Tuesday, May 13, 2008

America by Train

All aboard!

The USA has much more to offer the tourist than guaranteed sunshine and bargain shopping, and there’s a relatively unknown way to discover what this country is really all about. Most people think of travelling by car or plane but you should certainly investigate America’s wonderful trains - perhaps the last means of luxury transport available to everyone. The 25,000 mile Amtrak rail network takes in almost all states, giving a choice of 500 destinations and access to such tourist essentials as San Francisco, the Rocky Mountains and the Grand Canyon.

The Iron Horse

Railroads opened up America more than a century ago and some of today’s long-distance trains still follow the original pioneering routes. They also use many of the great stations built during the golden age of passenger travel. An impressive example stands in Washington, DC, decorated in gold leaf and restored to its original grandeur with dozens of shops, restaurants and a multi-screen cinema. Chicago’s Union Station features a marble and brass waiting room as large as many a cathedral. It’s said that Al Capone used to stop by for his daily shoeshine in the shower room below.

Hotels on wheels

US trains are like mobile hotels, boasting gleaming aluminium twin-decked coaches, air-conditioning, observation cars and uniformed attendants who make you feel you have stepped into a 1930s Hollywood movie. Reclining seats are thick and soft, with comfortable leg-rests so that you can snooze after a meal or sleep through the night (a good way to save on hotel bills). Pillows and subdued lighting are provided by the attendant.
Trains also have traditional sleeping cars with cosy bedrooms ranging from single 'roomettes' to family size affairs for those travelling with children. Accommodation includes breakfast, lunch and dinner in the dining car, as well as complimentary tea or coffee and a newspaper delivered each morning. Meals are of a high standard, including regional specials such as freshly caught trout or barbecued spare ribs. Video films of recent vintage are shown in the lounge bar during the evenings, when the place becomes lively with impromptu parties and poker games.

Time to unwind

The atmosphere on board is invariably relaxed and the modest speed perfect for sightseeing, so this is a great way to explore the landscape and meet the natives. You have room to stretch out or walk around and instead of racing above the clouds you can watch an entire continent unroll outside the wraparound windows. Even occasional glimpses of city backyards can be fascinating, although trains are scheduled to pass through the less prepossessing areas by night. Children are particularly well catered for with games and other amusements and rarely become bored with the thrill of riding the tracks and making new friends.

Chance encounters are a vital part of what makes American train journeys such a rewarding experience. One day it may be a group of Italian schoolgirls heading for Niagara Falls, the next it is Australian backpackers in Texas. US trains are friendly places and you’re sure to run into someone interesting. You can learn a lot by sitting next to a Kansas City mortician or a drag artist on her way to entertain the troops in San Diego. Between small towns and big cities you also experience the country’s sheer size and variety, getting a feel for what this land must have been like before the days of McDonalds and Coca Cola.

Low prices

Best of all, ticket prices are amazingly low and visitors from overseas benefit from an array of passes that make this one of the world's great travel bargains. You can stop off en route as often as you wish and for any length of time, so given a little planning you should find a train to take you almost everywhere you want to go, and perhaps to a few places you hadn't expected. It's easy to work out an itinerary that lets you see more of this diverse country in a short time than is possible any other way. And as the bell clangs and the conductor calls out 'All aboard!' you soon discover why the railroad experience is so delightfully addictive.

Across Country By Train

We were both looking forward to the trip. My sister had flown in from Washington State. We were going to travel across country by train on Amtrak's 'Southwest Chief', a train that winds Southwest from Chicago through Missouri, Kansas, the edge of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and through the Mojave Desert to California.

After spending a few days with family, we departed early one afternoon from Penn Central station in Baltimore. After a short trip to Washington D.C. we boarded the train that was to take us out to Chicago. By the first evening, we had traveled through West Virginia and into Ohio about the time we decided to settle down. We had figured on sleeping in the coach but soon found out that a dozen squealing kids and seats not made for sleeping wouldn't make for a fun trip. Fortunately there was one available, and we were quite relieved to spend the rest of the evening in our compact sleeping car watching the snow covered passing towns.

The next day we arrived in Chicago in the early afternoon. We had a three hour layover there, so we decided to venture out and explore the Windy City. That plan was soon changed after walking out into some of the coldest weather I've ever experienced. Walking the streets, and sidestepping piles of snow, we quickly determined that hanging out in the nearest bar made a lot more sense than climbing over these miniature Mount Everest's. After several drinks and bit of good food, and a few more drinks we staggered back to the train to continue our journey.

