The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Amtrak's $75 billion expansion

The Federal Infrastructure Bill that President Biden signed into law in 2021 allocated $66 billion to Amtrak, which they plan to use to bring US rail service up to European standards (albeit in the mid-2000s):

Amtrak’s expansion plan, dubbed Amtrak Connects US, proposes service improvements to 25 existing routes and the addition of 39 entirely new routes. If the vision were to be fully realized, it would bring passenger rail to almost every major city in the US in 15 years. (Right now, only 27 out of the top 50 metros are directly served.) The agency estimates that this would add 20 million trips annually — about double the number currently served on state-supported routes, or those less than 500 miles.

It’s a long way from the giant network of interurban trains that Americans relied on to get around early in the 20th century, but the plan would still mark a dramatic expansion of passenger rail. And it would bring critical environmental benefits. The transportation sector is the country’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, with most of that pollution coming from cars and trucks. (Rail currently contributes a mere 2%.) Overall, train travel is 34% more energy efficient than flying and 46% more efficient than driving, according to Department of Energy estimates — and on partly electrified routes such as the Northeast Corridor, which carried about 40% of Amtrak ridership in 2022, its environmental advantages stretch even further. A modernized and expanded passenger rail network could be a powerful lever of decarbonization.

For residents of cities like Las Vegas, Phoenix, Nashville and Columbus, Ohio, the Amtrak plan is bringing the prospect of being restored to the rail system. In total, Amtrak hopes to add new service in 160 communities in 16 new states, including outposts like Rockport, Illinois; Madison, Wisconsin; and Salisbury, North Carolina.

Amtrak has also bought a new trainset from Siemens Mobility similar to the train I took from Vienna to Salzburg last month, though (sadly for me) only for the East Coast, not going nearly as fast, and not starting until 2026. We'll keep using the 1970s-era Amfleet I and 1990s-era Bombardier Horizon cars in Chicago. (Though it's possible we could start seeing brand-new Siemens Venture rolling stock soon.)

Silver Harbor Brewing, St Joseph

Welcome to stop #83 on the Brews and Choos project.

Brewery: Silver Harbor Brewing, 721 Pleasant St., St Joseph, Mich.
Train line: Amtrak, St Joseph
Time from Chicago: 103 minutes
Distance from station: 500 m

Stopping by the best brewery in St Joseph, Mich., does not mean I'm going to expand the Brews and Choos Project to include every brewery, distillery, cidery, and winery accessible by train from Chicago, no matter how far away, but it's a tempting prospect. No, there's still a 2-hour time limit on the trip. But I am spending more time in Southwest Michigan lately, and probably taking the train up there occasionally, so why not try some beer?

My friends from the area told me that Silver Harbor Brewing was the best brewery in the city, so when I visited them yesterday, we stopped in. I had the brisket flatbread (excellent) and a flight of 5x 120 mL pours.

I started with the Tourist Trap American lager (5.1%, 18 IBU), a great example of the style with some maltiness and a crisp finish. The Hops, Sweat, and Tears AIPA (6.8%, 66 IBU) gave me a well-balanced bitterness, with some pine and a hint of citrus. The Pick Me, I'm Hazy IPA (7%, 55 IBU) burst out with fruit and Citra hops and finished perfectly. The Rye-Donkulus Baltic Porter (9%, 29 IBU) finished out the tasting with my meal; my first note is "oh that's tasty" and "long sweet finish, great complexity." I saved the Golden Ticket Imperial Chocolate Stout (9.5%, 62 IBU) for dessert, and got rewarded with cascading complex dark chocolate, molasses, and vanilla. Then we took the 7-year-old to play Connect-Four (she almost won) and walked around for half an hour so I could metabolize the stout.

And of course, every server passing our patio table stopped to pat Cassie.

Important note, though: while you only have to walk 500 meters from the St Joseph Amtrak station to the brewery, through a cute, summer-resort downtown, Amtrak clearly believes people only take day trips from St Joseph to Chicago. The Pere Marquette departs Chicago daily at 6:30 pm Central, then runs non-stop to St Joseph by 9:13 pm Eastern. The return trip leaves St Joseph at 8:09 am Eastern and arrives in Chicago at 9:08 am Central. Great, it's closer to Chicago than Kenosha or Elburn, but Christ on a cracker, Amtrak, could you run a second train favoring Chicago-to-Michigan day trips?

