Consuming Public Transit

I always wanted to write a travel blog. Well, not "always". Because I was around before blogs were invented. When I was your age, I had to walk two miles in the snow to send a postcard. But actually I would prefer not to walk, or drive, or fly...I like public transit. Thus ends the short introduction to my travel blog.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Philadelphia underground labyrinth

Philadelphia Suburban station underground labyrinth. The red/brown line is the Regional Rail. The blue is the Market-Frankford line. The Orange is the Broad St Line. The underground labyrinthe is now more extensive than shown in this old map photographed there.

Train 66 - Overnight

After staying with friends for several days in New York, I decided to give them a break and head to Maine early by taking the overnight train, which would also have the benefit of getting me to Maine much earlier in the day. I've ridden coach class coast to coast and thought, this is a piece of cake.

Leaving their downtown loft before they went to sleep, I thought, I'll just have a late night dinner and then a leisurely trip to Penn Station, then get on the train and sleep to Boston. First thing I realized, it wasn't as easy as you might think to find a place open for dinner, not just drinks, at midnight. It was a pain rolling around my luggage searching after the first few blocks.

I am big guy and I have a lot of experience walking around New York late at night, so I wasn't about to get lost or get in trouble, and the weather was fine so mainly I was just tired and grumpy. Finally I found a place that was still serving, and settled in for a leisurely dinner. Then it turned out I was the last customer and the staff was eager to close the kitchen, so I left sooner than I wanted to, and walked over to the subway.

I seldom stay up after 10pm these days, so I was getting pretty tired. I got to Penn Station around 1:30 and had to prop my eyes open with toothpicks until the 3:15 AM departure of train 66. Once on board the train, I hoped to get some sleep. But the train was full of late night party people leaving NYC and they were drinking and talking loudly, making sleep impossible.

Gradually the train emptied and I was able to doze off after New Haven. But then, in Providence, the train filled up again, with commuters headed to Boston, all bright-eyed and having coffee and bagels.

I did eventually get to Maine early in the day, but was totally exhausted. Like others who have taken train 66, after that experience, I said, "never again!"

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

The Reno Trench

Residents of my town like many others are annoyed by two side effects of heavy rail traffic: traffic stops at grade crossigs, and loud train horn blasts. Grade crossings are those places where the train crosses the road at street level, and bells and lights and gates stop all traffic when the train passes. Besides being a frequent location for tragic accidents, grade crossings hold up ambulances and other emergency vehicles, which must wait along with everyone else for the train to pass.
Train horns are not as much of a safety issue. The horns in fact must be blown to provide for safety. But they are an annoyance, especially for those who live near the tracks, and especially when they are blown late at night.
The city of Reno, Nevada has implemented a great solution. The Reno Trench is a several-mile long rail artery right through the middle of town. Not quite a "subway tunnel", the Trench is covered with nothing but sky except at several bridges where streets cross at former grade crossings. Eliminating all grade crossings, the Trench allows Reno traffic to cross unhindered by the flow of rail traffic. Also, trains no longer need to blow their horns as much.
No doubt the Trench was an expensive construction project, and the city of Reno can afford it. But as other municipalties face growth and development nearer to rail rights of way, many of which put in place long ago before such development, they may want to consider a solution like the Reno Trench.
Amtrak passengers can get a look at the Trench when the train stops in Reno. The station has been remodeled to provide access to the lower level platform.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Smoke Stops

In April 2004 Amtrak banned smoking on all its trains, with the exception of the Auto Train, a long distance train that takes people and their vehicles from Virginia to Florida with no intermediate stops. Presumably the Auto Train is exempt because Amtrak knows that smoking passengers would not tolerate a total smoking ban for 17 1/2 hours. Prior to April 2004, long distance Superliner trains had a small lower level baggage room converted for use as a smoking lounge. They had all sort of rules and regulations: you could only be in there for 20 minutes at a time; no food or drinks allowd; no pipes or cigars etc. But for smokers, it was better than nothing.
Today the smoking lounges have been replaced by a system of "smoke stops". When the train stops for more than a couple of minutes at an "authorized location", passengers are permitted to step off for a smoke on the platform. Anxious smokers wait for hours between these breaks, and now one of the most frequent questions asked of conductors is, "When is the next smoke stop?"
Some routes like San Joaquin in Caifornia offer convenient breaks about once an hour. Some of the long distance trains have a less convenient smoke stop timetable.
Let's take a look at the smoke stops available on a recent trip aboard the California Zephyr from Chicago to Emeryville, Ca.
1. Chicago. Well duh, you can grab a smoke before you board the train. And then,
5 hours until:
2. Mile 279 Ottumwa, Ia. This is a typical 3 minute break. Not really long enough to smoke even 1 cigarette.
3 1/2 hours until:
3. Mile 500 Omaha, Neb. You have at least 10 minutes here.
90 minuts until:
4. Mile 555 Lincoln, Neb. Another 10 minute stop (why are these two so close together when others are so far apart?)
6 1/2 hours to:
5. Mile 1038 Denver, Co. A typical 20 minute service stop for the train.
2 hours to:
6. Mile 1100 Winter Park, Co. This one is short.
4 hours to:
7. Mile 1223 Glenwood Springs. Short and sweet.
2 hours to:
8. Mile 1311 Grand Junction, Co. About 20 mins here.
7 hours to:
9. Mile 1608 Salt Lake City. Another 20 minute service stop.
7 hours to:
10. Mile 2013 Winnemucca, Nv. Brief.
3 1/2 hours to:
11. Mile 2202 Reno, Nv. About 5 mins.
6 hours to:
12. Mile 2367 Sacramento, Ca. About 5 mins
2 hours to:
13. Mile 2438 Emeryville, Ca. Now you are off the train and free to smoke.

