Weekly Roundup, February 11, 2022

The US has about 140,000 miles of rail track. Why can’t we create more “experiential” journeys on more of this resource? See article, below.


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Good morning

Many thanks to the people who kindly responded to my request last week to act as a “brains trust/focus group” and help me with a new activity involving classical music.  With their help, we’ve now winnowed ideas down to a short-list of possible names for the new undertaking.  If you missed my mention last week, and have some interest, even if only casual, in classical music, it would be most appreciated to get your thoughts on the names we’re now considering.  Please let me know, and I’ll tell you more about it.

I wrote last week about the economic death of my Land Rover.  As if to prove its pending demise, late that night it misbehaved in a new way – while parked in the drive, its burglar alarm spontaneously started sounding.  Ugh – not a way to endear one to one’s neighbors.  But I understand its unhappiness at being soon consigned to the scrapyard; I’m not happy about it either.

A reader wrote in to say she needed to replace her car after an accident totaled it.  She was unable to find any new cars that weren’t selling for well over sticker price, and many late-model used cars were also selling for more than new prices  too.  So I found this article interesting, although clearly the car manufacturers are being way too passive when it comes to controlling their rapacious dealers.

Early this week, Frontier and Spirit Airlines announced their plans to merge.  The usual nonsensical “we’re doing this for you” statements were quickly trotted out.  But are they really going to give us a better travel experience (Joe Brancatelli explains to his readers today about how they could hardly give people a worse travel experience), and at a lower price?  Unsurprisingly, I’m a bit skeptical of such claims, and look at the reality of things in this week’s feature article, attached after tonight’s roundup.

My comments apply equally to all previous cases when airlines have told us they’re merging not for their benefit, but for ours, and almost certainly will continue to apply in the future, too, although one wonders just how many airline mergers remain possible, given the precious few airlines we have remaining.

If you look at the table of airlines by passenger numbers in the attached article, you might see the same thing I did – United is very much smaller than the other three of the “Big Four” airlines, and one has to wonder if UA might use that as an excuse/justification to merge with one of the lesser airlines.

Talking about airlines, you might want to read Will Allen’s article about his latest series of problems with United.  Short summary – they cancelled the return leg of his business class journey to South Africa without telling him, then didn’t want to help fix the problem they caused.  Add a shot of “can’t get through to customer support” and a measure of “get a travel agent to do it for you” (but the travel agent isn’t allowed to!) and you’ve got the ingredients for a terrible problem, all caused by United.

Although I’d indicated I’ll be stopping my Covid Diary articles, it is hard to break a habit that had continued without a break for two years, and you’ll find another edition also attached, and Sunday’s is online, here.  They are reducing in size – I guess I’m weaning myself off them gradually, rather than going “cold turkey”.

And, below, please find :

  • Air Passenger Numbers
  • International Travel Update
  • The Strange Case of the Woman Who Didn’t Complain
  • Boeing Scapegoat Has Two Charges Dropped
  • A National No-Fly List?
  • California’s Undead Zombie Rail Line
  • A Train Business Model That Could Work
  • Is Hydrogen Really a “Green” Fuel?
  • And Lastly This Week….

Air Passenger Numbers

Although the running seven day average of US air passenger numbers is oscillating a bit more than previously, it seems that currently the general trend is to sit around the 75% of 2019 level.

I’m guessing that will start to rise fairly soon.  Whether supported by “the science” or not, most people seem to be unilaterally deciding the virus is no longer something they should allow to cripple their lives, with such attitudes being echoed by politicians the world over, terrified at what is being thought to be a potential backlash against the various controls of the last two years, in the form of a drubbing at the polls come their next election.

So it seems likely that air passenger numbers will drift upwards once more – certainly to the more optimistic levels of late last year, and possibly continuing on up from there.

International Travel Update

The news is full of countries announcing relaxations in their Covid controls.  It is hard to know exactly what form the relaxing is taking, but the trend is definitely towards less restriction rather than more.  I’m also getting the sense that maybe the threatened requirement to be both fully vaccinated and also boostered may not be imposed, for example, earlier this week Hawaii announced it was cancelling its plans to require that of visitors to its islands.

There’s still plenty of opportunity for anything at all to happen between now and mid spring when people tend to start thinking of international travel, but at this stage, I’d say that all the signs are looking increasingly positive.

The Strange Case of the Woman Who Didn’t Complain

Rape has become a crime so terrible that the mere suggestion of its occurrence is often enough to cause people to judge the accused as guilty, without ever considering the facts.  Major accusations, whether of rape or anything else, should be accompanied with increased care in the prosecution process, not diminished care.

