Sunday, August 26, 2007

Dumb on Domes

Dome cars are a North American phenomenon that had their heyday during the 1950s and continuing into the early-to-middle Amtrak era. None have been built recently, although many have been reconditioned. VIA recognized the attraction of the dome car when they re-outfitted the Canadian.

We find it laughable when Amtrak attempts to tout the beautiful views through the glass of the Superliner lounges. We don't think we would get much valid argument that the 360 degree panoramic views from a dome or superdome blow the views from a Superliner lounge right off the track. From a dome, you can watch where a train is going, where it has been, and the spectacle of the hardware working to get the train over the road. And there was something about being closer to the glass that also made the experience more spectacular.

Amtrak made a big mistake with the Superliner concept. It was the most current trend in passenger equipment at the beginning of Amtrak, but there are better ideas that came before. And some that have come after.

When the next round of passenger car construction comes around, we would like to see the dome revisited. Not a revamp, but the same concept (same views and spectacle) in a new setting with new equipment and perhaps some innovations we haven't thought about as yet.

Unfortunately, with Amtrak being the political animal that it is, we are more likely to see high-capacity seating, the reduction of amenities, and the institution of higher fares for less than spectacular accomodations. By then, Congress will be looking for a way to take some pressure off the highways and the airways, and high-capacity, rather than high-comfort and enjoyable transportation - even for long-distance routes - may be in our future.

We hope not.

© 2007 - C. A. Turek -

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Technology Marches Forward

Just after posting to this blog on July 22, our old (6 years) computer came down and was replaced by a new one. The new one is far better that the old, though it cost about the same in today's dollars as did the old one in yesterday's dollars. We guess, to an economist, that means that it cost us less in real money. We got more for less than we did 6 years ago. Anyway, it has taken this long to get everything set up, but . . .

We started thinking about the technology that Passenger Rail is using today compared to 6 years ago. It compares because it hasn't changed that much.

In our opinion, this is because Passenger Rail has benefited less from technological blowback than has any other mode of people transport. And where it has benefited, the benefit is not out there where the passengers can see it.

Air transport is starting to fall into this category, too. But there are still investments being made in "cabin comforts" that include high-tech, when passengers are willing to pay for them.

A lot of rail passengers like to ride trains and will pay a lot to do so. But a large part of the train-riding public considers high-tech on the train the same way it would consider a GPS system in an Amish buggy. This is partly because much of our "rail cruise" Amtrak mentality is targeted at the senior citizen with the cash to pay the fare, and it is also partly because our Passenger Rail system continues to operate with (effectively) antique equipment. The only passenger delivery system that seems older right now is NASA's Space Shuttle fleet.

The other problem with high-tech on the rails, at least in America, is that the cost and lead-time for installation of such technology has to be borne, for the most part, by either the freight railroads (where the money is) or the taxpayer (where it more frequently isn't).

And cost it does. Because unlike the personal computer on our desk, the cost of hardware and lead-time to install (not to mention the disruption in business) is increasing. Commercially and governmentally, we are getting less bang (not more) for the buck.

We don't know the answer. But we do know that we would have a lot more people riding the trains if the oldest thing out there was (like our computer) six-years old or less.

© 2007 - C. A. Turek -