Golden Age of Rail

Is the Golden Age of Rail really over for good? If the air passenger industry doesn’t reinvent itself soon, might rail again be the next really big thing?

I saw one of those grand old railroad nostalgia specials on PBS earlier this week. This one was America and the Passenger Train (Producer: Richard W. Luckin):

“This program traces the development of America’s passenger trains from 1830 to 2008 through interviews and vintage footage. Many leading experts from the railroad industry and railroad museums are interviewed – along with people who rode the 20th Century Limited, Super Chief, California Zephyr and the Daylight. Hosted by Tia Marier.”

I grew up right at the tilting-point of those great railroad days. The elegant 1920’s dining-car experiences you can watch on “Poirot” had already mostly disappeared. American rail still offered a luxury service for the well-heeled traveler right up to about 1970. And I was never “well-heeled” anyway.

But by 1970, the automobile and commercial air travel had cut so heavily into rail passenger revenues that many railroads just tossed in the towel. Some railroads hung in there for a while, feeling that even as a “loss leader” the elegance and leisure of rail travel was a great public relations boon.

It was, but it wasn’t enough. The glamor and excitement of air travel, coupled with half-day coast-to-coast travel, spelled doom for long-distance rail travel. People no longer had time to travel by train. Today, it’s theoretically possible for an executive to jet from San Francisco to New York, attend a short conference or board meeting, and jet home to San Francisco in time for dinner.

Theoretically possible, but dehumanizing. There are new barriers and obstacle courses for air travel that didn’t exist two decades ago. Add an extra hour of wait time at each airport, security checks, baggage delays, penurious overhead luggage storage, hidden extra fees for pillows, blankets, soft drinks and suitcases, a generally indifferent and sometimes hostile airline service bureaucracy, and unscheduled flight delays and cancellations. What you have is a disenchanted public and a formula for the next great revolution in travel, whatever that may be.

There’s no question airlines are feeling the pinch of fuel costs. We all are, But the industry’s troubles started way back when oil was well below $60 a barrel, not $100+ as it is today. “The economy” or not, airlines manufactured most of their own problems.

I shuttled back and forth from my Bay Area to Phoenix for over two decades. Apart from infrequent “frequent flyer” upgrades to First Class, I traveled in Steerage, or whatever euphemism they were currently applying to the cattle-car section of the main cabin. I’m only 5’8″ and 150 pounds, yet economy air seats were uncomfortably cramped even for me. I found the last several years of this to be really quite dreadful. One thing all we passengers loved to talk about was the deterioration of air service.

My long-distance rail travel was limited to an aged troop train during the Cuban Crisis, hardly illustrative of the Golden Age of rail travel. But I used and liked “light rail” a lot in the 1990’s; the SF Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) was a generally delightful experience. What I liked about it: you got on your train, traveled to your destination, and got off the train again. It’s that simple.

And who, desiring to hop BART from Oakland to San Francisco, has ever had to shop Travelocity to get the best price for a ticket? If you look at USAir quotes for a no-frills flight to Phoenix over the period of a few weeks, you’ll see what a shell game the ticket pricing racket really is. And we’re their “marks.”

Air travel has something in common with CostCo, apart from the difference that CostCo employees are polite. Sure, you can save money at a CostCo, particularly if you spend a lot there, but there’s one thing you cannot claim. No one has ever parked at a CostCo, dashed in to buy an item, and dashed back out again. That huge warehouse selection means endless corridors in a vast enclosed space, pushing carts for miles and miles “just looking” for your shopping list, and long lines at the check-outs. Airports are designed for compartmentalized efficiency. Think of a REALLY huge warehouse containing a Home Depot, CostCo, Safeway, and a Fry’s Electronics, and you have an idea of what the modern airport is really about. It is NOT designed for passenger convenience.

Call me disenchanted, disaffected, or disgruntled. For my money, the commercial airline industry can abandon interstate air passenger traffic – something it hasn’t been very good at for over 20 years – leaving it free to concentrate on air freight, the more lucrative and uncomplaining cash cow.

This is exactly what the railroads had to do half a century ago, though for different reasons. Is it too much to hope we’ve come full circle?

Would the next big thing be high-speed rail? At 220-360 mph, a bullet train will never beat a 600 mph jetliner to the destination, but when you factor in terminal delays and flight cancellations, it comes close. There are more security options, too, including disconnecting the locomotive entirely. A terrorist can’t just hijack a railroad train and crash it into a World Trade Center. If someone pulls the emergency cord, all the passengers can just get off: what are terrorists supposed to do about that? “Take me to Cuba”: not spoken on the rail lines.

