Transportation Is a Utility: Thoughts on Airplanes and Trains (Part 2)

One of the advantages Amtrak has over domestic airlines is that passengers are treated with a lot more dignity. There is no TSA – all you have to do to board an Amtrak train is show a photo I.D. and a ticket (and conductors don’t always check photo I.D.). Baggage policy is more flexible (which, do be fair, is partially due to technological differences). While different conductors are stricter than others, they generally try to help passengers have a good experience.

Furthermore, while Amtrak employees have complaints about their work (like most workers), the general impression I’ve gotten from my conversations with Amtrak crews is that they believe they have decent jobs, and a quick internet search indicates that most Amtrak crew members are paid a living wage (unlike many airline crew members). While I have encountered Amtrak crew members of all races, a disproportionate number of them seem to be African-American. That might be partially because working on trains has historically be culturally coded as a ‘black’ job, but it may also reflect that the federal government, as an employer, tends to discriminate less on the basis of race than private employers.

Amtrak is owned by the government. It is essentially a government-owned utility with the purpose of serving the people, not making money.

The Trump administration’s attempt to cut down Amtrak is not a new trend. Some Republicans in Congress have been trying to attack Amtrak for a long time, saying that it ought to pay for itself through passenger fares. However, this reflects the views of only certain types of Republicans and other right-wingers – there is another set of right-wingers who support Amtrak.

I remember one time, when I was on an Amtrak train (one of the train lines which might be eliminated under Trump’s budget proposal), I was talking to a libertarian who told me that government is too big and ought to shrink down. I pointed out to him that he was riding Amtrak, which receives government subsidies. His response was that Amtrak was useful, unlike some other government activities, and that highways and airports are also subsidized by the government, so he couldn’t avoid using a mode of transit which is subsidized by the government. The thing was, he lived in a rural area. I suspect that, if he were a Silicon Valley libertarian rather than a rural libertarian, he would be in favor of cutting Amtrak’s subsidies.

Generally, I have found that rural people – regardless of their political affiliation – like passenger train service, and are opposed to cutting Amtrak. When riding on Amtrak, I have found that a lot of passengers live in rural areas. This is partially because a) many rural areas are not served by an airport and b) even if there is an airport, travel by train is sometimes significantly cheaper. For example, I learned that travelling between Arizona and Texas – especially if one buys tickets at the last minute – is much cheaper by train than by airplane. Now, maybe if the airline industry were not an oligopoly without sufficient public control, the airfare between Arizona and Texas would be more price competitive with train tickets. But that is how things are now.

Speaking of price, cutting Amtrak subsidies is a class issue, not just a rural issue. Aside from Amtrak crew jobs being better than airline crew jobs, people who ride Amtrak – especially the train lines which Trump’s budget might cut – tend to be poorer than airline passengers. Also, it is a disability issue, since some people, for medical reasons, cannot travel by airplane.

Anyway, back to the rural issue. Yes, it is true that some major metropolitan areas might also lose all passenger train service under the proposed budget. I find it particularly shocking that New Orleans might be completely cut out, since New Orleans is currently one of the major passenger train hubs. On the other hand, New Orleans does have a couple of airports as well as Greyhound and Megabus, so losing Amtrak would not be as devastating to NOLA as would be to a rural town.

Oh, and Greyhound? I’ve heard that their prices went way up after they bought Trailways, their main competitor. They also eliminated a lot of routes. This is another great example of how reducing competition increases prices and reduces service. Usually, travel by Amtrak is cheaper than Greyhound, though Greyhound is sometimes faster and usually has better wifi than Amtrak. If Amtrak gets seriously cut back, I predict Greyhound will become even more expensive, and their service might get crappier. MegaBus pretty much only serves major metropolitan areas because that is the most profitable market for long-distance buses.

As it so happens, last week (assuming everything went according to plan – I scheduled this post to go online about two weeks after I wrote it) I went from San Francisco to San Diego by train. Guess what? Neither of the train lines I used (the San Joaquin and the Pacific Surfliner) are directly threatened by Trump’s budget. In fact, I think the proposed cuts to Amtrak, if they come to pass, would barely affect the San Francisco Bay Area. We would still have the Amtrak lines which are not affected by the cuts, as well as Greyhound, Megabus, Caltrain, the airports, etc. The attitude of most San Franciscans towards Amtrak is that it’s nice, and they do not want to cut its subsidies, but they do not consider it particularly important.

Let’s compare that to Dunsmuir, California.

Dunsmuir is in Siskiyou County, which consistently leans Republican. Amtrak has tried to end passenger service to Dunsmuir before, but the people of Dunsmuir insisted on keeping passenger service, and eventually the City of Dunsmuir made a deal with Amtrak. Dunsmuir does not have an airport with scheduled flights, nor does it have Greyhound (and the nearest airport with scheduled flights is only served by two airlines – one of them is United Express). If Dunsmuir were to lose passenger train service, then the only remaining means of long-distance transit would be the interstate highway (technically, it would also still be accessible by freighthopping, which is illegal, and by foot and horse, but that is not enough to keep a town alive in this day and age). Losing Amtrak would be a much bigger deal to Dunsmuir than to San Francisco.

