Archive for the ‘Trains’ Category

One. Billion. Dollars.

Saturday, November 16th, 2013

Amtrak, the U.S. taxpayer-supported passenger railroad, is losing tens of millions of dollars a year on food and beverage service even after years of cost cutting, its inspector general said.

Amtrak’s Auto Train from Virginia to Florida offers passengers complimentary wine and cheese, and three long-distance routes provide complimentary wine and champagne to sleeper-car passengers, Alves said, costing Amtrak $428,000 in 2012.

“The Amtrak Inspector General has confirmed that Amtrak cooked the books to cover up food service losses that now approach $1 billion,” [John] Mica [R-Florida, chairman of the House Government Operations Subcommittee – DB] said.

(Hattip: Virginia Postrel, by way of the Popehat Twitter.)

As seen on the road…

Sunday, July 14th, 2013

riverstyxroad

Yes, that is a real road sign.

And where does River Styx Road go to? If you guessed “River Styx“, take two gold stars and advance to the next blue square.

We would also accept “the River Styx Bridge” as a correct answer.

Subcontinental notes: May 19, 2013.

Sunday, May 19th, 2013

My initial reaction when I saw this NYT article was, “Pakistan has problems because they’re ruled by a kleptocracy? Stop the freakin’ presses, Batman!” If that was a hot news flash to you, well, welcome to the 21st Century; we hope you enjoy your time here.

Having clicked through to the article and read it, my reaction is somewhat different: it is actually an interesting survey of Pakistan’s problems, as reflected by the state of the national rail system. That state is dysfunctional.

At every major stop on the long line from Peshawar, in the northwest, to the turbulent port city of Karachi, lie reminders of why the country is a worry to its people, and to the wider world: natural disasters and entrenched insurgencies, abject poverty and feudal kleptocrats, and an economy near meltdown.

Chronic electricity shortages, up to 18 hours per day, have crippled industry and stoked public anger. The education and health systems are inadequate and in stark disrepair. The state airline, Pakistan International Airlines, which lost $32 million last year, is listing badly. The police are underpaid and corrupt, and militancy is spreading. There is a disturbing sense of drift.

An argument about the merits of various leaders erupted between a Pashtun trader, traveling to Karachi for heart treatment, and an engineer who worked in a military tank plant. “We’ve tried them all,” the engineer said with an exasperated air. “All we get are opportunists. We need a strong leader. We need a Khomeini.”

One thing towards the end of the article lept out at me: “Nazir Ahmed Jan, a burly 30-year-old and an unlikely Pakistani patriot” lives in Karachi. He migrated to the city in 2009, and makes a living…

…selling “chola” — a cheap bean gruel — as he guided his pushcart through the railway slum. It earned him perhaps $3 a day — enough to feed his two infant children, if not much else.

So? Mr. Jan also writes patriotic Pakistani poetry. Still “so?”

He had contacted national television stations, and even the army press service, trying to get his work published, he said, folding a page of verse slowly. But nobody was interested; for now the poetry was confined to his Facebook page.

His Facebook page?

In the corner of his home was a battered computer, hooked up to the Internet via a stolen phone line.

Wow. So even desperately poor people in a desperately poor kleptocracy can get Internet access and have Facebook pages? Not really a shocker, but worth noting next time someone starts talking about the technology gap between rich and poor.

On a tangentially related note, something else that should not have surprised me but did. Last night’s SDC was at one of the growing breed of “fast casual” Indian places. (Review to come.) The big screen TV on the wall was showing Indian cricket.

That wasn’t the surprise. I think you’re hard pressed to find that on US television, even if you have DirectTV, but I know there are satellite TV providers that target the Indian population in the US.

What surprised me, and, in retrospect, shouldn’t have, was: discovering that there is such a thing as “fantasy cricket“. After all, there’s fantasy football, fantasy hockey, fantasy basketball, and cricket really isn’t that far from baseball, so why not fantasy cricket? I guess it surprises me because I hadn’t really considered the idea until it was thrust in my face; now that I have, well, it is interesting, but I won’t be assembling a fantasy cricket team this year.

