Friday, December 13, 2013

Scrooge vs. the Government

Scrooge vs. the Government! Its a UFC (UnFunded Conumdrum) smack-down event!  Get it now on Pay-per-view!


Ah, the spirit of Christmas!  Is that what Dickens' Christmas Carol was about?


Dickens was really concerned about the suffering of the poor in the era he lived.  The Christmas Carol story is about poor family that has trouble with the basics, including nutrition and access to health care.  It was a big problem for industrializing England.  It's also about an "upper middle class" guy, Scrooge, who makes a decent living on "Wall Street" - he trades stuff.  He has plenty of money and everything he needs and wants, although he is very conservative in his spending habits and his savings just pile up.

The core of the story is the redemption of Scrooge's soul - it's one everyone knows, but there are interesting tidbits.

Initially, Scrooge doesn't give to charity.  Why?  The sin of greed rules his life.  But, what does he offer for an excuse?  Essentially, "that's the government's job.  That's what I pay taxes for." ("Aren't there workhouses, prisons...etc.").  Thinking that way legitimizes holding the poor and needy at arms length.  It's neat and clean.

Scrooge treats Bob Cratchit as a rational agent in a labor market, as economists would say.  Both of them are free to walk away from their business relationship at any time.  Scrooge can fire Bob.  Bob can quit.  It's not personal. It's just business. This also keeps Scrooge free of messy entanglements of people's personal lives.  He doesn't even like the messiness of dealing with others even when he is on the receiving end.  Just keep it all neat and clean.

We all know what happens when Scrooge is "awakened".  He stops "storing his treasures on earth."  He gives to charity, he gets involved in the messy personal life of the people he knows.  He starts "storing his treasures in heaven", as the Bible puts it, and life is good.   It is worth noting how much and in many ways both the giver and the recipient benefit when this happens.

We have similar issues in 2013.  There is lots of noise about greed, and income disparity and "occupying Wall Street."  There are issues of people living below the poverty line and poor access to health care.

What's the solution?  I ask, "What would Scrooge do?"

Scrooge got involved.  He did what he could.  Did it solve the whole problem?  Of course not.  Did he sell all his stuff and donate everything to charity and move in next door to Bob?  Nope.

Was Scrooge wealthy?  Not really.  He was well off, but was certainly not in line for a Peerage.

Did he exhort the government to solve the problems?  No.  Not even once.

Did he demand the truly wealthy give "their fair share?"  No.  Not even once.

Why not?  Because, all the great things about being human are lost in that approach.  The giver and the receiver both gain from charity driven from gratitude.  That is all lost when charity is extorted and impersonal.

Bob Cratchit's family could have had a lot of their problems solved if the Parliament had simply extorted more taxes from Scrooge or started selling off the crown jewels and handed the proceeds to Bob's family, et. al.

While there is legitimacy toward "we the people" acting through our government to help solve really big problems, too often we want to do things that way because we are scared, like Scrooge was, to get involved in messy personal stuff.  We want to keep the problems at arm's length.  It's the easy, cowards way out.

Can we do things that way?  Sure.  But, nobody's heart would be changed.  In fact, it's likely people's hearts would get hardened.  You've heard of "class warfare", no?

Imagine "A Christmas Carol" that ends with the Cratchit family getting a government check. Warms the heart, doesn't it?

What if we all did what Scrooge did and just did what we could?

That's the Christmas spirit!

(full disclosure:  I don't practice what I preach very well.  It's okay to remind me of that.)

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

High Hypocrisy and Stunning Ineptness walk into a bar...

...and the bartenders says, "What is this? A political cartoon?"

If only...

High hypocrisy (or worse) on the right. (Tea Party - go find a mirror, please)

Stunning ineptness (or worse) on the left. (Administration, please administer!)


WSJ: Fixing Procurement Process Is Key to Preventing Blunders Like

and  (scary-bad no matter which of the three choices you choose to believe)

These are all pretty mainstream, middle of the road kind of guys saying these things.

Me?  It's clear that we need a good dose of competence and character more than we need ideology, issues or policy.

We need more of this: "Comity is hard to achieve. From a lifetime of experience, I know that most people don’t view Democrats and Republicans symmetrically. In their view, truth and virtue lie entirely with the group to which they happen to belong" (from Mankiw Op-Ed column.  Read the whole column, it's interesting!)

and this:

There is an actual plan! You can read about it here: They came up with a framework that's tough, but it works!  Both the right and left hate it because it contains things they have sworn they will never surrender, namely entitlement reform and higher taxes (among others). 

Well, maybe that's the sign of a good compromise!

You have to give up something to get something.

This situation is not new.  Dr. Seuss had it pegged.