Beer garden? Yes
Dogs OK? Outside only
Televisions? Yes, avoidable
Serves food? Full menu
Would hang out with a book? Yes
Would hang out with friends? Yes
Would go back? Yes

Wrapping up the second quarter

Here is the state of things as we go into the second half of 2023:

  • The government-owned but independently-edited newspaper Wiener Zeitung published its last daily paper issue today after being in continuous publication since 8 August 1703. Today's headline: "320 years, 12 presidents, 10 emperors, 2 republics, 1 newspaper."
  • Paula Froelich blames Harry Windsor's and Megan Markle's declining popularity on a simple truth: "Not just because they were revealed as lazy, entitled dilettantes, but because they inadvertently showed themselves for who they really are: snobs. And Americans really, really don’t like snobs."
  • Starting tomorrow, Amtrak can take you from Chicago to St Louis (480 km) in 4:45, at speeds up to (gasp!) 175 km/h. Still not really a high-speed train but at least it's a 30-minute and 50 km/h improvement since 2010. (A source at Amtrak told me the problem is simple: grade crossings. They can't go 225 km/h over a grade crossing because, in a crash, F=ma, and a would be very high.)
  • The Federal Trade Commission will start fining websites up to $10,000 for each fake review it publishes. "No-gos include reviews that misrepresent someone’s experience with a product and that claim to be written by someone who doesn’t exist. Reviews also can’t be written by insiders like company employees without clear disclosures."
  • A humorous thought problem involving how many pews an 80-year-old church can have explains the idiocy behind parking minimums.
  • Chicago bike share Divvy turned 10 on Wednesday. You can now get one in any of Chicago's 50 wards, plus a few suburbs.
  • Actor Alan Arkin, one of my personal favorites for his deadpan hilarity, died yesterday at age 89.

And finally, the Chicago Tribune's food critic Nick Kindelsperger tried 21 Chicago hot dogs so you don't have to to find the best in the city.

The frustration of US infrastructure spending

Every time I travel to a country that competes seriously with the US, I come back feeling frustrated and angry that we consistently lose. In every measure except our military, on a per-capita basis we keep sliding down the league tables. We have more people in prison, more people in poverty, worse health-care outcomes, more health-care spending, more regressive taxation, worse environmental regulation, and more crime (and more gun crime) than most our peers.

We also have horrible infrastructure. For a book-length list of reasons, we've spent the last century building out a car-dependent environment that contributes to all of the problems I listed above. (Oh, right: we have by far more road deaths than any of our peers, a direct result of our built environment and car fetishization.)

City Nerd really drives home (ah, ha ha) how our infrastructure priorities continue to degrade our economic power by making travel unnecessarily difficult. In today's video, Ray Delahanty explains why Spain (GDP: $1.5 T, rank 15) has half-hourly trains to whisk people from Madrid to Valencia (359 km) in under 2 hours, while the United States (GDP: $26.9 T, rank 1) can't get people from New York to Boston (362 km) in under 3½—and for 4x the rail fare:

Some things Delahanty doesn't mention: First, we've built so many roads that we can't even maintain all of them, even with a $1 trn infrastructure bill that struggled to get through Congress. Second, even if we wanted to upgrade our rail network (for example, to electrify anything outside the Northeast Corridor), governments or transit districts will have to buy existing rights of way or the land to create new ones, because private companies own almost all of the railways in the US. (Notably, of the three heavy-rail lines in Chicago with public ownership—the Rock Island district, the Metra Electric, and the South Shore Line—two are already electric and there are plans to electrify the third.)

Look, I'm not a socialist; I believe in private property. But as I've said often, governments can do things private interests can't or won't. We put 14 people on the Moon and we won World War II. We could, if we collectively wanted, get the US out of the 20th Century on so many issues. Transit infrastructure would be a good place to start. The more I travel and see how our European peers do things, the more I wonder if I'll ever see my own country get back on par with them.

Late lunch

I had a lot going on this morning, so I'm only now snarfing down a Chipotle bowl. Also, I'm going to have to read these things tomorrow:

Finally, today is the 35th anniversary of the best baseball movie of all timeBull Durham. If I had time I'd watch it tonight.

The Elizabeth Line, a year on

The billion-pound London rail project called "Crossrail" when it began opened a year ago as the Elizabeth Line. I rode it for the first time to West Ealing last Sunday, and thought it absolutely the slickest, cleanest train in the UK. (I'll ride it again tomorrow thanks to industrial action and construction on the Piccadilly Line.)