Thanks to the Statesman…

Thursday, April 18th, 2013

…for the reminder that West, Texas was also the location of the Great Crush Crash.

(Technically, the Great Crush Crash actually took place in Crush. But Crush was a temporary city erected specifically for the event, and named after William George Crush, “passenger agent for the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railroad”.)

“The Great Crush Crash?” you say. Indeed.

On September 15, 1896, the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad ran two railroad locomotives into each other. Head on. At an estimated 45 MPH. I remember reading an article in the Old Farmer’s Almanac many years ago about staged locomotive crashes; apparently, this was a fairly popular form of entertainment back in the old days. The Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad made a big deal out of this particular crash, which was Crush’s idea; they laid on special trains to the site, with reduced fares and what not. The entire city of Crush was built from the ground up:

In early September 500 workmen laid four miles of track for the collision run and constructed a grandstand for “honored guests,” three speaker’s stands, two telegraph offices, a stand for reporters, and a bandstand. A restaurant was set up in a borrowed Ringling Brothers circus tent, and a huge carnival midway with dozens of medicine shows, game booths, and lemonade and soft-drink stands was built. Finally, workmen erected a special depot with a platform 2,100 feet long, and a sign was painted to inform passengers that they had arrived at Crush, Texas.

An estimated 40,000 people showed up to watch the collision.

So how did that work out for them?

When the two locomotives, one painted bright green, the other bright red, collided at about 45 mph, their boilers exploded, killing three people and injuring a half-dozen more as debris was blown into spectator-filled areas.

In retrospect, this may not have been a smart thing to do. It appears that the railroad’s engineers repeatedly assured officials that there was no way the boilers would explode. But this was 1896:

People began to leave for home, the tents, stands, and midway booths came down, and by nightfall Crush, Texas, ceased to exist. The Katy quickly settled all damage claims brought against it with cash and lifetime rail passes.

And Mr. Crush? “…the railroad fired him that evening but relented and rehired him the next day.

Why, yes, there is a historical marker. And here’s another article with some photos of the event itself.

Unintended consequences.

Thursday, January 3rd, 2013

Actual headline from the Y Combinator Twitter feed that made me click through to the article:

So why did the train cross the border 24 times and never unload? My first thought was “to get to the other side”. Turns out that was wrong.

I’ll spoil the riddle for you:

The cargo of the train was owned by Bioversal Trading Inc., or its US partner Verdero, depending on what stage of the trip it was at. The companies “made several million dollars importing and exporting the fuel to exploit a loophole in a U.S. green energy program.” Each time the loaded train crossed the border the cargo earned its owner a certain amount of Renewable Identification Numbers (RINs), which were awarded by the US EPA to “promote and track production and importation of renewable fuels such as ethanol and biodiesel.” The RINs were supposed to be retired each time the shipment passed the border, but due to a glitch not all of them were. This enabled Bioversal to accumulate over 12 million RINs from the 24 trips, worth between 50 cents and $1 each, which they can then sell on to oil companies that haven’t met the EPA’s renewable fuel requirements.

This was all perfectly legal, at least according to the companies involved. The US and Canadian governments are investigating, according to the article, so the “perfectly legal” part may be in dispute.

(Wouldn’t you have enjoyed being a fly in the cab of that train and listening to the crew talk as they went back and forth and back and forth and back and forth across the border?)

Banana republicans watch: August 7, 2012, special “blood in the streets” edition

Tuesday, August 7th, 2012

The “Blue Line” runs from Long Beach to downtown Los Angeles. That’s about 22 miles. (The Houston METRORail is 7.5 miles long, just for comparison.)

With 22 accidents and six fatalities so far this year, officials say the Blue Line — one of the busiest light rails in the nation — is on pace to have more deaths in 2012 than any other year in its 22-year history — a considerable feat given the line’s checkered safety record of striking passing cars or pedestrians, or as a place where some go to commit suicide. Four of the fatalities this year were ruled suicides.