After the first night, my sister and I decided that a sleeper was a necessity, so after making arrangements for one, we settled in for a long trip. One of the attendants named James fixed us up with sleeping arrangements and mentioned that he was going to take good care of us, and do every thing possible so that us 'lovebirds' would have a great trip. I told James that nah, we weren't from West Virginia just a sister and brother traveling across country. I'm not quite sure he understood what I meant, but we had fun with it the rest of the trip. Between him and Hambone our other attendant, they indeed took care of our needs and were quite helpful.

The next day took us through Missouri and Kansas. Although watching the passing landscape is enjoyable, after a while you start to need something to break up the monotony of sitting and we soon started looking forward to the meals that were provided with the sleeper. Train food is surprisingly good. In dining cars, space is at a premium, so if there are two of you, they will match you up with another couple. We were matched up with a couple that had a sleeper across from us. We called them Edith and Mumbles. During the meal, Edith would talk pretty much non stop. Her husband on the other hand was solemn, and whenever he did offer any conversation it was always so low that you couldn't understand what he was saying. After a time or two whenever Mumbles would speak, we would just nod our head and say something like, "is that right?", and continue with our meal.

The next day was a beautiful day and perfect for viewing the passing landscape. I was amazed at the open space and ranges that make up New Mexico. It's hard to appreciate the vastness of this country until you've traveled across it. I've done it several times and each time I'm blown away at the size and scope of the land. Traveling by train enables you to sit back and really take it all in.

While traveling through New Mexico we had some unscheduled R&R as one of the engines failed as we were climbing up the hill, so while waiting for a replacement we embarked and wandered into the nearby town for a bit. It seemed more like a town in Mexico than the U.S. Lots of little bars and Mexican restaurants. After a bit, we wandered back to the train, and on with our trip. That night we traveled through New Mexico and into Arizona. Along the way we had decided to embark in Flagstaff, Arizona as there were a couple of places that we wanted to see, such as the Grand Canyon. The next day we went there and drove on down to Phoenix. We missed the last part of the journey, that being the trip on to L.A. Maybe next time-NOT!

A couple of tips; if you're going to be on the train for more than a day, get a sleeper! They come in two basic packages, the economy version and the deluxe. The economy is a no frills and quite compact sleeper. The seats fold down for sleeping and up during day use. The deluxe on the other hand is roomier and comes with a shower and steeper price. Another thing to keep in mind is last time I checked, Amtrak would allow you three overnight departures meaning that you can get off of the train, stay in a hotel and pick up the train the next evening. Since the train only comes through once a day, you'll have to make sure you're there on time, or else you'll be spending another day at that location.

Traveling by train is a great way to travel and see places that you've never seen before in a way that only a train can provide. Watching the passing landscape in a panoramic travel car certainly beats the bus, and the food is much better. Even Mumbles would agree with me on that.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

High Speed Trains VS Planes

One of the problems with our Mass Transit System in the United States is its inability to interconnect with other regional and metro systems. A more cohesive plan is needed and Amtrak isn’t the answer. We need more rider-ship, lower costs and greater economies of scale, which must be based on reality, not pet project politics.

One way to save money is to spend more in the technological capital constructing of these projects and stack the deck with the highest of high tech. For instance the use of pilot-less trains is one innovation being looked at. High Speed Trains have a great advantage over short distances over standing in line boarding a plane and getting off a plane and finding a cab, shuttle or picking up a higher priced rent-a-car (supply and demand issues with decreased air travel). If you consider the two hours ahead of time they require for check in and screening, the one hour to get off the plane and get your checked bags, stand at the curb, drive to the location or hotel you can see that a 200 mph train; has the over all advantage. Consider 3 hours at 200 mph is 600 miles. Distances of 700-800 mile trips, would be much better served by high-speed train VS an airliner. Even if you could fill up an entire A380, it would take an hour and a half just to load the plane and deplane. Distances, which are under 150 miles people usually will prefer to drive. So those mileages between 150 miles to 800 miles a bullet train is best.

For those not wishing to fly for fear of flying, they may wish to travel up to 1500 miles or more by bullet train. The length of California on the 5 Freeway is about 1000 miles (try that in a truck at 55 mph?), similar to the width of Texas. Driving across TX can be a living hell and cause you to want to kiss the ground at the first off ramps in Louisiana or Las Cruses, New Mexico. Travelers have often made these “living hell” comments traveling from Denver to Kansas City.

