for taking the train between Seattle and Portland, something I’ve done once but never again, it just totally doesn’t make sense, and in comparing the train to a regional jet, you are ignoring the real competitor. Driving one’s own car along crowded I-5. Why would I drive 30+ minutes in to Seattle, struggle to find parking in a really bad part of town, then take a 3 1/2 hour train journey to the outskirts of Portland, and then try to puzzle out how I’d get from there to wherever I wanted to travel to – in other words, a total travel time approaching 5 hours, when I could simply hop in my car at home, and three easy comfortable hours later be where I wanted to be in the Portland region.

      You do however touch on a point – Amtrak’s unreliability. You attempt to excuse this by blaming it on level crossing crashes, but the bigger culprit here is that Amtrak doesn’t own its track, other than on some of the Northeast corridor. It has to take second priority, after freight trains, and if anything delays a freight train, then Amtrak has to ‘go with the flow’.

      Your other points may or may not be entirely valid (I think their billion dollar a year in federal support goes a long way to matching the funds spent, per person, on roading, ATC, etc, and I’m not sure I agree that airlines get huge subsidies) but are irrelevant. Passengers don’t care if Amtrak makes or loses money. They just care about their experience, its cost, and the time taken. Which brings me back to the equivalence I made in my article – when you can choose between an uncomfortable two hour flight, or a comfortable two day train ride, which will 99.9% of people choose?

      Lastly, when you say that Amtrak’s problem is 90% political, isn’t that also what I said? I said the Amtrak CEO should be camped outside the offices of congressmen and senators, day and night, pushing the need for a program of national rail investment.

      Truly, we’re on the same side here.

  2. David:
    Your repeated attacks on Amtrak may resonate in some parts of the country but I can tell you that in the Northeast Corridor, where I live, Amtrak is by far the best choice between many city-pairs. It is far more convenient than driving on over-crowded highways to out-of-the way airports, paying exorbitant parking fees, standing in long check-in and TSA lines, and then facing delays or cancellations due to weather, equipment issues, crew shortages and all sorts of other reasons.
    And, you don’t have to be on the Acela to have an advantage over the airlines. The Northeast Regional provides very good service on a frequent basis with all of the benefits advertised by Amtrak since Richard Anderson took over. We frequently travel between Connecticut and Baltimore on Amtrak, which easily beats either driving our car or flying.
    I only say this to point out that Amtrak is not all bad, as you typically imply. There is still no comparison between Amtrak and the very efficient European rail systems we frequently use (including travelling with you), but let’s not disparage Amtrak on all counts when some aspects are the best option. I know that Amtrak’s longer distance routes in other parts of the country have the problems you mention and I agree with your comments that Mr. Anderson should be working to get the US to improve its rail infrastructure and get our current president to follow through on at least his campaign pledge of infrastructure spending.

    Dick Kreitner

    1. Hi, Dick

      Always nice to hear from you. Can I ask you to see my comments offered to Walter and consider them also a reply to you. I wasn’t talking about the Northeast corridor. I was talking about the rest of the Amtrak network.



      1. Hi, David,
        Good to hear from you, also. My comments were primarily a reaction to what I frequently hear from Congressmen from states outside the Northeast, who would like to eliminate all Amtrak funding. I don’t want them reading your newsletter and using it to support their case. I think we agree that passenger rail needs more, not less, funding. I would like to see you pointing out that there are many city pairs where Amtrak is the best travel option and that we should be doing more follow this example elsewhere.
        Best wishes,

        1. Hello again, Dick

          Yes, we most definitely agree that the solution to Amtrak’s challenges is more investment, rather than less. Currently we’re watching a slow-motion death-spiral, with insufficient funding causing the steady decay of Amtrak’s long-distance services.

          But – many city pairs where Amtrak is the best travel option? Not so much. Apart from the Northeast Corridor, where else is Amtrak currently a good option, let alone the best option, and what percentage of the total number of city-pairs in the country does that comprise? Before we get tied up with definitions, maybe we can agree that there are certainly many city pairs where Amtrak could be a good option, but far too few where it currently actually is a good option.

          With efficient high speed service and plenty of trains each day, Amtrak could offer high quality travel solutions for pretty much all city pairs within 100 – 500 miles of each other. That’s a huge amount of the eastern US.

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