While it is definitely true that there has been a past bias towards assuming accused men are innocent, and sometimes terrible hoops for victims to jump through to press charges and see a conviction, the underlying tenet of our criminal justice system is the need to prove guilt beyond a reasonable shadow of doubt, which makes the “he said/she said” nature of so many rape charges tragically difficult to interpret.  No man, as variously the son of one woman, perhaps the husband of a second, and maybe the father of a third, wants to see rapists go unpunished.  But similarly, no man wants to see an innocent person convicted of a crime they did not commit.

Which brings me to the headlines earlier this week of a man hauled off a trans-Atlantic United flight from Newark to Heathrow, accused of raping a fellow passenger on the overnight flight to England.

What we do know is that the man and woman did not know each other prior to the flight, but met in the airline lounge before the flight, had a drink or two, and then apparently shared more drinks together on the flight – they were both in business class.  Apparently, at some time, sex took place.  At some time subsequently, the woman complained to flight attendants the man had raped her, the flight attendants radioed ahead, and the man was taken away by police.

So here’s my question.  Why didn’t the woman call out for help during the rape itself?  There were other passengers in the business class cabin, and flight attendants somewhere around.  Please don’t say “because she was scared of the man” – she was being raped, help was all around her if she wanted – it wasn’t as though the man, now known to her – could run away and disappear, was it!  Plus she was able to, some time later, go complain about the event.

It is perhaps notable that although the male passenger was taken to an airport police station for interview upon arrival, he was released without charge at the end of it.  That’s not to say he might not be charged in the future, of course, but it might suggest that newspapers would be better advised to be more neutral in their current coverage of the event.  The alternate explanation – “Adult couple got tiddly, had consensual sex, then woman had second thoughts afterwards” isn’t quite as headline-worthy, is it.  Details here, here, and plenty other places too.

The most unfair thing about such cases is that even in egregiously false accusations, the accuser never ends up having the same consequences as the man would have been the case if her accusations were sustained.

However, recognizing the imperfections of the world in which we live, can I suggest – to these two people and to any others who wish an unambiguous induction into the Mile High Club, that a better approach – with, dare I say it, a happier ending, might be to contract with this company.

Boeing Scapegoat Has Two Charges Dropped

When Boeing finally admitted that the fatal crashes of two of its 737 MAX planes actually almost sort of might have been perhaps possibly due to it messing up with its automatic autopilot settings without telling anyone what it had done, both Boeing and its supporters were desperate to find someone to blame for the now acknowledged fatal mistakes that were made.

Clearly, it couldn’t be Boeing, corporately.  And neither could it be the FAA, for failing to pick up on the problems prior to certifying an unsafe place as safe.  It had to be some sort of single disruptive person, a lone wolf, not a broader corporate failure of governance.  Soon enough, it was decided that much of the blame be placed at the feet of the lead test-pilot, who was charged with six counts of fraud.

We’re expected to believe this person deliberately suppressed the truth and lied in his reporting – even while he was simultaneously telling other people in Boeing about massive problems with the autopilot system and its “MCAS” module that could take over the plane and cause it to crash, no matter what a pilot did.  His motive for these alleged offences?  Not personal gain.  Not even to harm Boeing.  But rather, we are told, a quixotic altruistic desire to save Boeing money, even if it meant people would die, planes would crash, and Boeing would be harmed in extreme measure as a result.

As you can tell, I’m far from convinced at the fairness of these charges, particularly when so many other executives have not been similarly or more seriously charged.

The good news for this poor gentleman is that two of the six charges against him were dismissed this week, albeit on technical legal grounds rather than due to an abundance of facts showing the ridiculousness of them.  That still leaves four charges remaining.

Whatever happened to the doctrine of employers being responsible for the actions of their employees – respondeat superior?  Or simply expecting that both Boeing and the FAA would double-check and confirm critical “single point of fatal failure” systems?

A National No-Fly List?

I will readily agree that passenger behavior on flights has worsened over the last some years.  But will you in turn now agree with me this is in measurable part the fault of the airlines and their staff, who at times go out of their way to confrontationally escalate trivial matters and encourage minor upsets to become major incidents.

I will also readily agree that, particularly on a plane, it is reasonable and essential to expect and require reasonable behavior from everyone on board, and bad behavior must result in consequences appropriate to the transgressions.  Here’s a fairly clear-cut case of outrageous behavior that calls out for consequences.

But, what exactly are appropriate consequences?  And how do we establish both the degree of guilt, the shared culpability of other parties, and then the appropriate outcomes for all involved?

Those three questions have been unfortunately overlooked in the unseemly eagerness the airlines and flight attendant unions have to punish passengers “to the max”.  I’ve previously pointed out the several times where flight attendants have clearly been lying when pressing claims of passenger misbehavior, and the curious way the airlines never bother to collect evidence from other passengers on flights where such alleged incidents occur.  Instead, the airlines act unilaterally and may choose to ban a passenger- for the flight, for the day, for an extended period, and possibly for life, based on the unsupported and contested evidence of a flight attendant and her/his supportive and far from unbiased colleagues.