The distance from between NYC and Florida is about 900 miles (not an especially satisfying drive when you throw in Florida’s length), Salt Lake to San Francisco 600 miles, Denver to Chicago 900 miles, Detroit to D.C. 700 miles so you can see the benefits. One reoccurring idea from soccer moms traveling is to; piggy-back on flat bed rail cars, like ferry. The high-speed train could streak across the region and then you simply drive off. In studying this concept which seems more than relevant could be done by modifying the TTX Auto Hauler Trailers design for high-speed rail and put in a couple of portable toilets so you could get out and use the restroom.

Then you have your car when you get there. Trains with no engineers are here and this is one way we can take out human error and reduce costs. Perhaps with the strong union controls in New Jersey, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Massachusetts, Connecticut. Maryland and D.C. it may not be feasible in this decade, but surely for cargo transport trains it could be done. Eventually these new technologies could be introduced and we can enjoy the economies of scale needed to vastly improve our current flow of transportation. Think about it.

Comparison Of Popular Model Train

Fleischmann trains are made in Germany and are of very high quality. Most of my model trains are British or American. But I do have a few Fleischmann locomotives in both HO and N gauge and they are really superior. They are comparatively expensive in the United States, but well worth the expense.

Kato is superior equipment, but they only manufacture American and Japanese models, not European as far as I know. Roco track I believe is nickel silver. I have only used their N gauge track, not their HO, and that was all nickel silver. Sounds as though you're on the right track.

Remember that even though tracks from different manufacturers may interchange different manufacturers use very different couplers. HO/OO trains need 12vDC that has speed control and a reversing switch. The 16vAC is only for accessories, lights, turnouts switches or points. Never attempt to connect your running tracks and locos to AC power -- it could could burn out the motors.

I do know that the Southern Crescent ran up to the time of Amtrak in the 1970's. I believe it ran on the Southern Railway before this company merged with the Norfolk & Western to become the Norfolk Southern. Probably by the 1950's or 60's it would have diesel locomotives, either E8's, PA1's, or DL109's. I would think there are cars and diesel locomotives in Southern Green and white. The Southern also had steam locomotives, 4-6-2s and 4-8-2s, painted in green, which could be used. Riva Rossi's products have had mixed reviews over the years.

I doubt any would really compare with modern equipment such as Proto 2000 or Ahearn Genesis. They probably would not have motors with 5 pole skewed armatures or flywheels. The detail would be plastic cast on rather than separately applied plastic or metal parts. But detail is a subjective issue. Many modelers are happy with poorer models that meet their prototypical needs. I fall into that category.

I have some early brass engines that don't compare in detail to recently issued plastic bodied locomotives. But the locomotive I like may not be available except as an early brass version. More modern models with finer detailing and better mechanisms will invariably cost more, even if made in China. For a more definitive answer I would contact the Southern Railway Historical Society with respect to whether models of Southern Locomotives and cars are accurate.

I took a look at the Riva Rossi cars in the Walther's listing. These are pretty generic, standard 1930's vintage heavyweight passenger cars, just painted in Southern Crescent colors. I doubt that they are truly prototypical. I would sense they are family reasonable running cars. Depending on the era your modeling they might be out of date, as I would sense that the Southern Crescent, as a premier passenger train, would have employed streamlined lightweight passenger cars early.

Snap track is okay but needs care in laying, as does any track system. Its main problem is a limited amount of different radii. Probably the best, and most expensive, track system of a snap track type is Kato's. It is not compatible with other makes. Atlas is fine however their snap track switches are very limiting. I would use their custom line switches instead. They will mate with snap track. They are not powered which means you'll have to attach an operating lever or point motor to switch tracks.

I'm not a fan of DCC because I have too many older locomotives that would be tough to change to DCC and too expensive. For someone just starting out DCC provides the advantage of running more than one locomotive on common parts of your layout, without having to sectionalize the layout electronically.

It saves wiring, switches etc. Make sure your locomotives are DCC equipped or convertible. Couplers are a big question. Cheaper makes still use the horrible "standard" hook/horn model. Better ones use a magnetic coupler compatible with the brand named "Kadee".

You can fit "Kadee" types to most modern made cars and locomotives. They uncouple with a magnet inset in the tracks. The original "Kadee" couplers are better, but more expensive, than those that are copies. "Kadee" are metal most of the copies are largely of plastic. All need careful adjustment. Kadee makes a cool gauge for this.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Amtrak Car Moving Passengers

The Amtrak car moving train is a fun and fast way for people to move themselves and their vehicles from the Washington, D.C., area to Central Florida or back. Whether it’s for vacation purposes or even to make an actual move go a little quicker, the train’s a great way to go.