Yes, you guessed it. The proposed budget cuts to Amtrak might end Amtrak service to Dunsmuir, a town which needs it more, not to San Francisco, a city which needs it less.

Of course, though losing Amtrak would be bad for Dunsmuir economy (and Dunsmuir’s economy isn’t doing so great in the first place), the people of Dunsmuir also have cultural reasons for keeping Amtrak. Dunsmuir was founded as a railroad town, and Southern Pacific is still one of the biggest employers in town. Trains are a key part of their heritage. To them, losing passenger train service would be like San Francisco losing its cable cars. And yes, the city government tried to eliminate San Francisco’s cable cars in the 1940s and 1950s, and it took citizen activism to keep the cable cars running, just as Dunsmuir had to make a fuss in order to keep Amtrak. San Francisco cable cars have much less utility than Amtrak trains, and also require subsidies from local taxpayers to keep running, yet shutting down cable cars would be as unpopular today as it was in the 1940s/1950s because San Franciscans recognize their cultural value (and their tourist-economy value, which is derived from their cultural value).

By the way, one of the conservative/right-wing arguments for subsidizing Amtrak is that Amtrak is preserving a piece of the United States’ cultural heritage.

Though I have not done the research to confirm this, based on what I’ve read, it seems that Republicans from rural areas tend to like Amtrak and favor having Amtrak serve their communities. For example, Doug LaMalfa, the Republican who represents Dunsmuir in Congress, has voted in favor of Amtrak subsidies (he is opposed to California’s high speed rail program, but that might be because HSR, unlike Amtrak, would not serve his district). I recall reading years ago that Republicans in southern Mississippi also tend to be pro-Amtrak, and a quick internet search yielded this article (which is obviously out-of-date, but also supports my hunch than rural Republicans tend to support Amtrak). IIRC, the article I read years back quoted a Mississippi politician as saying something like “the Yankees are trying to take away our trains”.

It seems to me that Republicans who most aggressively Amtrak are from affluent-to-rich suburban or urban areas, or are just plain wealthy (Trump obviously belongs to this group).

Likewise, the politicians – both Republican and Democrat – who most favor ‘deregulation’ of the airline industry and allowing high market concentration by ignoring anti-trust laws are so wealthy that they can afford to travel by private jet, or rely on campaign contributions from people who are wealthy enough to travel by private jet.

I hope that the Democrats and rural Republicans can work together to prevent these cuts to Amtrak’s budget. Even though some Amtrak lines are not directly threatened by the budget cut, the way it works is that because Amtrak currently serves so many rural areas, there are a lot of representatives in Congress who have a stake in sustaining Amtrak service in their district. If a bunch of congressional districts lose Amtrak, then there will a bunch of members of Congress who will have much incentive to, say, vote to increase funding to the Northeast Corridor.

Yes, the national network train lines operate at a net loss, but they increase revenue on other lines thorugh connecting passengers. For example, a national network train (the Coast Starlight) might bring a passenger from Portland to Sacramento, and then they will take the San Joaquin to Fresno. Without the Coast Starlight, they probably would not choose to use the train, and thus the San Joaquin misses a potential passenger.

And we get back to national cohesion. You either have the principle that one tries to serve as much of the nation as feasible because this nation is for everybody, or you’re only going to serve the people it’s ‘profitable’ to serve, which in the case of Amtrak would mean that people in the Northeastern United States would have Amtrak service and nobody else (not even California).

And transportation supports national cohesion in another way. You probably think that there is some region of the United States where a lot of people have very messed-up ideas. If so, and you want people in that region to have less messed-up ideas, you want the United States to have a good transportation network. The better (by ‘better’ I mean affordable and convenient) the transportation network, the more people in that region will travel, the more they travel, the more ideas they will be exposed to, and the more ideas they are exposed to, the more likely they will replace some of their very messed up ideas with less messed-up ideas. Though all forms of transportation support the flow of ideas, I think that trains, because they foster more social interaction between strangers than other forms of long-distance transit (except certain types of boats), serve this purpose particularly well.

So to wrap this all up – transportation, like water and electricity, needs to be treated as a utility. This is necessary to ensure fair treatment of passengers – both in terms of price and dignity. When transportation is offered by private companies, it needs to be regulated by the public. It’s also sometimes a good idea for transportation to be delivered by a government-owned utility, like Amtrak. Sometimes, offering transportation to some places requires operating subsidies, but the benefits to society as a whole can justify the cost of those subsidies.

Transportation Is a Utility: Thoughts on Airplanes and Trains (Part 1)

Note: This post is scheduled to go online a little less than a week after I wrote this, while I do not have access to the internet. It might already be out of date by the time it is posted, and due to lack of internet access, I may be slow to moderate/respond to comments.

***

I’m guessing that just about everyone who is reading this post knows that, on April 9, 2017, United Airlines (or more specifically, United Express) called in Chicago Aviation security officers to forcibly remove a passenger who was already boarded and seated and posed no threat to anybody, and those officers broke the passenger’s nose, gave him a concussion, and caused him to lose two teeth. This has sparked a lot of discussion, including (but not only) the fact that the airline industry in the United States is an oligopoly, and that this situation (the broader situation, not just oligopoly) exists partially because the government chose to hand over airline regulation away from democratic systems and towards airline managers.