British Airways pilot Mark Vanhoenacker takes it every time he comes home from a trip, and loves how it connects the city in all new ways:

Running from Reading and Heathrow Airport in the west to Shenfield and Abbey Wood in the east, the Elizabeth line brings an additional 1.5 million people within 45 minutes of the capital’s busiest districts; eases congestion on older lines; and makes London more accessible to all, as wheelchair users can reach its platforms from street level. As a pilot who commutes to Heathrow — I fly the Boeing 787 for British Airways — I’m often among its 600,000 weekday riders. The line, which runs alongside the Heathrow Express, offers another comfortable way to get to work.

[T]he line empowers travelers to leave behind the familiarities of Zone 1 — the often tourist-clogged core of the city’s transport network — and embark on fast, inexpensive journeys to fascinating outer-London destinations.

On the line’s northeastern branch lies the market town of Romford. Start at the Havering Museum, whose exhibits include a model of the long-gone Havering Palace, where Queen Elizabeth I occasionally stayed. You’ll also learn about Romford’s link to William Kempe, an actor in several of Shakespeare’s original productions, who morris danced around 100 miles from London to Norwich in 1600, and about the weights and measures that once set standards in Romford’s market.

It’s fitting, then, that the first station beyond [the eastern Thames] tunnels is Woolwich, where armaments were manufactured for around three centuries, including by one Henry Shrapnel. Woolwich was also renowned for music — its Royal Artillery Band, Britain’s first formal military band, was organized in 1762 — and for football: Arsenal, based today in Islington and still nicknamed “the Gunners,” was founded here in 1886 as a team for armaments workers.

Between my arrival this afternoon and my departure tomorrow afternoon I'll be in the UK only 23 hours, many of them in my hotel room asleep, so I won't have time to explore the places Vanhoenacker describes. But I have a hunch I'll return to the London before too long.

Alpine beauty? Yes, please

I took a quick trip to Berchtesgaden, Germany, this afternoon. I think it might be the most beautiful place I've seen in Europe:

I didn't stay too long, but I did get in a 2½ km walk that included part of a river path:

The whole area looks like Bavarian storybook hour:

To get there, you take a train from Freilassing, a nondescript town just over the German border from Salzburg. The train meanders through Alpine meadows at a slow but steady pace, passing through this kind of scenery:

I will pass through again and make sure to stay longer.

I did have a bit of an uncomfortable moment at the border. The German police held the train from Salzburg for a few minutes before letting us off, as four armed officers walked through from end to end. It was at about that moment that I remembered I left my passport in my room safe back in Austria. Turns out, they didn't check passports (both countries are in the Schengen area), but still. I do carry my passport card with me at all times overseas, but that's only proof of citizenship at US land and sea borders—and, crucially, at US consulates and embassies. But I don't believe the Bundespolizei would recognize it as such.

Not that I needed to worry. I just have to be more careful about that. (I did bring my passport book to Bratislava, for instance.)

Salzburg, yesterday evening

Wow, do I love European trains. They're fast, clean, and way less expensive than flying. Except they do fly, as my train from Vienna to Salzburg did for part of the trip:

That screen capture from my phone's GPS monitor shows us moving at 229 km/h (143 mph) roughly here.

And then I landed in Salzburg. It's cute. I might even say lovely. But it's tiny—only 150,000 people or so—so it doesn't rise to Prague-like overwheliming beauty.

But it's a lot less touristy than I thought. It turns out, Salzburg is a college town more than anything else, with apparently one of the best psychology programs in the German-speaking world, as my bartender told me last night.

Today I popped over to Berchtesgaden, Germany. That post will hit later tonight.

Tories strike again

Thanks in part to Conservative Party mismanagement of the UK transport sector for the last 13 years, things have gotten a bit fraught in the Old Country. And now, I get to spend a bit of extra time getting from Gatwick to my hotel on Saturday:

The Gatwick Express takes about 30 minutes from the airport to London Victoria Station. There is no other train option.

Instead, it looks like I can take a cab straight to my hotel for about £90, or a bus to bloody Heathrow and the Elizabeth Line for about £25. The former will take about an hour. The latter about 2 1/2.

So, I'm on vacation. No expense account. No schedule. Should I spend the extra $55? Sigh.