Except, we can't just ignore them.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Little Trains - Big Event! (part one)

I like trains. A lot of other people do, too. Why?  We just do.  Ask us and you'll usually get a rather unsatisfying answer.  The real answer is often a bit of an enigma, even to ourselves.

Trains are big, and fast and loud and colorful and do useful, varied work and railroads are complex organizations with complex processes and game-like operations.  Lots of things have these attributes, but they are not trains!

The "how did it happen" seems easier to explain.  I was exposed at a young age.  Most Saturday errands with my dad included a quick stop at the local Long Island Railroad station to watch a passenger train or two go by.  At age two, I had decided my life's ambition was to "build a locomovis." I pretty much stuck with that plan through to adulthood!  However, I tried this method of indoctrination with my kids and it didn't stick.  So, maybe not.

Apparently, it can occur spontaneously.  According to Wick Moorman, CEO of Norfolk Southern, "The story I tell, which obviously is probably not true, is that my mother apparently dropped me when I was very young. I landed on my head, and then she picked me up, the only difference was that my brain had been slightly addled and I loved trains. I was always interested in the railroad business and always kind of a railfan, if you will." (Railway Age interview, January 2011)

A typical "railfan" will display much of the following behavior:

1. Find places to watch trains go by.
2. Visit railroad museums
3. Ride tourist trains
4. Take pictures of trains and/or locomotives
5. Ride Amtrak when practical (or even not-so-practical!)
6. Take trips to see trains in other areas
7. Incorporate some "train activity" in family vacations
8. Considers a getting a job with a railroad or volunteering at a railroad museum.
9. Collect railroad related "stuff"/decorate with railroad related themes
10. Have model trains/model railroad

Not everyone does all of these things.  Some guys get into the details of the various locomotive models - which manufacture built what locomotive and how can you tell them all apart. They can tell you difference between and EMD SD60M and and SD60I at a glance.  Some guys just like to take train pictures, focusing as much on creative photography as the trains.  Some guys like model trains better than real ones.  Some the other way around.

I like both.

So, when the National Model Railroad Association had their annual convention in Atlanta, I had to go! There's lots going on at the convention.  They have clinics on "how to do things" and on railroad history and operations.  They also have special interest groups that cover designing and operating model railroad layouts.  Additionally, they have tours to local railroad facilities and museums.  But, the thing I was most interested in was going on some tours of the best model railroads in the area.

I took a couple days vacation to do this.  There were big ones, small ones and ones focused on operating like a functioning, real realroad.  Some were focused on capturing a historical era accurately.  Some were focused on creating the "railfan experience" in minature, that is providing a setting for watching interesting trains go by.  The ranged from "good" to "superb".

Here's the synopsis of what I saw, with pictures.

Pennsy Southern Division
Host Name: John Kelley

What made this one special was the catenary.  

Nice cat poles and signal bridge
Whitford? Yup.
Looks like Grif Teller's 1949 PRR calendar painting, to me!

Host Name: Ra & Barbara Barr

A nicely done garden railroad.  FTB stands for "For The Birds".  Houses are birdhouses...

The faithful gather to watch the action

Freight rolls by town of bird houses

View from the deck

Live Oak, Perry & Gulf
Host Name: Revis Butler

A supremely detailed and documented layout depicting the first half of the 20th Century in the Florida Panhandle.

Turpentine production

Typical panhandle rural town

Nice station model!


Beautiful freight house model

...and tower

Early 20th Century...

terrific details in this scene

Brandywine & Benedictine RR
Host Name: Norm Stenzel

Really phenomenal layout.  Fictitious road, but realistic operations and scenery.  Lots of visual puns and inside jokes, too.

"Moby Dick" experimental steam turbine

Future GE locomotive on display - why not?

Nice engine terminal

Buying a new car, or some other thing... :-)

Normally, when we want to buy something, we shop around for a good price.  Sometimes, on big ticket items, like a house, you can negotiate.  But, just about everything else  is marked with a price.  Anyone can buy the item for the price on the tag.  It's easy to compare similar items based on price.

Let's suppose you need a new car.  You an go to one of many internet sites and find out all about every car, including the sticker price, invoice price, available incentives, and more.

But, they are expensive and all that research is a hassle, so you've enrolled in this new car buying service.  Just about everyone is doing it, so you jump on board.  Here's how it works.

The plan lets you trade in your old car for a new one every five years.  You sign up for the level of service you want.  If you want a basic car, you take the bottom level plan.  If you want a luxury car, you take the highest level plan.  Based on the level of plan you select, you pay a certain amount into the plan each month.

For each plan level, there is a list of cars that qualify and the amount extra you have to pay for some options.  For example, if have the basic plan and you want a sunroof, you pay $300.  If you have the luxury plan , you pay $25.  The trailer-towing package is only available with the luxury plan and is included for "free."  Each service company has their own, distinct levels of plans and option menus.