Though it was published before April 9, this article explains how enforcing anti-monopoly/oligopoly laws is necessary to preserve/expand civil liberties. That article focuses on African-Americans, but I think its points can be applied more broadly, and I think the United Airlines incident is an example of the link between concentrated market power and violation of civil liberties.

Meanwhile, another piece of news which has gotten far less attention (for obvious reasons) is the Trump administration’s proposal to cut all funding of Amtrak’s national network trains. You know those trains which I rode last year? Those routes might be eliminated if the budget passes in its current form.

The common thread in these two news stories is that they are about how transportation policy in the United States has been moving towards giving the private sector, as opposed to public sector, more control over transportation, and that this is bad for societal cohesion. In other words, the United States is moving away from treating transportation as a utility.

Let’s go back to airlines. It has been more than ten years since I was ever on a domestic flight in the United States, and most of my experience with U.S. domestic flights was with an airline which no longer exists (TWA). Thus, I do not have personal experience with current conditions on domestic U.S. flights. However, I do have recent experience (within the last five years) with domestic flights in Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea, and I can tell you that they have much better customer service than what people describe with domestic airlines in the United States at much lower prices. Now, some of that is because people are going to talk more about their horrible experiences with airlines than their boring experiences with airlines. However, it does seem to me that Americans are dissatisfied with airline service in the U.S. in a way that most East Asians are not dissatisfied with their domestic airlines. Furthermore, the domestic airlines in those countries either have government price controls (Taiwan) or are much more competitive than the regional air markets of equivalent size in the United States (Japan and South Korea).

Some of you are probably thinking ‘Domestic flights in Taiwan / Japan / South Korea? That’s ridiculous! Those countries are so small!’ Well, it’s not ridiculous because Taiwan and Japan are island countries, and South Korea has an entire province (Jeju) which is not on the Korean peninsula, just as the United States has an entire state (Hawaii) which is not part of the North American landmass.

Since I know most about Taiwan, I will focus on the airline industry there. Most domestic flights in Taiwan connect the main island to the outer islands. There is also ferry service to the outer islands (except Kinmen), but since air travel has some advantages over sea travel, having both air and sea connections means better transportation than having only sea connections. Since some islands are only served by a single airline and can only sustain a limited number of flights (for example, Qimei, an island with about 3,700 inhabitants, has only two flights per day), market competition clearly cannot keep airfares reasonable. Thus, the government imposes price controls. And when the airfares go up, the islanders make a big stink about it, and it is reported in the news.

Obviously, Taiwan’s regulation of domestic air travel has big problems because this happened (note: I once took a TransAsia flight from Taipei to Kinmen – if the timing had been different, I could have been on that flight). However, Taiwan’s approach – treating airlines as a utility – is the approach which best serves its interests. When I interacted with airlines in Asia, I generally felt I received good customer service. For example, I once got a refund for my ticket with very little fuss for a flight where I was a no show (I did not cancel – I was a no show). That airline had a monopoly for that particular route, so the most plausible reason why they gave me a refund so easily is that they were legally required to do so.

Now, one may ask ‘who cares if the outer islands, which have a total population of less than 300,000 people, have good, affordable transportation?’ First of all, good transportation is critical to maintaining the economies of the outer islands, but that is arguably not important to the 23 million people who live on the main island (the total population of all of the outer island is less than 300,000). The most obvious benefit to the people on the main island is military security – in every single instance in history when there was warfare between China and Taiwan, it started in the outer islands because they are the buffer zone. It is in Taiwan’s interests to keep the loyalty of the people in the outer islands, and for the outer islands to have sufficient resources to support Taiwan’s military (which is heavily concentrated in the outer islands).

But beyond the question of how helping the outer islanders benefits the main islanders, there is the basic principle that they are all part of same society, and that it is the duty of a society to take care of its own people.

Here one might say ‘yeah, that’s Taiwan’s situation, how is that relevant to anywhere else.’ True, people in New York City do not depend on upstate New York to serve as a buffer against military invasion (though I suppose that, if there were any serious threat of Canada invading the United States, that could change). However, the point about broader social and national cohesion applies just as much to the United States as to Taiwan. That is the case made by this blog.

One of the issues I’ve seen come up again and again in discussion about United Airlines is that some people cannot avoid using United Airlines if they want to travel to/from certain places by air because United Airlines is the only feasible option. Though I do not know the details, apparently Louisville (the destination of the flight) is one of those places where flight options are limited. Thus, one cannot rely on the power of the market to ensure good service – if the government does not step in, then the managers of the airlines will just do whatever the heck they want, which is probably to make themselves richer at the cost of both passengers and employees (it turns out the employees who were working on that flight are grossly underpaid, which might be related to why they performed so badly – employees who can’t take care of themselves can’t take care of passengers).

I have zero sympathy for United Airlines, and I would not feel sorry at all for them if they go out of business because of this scandal. However, because the airline industry in the United States is an oligopoly which does not have sufficient public control, I do not expect eliminating United Airlines will improve conditions for passengers. On the contrary, I think increasing market concentration might make the surviving companies even less inclined to treat passengers fairly.

