Category Archives: Train

English Intermodality

Seamless rail and bus transportation makes UK travel a breeze

Last October, I rented a car when visiting Sussex. Ad I blogged then, I hated almost every moment of driving on the “wrong” side of the road, shifting with the “wrong” hand and attempting to be both navigator and driver. And filling up the tank, even of a small, economical car, was painful. My husband and I took advantage of United’s introductory Denver-London fare to come to the UK. We are current in the Lake District in Cumbria (northwestern England), and we decided to rely on public transportation. We traveled from there to here with a seamless chain of intermodel transportation (plane, train, bus, trains and then a taxi). This is how we got here:

1) Boulder to Denver International Airport by car.
2) DIA to London’s Heathrow Airport via United (nonstop). This flight operates on a wonderful schedule, departing from Denver at 8:30 p.m. and arriving the next day at 1:00 p.m. +/-, the variable being how many times the plane is ordered to circle Heathrow (we went around the air loop twice). In any case, early afternoon is a good time to arrive at LHR’s Terminal 3, because few international flights get in then, meaning there are no lines.
3) Heathrow to Paddington Station by Paddington Express train.
4) Paddington Station to Euston Station via #205 bus. The bus stop is a couple of minutes’ walk from Paddington at one end and directly in front of Euston on the other. The fare is £2.
5) Euston Station to Lancaster by on the West Coast line, operated Virgin Trains, a sister company to Virgin Airlines. Our first-class BritRail passes (good four days out of 60) are good on this train service — and it is the only splurge we are planning for this trip. Complimentary coffee and tea are served (there I am, at right, bleary-eyed but happy with a comfortable seat and a cuppa). Food is available. And passengers are offered a free newspaper.
6) Lancaster to Windermere in the Lake District via Transpennine Express. We had 40 minutes between trains, so my husband stayed with our luggage and I took a quick walk around Lancaster Castle and the priory next door. They were just a few minutes from the Lancaster railroad station.
7) Windermere rail station to our hotel via taxi.

I can’t compliment the train service enough. Not only are the trains punctual but they are clean, the staff is accommodating and the cars well designed. The train even has lavatories spacious enough to accommodate wheelchair users and operated by push button. One button opens the door; two others close and then lock it. The flushing mechanism works, and the sink is equipped with automatic water tap, soap dispenser and hand dryer. How I wish Amtrak could be turned over to Sir Richard Branson or his American counterpart.

In Paise of Swiss Fly/Rail Convenience — and a Caution

The ease of luggage-free intermodal travel in efficient Switzerland.

Swiss International Air Lines wins my heart with its Fly/Rail program. When you check for any SWISS flight, you can check your bags through to any Swiss railway or bus station or even have them delivered directly to your hotel. Having already flown from Denver to Los Angeles for my SWISS flight to Zurich, I was happy that I wouldn’t need to deal with my big, heavy rolling duffle and my ski bag on two trains and one Post bus to Adelboden. In fact, I checked my luggage all the way through to my hotel. The cost was just $8 per bag.

Nothing like that exists in the US or elsewhere, but stay with me and imagine a ski trip to Aspen. Imagine flying to Denver, boarding a train directly in the terminal, changing trains say, in Eagle (that’s not Amtrak’s route, but we’re imagining here) and then changing to a bus in Glenwood Springs for Aspen (we’re still imagining, so we’re pretending here’s no airport in Aspen). Now, imagine that you haven’t touched your luggage the entire way. And, then, when you’re ready to go back home, you can have your bags picked up at your hotel or check them in at the bus station in Aspen, and you won’t see them until you reach your final airport. Every connection will be seamless, because 10 minutes between trains or between the train and the bus in Switzerland is ample time.

The other thing that you need to imagine is that those bags won’t get lost. I expected that when I arrived in the resort town of Adelboden at around 6:00 p.m., my bags would be on the same bus. They weren’t, but since I was in Switzerland, I was confident that they weren’t lost either. It’s just helpful to know the system. It turns out that there is a cut-off time for the aircraft’s arrival in Zurich (ZRH) or Geneva (GVA) in order for bags to make it to small mountain towns the same day. It turned out that in order for me and my bags to have arrived in Adelboden on the same bus, the SWISS flight would had to have landed before noon. We got later, so my bags were slated to arrive the next day — and they did.