The plan also covers any and all maintenance and repairs.  This is pretty standard.  After all, if you need a transmission rebuilt, that can get pretty pricey.

Time to buy a car.  You look a the list of cars in your plan and pick one.  You go to the dealer, find one you like.  The window sticker shows MRSP of $75,000 plus $6000 for the sunroof and $5000 for the XM Radio.  Total, $86,000.  You don't pay much attention to this since you have "the service".   The dealer swipes your service card.  You give the dealer your old car, pay him $25 for the sunroof and $15 for the XM radio, and away you go.

Two weeks later, you get the statement from your car buying service.  After staring at it for an hour you figure out that it shows they payed the dealer just $25,000 for the car and $1500 total for the options.  They resold your old car for $10,000.  Net paid out, $16,500.

You are paying $400 a month for this service.

Is it a good deal?

If you're sharp, you might be able to figure out the answer to this question.  You have to figure out the current value of five years of payments, the likely service and repair costs, the residual value of your new car after three years, etc.  Some will be hard to find.  Since these buying services have dried up the internet car pricing databases and individual used car sales lists, you'll just have to take a swag at these.  You also don't know what service and repairs really cost, either.  There are super-high prices on the dealer's garage wall, but, you have the "service" and it's covered.  You don't really care.

In then end, you find it's all very confusing and you quit.  You can figure out what you're spending, but you really can't figure out the value of what you're getting in return.  You can't even figure out which level plan is the best value since you can't find out what things really cost.   It's all very opaque.

The "service" likes opaque. It's how they make their money.

What's happened?  The car buying service has inserted itself between you and the car dealer/manufacturers.  They negotiate the price between themselves.  You have no idea what that price really is.  You only see what you think is the price on that statement that comes weeks after you "buy" the car.  You have no idea if there are incentive discounts or side deals between the service and the dealer/manufacturer.

You look in the financial section of the paper.  Your car buying service is making a good profit.  The car manufacturers are making a good profit.  You know that the money you pay each month for the service is powering those profits, but your only real choice is to switch services - and they won't consider the trade value of the car you bought with your current service.  Plus, they have an equally bewildering array of levels, lists of cars and prices on options. You're clueless and out of the loop.

Would any sane person sign up for such a thing?  Is this any way to buy health insurance a car?

Health insurance?  Who put that in there?

We have the most expensive health care on the planet - but we don't get the best outcomes - in part because we are so disconnected from the price of the service, we have no idea what stuff costs....nor do we really care.

Getting more people covered by insurance doesn't fix anything to any real degree.  It just gets more people into the game. What just might work, is taking down that opaque wall.  Get real price tags on things, let us have some "skin in the game" and let us shop like we're buying a shirt at Macy's.  Buying stuff.  Hunting sales.  That's something we're REALLY good at!

How about something like this? (plus some, cheap catastrophic insurance...)

Simple Math

Sometimes understanding the numbers tossed around in political debates is like having bees live in your head.  It's noisy and painful and makes thinking fuzzy.  But, sometimes, things are simple. Here's an example:

I found this blog post interesting:

The Federal budget is $3.6 trillion. The shutdown only effected 17% of government spending.  That's $626 billion a year. The rest is on "autopilot".  The "autopilot" part is mostly Social Security, Medicare, Military (these three are about 20% of the budget each) and debt service (interest on existing debt -about $220B a year, at present), plus stuff like the TSA.

Where does the money come from?  About $2.7 trillion is from taxes and fees.  The remaining $900 billion is borrowed.

During the latest Obamacare-debt ceiling-budget deficit bru-ha-ha, there were some suggesting that the debt ceiling issue wasn't all that critical since there was still money coming in and the Treasury could essentially pick and choose which bills to pay, choosing to pay the debt interest first and then pay for other stuff.

(More here:  Myth #2, WARNING: this is a "bees in your head" blog post.  Also, more here: - third from last paragraph)

Can you avoid default by choosing what to pay?  Sure. Here's the simple math that exposes some ugly truth:

If you don't raise the debt ceiling, all you have in your "checkbook" is $2.7 trillion.  That's what comes in from taxes and fees.  You have bills for $3.6 trillion, $220 billion of which is debt service.  You are $900 billion short.

You can "shut down government" and not pay $626 billion. But, you are still $274 billion short.

You could shut some mandatory spending, like the TSA - which would ground everyone - but that only gets you $6 billion (net - once you subtract off the $5 fee for TSA screening charged to each ticket that covers about 25% of the cost of screening).  And, perhaps shut down the Coast Guard, Boarder Patrol, ATF, FBI, Pell Grants, ACE operation of locks and dams, US highway repair and construction (but keep the fuel tax), farm subsidies, bureau of printing and engraving, TVA power generation, IRS (but somehow keep the tax revenue coming in) and all the rest, and you might just have just enough in your checkbook to cover the fees.