Now let’s get back to trains…

(To be continued in Part 2)

Towards a Green Christmas (or, the Train Which Was Faster Than Flying)

Photo of Chicago's Union Station by Cuddlesworth. Used in accordance with Creative Commons 2.0 License.

Photo of Chicago’s Union Station by Cuddlesworth. Used in accordance with Creative Commons 2.0 License.

Much as I enjoyed my stay in Chicago, my main purpose for going there in the first place was to catch a train which would take me back home. At first, I had intended to try to make a tight transfer, but I realized that it would have been tricky to get from St. Louis to Chicago in time to catch the train to San Francisco, and if there had been ANY delay on the St. Louis – Chicago leg of the trip, I would mess up the transfer, so I figured it was better to spend one night in Chicago. And then I decided to spend two nights in Chicago, which allowed me to have a full and satisfying day there.

Inside Chicago Union Station. Photo by Chris Filiatreau, used in accordance with Creative Commons 2.0 License.

Inside Chicago Union Station. Photo by Chris Filiatreau, used in accordance with Creative Commons 2.0 License.

Chicago Union Station is the busiest long-distance train station in the United States. Just take a look at a map of the Amtrak system, and you’ll notice that an awful lot of train lines converge in Chicago. Most major train stations in the United States only see 2-4 long-distance trains per day, whereas when I was at Chicago Union Station, the train to San Francisco was departing just fifteen minutes after the train to San Antonio, Texas, and likewise, the train going to Seattle was departing just fifteen minutes after the San Francisco train (and the train to Los Angeles was departing shortly after the train to Seattle). This is on top of the fact that there are the local commuter trains called ‘Metra’ (they look like Caltrains, but had more snow on them), as well as the Polar Express (at the train station, whenever I saw a family with young children, there was a 90% chance that they were waiting for the Polar Express). To impose order on this chaos, Chicago Union Station requires boarding passes (unlike any other Amtrak station I have been too), and when it is time to begin boarding, an Amtrak employee will call out the name of the train (for example, “CALIFORNIA ZEPHYR!”), line up the passengers, and then walk them through the maze of the station to the correct platform.

On the train, I briefly talked to a couple who was travelling from Philadelphia to San Francisco. Their train from Philadelphia arrived at Chicago Union Station just five minutes before the train to San Francisco departed. They said that the Amtrak employees arranged for a very speedy transfer which is why they got on the San Francisco-bound train on time. I cannot imagine an airline company arranging a transfer between an arriving and departing airplane within a five minute window.

Speaking of airlines, one of the advantages of train travel is that there is NO SECURITY CHECK. Amtrak employees do check whether or not you have a valid ticket, and they do NOT like unattended luggage/packages in places where luggage/packages are not supposed to be stored, and there are some forbidden items, but generally it is a way easier process than boarding an airplane.

Once on the train, I got to see a lot more of the Illinois landscape. First the train passed through suburbs of Chicago, and then it was a vast expanse of farmland coated in snow, with isolated farmhouses, stands of trees, and streams breaking up the white landscape. During this portion of the trip, I talked with a young woman who was going from Chicago back to her hometown, Burlington, Iowa.

Just about when we arrived in Iowa, the sun set. I was expecting Iowa to be more farmland just like Illinois, so I was surprised to see how industrialized it was (I learned that the train goes through the most industrialized region of Iowa – which makes sense, of course manufacturing and industry would be concentrated along the most important train route).

I stepped off the train in Omaha, Nebraska for a breather. Omaha was no colder than Chicago, but the ground was slick and slippery, so I did not walk far from the train. After Omaha, I went to sleep, and woke up in Colorado.

Colorado, like Illinois and Iowa and Nebraska, was covered in snow, but it looked different. We stopped in Fort Morgan, and then Denver. It was so cold that night that the remote-controlled switches on the tracks were failing, so whenever the train needed to use a switch, it had to stop, the conductor had to get off the train (in the middle of a blizzard), use the manual switch, get back on the train, and then the train could go ahead. Naturally, this led to the train being hours behind schedule.

Denver was also coated in snow, but in a very different way than Chicago. Chicago is liberal in its use of salt, and makes an effort to clear snow. Denver doesn’t bother with salt, or clearing snow. The Colorado residents I met on the train said that all snow in Denver melts within days, a week at most, so they don’t bother with it. They could tell just by looking at Denver that it had snowed at night, because otherwise it would have been much more melted down. One of the most remarkable sights I saw in Denver were people (homeless people, I presume) setting up tents along a riverbank covered with snow. I’ve certainly seen tent encampments of homeless people before, but never amid such snow.

When we got to Denver train station, I was told to stay on the train platform because we didn’t have time to enter the station. Then we stayed in Denver station for more than half an hour. I got to watch snow fall of the platform roofs.

A conductor told me that only 50 passengers were supposed to board the train in Denver. Instead, 130 passengers boarded in Denver. What happened? Well, a bunch of people discovered that taking the train was faster than flying.

Let me explain.