Packing for the adventure, however, can be almost as crazy as putting together boxes for a moving truck. There are some tips and tricks, however, anyone using the Amtrak car moving train can employ to make the process go a little easier.

Since the Amtrak car moving service only allows passengers to bring two carry-on bags with them on the train, any bigger items will likely need to be stowed in the vehicle itself. As long as luggage racks are not in use during transport, the service does allow for vehicles to be loaded. Here are some do’s and don’ts of packing for Amtrak car moving.

Carry-on bags The strategy for packing carry-on bags for the ride will be the same whether a person is moving for good or just going on vacation. Economy and importance are the keys here.

The do’s for carry-on bags on the Amtrak car moving service are:

• Do pack items you will need on the 17-hour trip. Toiletries, a change of clothing and even a good book are all great ideas. Don’t forget any medications that might be necessary, as well. If children are along for the ride, don’t forget things to keep them occupied, too.

• Do bring important papers if they’re necessary for the trip. For example, insurance information, credit cards and so on should not be left in the vehicle during transport.

• Do bring small items of value with you on your person just to be safe. For example, jewelry, watches and so on.


• Do not bring hazardous or illegal substances onboard the Amtrak car moving train.

• Do not try to smuggle onboard items that are too big for the passenger compartments. The service clearly states two bags per person and they mean it.

Vehicles The Amtrak car shipping service allows passengers to pack up their vehicles for the ride. The train company does recommend passengers use a little common sense in the process, however. Since luggage racks are not allowed to be in use and it’s highly recommended that valuables be kept out of sight, the options here are limited, but it’s amazing what can be stowed under seats and in trunks. With this in mind, here are some packing do’s and don’ts for vehicles.


• Do pack smaller items you don’t want to be parted from while waiting for the movers.

• Do pack small kitchen items you might need right away, especially if the movers are a day or two behind.

• If on vacation, pack the things you’ll need. Fishing poles, surf boards (if they fit in the vehicle) and so on.


• Do not put highly breakable items in a vehicle unless they are well protected.

• Do not leave valuables in plain sight.

• Do not pack hazardous or flammable items within a vehicle.

The Amtrak car shipping service is a fantastic choice for anyone that needs to get their car and themselves to one of the stations of call in a timely fashion, but there are some rules of rail when it comes to packing.

Amtrak Auto Train

Anyone who would prefer to take their car, small van, or motorcycle with them on vacation (but not necessarily drive the entire distance) would enjoy traveling with Amtrak’s Auto Train. This is a unique service available in the United States for those who like to travel along the east coast. Amtrak, the Federally chartered corporation in the United States that runs interstate passenger trains now operates the Auto Train, which was originally a private business.

There are some things to consider when traveling on the Auto Train. Keeping these in mind and planning accordingly will make your trip more enjoyable.

When picking up your ticket and on the day that you depart from the station, please have photo identification on your person. Since Auto Train tickets must be in hand prior to boarding, make sure to pick up your tickets in advance. To that end, arrive early to allow time for any unexpected challenges.

If you are traveling from or through Washington, DC or Orlando, Florida, plan for plenty of travel time since traffic can be especially heavy in these areas.

Auto Train will begin loading vehicles (yours) in Lorton, at 11:30 a.m. on the day of your departure. If you are driving an oversized vehicle or a motorcycle, these must arrive on location no later than 2 p.m. Cars must arrive no later than 3 p.m. We regret to say, there will be no exceptions to these guidelines.

Automobiles, vans, SUV’s and motorcycles are the only vehicles permitted on the Auto Train. A car should be no higher than 65 inches high and have at least 4 inches of ground clearance. A van or SUV can be up to 66 and 88 inches in height with 4 inches of ground clearance. Nothing can be attached to the roof of the vehicle. However, bicycles in bicycle racks can be attached to the rear of the vehicle. Motorcycles can be up to 57.5 inches in height (including the windshield) and needs to have 5 inches of ground clearance. Only standard factory-model two-wheel motorcycles with no sidecars please.

You will not have access to your vehicle during the trip. Please remove all needed items from your vehicle prior to checking it in to be loaded. Please do not leave valuables in your vehicle. Vehicle alarm systems must be deactivated. If your alarm would go off during the journey, you might have a dead battery upon arrival. You may pack luggage inside your vehicle. Amtrak does allow two carry-on bags per passenger, so bring with you what you’ll need for the trip.

Trains sway and jiggle while in motion, so use the provided handrails when moving about the train and wear shoes at all times.