The move is now on to create a national no-fly list so that if you’re banned from one airline, you’ll be banned from all airlines.  That’s a profoundly harmful penalty if your work or even private life occasionally requires you to travel.  Yes, I know, “the offender should have thought about that before misbehaving”, but what if the allegations are false?  What if there were mitigating circumstances?

Who will establish guilt, and determine punishment?

It is beyond un-American that airlines should have the unfettered and un-appealable ability to destroy people’s lives based on nothing more substantive than a fearful flight attendant lying to protect her job and getting in her fabricated accusations about a passenger before the passenger can truly complain about her.  These types of severe punishments demand a right to jury trial in an open court, and with normal laws of criminal proceedings and evidence, and with normal rights of appeal, too.

Which also means the very first step is writing a federal code setting out specifically the offenses and consequences.  The current “failure to follow the lawful instructions of a uniformed crew member” catch-all regulation needs to be updated and made more specific.  Otherwise, you could find yourself banned for life, on all US airlines, just because you didn’t hear the flight attendant ask you to put your tray table up.

California’s Undead Zombie Rail Line

I hesitate even to use the phrase “high speed” when describing the money-hole that is California’s high-speed rail-line.  It is currently on life-support, and was actually discontinued by Governor Newsom three years ago in his State of the State address on 12 Feb, 2019.  But, after he announced its cancellation, the Trump administration quickly came a-knocking, and asked for the subsidies they had paid, up-front, contributing to the cost of the line, to be returned.  No line = no subsidy, or so they reasoned.

Whereupon Gov Newsom rushed to explain that when he said he was cancelling it, he didn’t actually mean cancelling it at all.  You can read my eyeball-rolling description of the nonsense here.  Apparently California was about to give a billion or so bucks back to the federal government, but as soon as Biden entered the Oval Office the funding was promptly given back to California, because Biden loves trains to much that he’ll even pay for train projects that are unlikely ever to be completed.

Since the non-cancellation, the project has been “proceeding”, although without a timetable and apparently without much of a budget, either.  However, the project has recently taken on a new lease of life, sensing a potential to grab more federal funding; but without that, it seems like a quintessential zombie – an undead creature that can’t be killed, while making life a misery for regular people.

This article seems almost a joke, when it reports that the estimated construction costs of the line have increased from $100 to $105 billion.  With no construction timetable, and not a single line of track yet laid, the ultimate cost is impossible to guess – pick a number, any number, then double it.  The estimated cost has gone up and down repeatedly in the past – it was originally claimed to be $40 billion, then approached $100 billion, then dropped when people complained at that number, and now has started escalating up again (no surprise there).

The plan still remains to start off with a rail line from nowhere to nowhere (Merced to Bakersfield) but now the California High Speed Rail Authority is suggesting that it should not only continue with that lunacy, but double down on it, and make this into a double track stretch of line, rather than single track.  Just exactly how many trains a day are they planning on running between Merced and Bakersfield?

But wait – the craziest part of the current plan is what is termed a “High-Speed Rail Bus Service” between Merced and Sacramento.  Exactly what that is, and just how fast the buses will be traveling on surface (non-freeway) roads, is a matter for hilarious speculation.

There’s precious little to look forward to if it ever does become a reality, especially if it copies what Amtrak is doing.  It seems Amtrak’s new coaches feature seats that are substantially (21″ reduces to 19.1″) narrower and less comfortable than the older seats in the obsoleted coaches.  They also have fewer doors per carriage, because the thing we all enjoy more than anything else is waiting impatiently to get off or on a train, and/or unnecessarily longer stops at stations on a journey.

Why?  We are all, as people, getting “bigger”, and the narrower seats don’t allow an extra seat per row to be squeezed in.  And doors at both ends of carriages is a normal feature of carriages the world over.  It is just someone somewhere coming up with a new way to make public transport unpleasant for us and to still further minimize Amtrak’s already extremely minimal appeal.

A Train Business Model That Could Work

Some people have suggested the US give up on high speed rail and instead focus on “experiential rail” travel experiences.  The stark staring obvious truth is there is no political will to fund the trillions of dollars that would be needed to create a viable high speed rail network, leaving us instead with decades of broken promises and projects that never make it to fruition.

Amtrak has half comprehended this already, and talks about its long distance trains as experiences rather than as commuter solutions.  But it doesn’t create enjoyable experiences – that’s a key part.  Instead, passengers suffer uncomfortable compartments that often have broken parts, inadequate depressing food service, and, well, not much else at all.  There are lots of people who would eagerly sign up for travel experiences such as are offered in the Australian trains – from Adelaide, up through Alice Springs, to Darwin, or from Sydney/Melbourne, either north to Cairns or west to Perth.  They are great quality trains and not outrageously overpriced journeys.