It would be nice to know what the accidents per mile traveled figure is, and how that compares to other systems. There’s no miles traveled figure in the LAT article. And finding information on METRORail crashes is nearly impossible these days; the transit authority doesn’t release that information, and the Houston-area bloggers who were maintaining counts have all moved on to other things.

In other news, the California city of Fullerton is considering shutting down the Fullerton PD and contracting out police services to the Orange County Sheriff’s Department. You may remember the Fullerton PD from the beating death of Kelly Thomas (graphic image at that link):

Two officers have been charged in his death, the police chief has left, three officers quit the force in the face of termination proceedings and three of the five council members were recalled in a June election.

But folks say it isn’t about Kelly Thomas, it is about the money:

Fullerton Councilman Bruce Whitaker, a sharp critic of how the police handled the violent encounter with Thomas, said that although the department needs to be examined, the driving force behind potentially contracting out police services is the $37 million required to operate the 144-officer department.

Going off the rails.

Monday, March 21st, 2011

We have commented previously on the ridership figures for Capital Metro’s light rail trains (summary: pathetic). We have not been commenting further on this because we have not seen new ridership figures.

At least, not until today, when the Statesman informs us that Capital Metro is worried because…the trains are packed. Ridership in December went down to an average of 639 boardings a day, but started to trend back up in January. For the first ten days of March, the average stands at 2,041, according to the Statesman. (However, the article also notes that that ten day period includes three “special service” days.)

So how did CapMetro pull off this feat?

  1. Higher gas prices are driving people to rail.
  2. CapMetro cut prices.
  3. …the agency combined two Northwest metro area express bus routes in a single bus route that, for some commuters, was less convenient and had the effect of driving some bus riders to MetroRail.

Also worth noting:

Average daily ridership, if you discount those four days of SXSW hysteria, has gone from roughly 43 riders per train run last year to 50.

Random notes: August 16, 2010.

Monday, August 16th, 2010

Obit watch: James J. Kilpatrick.

For those who are wondering, I’ll save you the trouble: I couldn’t find any “Point-Counterpoint” videos on YouTube, and Shana Alexander died in 2005.

In other news, Austin’s MetroRail service was disrupted this morning. Why? Well, someone found a mysterious package on the tracks that contained…a cow tongue studded with nails, along with a note (“incoherent”, according to the Statesman), and a photograph. There was also a glass jar found nearby with an unidentified liquid inside.

Edited to add: Lawrence sends along this link to cow tongues found nailed to trees at Prospect Park around this time last year. Speculation in the linked article is that this is some sort of Santeria ritual intended to stop gossip, which seems to fit in with speculation by Statesmen commentators.

Random notes: May 4, 2010.

Tuesday, May 4th, 2010

The Statesman has the first article I’ve seen touching on ridership for the Capital Metro trains. While this article mostly discusses the experimental Saturday train, this paragraph is significant:

Capital Metro has had much lighter ridership for its Monday-to-Friday rush hour service during the line’s six weeks of existence — about 1,000 a day since fares began, officials said.

The LAT profiles the Pho Binh noodle shop in Saigon. They serve “peace noodles” soup; and the Tet Offensive was plotted upstairs.

Today is the 40th anniversary of Kent State.

Obit watch: Lynn Redgrave.

I hear that train a’ coming, it’s rollin’ round the bend…

Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

Capital Metro rail service from Leander to downtown Austin started yesterday.

How’s the ridership?

Day 1:

Capital Metro first said the morning boardings were 672, then later updated that (without explanation) to 716, based on an eyeball count rather than the electronic counters in the train car doors.

Day 2:

Capital Metro reports morning boardings on its nine MetroRail runs today was 547, down from 716 on opening day Monday.

Note that these are just the morning boardings; the Statesman writer comments that afternoon ridership “tripled” yesterday.