But, most likely, you'd have to take a chunk out of the "Big Three" - that is Military, Social Security and Medicare.  Each are about 20% of the budget - about $750 million each in rough numbers.

This rather conservative fellow gets it done.  He chooses some very steep militrary cuts (from $670B down to $400B)

Which would you choose?

BTW, you can see from these numbers that solving the budget deficit is much harder than, say, shutting down the Dept of Energy ($35 billion), Dept of Education ($72 billion), NASA ($18 billion), Amtrak ($1 billion) or privatizing the TSA and let users pay the whole cost ($8 billion).

(more here: and here: )

The gap is huge!  It's $900 billion!  The play-at-home version of the "Reduce the Deficit Game" is here:  The choices here don't balance the budget, but they do reduce the total debt as a percentage of GDP - which is the really important goal. (ask any homeowner with a mortgage about being "house poor"!)

It is obvious that there is no template for closing this gap that is palatable to the left and the right.  "No increase in taxes!"  "Defend the military budget!"  "Defend Social Security!"  "Health insurance for everyone!"  Etc, etc.  So, obviously, all that's left is something equally distasteful for both sides.  This is more than choking down a few Brussels sprouts before you get your apple pie.  Everybody has to "eat a bug" and there may be scant dessert.

Which side is brave enough to go first?

Friday, September 6, 2013

Random thoughts and observations

1. I've been hooked on AMC's "Breaking Bad" for a several years now.  The thing that hooked me was trying to figure out how Walter White was going to get back up once he found the bottom of the slippery slope.  The glimmer of hope gets smaller and smaller with each episode.  Walter White is completely rational but amoral.  Everything he does is rationalized in his own mind as the most reasonable alternative.

His sin is pride. He's brilliant, but he thinks smarter = entitled.  It's an easy trap.  CEOs fall often because they start reading and believing their own press releases.  Athletes fall often because they watch their own highlight reels.  Entertainers fall often because they mistake attention for affection. We seem to take great interest in watching others fall from great height, I think because it makes us look better in comparison. Sin is serious business.  There's a chunk of Walter White in all of us, I think.  Good thing there are "mirrors".

2. I like playing tennis.  I'm just not very good at it. No highlight reels for me to watch!  But, I'm not going to quit, either.

3. The business class seats on domestic flights are nicer than coach.
They give you extra snacks and free drinks.  You don't have to worry about bumping your knees when the guy in the seat ahead of you reclines.  You get to check a bag for free.  But, the seat really isn't any nicer or bigger than a regular Amtrak seat (except for the center armrest),
you don't get there any faster, nor are your bags the first ones on the carousel, the upgrade is rather costly and you still have to do the same TSA cha-cha and hokey-pokey.  Is it worth the cost?  Sometimes.

4. Old cars are a pain.  They are a bigger pain if you bought one used.  You might know the title history, but you don't know where they've been, what they've been doing and which glitches are merely "warts" and which are real problems. Some things you can see and feel, but some are hidden.  I think I'm going to stay away from older used cars.  Anyone want a 2001 Mercury Sable?

5. Colorado is a fabulous place, but the mountain pine bark beetle is depressing.  Lots and lots of dead lodge pole pines.

Whole mountainsides.  It seems the problem stems from the mining era.  Huge areas were logged off for mining exploration a century or more ago.  The trees that grew back were mostly lodge pole pines. They are now all 80-120 years old. There has also been a drought lately. And, the winters haven't been cold enough lately to kill many beetles.  Pine bark beetles like lodge pole pines.  They like old trees.  They like distressed trees.  So, dead trees rule the landscape.  The good news is that it appears that a more diverse set of trees are replacing the dead lodge pole forests, so that might set the beetle back a good bit.

6. I know of two "fake Alpine" towns in the US. One is Vail, Colorado.
The other is Helen, Georgia.
Actual, real Germany

They are very different.  People are as likely to arrive in Vail by Gulfstream as they are in Helen to arrive by Harely-Davidson.  A meal in Helen costs the same as a snack in Vail.  Vail has skiing.  Helen has river tubing.  What they share is a desire to present an image of something they are not.  Under the "skin", they are both very American in their own way - which is not bad.  So, why the need to pretend?  Are there fake American towns in Germany, Switzerland or Austria?  I think I need to do some in-person investigation!

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

...with 40 seconds to spare

For my 50th Birthday, Patti got me a nice train ride from Denver to San Francisco on the California Zephyr.  (More about that here)

Seven years and a few months later, it's our 30th wedding anniversary.  We need to go on a nice trip.

Where should we go?

Alaska?  Hawaii?  Bermuda?

All great ideas!