If you are traveling in a sleeping car, your bedding and towels are provided for you, but considering bringing your own pillow to make your trip more comfortable. The beds in the sleeping cars conveniently convert to seats for travel during the day.

You may bring your own snacks even though your meals are included in your fare. The rooms have limited space, so only bring essential items with you.

There is a lot to see on the train! Ask a member of your crew for recommendations on what to see while you travel. Above all, enjoy your trip!

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Adventure Travel

Adventure Travel

If you’re in the mood for something a little more wild and daring, why not consider planning an adventurous vacation? Travel to exotic locations worldwide, and pursue the trip of your dreams. Take a ride on an elephant in Thailand, or travel on horseback to gorgeous remote mountain destinations. Of course, this type of vacation isn’t for everyone, so if you’re looking for rest and relaxation, adventure travel probably isn’t for you. Not to say you won’t get any rest on your trip, but the accommodations will be simple and less than you would experience at a five star resort. It is definitely a trade off to experience this type of outdoor recreation, which is usually far removed from popular thoroughfares. Be one with nature and do something different to get away.

Adventure travel is very exciting, and there are risks associated especially when travel to overseas destinations is involved. Travel sites like www.adventurecenter.com specialize in world class adventure travel experiences at affordable prices. Adventure seekers can choose from over two thousand vacations including hiking and biking trips, cultural tours, African safaris, Antarctic expedition cruises, Everest base camp treks, a Nile cruise, Mongolian wilderness adventure, or hiking Machu Picchu. The possibilities are endless because there is a huge selection of active and adventurous vacations worldwide. A comprehensive guide to adventure travel can be found at www.nationalgeographic.com, www.outerquest.com, or www.gorp.away.com, also a good resource for adventure travel and outdoor recreation with information on top destinations, national parks, outdoor gear, hiking, and kayaking. For family adventures, visit www.gordonsguide.com, featuring dude ranches, whitewater rafting, houseboat rentals, bicycle tours, horse pack trips and trail rides, dog sledding vacations, wildlife viewing tours, and wagon trains, just to name a few popular adventures.

Security and safety are a high priority, and associated risks should be considered before booking your vacation. Most adventure travel sites recommend that travelers visit the United States Department of State website at www.travel.state.gov for the latest travel advice; be sure to heed any travel warnings that have been issued for various destinations and take care throughout your trip. Be prepared and get the recommended vaccinations in plenty of time before your trip, and stock up on any medications you may need on your journey. Travel light but don’t forget something that can make or break your experience. And last but not least, enjoy your vacation and you’ll far exceed your adventure travel expectations.

Train trips

Today, we can send people into outer space and back. We can fly from the West coast to New York in just four hours. So, you think, what's so amazing about train travel? You may commute to work every day on train trips of two hours or more each way. Just that slow boring trip when you read the paper, have some coffee or perhaps just take a nap to make up for the sleep you missed in order to catch the train on time.

Train trips are more than just a relatively slow mode of transportation. Today's modern trains are sleek, bullet shaped, uniform cars we ride without excitement, quietly and without personality whizzing down the tracks, depositing us at our destination without fanfare. We disembark to a crowded station where it's every man for himself, rushing off to work. There's simply nothing remarkable about train trips to work. Now, people who can afford it are lining up to pay $20 million to fly into space. That's remarkable indeed.

Before these impersonal conveyances we now use for train trips to work, there were bulky iron giants which ran on steam. They were neither sleek nor impersonal.

When they pulled into the station, passengers were treated to that interesting and now nostalgic smell that was the train. Somehow, both the smell and the billowing steam and smoke signaled the moment you'd been waiting for, looking forward to for days, especially if you were a kid. Your excitement spilled over and gained momentum as you waited for the train to screech to a complete stop.

Each application of the brakes on the heavy iron wheels produced a loud and high pitched scraping noise that varied in pitch as the train slowed. You knew it was almost time to board when you heard that final high pitched screech. The smell was almost overwhelming, but somehow nice nonetheless.

Then the conductor, in his distinctive outfit, would appear at the open door of the car, straddling the iron steps and hanging on to the rail. He was a happy fellow, clearly enjoying his position. Clutching your overnight bag, you couldn't wait to board.

In those days, train trips were adventures.

The days of the famed Orient Express made train trips more than an adventure. A train trip on the Orient Express was an exercise in elegance and comfort, traveling through exotic landscapes with velvet-draped windows and linen covered dining tables set with silver and crystal.

Those days are long gone, but the nostalgic memories remain. Next time you're taking that long train trip to work, let your imagination go to work and try to capture some of that excitement through a child's eyes of long ago.