I enthusiastically recommend Fly/Rail, but if you use the service, check with tourist office of you destination to see what the cut-off time is if you need your things at your destination the same day that you arrive. I would not count on every counter agent at every SWISS gateway around the world to have this information at hand, which is the reason I suggest checking with the tourist office at your first destination.

If your flight’s scheduled arrival time doesn’t make the cut-off for that particular resort, take what you need in a carry-on — being sure to put liquids and gels (no larger than 3 ounces) in a one-quart plastic zip bag, as the Transportation Security Agency’s rules require.

European Air and Road Congestion Makes the Case for Trains

For a more relaxed, more satisfying European trip, take the train.

When I began going to Europe shortly Noah got off the Ark, Europeans traveled by train. So did legions of Eurailpass-equipped American students. To Europeans, flying from one country to another seemed prohibitively expensive. Autobahn, autoroute, autostrada and other freeway construction was ongoing and networks were incomplete, and while there were not yet high-speed trains rail travel, which was already in steep decline in the US, was frequent and reliable.

Now, along with the adoption of American junk-food chains, more and more Europeans have acquired our plane-addiction and our auto-addiction. Traffic is appalling around major cities and to popular weekend and holiday destinations such as the Mediterranean beaches in summer and the Alpine region in winter. And, as Elizabeth Rosenthal noted in a piece called “Congestion and Other Terminal Illnesses” in the New York Times, “While passenger numbers have skyrocketed in the last decade, airports have expanded in a makeshift fashion, leaving travelers to hike longer distances…Add to the fact that air traffic and security procedures have grown exponentially, and bad airport experiences seem to far outnumber the good.”

She related her own experience, stuck on the tarmac for an hour after landing in Rome, recalling, “After the 50-minute flight, we waited an hour to get off the plane and would wait another hour standing around a dirty carousel before receiving our luggage.” Let’s do the math: However long it took to reach her departure airport from wherever she was and then one hour clearing security and to board the plane. Her 50-minute flight was followed by that hour on the tarmac before deplaning and another hour waiting for luggage to arrive. Then, she still had to get from the airport to wherever she was going. Even without the travel time to and from two airports, she was en route for four unpleasant hours. If her plane’s departure had been delayed, her journey would have taken even longer.

Rosenthal’s interviews with other frequent travelers about airports they particularly detest are enlightening, and so is her reference to Skytrax, which reviews and ranks airports and airlines. In this evaluation system that is still under development, world airports are rated from five to one star (plus unranked). Here are the top 15, only three of which are in Europe:

5 Star Airports

Hong Kong International
Seoul Incheon
Singapore Changi Airport

4 Star Airports

Amsterdam Schiphol
KLIA Kuala Lumpur

3 Star Airports

Abu Dhabi Int’l Airport
Bahrain Int’l Airport
Bangkok Suvarnabhumi Airport
Doha International
Dubai International
Johannesburg Int’l Airport
Kuwait Int’l Airport
Madrid Barajas

Bottom line in my opinion is that it is stilk better to take

Amtrak Expands Dining Options

Breakfast, lunch and dinner now served on trains with sleeper cars.

Unlike rail travel elsewhere, boarding an Amtrak train is an act of faith. The train you are traveling on might arrive at your station on time, or it might not. Even if it arrives when it should, it might depart on time, or it might not. It might depart on time but mysteriously stop somewhere en route, delaying its arrival wherever you are going.

So the announcement that Amtrak is enhancing its on-board food service is good news, because you might be on that train for more mealtimes than you anticipated. A new breakfast, lunch and dinner menu with a greater selection of items and theoretically higher quality is in effect on trains with sleeper car car service, which means 10 or its 14 long-haul routes. Meal service is included in sleeping car fares and is available for purchase by all passengers, so better is, well, better.