But, for a variety of reasons...oh, okay... Because of time and money constraints, we decided to go to Colorado.  A few days in Rocky Mountain National Park and a couple of days in Vail (it WAS our anniversary, after all.)

The whole trip was fantastic, but that's not what I want to talk about here.  What I want to tell is how I just happened to plan the route between RMNP and Vail to go through Beyer's Canyon on US 40 so that I might sneak in a little railfanning.  There were a few alternate routes between the two places, but none were appreciably faster or more scenic, so I had plausible deniability on my side.

I figured an hour's delay to stop and wait for a train to appear was not too much to ask. I floated my plan to Patti and she thought it was a fine idea....oh, okay...  She said it was okay with here, as long as her iPad was charged up and we didn't get to Vail too late in the day.  "All set!" I thought.

I had done some preliminary scouting using "Streetview" in Google Maps.  The road was on the south side of the Canyon and it looked like there were lots of places to pull off to the side of the road in the canyon. So, getting a nicely lit scene seemed possible. This was good. I had also taken a look a the Amtrak timetable and had seen that the California Zephyrs both went through the canyon in the afternoon - the most likely time we would be there.  Also, good.  The afternoon weather in Colorado in the mountains in the summer is sunny. Also, good...Oh, okay...  Sunny with many quixotic thunderstorms - something about hot air rising into cold air over mountains.  In Georgia, we have the hot air part, but no mountains with cold air, but we have lots of thunderstorms just the same.  Why?  I have no idea.  I was hoping for sun, but expecting rain.

We drove into the canyon about 2:15 PM and I started scouting a good spot.  Usually, this is when the train appears and I'm in the wrong spot, with the camera on the wrong setting, and I step out into traffic, or in an ant hill, or off the side of the road and down an embankment, or the sun goes behind a storm cloud.  But, not this time!  I found a really good spot for a westbound.  And, atypical for the weather that time of day, it was actually becoming more sunny as time went on!

Patti and I agreed that 3:15 was the cutoff.  No train by then, then off we go.  C'mon train!

I camped out in my spot and waited.

Here I am waiting..
If I lean a bit to the right, I can get the Colorado River in the scene.
The trouble with Beyer's Canyon is two-fold. One is the line of sight is very short.  The train could be on top of you before you caught a glimpse.  That might not be a problem if you could hear it coming, but that was the second problem.  The highway noise on US 40 drowns out everything as even a car passing by makes a racket that echos off the hard canyon walls.  There was hardly a moment when it was quiet.  I had to make sure my camera didn't go to "sleep" while I waited.  I'd never get it turned back on in time once the train popped out around the curve.

Still, the spot was really nice and the sunlight was improving as time wore on.  15 minutes went by.  Then 30 minutes.  I started getting bored.  I took pictures of the wildflowers nearby.  Colorado is full of wildflowers.

I have no idea what kind of flower this is.

...nor this one

Then, we were up to 45 minutes gone. I was starting to get worried about getting skunked.  I took a picture of the location as if the train was there.  For some reason, this is what I do when I get skunked.  I have lots of train pictures without trains in them.

I decided to check my smart phone's Amtrak app to see when the Zephyrs might come by. No data service.  I checked a few more times, moving the phone around a bit.  Still, zero bars.

While I had the phone out, I took a panorama shot of my location.  Here it is.
I'm a big fan of my Samsung GS3.  This is one reason why.

Now, we were up to 55 minutes gone.  Still no train.  When we rode the California Zephyr in 2006, there were lots of trains on the route.  In fact, just about every passing siding was full of coal.  Where were all the trains?  Maybe those sidings were full because the UP network was backed up elsewhere?  Maybe the coal traffic dried up with the recession? Who knows?  I just knew I'd been there almost an hour and no train.

57 minutes.  58 minutes.  59 minutes! Nuts. Should I call it quits?  What's one more minute?  I'll stick it out for that last minute.  Besides, the sun was out almost fully - the best it had been since I got there.

Twenty seconds later, I hear some commotion behind me.  It's Patti yelling, "It's the Rio Grande heritage unit!"...oh, okay... she actually yelled, "A train is coming!"  I spin around.  Sure enough, the eastbound Zephyr. I was hoping for a westbound, but c'est la vie!

Much to my surprise, Patti has her little Canon "point and shoot" camera out.  She aims it at the train and starts shooting.  Gets a couple pretty decent shots.  Not bad for a first-timer!  She later admits, "I had no idea what I was doing.  I just kept taking pictures!"

Patti's first shot

Her second shot.
In the hour I was waiting, In my boredom, I did frame up a few shots for an eastbound.  Sun angle wasn't great, but it wasn't horrible, either.