That day, every single flight at Denver International Airport was cancelled, due to to a combination of weather and the incompetence of whoever manages flights at Denver. People on the train told me that, when they tried to reschedule their flights, they were told that they would have to wait at least four days in Denver. The people going to places such as Utah and California figured out that it takes less than four days for a train to get to those places, so they got train tickets. Thus, it turns out that trains are sometimes faster than airplanes.

I will continue with my account of riding the California Zephyr from Chicago to San Francisco Emeryville (which is just a ten minute bus ride away from San Francisco).

Ah, but what is this thing about a ‘Green Christmas’? Well, a lot of people on the train lived in places like Iowa and Colorado, and they were visiting their relatives in California. Why were they going from Iowa/Colorado/Philadelphia/wherever to California, rather than inviting their California relatives to visit them? Because they wanted a “Green Christmas” (they coined the phrase, not me). I suppose the people who wanted a White Christmas took the train going in the opposite direction.

I’m Not Flying Over Flyover Country

Here is a snippet of a conversation I had in Natchez, Mississippi:

Resident of Natchez: You know they call this ‘flyover country’.
Me: I’m not flying over flyover country.

This is literally true in the sense that I am not flying at all during this trip. All of my long distance travel is done by train or bus.

Right now, I am in Memphis, Tennessee (yes, I’m falling a bit behind on posting about the individual cities/towns I’m visiting, but I’ll catch up eventually). Just as in New Orleans, I’m staying in a hostel, so I’m with the type of people who stay at hostels again. Nearly everyone traveling through Memphis is going to or from New Orleans, since long-distance tourists tend to pair them together. However, most of them are getting around by airplane, unlike myself.

While discussing travel with my fellow guests, something I hear again and again is that they don’t have time to get around by train/bus. That’s fair enough – trains/buses are way slower than airplanes. And I hear about them spending a week in [city name], and how if they did not use airplanes, they would not be able to spend so much time in the cities they want to see.

Now, I have no objection to visiting cities – a) I reside in a city and b) I have visited a lot of cities. However, this habit of getting around by airplane really does limit tourists to the cities, and offers much less opportunity to see places which aren’t part of a major metropolitan area.

To me, all of the time spent on the train/bus is not a waste – I want to see the United States of America, and I can see a lot more of the USA from a train or a bus than I can from a plane. In particular, I get to see much more of the places outside of major cities than I would if I were getting around by plane.

Furthermore, traveling by train/bus gives me many more chances to not just see but also visit towns which aren’t serviced by airports. As it so happens, there are only three towns on my itinerary (and I’ve already visited two of them – Natchez and Vicksburg – though I haven’t written about them yet) but three is still more than zero. Stopping in those towns simply would not have been possible by plane.

Natchez, weirdly, gets a lot of European tourists, but very few tourists from within the United States who live more than a state or two away. Vicksburg sees very few tourists from outside of the region (and most of them are probably Civil War nerds). In both towns, people expressed their appreciation that someone came to visit from California.

Natchez and Vicksburg, of course, are not representative of all towns outside of metropolitan areas – heck, they aren’t even representative of towns in Mississippi (for example, they are both currently black majority towns, whereas Mississippi as a whole is a white majority state).

There is also a class aspect to traveling by plane vs. traveling by train/bus. Most people who are doing tourism by plane that I’ve met on this trip, even if they are doing it on a budget, come from affluent backgrounds. By contrast, most of the people riding the buses are not affluent – it’s a very sharp contrast. The train is the most mixed in terms of class, and that is one thing I like about it. And along with class, there is race – a disproportionate number of passengers on long-distance buses in Mississippi are black (yes, I was traveling through a black-majority region, but the passengers were even browner than the overall local population). I admit that, at times, being a white person from an affluent background has felt awkward.

What about road trips? Well, it depends on one’s travel style. Some kinds of road trips offer much deeper immersion than what I’m doing (for example, I am limited to places which at at least have long-distance bus service). On the other hand, it is travel by private vehicle, which is not the same as traveling in the same bus or train as the local people.

The United States currently has deep divides both between classes and along the rural/urban divide (and racial divides, though at least among the travelers I am meeting, there is more contact across racial lines than across class or urban/rural lines). These divides are contributing to a lot of problems in our country. I think that if more affluent city people made the switch from traveling by plane to traveling by train/bus, it would help bridge these divides.

To the Limit of the Sunset Limited

On December 4th, I finished the last stretch of the Sunset Limited train line.

This is the view from the back of the last car in the train.

This is the view from the back of the last car in the train.

The last I had seen of Texas scenery from the train had been a couple hours past El Paso when the sun had set on December 1st. It had still been sparsely populated desert. When the sun rose as I was on the train heading out of San Antonio, the scenery didn’t look like desert at all. It was a lot of ranch land. The train passed various small towns – Kingsbury and Eagle Lake were two of them based on the signs I saw. I also saw some of the Aeromoter windmills used to pump water from the large aquifer which lies under this region of Texas.

A Texas town between San Antonio and Houston.

A Texas town between San Antonio and Houston.

When the density of buildings started rising, I knew we were getting close to Houston. I was surprised at how non-dense the city is, even as we got close to downtown. Forget San Francisco, central San Antonio is much denser than central Houston.

