Weekly Roundup, Friday 8 February 2019

Exciting news! We’re offering a new Scotland tour in September (details immediately below), and this time we not only have a ride on this, the “Harry Potter” steam train, but we also, in the other direction, have a photo stop where we can photograph the train crossing the famous Glenfinnan viaduct.

Good morning

Lots of touring news this morning.

Our new Loire Valley Land Cruise in September has proven to be popular, with three people already signed up and another four expected to be joining them any day now.  This is a wonderful way to see a great part of France at a lovely time of year.  We enjoy a week in Tours, in the heart of the Loire Valley, and enjoy daily excursions around the area.  There’s a post-tour option on down to Bordeaux, and a pre-tour option in the charming town of Chantilly, not far from Paris’ CDG airport.

And now, for an unexpected new pre-pre-tour option.  There’s a bit of a story to this, and I can’t really tell it all in this public forum, but those of you who enjoyed our Grand Tour of Great Britain last year may remember me telling you the story of the guy that Jim and I met in a bar, the night we were all in Thurso.  The guy with, ahem, his own bottle.

This guy – Ken – has his own small coaching company, which is how he and Jim knew each other.  Just like Jim, he is another 110% genuine Highland Scot, a wonderful raconteur, and great fun to be with.  He contacted me this week to say he’d just had a cancellation in September and wondered if we could put something together.

Well, I’ve already been missing the thought of Scotland again this year, and so was eager to work with Ken to create something special, and he was eager to work with us.  And so, we’ve developed what I’m calling “Scotland’s Highland Highlights” – a mix of some familiar and some unfamiliar parts of the Highlands that you are sure to love, no matter if you’ve been on any of our various Scotland tours before or not.

Ken will drive his lovely nearly new 49 seater coach, and with a maximum of 24 people, that means everyone can have a double seat if they wish.  We hope to add Jim as co-driver too, because we all love Jim so much.  Ken’s wife will also come along as “hostess”, meaning you’ll be surrounded by possibly four support staff to help ensure your experience is as wonderful as possible.

As a special experience, at the beginning, there’s an option to take the brand new overnight sleeper train from London to Fort William.  This train starts operation in June, and is the result of an almost $200 million investment by the Scottish government and a private company to develop a very high quality travel experience.  Unlike many overnight sleeper trains that these days are too short for eight hours sleep, this train offers a good 13 hour experience, which means you have time for some evening enjoyment, then a good night’s sleep, then breakfast and enjoying the scenery on what the Seat61.com website describes as the finest rail journey in Britain.

This Scotland tour is a great value, and is timed so at its conclusion, you can then hop over to Paris in time for the start of the Loire Valley Land Cruise.  Do one, do the other, or, best of all, do both.

Full details of our September Scotland’s Highland Highlights tour can now be seen here.

I’ve also greatly enhanced our December Christmas Land Cruise.  Full details next week, but for now I can excitedly tell you that in addition to the main one week “cruise” which will be based in Munich, prior to then we’re offering a train-based optional pre-tour that you can join in either Trieste (or Venice), Ljubljana, Zagreb or Vienna.

With a day tour to Bratislava as part of this, and two nights in each city (except Vienna with three nights) this is a wonderful but surprisingly relaxing way to add up to five more countries to the main tour portion.  Add on our always very popular Prague option at the end and in total you could be in eight different countries.  Wow.

What else this week?  Please keep reading for :

  • Travel Insider Twitter Account
  • Expedia vs United :  Battle of the Giants
  • Will Trains Replace Planes in the US?
  • More Bad News for the A380
  • Boeing Delays its New Plane
  • And Lastly This Week….

Travel Insider Twitter Account

Thank you to the 200+ new followers of our Twitter account this last week.  We’re now at 1,040 followers, and more people continue to follow us each day.  If you’ve not yet started following us, please do so and help speed us on our way to our next milestone target – 10,000 followers!

A reminder also that our former daily news curation service has been replaced by our Twitter feed.  If you were getting the previous newsletter each morning, please now go to this page and join for the daily Twitter feed :  https://www.tinyfollow.com/twitter/thetvlinsider

Expedia vs United :  Battle of the Giants

As you know, there are only three major airlines in the US these days – American, Delta and United (four if you count Southwest – a large domestic carrier but with negligible international service).  There are even fewer major online travel services, with Expedia probably being the biggest of them all.

This concentration of market power both in the hands of very few airlines and very few online resellers makes for regular and always interesting public battles between the two.  Usually it is in the form of Expedia removing one of the airlines from its online booking service as a way to “negotiate” for better terms and commissions.