Here's what I got.
Rolling by some cool looking weathered rock spires.  I remember these from when I was on the "inside" in 2006

Back to back P42s along the Colorado

A "going away" shot.  I would have preferred a westbound, but I'll take this one!

Forty seconds to go.

I was worth the wait!  On to Vail - with a smile on my face!

P.S. For the record, Patti had gotten out of the car to tell me we should wait another ten minutes, when the train showed up.  I married the right person!

Friday, August 16, 2013

War Stories: Episode 2 - "Independence Day"

Moving Day #1

June 19, 1978 was getting close.  That was my first day of my job as Mechanical Trainee at Conrail.  Further correspondence from Conrail told me that 16 of us were to assemble in Six Penn Center, Philadelphia that morning, but we were free to leave later in the morning to head for Altoona, our location for the next four months.  We had to arrange our own lodging and report to work the next morning.  (Gee, how generous!  Not even one night's hotel stay and a half day to apartment hunt?)

Armed with this information, my mom and I had made a trip out to Altoona a couple weeks earlier to apartment hunt.  How hard could it possibly be to find a decent place to stay in Altoona?

It was hard.

I was figuring on a plain-old, modern garden style, one bedroom apt.  I had a real job.  I wanted a real place to live. There were zillions of them around the Philadelphia suburbs.  There had be some in Altoona, right?  Wrong, or nearly so.  Altoona is not Philadelphia.  Altoona was not growing - it was shrinking.  There was no transient population at all.  People who were born there, died there.  Not that they couldn't leave, they just never really considered it.  So, no need for new apartments.

Not what a boy from the 'burbs was expecting!

What was available was typically the space over an storefront or the top floor of an old framed house. There was one such place just across the street from the Juniata shops, above a turn-of-the-20th Century vacant storefront.  With time and money, it could have been fixed up to "slightly less dingy and depressing".  There was another in a hotter-than-hot attic of a "newer", i.e. 1920's vintage house, out on old US 220.  It needed some paint and repair.  With a little work, it could have been fixed up to "a hot attic over an old house."

Ugh.  This was not going very well.

Finally, we wandered down to Duncansville.  It was about a 30 minute drive to Juniata, but only about 5 to Hollidaysburg.  There, tucked away behind a block of houses, was a development of very nice looking garden apartments!  Like a shining beacon on a hill!

They only had a two bedroom, one and a half bath available. I didn't care.
I'd get stuck eating the one month security deposit.  I didn't care.
They were unfurnished.  I didn't care.
They were $240 a month - I signed a lease.

June 19th came.  I went to Six Penn Center and met the other 15 trainees.  "I've rented a two bedroom apartment.  Anyone want to share?"  I had a roommate in 10 seconds flat.

It was great.  Utilities were included in the rent, so the AC ran a lot and kept cool.  We furnished it with the bare minimum of hand-me-downs and an old B&W TV.  A mattress on the floor and an old desk, about all I could fit in the parent's borrowed station wagon, were enough for me.

In the end, was it REALLY any better than any of the other choices?  Probably not.  The other guys wound up in some interesting places, but none seemed any worse for the wear.  It was an interesting summer in an interesting place - and I learned more than just locomotive and freight car repair.

But, that's another story.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

War Stories: Episode 1 - "College boy gets a job"

If you have two or more believers gathered in one place, that's a church, according to the Bible.  If you have two or more railroaders gathered in one place...that's not defined as anything special in the Book of Rules anywhere that I know of.  But I know what will happen.  You'll get stories.

Lots of people like to tell stories.  Railroaders are no exception, in fact, they are probably worse than most.  Lots of strange things happen on the railroad.  If you gather railroaders in one place with nothing to do for a while, the stories start coming.

This is my 35th year around the railroad.  I've told a few stories.  Some are dumb.  Some are funny.  Some are interesting. Some are commemorative. Some are just strange.

Here the first one. Enter at your own risk.

This is a Job Interview?

The fall of 1977 was the beginning of job interview season for the class of 1978 at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY.
Quad dorms at RPI after 1978 snow storm

 It was time to start job hunting.  If I didn't screw up the last 30 credit hours, I would graduate with a degree in Mechanical Engineering in the spring. The placement office had all sorts of employers lined up.  Conrail's Mechanical Department was one of them.  I was always fascinated by locomotives. Always.  For longer than I could remember.  My very first memory was seeing the Yankee Zephyr on display in Massachusetts.  My first career ambition at age 3 was "to make a locomovis."  This might just be the thing for me!  I signed up for an interview.

I had heard and read all sorts of horror stories about how railroads treated their college hire trainees to the point that I thought this might not be such a good idea.  Sending them off into blizzards to shovel snow.  Breaking strikes.  Laying ballast in the dead of night. Eating railfans alive.  I was pretty wimpy about taking abuse of any kind.  Still, what the heck - if I didn't try, I might regret it.  This was Plan A.  If I hated it, I could always go back to the Naval Ship Engineering Center in Philadelphia where I'd worked the past two summers.  They liked me.  And better yet, they didn't eat anyone alive. This was Plan B.