You can also electrify rail lines and run them on clean renewable energy. Air traffic consumes tanker-loads of fossil fuels. Aviation will be the last  sector of the energy economy to be switched over, if ever.

Think about rail. There is just something really dangerously attractive about getting on, traveling to your destination, and just getting off again.

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History Snippets: Manned Flight

Early Manned Flight

Early Biplane

Early US Mail Plane (1918). The Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” biplane may have been the first widespread commercial and peacetime use of aircraft, being used by the U.S. Government to deliver the mail. Image is from Antique Airfield – a worthwhile site.

Going from the very old to the very recent:

SR-71 Blackbird

SR-71 Blackbird. Here is a fast introduction to high-altitude air travel. Many modern readers may not recognize the “Blackbird”, the super-secret successor to the more famous U2 spy plane. Aircraft length was 107 feet – about the same as a Greek or Persian trireme, only faster, and self-propelled.

The SR-71 hit a top speed of about 2,200 miles per hour (some claim 3,000 mph). It carried a crew of two pilots in the small cockpit. The rest of the aircraft is almost entirely engine and fuel tanks. In a tight turn, it could just manage to circle in an area the width of the state of California. Each engine could produce 32,500 pounds of thrust.

This was not necessarily the first aircraft which actually changed its shape in flight depending on velocity – but the scope of SR-71 in-flight airframe changes even included the air intakes. At “normal” speeds the engine was a conventional turbojet, but above Mach 3 turbine blades would burn up, so adjustable cone-shaped projections within the intakes were designed to convert the engines to ramjets. see Wikipedia for more details.

My favorite anecdote about the aircraft: in flight the pilots used to heat up their lunches (toasted cheese sandwiches) by placing them under the windshield in the cockpit. This suggests the difficulty of designing such a craft, when the air friction at Mach 3 could heat ordinary metals red-hot. This would cause immediate catastrophic failure, so the entire airframe and skin were constructed of titanium.

On the ground, I once walked completely around a decommissioned SR-71 at an outdoor air museum. It looked like a completely different aircraft from every angle, giving no sense of size or shape. At the end, even though I knew the aircraft and its celebrated history, the circuit was disorienting. I was unable to describe what I just saw.

The SR-71 aircraft was retired in 1998, and is believed to still be the fastest aircraft ever manufactured in the world. Click the image to see a larger picture. (continued next page)

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US Air “Lightning” Struck Twice

I knew as soon as I heard the PA announcement that Sunday’s US Air Flight 407 home had “poor me” written all over it.

“Attention, all passengers bound for San Francisco on Flight 407. Your flight has been canceled. For passenger assistance getting to your destination, please check with Customer Service, 60 yards down on your left.”

This is exactly what happened to flight 407 on my last trip three weeks ago, except that, last time, I never heard an announcement either.

There were all the usual warning signs. Seasoned travelers learn to pick up on them. First there were the gate changes. I printed out my own ticket on web check-in Saturday night, and it said Gate A29. When I arrived at Barry Goldwater Terminal 4, the information monitors said Gate A18. By the time I walked down to A18, the monitors said B23 – an honest mile to another wing. Talking advantage of the moving walkways, I arrived at B23 where they assured me this WAS the gate, even thought it didn’t even say “US Air”. Some of the crew arrived for flight 407, and I struck up a conversation with one of the flight attendants. She was pretty sure we’d have an airplane.

In another 15 minutes came the next announcement: this had been changed to Gate B28 (not so bad). I walked over. The crew evaporated, never to be seen again.

By boarding time, there was no airplane. That’s pretty hard to hide, so finally the folks at B28 made THE announcement. They never tell you anything until the last possible moment.

While standling in the long line at customer service, I managed to call the US Air toll free number, and let them rebook me to SFO via Las Vegas – same as last time, too.

Oh yes, and flight 294 to Las Vegas departed at 5:45PM at Gate A12, another mile back to the “A” wing, and just a stone’s throw from where the adventure all started so many long hours ago.

Thank the Lord for small favors Dept: they paged me at McLaren air terminal in Las Vegas. They had a first class upgrade waiting for me. So they care, but they’re powerless. I get it.

Door to door, I walked out of the house at Phoenix at 930AM, and walked in the door in the Castro Valley CA apartment at 945PM, meaning “I could have driven faster” wasn’t just an exaggeration.

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