But this time, it is in the form of United refusing to allow Expedia access to its flights subsequent to 1 October.  To clarify, that means you couldn’t book, through Expedia, a United flight in October or subsequently, even now (although in practice it seems you sometimes can) so the impact on Expedia is slowly growing as October comes closer.

In cases like this, where competitive market forces clearly don’t work on either side of the equation, Expedia did what may be its only remaining possible action, and sued United.  But is it really the role of the courts to step in where competitive pressures have failed?  Isn’t that one small step removed from returning to industry regulation?

Are you listening, Departments of Transportation and Commerce?  You’re the ones who have approved the consolidation of all our former airlines down to 3 or 4 remaining major carriers on the specious grounds that this would not harm and instead help grow competition.  You’ve also allowed for successive rounds of consolidation in the online travel agency field, too. How’s that working for us all now?

Details here.

Will Trains Replace Planes in the US?

Darling of the radical left, Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez, has now released her “save the planet” plan.  No-one (especially her!) has any idea how much it would all cost, but she doesn’t think that is important, because the country has afforded other major public works programs in the past, so therefore it obviously can again in the future.  If money runs short, her solution is that the Federal Reserve simply print more money to pay for what is probably a tens or hundreds of trillions of dollars program in its terrifying entirety.

The major part that overlaps with our interests as travelers relates to her suggestion that we construct a network of high-speed rail lines so as to make air travel redundant and unnecessary (discussed here).

Now, as you probably know, I love train travel, and I love high-speed rail in particular.  But.  And it is an enormous “but”.

High speed rail works well for a certain range of travel distances.  Less than 100 miles or so, and there are insufficient benefits to be gained by traveling, even at a high speed, on a train compared to simply driving in one’s car on the freeway.  More than 1,000 miles or so, and even the fastest high-speed trains just become too slow compared to planes which typically fly about four times faster.

But Ms O-C fails to recognize that, and her vision sees all air travel being obsoleted (or, more likely, regulated/taxed out of existence).

So let’s do something she clearly hasn’t done, and ponder the implications.  First of all, remember the distance thing mentioned above.  A trans-continental flight that typically might take five hours – now you’re looking at 20 hours by train.  Yes, I know, at the top of the page I was excitedly talking about how wonderful sleeper trains can be, but that’s as a 13 hr one-off tourism treat, not as a necessary 20 hr business travel event, repeated regularly each year.

And what about the cost of this?  While she has no idea and doesn’t seem to care, we can make some guesses.  We know that California’s high-speed rail project is currently expected to possibly cost in the order of $100 billion, in return for which, some 800 miles of track will be constructed, which suggests a cost in the order of $125 million per mile of track.

Amtrak currently operates on about 21,500 miles of track and serves in some form or another 500 destinations in 46 states.  That sounds good, but does your city have a nearby Amtrak station?  In contrast, there are about 5100 public airports in the US.

Of course we know that Amtrak doesn’t operate many places.  Allowing for reasonably direct service (so as to keep the traveling time as short as possible) and giving comparable coverage to that offered by airlines would require a huge growth in rail track.

Perhaps a measure of this requirement is to note that there are about 140,000 route miles of freight railroad track in the country (see image, above).

For want of a better number, let’s say the same number of miles of high-speed rail track would be required – although, to handle the number of high-speed trains a day, more double and even triple track segments would be required (strangely and counter-intuitively, the faster the train, the fewer trains a line can handle).

If we look at the interstate highway system, there are about 47,000 miles of interstate highways.  Double that for double track rather than single track, and add a bit more for additional connectors and track, and you come to a similar sort of total number.  Using the California cost of $125 million per mile, that represents a cost of $17.5 trillion, plus or minus a fairly wide margin, but at those sorts of costs, it doesn’t really matter, does it, and you know, for sure, that the variation will end up as “plus” rather than “minus”.

So, this then is her suggestion.  To spend $17.5 trillion so that instead of flying somewhere in five hours, we take a 20 hour train.

There’s one more point to observe.  If she truly wanted to be forward-looking, why not propose hyperloop transportation?  That promises to cost massively less to construct, to be much less environmentally impactful than high-speed rail, and to operate at faster speeds than airplanes.

I’m reminded of the famous boast early on during the first Obama term that the US would soon have a high-speed rail network second to none in the world.  Eight years later, at the end of his two terms, the total number of miles of high-speed track constructed?  Zero.

Oh – she also wants to build rail bridges over the oceans, too.  So instead of a ten hour international flight, you could enjoy a 40 hour train journey.  Yay.

More Bad News for the A380

Last week news was breaking that Emirates is reconsidering its A380 orders, and might cancel them entirely, due primarily to problems with the Rolls-Royce engines that power the planes.  I pointed out at the time that the forward orders for the A380 comprised 53 to Emirates, three to ANA, and eight to Qantas, plus some uncertain/unlikely orders to other airlines.