Downtown Houston

Downtown Houston

Houston train station is ridiculous. It’s near downtown Houston, yet it doesn’t have ANY eateries or cafes within walking distance, nor does it have wifi (San Antonio station has all of those). And we had to stay there for an hour and a half. At least the train station has a mildly interesting history exhibit – probably put together by some train employee who was super bored because they had spent way too much time at Houston train station.

This sign proves that Houston is next Los Angeles *and* New Orleans

This sign proves that Houston is next Los Angeles *and* New Orleans

Past Houston, the scenery changed dramatically. At first, it was a lot of short trees with cacti mixed among them (yes, a tree forest with cacti, it looked like a weird combo). Then the cacti disappeared, and the trees got taller. There was a combination of confiers and deciduous trees, and eventually the conifers disappeared. Puddles and creeks became more common in the forest, until it became clear that we had entered bayou country.

A bayou in Texas.

A bayou in Texas.

Due to the combination of low light and the speed of the train, it was really difficult to take photos of the bayou where anything was discernable. But it was beautiful. The trees had a mix of colors – green, yellow, and red. The various aquatic plants at their base also came in green and red.

This is Lake Houston - an awfully large lake to cross on a train!

This is Lake Houston – an awfully large lake to cross on a train!

Another passenger said that, the last time he had gone on this route, he had seen over thirty deer. I only saw two, but I can believe that a lot of deer live in this area.

I saw this ship in Louisiana.

I saw this ship in Louisiana.

Past San Antonio, there were a lot fewer Latino passengers. However, the closer we got to New Orleans, the browner the passengers. To be fair, that perception might have been skewed by the fact that a tour group of over 70 people boarded the train at Beaumont, Texas, all of them African-American one of them told me that they all visit New Orleans together once a year – he said he went with them because it breaks up his everyday routine. But even ignoring the tour group, I definitely noticed a shift away from Latino towards African-American passengers (including one guy who identified himself as Creole). I assume this reflects how the demographics changes as the train moves east, just as the landscape changes.

At some point, we passed the Texas/Lousiana border. Southwestern Lousiana was a lot more bayou.

Louisiana Bayou!

Louisiana Bayou!

As we moved further east, the (human) population density in Louisiana rose.

I started seeing a lot of facilities like this in Louisiana.

I started seeing a lot of facilities like this in Louisiana.

We started passing a quite a few rivers, often with large boats in them.

Eventually, it got too dark to take photos. I noticed that, in Lafayette, a lot of houses are built on raised foundations – I guess it’s to prevent flood damage.

The final approach into New Orleans was slow because the train had to follow a very curvy track – the train conductor explained that there is a specific procedure to entering New Orleans train station for safety reasons. In spite of that, the train arrived ahead of schedule, for which I was grateful. I had reached the limit of the Sunset Limited.

This mural is inside New Orleans train station. I'm guessing it was painted in the 1930s.

This mural is inside New Orleans train station. I’m guessing it was painted in the 1930s.

Texas is a big state. By looking at the schedule – and not including the long stops in San Antonio and Houston – the train takes about 20 hours to cross the state. During the long stretch in Texas, there is a gradual yet fantastic shift from desert to wetlands. Even though I was only in Texas for a few days, the train showed me that it is a very diverse state.

Passing El Paso

A view of a sandy mesa rising from the Arizona desert under a clear blue sky

Arizona!

I have never, ever been to Arizona, New Mexico, or Texas before today (December 1st) (and yes, this will be posted later because of internet issues).

Arizona in the morning

Arizona in the morning

The woman sitting next to me got off at Yuma in the wee hours, so that was the first I saw of the state of Arizona. I got in a little more sleep until, hours later, we arrived at Maricopa (which is about 30-40 miles away from Phoenix). That’s when the sun was rising, so I gave up on getting any more sleep.

It's a cotton field in Arizona

It’s a cotton field in Arizona

Right now, I am on the Sunset Limited, a passenger train service which has been in continuous operation since 1894. Connecting New Orleans to Los Angeles, it was the second transcontinental line built in the United States, and was in some ways a major improvement over the first transcontinental line. For example, it doesn’t have to cross the Sierra or Rocky Mountains, and it is much easier to keep running in winter.

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Keep in mind that when this service started, there was no Panama Canal, so this train line made it a lot easier to move people and good between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

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At one time, the Sunset Limited went as far north as San Francisco. It (briefly) went as far southeast as Miami. After Hurricane Katrina, all service east of New Orleans was suspended (yup, even more than ten years later, they *still* haven’t restored service) so now the Sunset Limited is, as it originally was, a Los Angeles/New Orleans route.

The sightseeing lounge on the Sunset Limited train

The sightseeing lounge on the Sunset Limited train

When riding Amtrak, I’m only in my assigned seat when I’m trying to rest/sleep. When I’m trying to actually do something, I prefer to be in the sightseeing lounge (for example, this post was written in, you guessed it, the sightseeing lounge).

This was the tag above my seat on the train. The tag indicates that I am sitting at the window, which station I will get off the train, and shows that the aisle seat is currently unoccupied (this was after the woman sitting next to me got off at Yuma - she was nice, but I was still happy not to have anybody next to me on my second night in the train - more space for me!)