The longest times with no smoking stops are 6 or 7 hours. But fortunately, the longest stretches are scheduled at night, so you'll probably be asleep anyway most of the time in places between Lincoln and Denver and between Grand Junction and Winnemucca.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Philadelphia's Missing Stations

Underneath City Hall in Philadelphia, there is a labyrinthine undergound plaza connecting the underground trolleys, the city's subways, and the Regional Rail. In one of the pedestrian tunnels on the west side of City Hall, you can find a beautiful old map of the "High Speed and Commuter Rail System." The map differs slightly from the maps published today ( I'm not sure exactly how old this map is, but it shows some interesting stations that have since been closed down.

If you look carefully at the R-7 route from 30th St. Station to Trenton, you can see three closed stops: Frankford Junction, Frankford and Wissinoming. Near Frankford Junction, the SEPTA Market-Frankford elevated line passes directly over the R-7 line with no transfer. A Frankford Junction stop would make it easier to transfer to the Market-Frankford line. The Erie-Torresdale stop is much closer to the old Frankford Junction platforms than the map indicates. Frankford Junction also happens to be the place where the NJ Transit Atlantic City line connects to the northest corridor.

Cross Country Travel by Train

When I first started riding Amtrak across country in 2003, the trains were almost empty. I ride coach, and I almost always had the seat next to me empty for sleep in a fetal position. Every year since then I've noticed more and more people taking the long distance trains. With gas prices what they are now, crossing the country on Amtrak is cheaper than driving. Now almost all the seats are taken, and it's harder to sleep in coach.

How long does it take? Believe it or not, our trains today run slower than they did a hundred years ago. In the age of steam engines, they ran up to 150mph on routes that today are limited to a maximum of 79mph. Today the fastest route across country is from New York to Los Angeles. It takes 3 nights. You can leave New York on a Friday afternoon and arrive in Los Angeles on a Monday morning. Add extra time for destinations like San Francisco or Boston, and you have a 4 day 3 night trip.

Most cross country trips require a transfer in Chicago. If everything is running on time, you'll have a few hours to wander around downtown Chicago while you wait for your transfer at Union Station. Chicago is by far the longest stop you'll have with time off the train. So one way to think of it is, two nights from the west coast to Chicago, and one night from Chicago to the east coast.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

California Amtrak

California Amtrak trains are nicer than Amtrak trains anywhere else in the USA, except for the Acela high speed train on the northeast corridor and the Talgos in the northwest. California trains are newer and cleaner than their counterparts elsewhere in the Amtrak system. The main reason is that California trains are a joint venture of Amtrak and the State of California Department of Transportation (CalTrans).

Compared with other Amtrak trains, the California trains have a smaller seat pitch so they can get more passengers in each car. The cars are all bi-level, like the Amtrak Superliners, but have 2 doors per car for faster boarding. The lower levels are reserved for people who have difficulty climbing stairs. Most of the restrooms are found on the lower levels.

One car is a cafe car. Seating is all on the upper level. These Califonria cafe cars seem a little cleaner and more elegant than other Amtrak cafes. The menu is distinct to California Amtrak too.

Three of the top five Amtrak corridors are in California: Pacific Surfliner, Capitol Corridor and San Joaquins. The Capitol Corridor and San Joaquins serve the San Francisco Bay Area. The Capitol Corridor is so named because it serves Sacramento, Ca, the state capitol. The San Joaquins travel through the central valley to Bakersfield, where connecting bus service takes passengers to L.A. and beyond.

About Me

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Dr. Richard S. Wallace formed the ALICE A. I. Foundation in 2001 to promote the development and adoption of Artificial Intelligence Markup Language (AIML) and ALICE free software. Dr. Wallace has a Ph.D. in computer science from Carnegie Mellon.