On Thursday this week, news broke that Qantas has cancelled its order for eight A380s (it already has 12 A380 planes in its current fleet).  This was a terrible blow to the program, due to the high-visibility cancellation of an order by a highly respected well-managed airline.  Curiously, Qantas and Emirates are very closely partnered these days, and so one wonders if there is any linkage between Emirates’ “uncertainty” and now Qantas’ cancellation.

Meanwhile, there is a slowly growing inventory of returned-at-the-end-of-lease A380s that airlines didn’t want to keep, and other airlines who are understood to be keen to quit their A380s if they could do so favorably without needing to take sizeable write-offs in the process.

Is it just me, or do you too see a new opportunity opening up.  Just like how Freddy Laker, in the 1970s and early 1980s, developed the concept of low-cost trans-Atlantic flights with his then Skytrain airline, why not buy up these A380s at very low cost, remove their first and business class seats, and give them maybe 700 or more coach class seats (the plane is rated to hold up to 853 passengers in an all-coach class configuration and currently carries somewhere between about 420 and 550, usually in a three or four class configuration) and fly them to and fro across the Atlantic, between New York and London and between Los Angeles and London, maybe other city pairs too.

The combination of an airplane passengers love and a low fare they’d also love might prove very popular, and while the A380’s operating costs are not all that advantageous for a new plane with high depreciation and a low number of seats, for an older plane with massively lower depreciation costs and many more seats, could it work?

On the other hand, maybe make the A380s that no-one wants into themed hotels.  A former 747-200 has been converted into a 33 room hotel in Sweden, so an A380 would presumably be good for 50 or more rooms a time.

Boeing Delays its New Plane

I pointed out a couple of weeks ago how Boeing has worked out that being slow to replace its 737 is to its advantage, because it gets to sell one more generation of 737 replacements on advantageous terms to its massive installed base of 737 operators.

Slightly different reasons apply however for its decision to delay the announcement of a “New Midmarket Airplane” (NMA).  This plane, expected to be twin-aisle, and almost certainly to end up being known as the 797, would be something to fill the gap in Boeing’s product range caused by the discontinuation of its 757 and 767 aircraft lines.  The 757 ceased production in 2004, the 767 is still being produced, but only in freighter (and Air Force tanker) versions; the last orders for passenger configurations had pretty much ceased by the early 2000s apart from a few outlier orders from some of the -stan countries.

So this has been a long-standing model gap, and with airlines increasingly looking to replace their older 757 and 767 planes, there have been few choices for them, and Airbus with its A321 has been a strong contender.

After years of corporate dithering, it was widely expected that Boeing would start accepting orders for the new plane at the Paris Air Show in spring this year.  But now it seems things have slipped another year, with the official reason being that this allows Boeing to finish work on its latest generation 777 first, then switch to the new 797 after that.  Gone are the days when Boeing seemed willing and able to develop multiple airplane models simultaneously.

The unofficial reason seems to be continued uncertainty as to if there is enough market demand for such a plane.  Most independent estimates suggest a total market for about 2,000 planes during its model life, whereas Boeing alone claims more than twice that market size.  That market also has to be shared with Airbus, and if you consider a say $10 billion development program that might sell 1000 planes, that is an extraordinary $10 million R&D cost to be absorbed into each plane sold.

And Lastly This Week….

Ethical sourcing is a new concept that has been applied to things as different as diamonds and coffee beans.  Always hovering around the periphery of this notion has been “ethical tourism”, where you don’t go to “bad” countries, only to nice good ones.

The rejoinder to that has always been that by going to bad regimes, we get to demonstrate the truth of the western world and the United States, countering the anti-American propaganda that such regimes often seem to indulge in.  It has been suggested that it was the steady “leakage” of western news and information that contributed to the fall of the Soviet Union and the hunger of the Chinese to improve their lives, and when I arranged a group to North Korea, we all took pride in showing ourselves to be ordinary good people, rather than baby-eating monsters or who only knows what else.

But if the thought of basing your travels on the “morality” of the country you visit appeals, a list has just been published that ranks 136 countries in terms of their perceived morality.  Germany is the most moral country, the US is rated 21st, China is 74th, and Mexico comes in at 108th place.  Details here.

Lastly this week, two different looks at toilets.  Well, not in a voyeuristic sense.  But here’s a fascinating article on some of the issues to do with stadium toilets (this year’s SuperBowl apparently saw 30 minute lines for the men’s toilets, and no lines for the women’s toilets) and here’s a very colorful set of pictures of a toilet block in rural New Zealand designed by the eccentric artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels





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