So, armed with Plan A and Plan B, I headed for the interview....and waited...only to find out Conrail had forgotten to send someone to keep the appointment.  Maybe the interviewer was in Chicago shoveling snow or munching on a railfan somewhere.  Either way, not a good sign.

However, soon after, I got a letter from Conrail, apologizing for standing me up and inviting me down to Philadelphia for an interview.  A good sign?  Since I was going home to South Jersey for winter break, I arranged the interview for early January.

I put on my best clothes and hopped on the PATCO High Speed Line for the ride into Six Penn Center.
PATCO station in Lindenwold NJ in the 1970s
 There I met Mr. E. T. Harley. He took me to lunch - Stouffers - in one of the other Penn Center buildings. Have no idea what I ordered.  He talked for an hour.  Solid.  I don't think I got 10 words in edgewise.  I'm not even sure what he talked about except he did mention the challenges the Mechanical Dept. had getting the equipment back in shape after years of deferred maintenance. And, very briefly that the training program included four months in Altoona/Hollidaysburg, four months in a terminal, and four months in commuter territory.

At the end of the lunch, he said, "Oh, by the way, we'll be sending you a job offer."

Wow.  That was easy.

Later, I found out Mr. E. T. Harley was quite the railfan back in his day.  Published pictures in Trains magazine and everything. An actual railfan thriving in the railroad culture.  Who'd a thunk it?  Plan A was looking better.  (Read about Tom Harley here:  - click download to read PDF.  Funny, he doesn't mention hiring me...)

A few weeks later, the offer came in the mail.  Mechanical Trainee.  $16,275 per year.  Start June 19th, 1978.

I took it!  Interesting times were ahead....

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Phew....It's not just me.

Always a good read, Fred Frailey talks about Amtrak and their political masters - John Mica in particular in his latest blog post.

Fred Frailey's Trains blog: "The Tragedy of John Mica"

Of note:

"There are a lot of things wrong with Amtrak, some of them of its own doing. It’s almost impossible to get anything done, so hidebound (and scared) are its managers. The reorganization that (Amtrak) President Joe Boardman wants is almost two years in the making and still not finished. Onboard employees are unsupervised and bad habits are proliferating, particularly on the long distance trains. service on Amtrak trains loses too much money."

"Amtrak needs critics...What it needs are critics, particularly in Congress, who want to make it better and are willing to pick nits or even pick fights with Amtrak to make it better"

The most notable critic of late is Congressman John Mica, but he just wastes everyone's time grandstanding.  Fred concludes: 

"Like I said at the start, the man is not stupid. He just wants us to think he is."

So, there's the problem statement.  What's the solution?  Fred says:

"It (Section 210 into the Passenger Rail Investment & Improvement Act in 2008 ) instructed Amtrak to examine each of its 15 long distance routes and come up with ways to shrink the deficits. Many good ideas came forth, but very few were adopted; like I said, it's very hard to accomplish anything at Amtrak today. If anything begs for an Inspector General's report, it is Amtrak's refusal to take Section 210 seriously."

(A typical Amtrak update report is here)

Railfans tend to fall into two categories when it comes to Amtrak.  Some think Amtrak should just be killed.  They are a proven failure and in the way of profitable freight trains and innovative market financed High Speed Rail.  The other group think Amtrak is highly functional organization whose only problem inconsistent and chronically short funding.

Both groups have a bit of truth in their reasoning, but are missing the whole picture.  Amtrak, is not a highly functional organization.  A good chunk of the blame goes to their political masters who routinely whip-saw them and cut them off at the knees with funding.  However, Amtrak has been a great "enabler" of this behavior and in my opinion, have lost sight of what they are really supposed to be doing.  They are largely dysfunctional and because they have a "good excuse" just perpetuate the status quo.  This has gone on so long they don't even realize it.  It's just "how things are".

The "let the market build high speed rail crowd" has a point.  As long as Amtrak owns the passenger rail franchise in the US we don't get solutions driven by market forces.  We get what ever Amtrak thinks up on their own plus whatever Congress dictates.  Exhibit A is Acela.  It's a success just about every way you'd care to measure it, yet the trainsets are too heavy, overpowered, overpriced, too wide to take full advantage of their tilt mechanism, and rely on Amtrak's clunky, home-grown, backward-focused,  ACSES signal system.  But, don't be fooled!  Removing Amtrak would not have allowed a better version of HSR to occur in the Northeast Corridor.  There would have been zilch.  Nearly every attempt at privatized, profitable rail service in the world engages in a clever game of "hide the subsidy".  The rail operator may turn a profit because the the government owner of the track leases it out at below full cost.