Why not the same in the US?  Part of the reason is the deep-seated dislike of any types of passenger services the freight railroads have, coupled with the reality that much of their track is getting close to fully utilized with freight trains, making it difficult to create conveniently timed passenger services on the same track.

The other part of the reason is simply America’s general myopia when it comes to train travel, and an inability to see beyond the abundant problems of Amtrak to a different type of future that could actually work for train operators.

Here’s a very small example of the sort of thing that could and should be expanded to cover more of the nation’s 140,000 miles of rail track (see the map above).  In other countries, a successful model has passengers on the train during each day, making stops along the way to sight-see, and then most nights, either traveling on to the next destination for the next day’s sightseeing, or stopping over in a town/city, and perhaps even letting passengers spend a night in a local hotel for a change.  Even more convenient are services where you can travel between a couple of sectors one day, get off and spend a while – a night or more – somewhere, then get on the next train and go to wherever next, and so on.

This is also somewhat analogous to the booming business in Europe – river cruising.  Just about everything that can be done on a river cruiser could be done, here in the US, on trains instead.  The US tourism industry is missing out on a great way to take one of the country’s most distinctive features – its enormous size and diversity of landscapes and environments, combine it with the huge resource of a comprehensive existing rail network that, while useless for fast trains, is ideal for slow trains – and turn it into a compelling form of vacation, both for Americans themselves, and for international visitors.

Is Hydrogen Really a “Green” Fuel?

This is an interesting article about hydrogen as a power source for cars and other vehicles.  It does a great job of pointing out some of the critical flaws in using hydrogen, but if anything, it remains way too positive about the concept.

In that, it is far from alone.  Look for example at this article and the artful way it makes a totally false claim – “France unveils zero-emission cargo ship”.  See the fine-print, however – “yielding no direct greenhouse gas emissions”.  The key word is “direct”.  If you factor in the abundant CO2 release in making the hydrogen from methane in the first place, you’re probably no better off than if the ship was burning diesel, and possibly worse off (due to the inefficiencies in the hydrogen transport).

This ends up doing nothing more than underscoring yet again – should that be necessary – the illogic and outright lies underpinning every part of the “save the planet” nonsense.  This French ship is “saving the planet” but releasing more CO2, somewhere else?  Only the French, and eco-nutters, would consider that a good idea.

Back to the first article, it touches on but doesn’t develop the key use-case for hydrogen.  Using spare/free electricity to make hydrogen via electrolysis of water – doing it with water is slightly more energy intensive than making hydrogen from methane, but doesn’t release CO2 as a byproduct.  This can be done just about anywhere, because it uses water as a source – something everyone has in their taps, rather than methane/propane/natural gas which few people have on hand.  The net result is you create hydrogen from the spare power, as a way of storing the spare/free electricity.  What you do with the hydrogen subsequently, and how you transport it, remains somewhat unclear.

With the growing amount of wind and solar power out there, we can no longer control when our energy is generated, with the twin problems being some of the time, we have “too much” and some of the time, we have too little.  There has been a lot of attention given to how to store the energy when the wind is blowing and the sun is shining, and then use it when neither is happening sufficiently, and using it to make on-site hydrogen is one of a number of strategies.

Is it the best idea, though?  Maybe not.  Possibly even better would be to use spare energy to charge BEV vehicles, and then take back some of that stored charge when there’s a electricity generation shortage.  We’re starting to see the emergence of new BEVs that have bi-directional charging, and which can both give and take electricity as may be needed.  That “cuts out the middle man” of hydrogen and seems like the best route, perhaps with fewer conversion losses (from electricity to hydrogen then back to electricity is much more inefficient than from electricity (mains power) to electricity (battery power) and back to electricity (mains power).  It also requires less infrastructure and adds another benefit to owning an electric vehicle.

For some reason, however (some might say because of its inefficiency!) the greenies are very keen on hydrogen, even though, as presently made it is very “greenhouse gas intensive” and as presently used (compressed for storage, transported, then used in fuel cells) is very much less efficient than battery-electric power.

And Lastly This Week….

This article slightly overstates and over-sensationalizes “America’s secret airline”, but if you’ve not heard of Janet before, you might find it interesting.  I’d invite you to share details of any travels you might have had on Janet, but for the fact that doing so might get us both in trouble!

Apparently, somewhere in the world, there are some winter Olympics underway at present.  Apparently some people are even winning medals, although apparently not many Americans.

This is a relevant article – looking at some of the former Olympic facilities around the world, and what has happened to them since after the games they were constructed for.

If you like that sort of “look what happened….” perspective, here’s a similar one on abandoned airports.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels






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