This was the tag above my seat on the train. The tag indicates that I am sitting at the window, which station I will get off the train, and shows that the aisle seat is currently unoccupied (this was after the woman sitting next to me got off at Yuma – she was nice, but I was still happy not to have anybody next to me on my second night in the train – more space for me!)

Amtrak has a system where each seat is marked by the passenger’s destination. This helps the crew keep track of who needs to be woken up in the middle of the night to get off at places like Yuma, which seats will become available at the next station, etc.

A trailer/RV park in Arizona

A trailer/RV park in Arizona

So, who rides Amtrak? That depends on the line. There are a lot of foreign tourists on the Coast Starlight, for example. The Sunset Limited, however, seems to mostly serve people who live somewhere along or near its route. Since that route goes through southern California, southern Arizona, southern New Mexico, and Texas, that means a lot of the passengers are Latino.

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Sure, I’m not the only tourist, though most of the tourists seem to be backpacking types. For example, I talked to a young woman who flew from Vermont to L.A. just so she could take the train back to Vermont (and stop at many cities/towns along the way). However, generally, the passengers are people who have less income/assets than typical airline passengers. Many of them live in small towns, and have to arrange rides to get to/from the train station. Amtrak passengers, obviously, aren’t the poorest people either – they can afford train tickets after all – but the ridership does tend to lean towards people from towns rather than cities, and towards people of very modest economic means.

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To give a sense of the range of the passengers’ economic situations, I’ll offer two examples. One man I talked to lives in Houston, and he had gone to Portland for a vacation and had a cruise up the Colombia River. He was clearly fairly affluent. On the other end, I played cards with a man who didn’t want to tell his whole story, but he said this much: he got on the train in Benson, Arizona, he needs to get to Atlanta, Georgia, and his train ticket will take him as far as Shreveport, Louisiana. Why Shreveport? Because he ran out of money to buy a train ticket which went any further. He figures that Shreveport is a lot closer to Atlanta than Benson, and that he’ll find a way to Atlanta. I reckon most passengers are between these two guys in terms of economic means.

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One of the pleasures of riding the train – and hanging out in the lounge – is being able to talk to people of various walks of life, whether it’s woman who lives in Mesa, Arizona who going to Houston to help her brother who needs a liver transplant and says that looking at all the desert scenery is helping her calm down, or the guy who was born in El Paso in 1931 talking about how the southwest has changed during his lifetime. and to overhear other people’s conversations. I couldn’t understand the conversations in Spanish, but just listening to the conversations in English was more than interesting enough.

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The Southwest is beautiful. There is almost always some kind of mountain in sight (at least past Maricopa), and some of the desert mesas are really lovely. Sometimes the shrubbery seems monotonous, but at other times it’s fascinating to look at. A highlight was seeing all of the saguaro cactii.

A picture of a saguaro cactus

I find it ironic that southern Arizona is greener than southern California right now.

Downtown Tuscon, Arizona

Downtown Tuscon, Arizona

I got off the train for about five minutes in Tuscon.

Apparently, there was some major feud between two men, and one of them was shot and killed at Tuscon train station.

Apparently, there was some major feud between two men, and one of them was shot and killed at Tuscon train station.

Arizona mostly is desert. However, occasionally one could see these housing developments. There are also plenty of trailer/RV parks in Arizona, particularly near the towns. Once in a while, in the middle of the desert, there would be a lone dilapidated building, or set of trailers, connected to the world outside only with a dirt road and an electric line.

A housing development in the desert.

A housing development in the desert.

Southern New Mexico basically looks like southern Arizona, but less green, and the two towns I passed through (Lourdesburg and Deming) looked more run down than the Arizona towns I saw.

Lourdesburg, New Mexico

Lourdesburg, New Mexico

The scenery entering the Rio Grande Valley / El Paso was dramatic. My photos do not capture it at its best.

The train has to curve around cliffs to get into the Rio Grande Valley.

The train has to curve around cliffs to get into the Rio Grande Valley.

I think this is the Rio Grande river, but I'm not sure.

I think this is the Rio Grande river, but I’m not sure.

I also got to see Mexico for the very first time today. At one point the train is only about fifty feet away from the fence which marks the U.S.A./Mexico border. Ciudad Juarez looks quite different from El Paso even though they are right next to each other.

This is Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. At the bottom of the picture, you can see part of the fence which marks the border between the U.S.A and Mexico.

This is Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. At the bottom of the picture, you can see part of the fence which marks the border between the U.S.A and Mexico.

Because the train was behind schedule, the El Paso stop was very short, but I still got out of the train for a few minutes.

El Paso Train Station

El Paso Train Station

In the evening, the train stopped in Alpine, Texas, for half and hour.

A mural in Alpine, Texas.

A mural in Alpine, Texas.

Alpine is more than 4000 feet (over a thousand meters) above sea level, so it was chilly.

The train in Alpine, Texas.

The train in Alpine, Texas.

Overall, I am struck by the vastness of the southwest. It seems the train went for hours and hours through terrain with hardly any human habitation. It is a humbling experience. And it was not just me – other passengers were talking about how the land is greater than humanity, that the desert was here before us, and it will still be there after we’re gone.

