Allen On Travel

A 30 year veteran of world travel (but knows nil about Orlando-area attractions), Will Allen III writes about his weekly odysseys by air on business and how the airlines rob him--and you--of time, the most precious commodity on earth. Time: It's all we have, and the airlines routinely take it from us. This blog challenges the airlines to keep their basic promises.

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Location: Raleigh, North Carolina, United States

Born 1948 in Kinston, NC and raised there in beautiful eastern North Carolina, I now live in Raleigh and commute around the country and the world.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Rail, Air, Automobile: It's All Slowing Down! We're Doomed!

Usually I write about my trials and travails with the airlines, because that's my usual transportation mode. Familiarity with airlines does tend to breed contempt if you fly a lot, and for good reasons, mostly.

Recently, however, I've been experimenting with other transportation options, such as driving when I have to go somewhere less than 300 miles distant from Raleigh (my home), and even taking the train when one's available.

I could spew a lot of words with examples, but I'll be brief because I want to write another, more upbeat blog entry about a delightful weekend experience in Manhattan in the Waldorf Towers.

Regarding my several experiences driving during 2009, suffice it to say that none were entirely satisfactory. With 300 million souls in the USA, and with our Interstates not only over-crowded but crumbling, you just can't get anywhere fast without a police escort, and I am no governor or senator.

Driving a few weeks ago to Washington, DC was another in a growing list of personal disasters to get anywhere near our nation's capital. It took just a bit over two hours to get to Richmond (161 miles) but another four and a half hours to drive the remaining 130 miles. Reason? Traffic, simply too many cars on the road. Weather wasn't bad, just too many cars. No accidents, either. Just too many cars trying to occupy the same stretch of I-95 North.

Returning was no better. I tried to beat the traffic by leaving the city early at 11:00 AM. Apparently everyone else had the same notion because I was still creeping for miles and miles and miles on I-95 South. I can't believe I am writing these words, but flying to and from DC is better.

Or maybe rail? My experience with Amtrak last week right here in North Carolina put the lie to that possibility. I took my children to Greensboro last Wednesday (Veterans Day school holiday, formerly known as Armistice Day) on the train because they love going anywhere by rail. Thanks to North Carolina DOT-Rail Division, which offers several NC-funded trains, there is a good out-and-back connection from Raleigh to Greensboro with a one hour wait time for the return train.

You might recall last week that the remnant of Hurricane Ida was making its slow way up the Atlantic coast, and we got a lot of rain. But not so much to cause floods.

Enough, though, that Norfolk Southern Railway dispatchers, over which Amtrak operates in parts of North Carolina, declared a 15 MPH speed limit for passenger trains and a 40 MPH limit on freight trains.

Why the speed limits? Because NS has cut their track maintenance staff so deeply that they have no one to inspect the roadway when it rains.

Why do they need to do that? Well, they really don't need to do it, barring a deluge and serious flooding (and last week was not that circumstance). The NS culture, however, is so risk averse now that they are scared of their own shadows, so the speed limit was a CYA by management.

Why did they allow freight trains to run faster than Amtrak in the rain? Another CYA. However remote, they don't want the liability or bad press of a passenger train accident.

What was the effect last Wednesday? A 3 hour and 59 minute delay on our return train from Greensboro to Raleigh (which was then going on to New York). I had to call my wife and plead with her to drive the 60 miles to Greensboro to rescue us. The Greensboro Amtrak station, though beautifully restored, is a cold, austere environment with no restaurant or diversion to fritter away a long delay, and it's remote from downtown, too.

The worst news, though, is my discovery (after making some inquiries) that such 15 MPH speed limits are ROUTINE when it rains for Amtrak trains over the Norfolk Southern Railway tracks, and that they are likely to be routine when it rains even for the NY-Washington-Atlanta high-speed trains that eventually come through here.

So much for traveling by rail in that part of North Carolina over the NS Railway.

Can you imagine slowing every train down every time it rains? Trains once gave the post office its proud slogan that went something like this: "Neither sleet nor snow nor rain nor fog nor gloom of night shall prevent the Post Office Department from delivering the mail." The P.O. could make that boast truthfully because mail moved mostly by rail, and trains ran at the fastest allowable track speeds through any weather. And they did that for more than 100 years! So why not now?

Meanwhile, ICE trains in Germany and TGV trains in France are never slowed by a little rain, and they often make close to 200 MPH. Shame on us in the USA.

Finally about my air experience last Friday RDU/LGA: Getting in and out of any New York airport (EWR, LGA, or JFK) is always iffy, but last Friday that darn hurricane (what was left of it) remained stalled over the northeast dumping rain. Clouds and rain at La Guardia always produce miserable delays. Friday was no exception.

Long story short, my AA Eagle flight was 2 hours late, and I was happy it wasn't canceled altogether given the weather. Just another waste of time combined with sheer boredom.

So where does that leave us in the United States in terms of transportation options? I don't have any answers. Every time you head for the train station, the airport, or take to the Interstates, it's entirely a crap shoot.

My advice? Go anyway. Travel is always worth it. Just make sure you bring a book along, or maybe two.


Anonymous Biz Traveler said...

Someone at Hertz must have read this posting. I was just there (11/16) and it seemed every car in the Hertz lot had a flyer about the toll roads on the passenger seat and it was posted about 8 places!

11/20/2009 10:28 AM  

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