According to an Amtrak press release, which is heavy on capital letters, breakfast offerings include “Old Fashioned Railroad French Toast, a variety of freshly prepared Omelets, a Chef’s Marketplace Special, such as Blueberry Pancakes or Belgian Waffles, and a Continental option featuring fresh fruit, all of which can be accompanied by a choice of Grits or Breakfast Potatoes, Bacon, Chicken Apple Sausage or Pork Sausage.” For lunch, passengers have a choice of “Build Your Own Burger” option, with a choice of Angus beef, Turkey or Gardenburger, specialty salads, freshly prepared sandwiches and a hot rotating Chef’s Special.”

And it dinner, it’s “a selection of appetizers for the first time, including Chips and Salsa, Chicken Wings and Dip, and and Jumbo Shrimp Cocktail. For entrees, passengers can choose from a cooked to order Flat Iron Steak, a Seafood selection, Oven Roasted Half Game Hen, enhanced Vegetarian Selections, and a rotating Chef’s Marketplace Special such as Slow Cooked Braised Beef, Italian Meatballs, and Roast Pork Tenderloin. A rotating variety of scrumptious Sweet Street desserts including cakes, pies and tarts will be available. Haagen Dazs ice cream will also be featured.”

What of the other four trains with sleeper cars? Amtrak reminds us that “the trains not receiving the new menu are those that already have a specialized food service or have introduced an expanded menu in the past year.” Whew! I was worried.

For Amtrak reservations, click on their website or call 800-USA-RAIL.

Would-Be Jumper Delays Train

Last evening, we left Montreal by Via Rail, expecting to arrive in Quebec City in two hours and 59 minutes. We departed only a few minutes late, crossed the St. Lawrence River and passed farmlands and small towns without incident. Then, we stopped at the station in Charny and we didn’t move. Eventually, the word came down that a man was on the bridge, threatening to jump. Eventually, we were told to get all our luggage off the train because buses would be sent.

It is not surprising that a jumper might choose the Quebec Railway Bridge. To railfans and those who are interested in major civil engineering projects, it is iconic. It rises some 46 meters (more than 150 feet) above the St. Lawrence River and is 987 meters (about 3,000 feet) long and boasts the world’s longest cantilever span. On August 29, 1907, while it was under construction, a large section of the bridge collapsed, something engineers had begun to fear. A telegram with a stop-work order had not reached the worksite in time, and 84 workers were killed. In 1914, construction began for a second time. On September 11, 1916, while attempting to connect a steel center span to the newly completed north and south cantilever spans, a support on the lifting apparatus fractured, plunging the new section into the river. Thirteen more workers were killed. Finally, on September 17, 1917, another replacement span was put into place. The bridge finally opened on December 3, 1917.

Today the bridge carries both rail and vehicular traffic. Our bus rolled into Quebec City two hours or so late, but our inconvenience paled before the desperation someone felt that would cause him to want to become another casualty on this bridge. The news came this morning that negotiators were successful in talking him down.

New York Subway Musings

An interesting museum showcases underground New York

The New York Transit Authority has made great efforts to clean up and upgrade subway trains and stations — in Manhattan, at least. Stations’ new artwork includes replacement tiles in “subway white,” but new new graphics and designs relate to what’s above-ground now. Also, some platforms have been refloored, graffiti has been curtailed, elevators now make many underground train platforms accessible, and security issues have been addressed. Any improvements to this century-plus-old system that hauls millions of riders a day in hundreds, perhaps thousands, of subway cars and buses is to be applauded.

Still, it is difficult, as a rider, to ignore the considerable downside to the New York subway system experience. Peeling (and sometimes leaking) ceilings, chipped paint, ubiquitous litter, pools of standing water between the rails and the occasional rat do are dispiriting. So are squadrons of wary but bored-looking police officers (I counted 17 on Broadway line platform at 6:00 p.m. this evening) and glum riders who never make eye contact with one another.