One final Arizona picture.

One final Arizona picture.

Six Days in Shikoku: Zentsuji to Saijo

The photo shows a five-level wooden pagoda, with a bright blue sky behind it, and treen branches in the foreground on the upper-right side and center-left side of the photo.

Just one stop away from JR Kotohira is JR Zentsuji, and about a twenty minute walk away from JR Zentsuji station is Zentsuji itself. Zentsuji is the largest and most famous of the 88 Temples of Shikoku, for it is where Kobo Daishi, the founder of Shingon Buddhism, was born and raised, and it is the first Shingon Buddhist temple ever established in Japan.

The map shows the location of Zentsuji and Saijo City.

The map shows the location of Zentsuji and Saijo City.

My guidebook says that, if you’re only going to visit one of the 88 Temples of Shikoku, you should try to make that one temple Zentsuji.

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It’s certainly on a bigger scale than the other of the 88 Temples of Shikoku I visited, in fact, it is the biggest temple in Shikoku (though it is on a smaller scale than Konpira-san, which I had visited earlier in the day).

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One of the sights of Zentsuji is the wooden pagoda, shown in the photo above.

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There is a little dark tunnel which visitors can pass through in exchange for a small fee. Since I had a similar experience in Kiyomizu-dera in Kyoto, I decided to pass the experience here.

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There is an arcade with illustrations of the life of Kobo Daishi.

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Since I don’t actually know much about the life of Kobo Daishi, I didn’t recognize the episodes of his life in the pictures.

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I wonder, is the picture above showing Kobo Daishi meditating in the cave at Muroto Cape (in Shikoku) and achieving enlightenment? Even I know about that incident in the life of Kobo Daishi.

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I admit, I am not sure what the purpose of most of these structures are.

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I know that there is a tree in the temple which supposedly was around when Kobo Daishi was a boy. Is it the tree in the photo above? I don’t remember.

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After visiting Zentsuji, I returned to JR Zentsuji station, and rode trains all the way to Saijo, thus leaving Kagawa Prefecture a second time and entering Ehime prefecture. Since I didn’t take any photos on the trains, all of the photos in this post are from Zentsuji.

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‘Iyo’, of course, is the old name for Ehime prefecture, and was one of the ‘four countries’ (‘Shikoku’ means ‘four countries’ in Japanese). The train station in Saijo city is ‘Iyo-Saijo’, following the tradition of Shikoku train stations putting the old domain names (Sanuki, Awa, Iyo, Tosa) in train station names.

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After hearing about how sparse public transportation is in Shikoku, and travelling in Hokkaido and Tohoku, I was expecting lots of inconvenience. (Note … everything you hear about Japan being so public-transit friendly, and trains always being on time, and how fast Japenese trains are, etc. … does not apply to Hokkaido and Tohoku, though to be fair Hokkaido and Tohoku have much better public transit networks than parts of the United States with similar population density). Thus, I was pleasantly surprised that the trains from Zentsuji to Saijo were 1) not late or cancelled 2) the local trains ran about once an hour 3) I only had to make two transfers, and the wait time between transfers wasn’t more than 30 minutes. You can’t appreciate how convenient this is unless you’ve travelled extensively by public transit in regions where trains/buses only run once every three hours, and they might be delayed/cancelled, and transfers can take 2+ hours.

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Of course, I should point out that I only travelled in northern Shikoku, which is where the vast majority of the population, and thus public transit services, are. I strongly suspect that public transit in southern Shikoku is no more convenient than public transit in eastern Hokkaido.

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In any case, I got to spend a bit less than three hours riding trains, which suited me just fine. I appreciated spending hours riding trains in Japan since they allowed me to rest, read, do travel planning, look out the window, etc. While I was walking from the temple back to JR Zentsuji station, I picked up some snacks as well as a cold, fruit-flavored alcoholic beverage. I discovered that the cold, cheap, fruit-flavored sugary alcoholic drinks found in convenience stores all over Japan are a great thing to drink on trains – I didn’t want to be the least bit impaired by alcohol when I was doing something active like a hike or visiting an important cultural place, but I felt that a long train ride was the perfect place to dull my senses a little and enjoy the buzz. I looked out the window, though I don’t remember what I saw. I also wrote in my diary about my one-day tour of the temples in Tokushima prefecture.

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I arrived at Iyo-Saijo station a little before sunset. I didn’t have any reservation for a place to sleep for the night, but that turned out to be not a problem – there are a number of inexpensive business hotels clustered around Iyo-Saijo station. I walked around, and then went inside the hotel with the lowest advertised price (I think it was about 3,000 yen per night). Nobody was inside, but there was a phone number. I called the number, and about ten minutes later, a middle-aged Japanese woman walked in to give me a room key and accept my payment. I think I was the only person, guest or staff, in the hotel building that night. There seemed to be something off about the room – as in the furniture didn’t really fit in the space or something – but since it was clean, and everything worked in the bathroom, and the bed was fine, I definitely got my money’s worth.

Why spend a night in Saijo city? Because I wanted to go to Ishizuchi-san, and to get an early start, I had to take the first bus leaving Saijo City in the morning. Ishizuchi-san will be featured in my next post.

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