Passenger rail is a useful tool in providing overall mobility in the US.  But, like it or not, the path forward is straight through Amtrak.  If we want better trains, we need a better Amtrak.  As advocates, we need to demand accountability from Congress AND Amtrak. ...and we need to start right now.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Good, the Bad, the Bumpy: Random Observations from Weekend Trip to Philadelphia

I just spend the weekend in Philadelphia (South Jersey, to be exact) and found the cheapest way - and best use of my time - was to fly to BWI from Atlanta and then take Amtrak to 30th St.  This included and overnight stay at BWI, which just goes to show how expensive flying in and out of Phila is these days....

I also had to piece the trip together myself. Too bad the Amtrak and airline schedules aren't integrated.

Here are some random observations:

1. It is really pretty easy to get between the airport and the train station.  The shuttle bus runs frequently, is well marked and the trip is short.

2. BWI rail station is a tiny and is a dump - considering the number of people using it on a Friday morning - it could use some upgrading.  How about a joint MARC/Amtrak/BWI project?

3. The BWI station staff were very good.  I saw an agent go out of his way to give a 3 yr old girl a paper Amtrak hat and coloring book.  Just fabulous to watch happen!

4. I spent an hour and a half down at the end of the platform taking pix before my train came.  Not a single hassle. Smile
Lots of action.  Amtrak's Cardinal "splits the uprights" as MARC commuter trains make their station stops.

5. The center track has 1983 140 RE rail (rolled in June of 1983, so it's exactly 30 years old) - the old PC standard that Amtrak adopted.  It must have been put down with the early 80s NECIP that put the bulk of the concrete ties in place.  The other two tracks had newer 136# rail (which is NS's std).  For comparison, NJT and CR use 132 RE rail.
Dead tree along ROW. A service disruption waiting to happen?

6. The ride quality has gotten much worse in since the 1980s and 90s when I last rode this part of the corridor.  

The interlockings, which were always rough, were even worse and there were some other bad spots as well.  A lot of the route was pretty good, though, just not "rock steady" like it was 20 years ago.

7. The Amfleet coaches are just as good as they always were.  The "peel and stick" interiors were nice and clean, the seats comfortable, and the ride nice and quiet.  

8. The Crescent came through while I was waiting at BWI.  It had the ex-NYC Hickory Creek observation car on the rear end.  Had put my camera away by then...Sad  It was cool to see it though.

9. The free WiFi worked pretty well.  
Connection was good while I was on the train with about 1000 of my close personal friends.

10. The e-ticketing feature of the Amtrak phone app worked great!  No paper - they scan your phone screen (just like Starbucks) . 

On my return train on Sunday evening, I'd say about 1/3 of the riders were paperless.  Another cool thing Amtrak did was to offer an "upsell" when you go to display your ticket - really easy to spend a bit more to upgrade to business class (I didn't - but I thought about it). Also, the conductor's hand-held looked like a modified iPhone - nice and small and easy to use.  Off the shelf technology.  Smart.

11. 30th St Station is still the best train station in the US.  It just is.  It's big.  It's full of people using intercity trains.  It has massive art-deco coolness.  I like just being in the building.

Mixture of Art-Deco and neo-Classical?  Works for me!
Bas-relief art work saved from Philadelphia Broad St. Station.  Now in waiting room space in 30th St.

Memorial to PRR employees lost during WWII - powerful image.

It's pretty, but how useful will it be in an E-ticketing world?
12.  Amtrak has some kiosks up in 30th St selling the story of their proposed NEC upgrade.  That's good PR. 

13. Acelas and HHP8 locomotives are neat looking. 

HHP8 hauls Carolinian through BWI at track speed.
The Acelas have a goofy paint job, but the train sets look nice.  

Acela decelerates for BWI stop
 The HHP8s look good in Amtrak paint - less so in MARC paint.   

MARC HHP8 pushes toward DC

MARC's new diesels look pretty good.

14.  The on-board employees on both trains I'd give an A or B.  They've come a long way from the days of the Penn Central "charm school".  Amtrak did this.  Good for them.

15. I also spent an hour at Berlin, NJ.  One of the original stations on the Camden and Atlantic RR is still there - back from when the town was called "Long-a-Coming". 
Built in 1856 - oldest left in NJ?  Wikipedia say so.
It serves as a good prop for photographing the NJT Atlantic City trains.
Train headed for Philadelphia.  Next stop, Lindenwold.
Standard consist for AC trains is a Conrail Juniata shop built GP40PH-2B and four coaches.  Looks like the cab car is almost always a new Comet V.  I wonder if this a PTC related development? 
AC bound train pushes past original milepost.  "16 M TO C" translates 16 miles to Camden