The subway was not always a literal and figurative pit. It was once the pride of New York. It is still possible to see glimpses of the subway’s elegant past. The fancy brass token booth cages have given way to heavy Plexiglas booths and transit card vending machines. Yet some stations still boast elegant terra cotta signage and on some routes, trains rattle past ghostly, abandoned stations. Most spectacular of all are the Gustavino Vaulted Ceilings in the City Hall Station (right), fabricated by a company whose projects included work on the US Supreme Court Building.

The New York Transit Museum in Brooklyn Heights has opened a convenient gallery annex at Grand Central Station in midtown Manhattan. It’s open fromn 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. on weekdays and 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. on weekends. It’s worth a visit — and the price is right: free.

Until July 8, the gallery is showing an exhibition called “Architects of the NYC Subway, Part 1: Heins & LaFarge and the Tradition of Great Public Works.” Extensive captioning, historic photographs and diagrams tell the story of the subway, but what I liked best was the terra cotta, seen upclose and not high on a wall or through a grimy subway window. The terra cotta was cast and fired by the like of “Maker Unknown” (the Hay Street Station plaque) to Rookwood (Wall and Fulton Street stations).

New Operator for the Grand Canyon Railway

Early in the 20th century, rail travel was the primary (and most comfortable) mode of transportation in the West, and for a new generation of travelers, it was the preferred way to see the grand sights. As part of this way of touristic life, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway Company inaugurated steam-train service to the canyon on September 17, 1901. Millions of travelers followed, including five presidents, numerous foreign dignitaries, movie stars and artists, often staying in the elegant El Tovar Hotel on the South Rim to gaze, paint, photograph and simply contemplate this most dramatic of natural wonders. But in 1968, with most travelers having been seduced by automobile travel, passenger service was discontinued because people preferred to drive.

Much to their credit, Max and Thelma Bigert revived the line, starting service again on September 17, 1989, precisely 88 years after its inaugural passenger run. They like to say that they put the train back on track. Last May, I reached the Canyon by road but left via the Grand Canyon Railway, a delightful ride that lasted 2 1/2 hours but took me and my fellow passengers way back into the last century with entertainment enhancements from this one. We rode through the forest with live entertainment in each car (left), a staged train robbery and terrific tales, tall and otherwise, spun by conductors in old-style uniforms. We detrained in Williams, an interesting little town along Historic Route 66.

The Bigerts are bowing out, but the show will go on. They put the railroad up for sale last year. A letter of intent transferring the railroad to Xanterra Parks & Resorts, the nation’s largest national parks concessionaire, was soon signed. By late March, assuming the National Park Service approves, Xanterra should be operating the train. Under the Bigerts the Grand Canyon Railway has been operating daily service between Williams and Grand Canyon National Park, summer and winter. It has been welcoming more than 220,000 passengers a year, and the Bigerts’ operation also includes the the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel, an RV park, a restaurant and several real estate parcels, all in Williams. The amount of the bid was not disclosed.

Xanterra runs lodges, restaurants and other concessions at national parks, including Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Zion, Crater Lake, Death Valley and Petrified Forest national parks, as well as state parks in South Dakota and Ohio. This will be its venture into running a railroad, but the company has a fine record of maintaining and restoring historic properties, including the recent and respectful rehabilitation of Old Faithful Lodge in Yellowstone National Park.
In peak season, the most visited national parks, including Grand Canyon, have been grappling with ways to lessen traffic and pollution from auto emissions by limiting vehicule access and ooperating in-park shuttle systems. Accommodating private vehicles has required, in the words of the song, paving paradise and putting in parking lots. It stands to reason that more train travel into Grand Canyon National Park means fewer cars and fewer parking lots — and therefore another step toward the preservaion of paradise. As for emissions, I can’t begin to comment on whether a steam or diesel locomotive transporting a set number of passengers is more or less polluting than the same number in private cars, RVs, pickup trucks, SUVs and tourist motocoaches, but I will say that everything else aside, a ride on this classic train has nostalgia value in its own right. I recommend it.