Category Archives: Travels

VTA’s Not-So-Smart People

Facing declining ridership and a $20 million annual deficit, San Jose’s Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) needs to be “right-sized,” says San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo. Liccardo was recently made chair of VTA’s board of directors, and in some recent remarks to the board, he offered some ominous warnings about the agency’s future.

Despite the fact that Silicon Valley is in a period of “unprecedented prosperity” and the region’s population is steadily growing, he noted, ridership is declining, the agency had to do some one-time only budgetary hocus-pocus to meet last year’s payroll, and it is facing $100 million of annual capital needs including replacement of worn-out rail cars.

The good news, he said, is VTA has “2,1000 smart people” who “have solutions.” Unfortunately, those solutions so far have proven not to work. In fact, some have worked so poorly that it is reasonable to question just how smart those people are. Continue reading


Amtrak’s Redeeming Feature Car

After spending three days in uncomfortable Amtrak seats and eating mediocre Amtrak food during my travels from Washington DC to Los Angeles, I was ready to condemn the entire operation. But then the Coast Starlight between Los Angeles and Portland made up for it all.

I started out on the Cardinal, a three-day-a-week train that goes from New York to Chicago via Washington, Cincinnati, and Indianapolis. This train uses Amfleet cars, which were originally designed for short-distance travel such as New York to Washington. They are noisy and bumpy–sometimes I felt like a jackhammer was operating next to my head–and the food service is inferior to most other long-distance trains.

The train is also slow, taking 24 hours to get from DC to Chicago compared with 18 on the Capital Limited. Other than the fact that it serves several cities not reached by other Amtrak trains, the train’s main redeeming feature is that it goes through the highly scenic New River Gorge–but in the westbound direction it does so at night. Unlike the Capital Limited, the Cardinal also has wifi. Continue reading


The Rape of the Union Station Food Court

Washington DC’s Union Station used to have restaurant services that made “Meet me for lunch [or dinner] at Union Station” a common local saying. On the main floor were several high-toned restaurants. Downstairs, in a former baggage facility, was a food court that featured many locally grown fast-food services, including Indian, Japanese, Italian, and many other ethnic foods, plus a very nice local bakery.

Today, almost all of them are gone, replaced by chains such as Taco Bell and Chipotle’s. Union Station’s finest restaurant has been turned into a Shake Shack. A large part of the downstairs food court has been turned into a Walgreens.

Apparently, back in 2007 the station’s retail leases were taken over by a company called Ashkenazy Acquisitions. Ashhenazy must have decided that chain restaurants paid more than locals. The company ordered the local restaurants, which were regularly paying $16,000 to $20,000 a month to lease their spaces, to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars remodeling. Those that didn’t, which included most of them, were evicted. Continue reading


Trip Report: The Empire Builder

Last April, the Antiplanner took Amtrak from Portland to Washington DC via the Coast Starlight to Sacramento, the California Zephyr to Chicago, and the Capital Limited to DC. I repeated the trip this past weekend, only taking the Empire Builder from Portland to Chicago.

I came away from last April’s trip thinking that Amtrak’s personnel were excellent, the equipment was well cared for but not spectacular, and the food was a couple of notches below Denny’s. The Empire Builder trip produced inconsistent results: the personnel were good but there were problems and the equipment was a need of a rehab (and was poorly designed in the first place). The food, however, was better and perhaps was only a very small notch below Denny’s.

Before Amtrak, railcar suppliers had made a science of developing seats that were comfortable to long-distance travelers. In 1945, a company called Heywood-Wakefield, working with the Association of American Railroads, gave Harvard University anthropologist E.A. Hooton funding to develop a comfortable seat. Hooton measured 3,867 people and proposed ideal measurements for seats that would support a wide range of people. Continue reading


Amtrak’s Capital Limited

After traveling three days and three nights in coach, I treated myself to a sleeping car on the last leg of my journey to Washington, DC. Most Amtrak sleeping cars have a shower and I appreciated using it after having slept in my clothes for three nights. The sleeping room was clean and everything was functional, but it was, of course, very small. I also noticed that all of the seats in the Sightseer Lounge car swiveled, so I guess the ones on the Coast Starlight and California Zephyr were just rusted in place after all.

Given that the East has a lot more people than the West, you’d think Amtrak would have more trains connecting the East Coast with the Midwest. In fact, there are the same number of trains from the nation’s heartland to the West Coast as there are to the East Coast, which is four–or or three-and-a-half since one on each side of the country goes just three days a week. The eastern trains are the Lakeshore Limited from Chicago to New York and Boston; the Capital Limited from Chicago to DC, the Crescent from New York to New Orleans, and and the three-day-a-week Cardinal from Chicago to both New York and Washington. The Cardinal must attract mainly local traffic as it takes nearly 24 hours to go to DC and 28 to New York compared with 17 to DC on the Capital Limited and 19 to New York on the Lakeshore.

Continue reading


Amtrak’s California Zephyr

The original California Zephyr had five dome cars and was timed to allow passengers to see the best scenery in the Sierra Nevada and Colorado mountains in the daytime and to pass through the relatively boring deserts and prairies at night. Amtrak’s Sightseer Lounge car, shown below, is no dome car, but at least the timing has been retained. The Sierras were particularly impressive this trip as there was still a lot of snow.

The problem with the Sightseer Lounge is that, unlike a dome car, it is really hard to see out of both sides from any given seat and, of course, you can’t see in front of you at all. To make matters worse, all but two of the chairs have been bolted in place so that they don’t swivel, which everyone wants to do as the scenery goes by or switches from one side to another. The same thing was true on the Coast Starlight lounge car, so it appears to have been planned rather than just a rusting of some of the swivel chairs.

Continue reading


Amtrak’s Coast Starlight

So far, Amtrak is living up to my expectations. The trains are late, not just the one I’m on but the ones we’ve met going in the other direction. The food in the dining car is both expensive and tasteless. And business turns out to be a first-class rip-off.

On Friday, a landslide north of Portland shut down rail service between Portland and Seattle. That meant the train I was taking would have arrived in Portland and be ready to go with no chance of delays on the Seattle-Portland leg. Sure enough, we left on time to the nearest three seconds.

Before going 50 miles, however, we got stuck on a siding waiting for a freight train. That’s routine, but this particular wait must have been at least 20 minutes. By the time we got to Eugene, 123 miles from Portland, we were 40 minutes late. I didn’t really care as I have a four-hour layover in Sacramento, but it could be annoying if I were planning to go to a meeting in San Francisco. (As it turned out, we were on time into Sacramento thanks to “pad” in the schedule.)

Continue reading


Back in the Air Again

There’s fresh snow in Santiam Pass, about 15 miles from the Antiplanner’s Oregon home. Unfortunately, the Antiplanner has to fly to Hawaii, where the temperatures are expected to range between 72 and 82 degrees for the duration of my visit. It’s a tough life, but someone has to do it.

Santiam Pass yesterday just before sunset.

I’ll be speaking in Maui on Thursday about Hawaii’s housing crisis, which is pretty much like California’s housing crisis and a lot worse than Portland’s and Seattle’s housing crisis. If you are lucky enough to be in Maui on Thursday, I hope to see you there.

Continue reading