Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Riding the Sunset Limited

As I noted in the previous post, my original plan after participating in Mardi Gras in New Orleans was to fly directly to Dubai to assist in some business development work being undertaken by my company's office there. However, after the Dubai office suddenly canceled my trip, I found myself needing to find my own way back to Houston. Should I fly Southwest (which is how I got to New Orleans), take a bus, rent a car, or take the train?

Given that it was the cheapest means of getting home ($49 for a ticket to Houston), the New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal was close to my hotel, and I wanted to try something different (I hadn't ridden on an inter-city Amtrak train since I was a young child), I decided to ride the Amtrak Sunset Limited back home. So I purchased a ticket online, took short taxi ride to the UPT and waited for the train's 11:55 am departure.

The entire train-riding process, from standing in the ticket line to check in, to standing in the boarding line to get one's seat assignment, to the trip itself, is glacially slow. The scheduled trip from New Orleans to Houston on Amtrak is about nine hours and twenty minutes long, compared to only about six hours by car or one hour, gate-to-gate, by plane. It's not a mode of travel that's going to appeal to anybody who's in a hurry.

There were, however, advantages to traveling by train. There was no security checkpoint where people were required to wait in line, take their shoes off, take their laptop out of their case, walk through an x-ray scanner that allows TSA agents to see people naked, etc. On the train itself, there were no pre-trip safety demonstrations, no seat belts that had to be worn, no restrictions on when people could get up and move around the train. The seats were large with plenty of legroom and they reclined much further than any seat available on a plane (outside of, perhaps, first class). The tray tables were large enough to comfortably fit a regular-sized laptop and electric outlets for charging phones and laptops were available (no in-train WiFi yet, although other Amtrak trains are beginning to offer this service).

The Sunset Limited features a lounge car where drinks and snacks are available, as well as a full-service dining car, where I ate lunch. The service was excellent, the food was decent and the prices were reasonable.

The scenery was nice, but not spectacular: industrial plants and massive railyards in urban areas, rice and sugarcane fields through most of Louisiana and cypress swamps along the Sabine Rver that separates Texas from Louisiana. The most compelling view came shortly after the train departed New Orleans, as it crossed high above the Mississippi River on the Huey P. Long Bridge west of town. From this vantage point 135 feet above the river much of the New Orleans metropolitan area, as well as the maritime goings-on the river itself, could be viewed.

The train traveled at various speeds throughout the journey, stopping a few times to let freight traffic clear. On one stretch of BNSF trackage between Lafayette and Lake Charles the train slowed to a crawl - perhaps ten or fifteen miles per hour, and when the train arrived in Lake Charles well behind schedule. I began to worry that the train wouldn't make it into Houston until well past its scheduled arrival time. But when the train transitioned from BNSF trackage to UP trackage in Lake Charles, it began traveling significantly faster; between Lake Charles and the outskirts of Houston the Sunset Limited was traveling at its top speed of 79 mph for most of its route. The lost time was more than made up and the train arrived in Houston at about 8:30 pm - well ahead of its scheduled arrival time of 9:13. Since the Sunset Limited is at the mercy of the freight operations of the BNSF and UP tracks along which it runs, it's obvious that a significant amount of padding its built into its timetable.

The coach cars where I sat were about half-full (I can't speak to the capacity of the sleeper cars), and the passengers were a mix of sightseers, vacationers and lower-income people who perhaps chose to ride the train rather than take a bus between New Orleans and Houston because of the comfort the train afforded relative to a bus (and it's worth noting that, due to traffic conditions and the number of stops they make, a Greyhound bus ride between New Orleans and Houston takes anywhere from seven to nine hours - not a significant time savings advantage, especially since bus and train fares were about the same).

In the dining car I met a gentleman from Portland, Oregon who had also come to New Orleans for Mardi Gras and was heading back home. He was taking the Sunset Limited all the way to its final terminus in Los Angeles, where he would then board the Coast Starlight to Portland. He apparently took the train whenever he traveled (was he afraid of flying? I didn't ask) and his trip home would take approximately four days. I'm guessing he was self-employed or independently wealthy or something, because I don't see how people with regular jobs would be able to have that much free time to spend on the journey itself.

The Amtrak station in Houston is located on Washington Avenue, just on the other side of I-45 from downtown. It is not well-served by public transportation (the nearest bus stop was several hundred feet away and, although the train passes directly underneath the UH-Downtown METRORail station, there is no way to get there from the Amtrak station) but there was a taxi queue. Most passengers getting off at Houston had friends or relatives come pick them up (Lori and Kirby came to get me).

The massive government subsidies that Amtrak requires in order to operate aside, I found it to be a viable form of inter-city transportation. That being said, I can completely understand why more people don't ride the Sunset Limited: the infrequent services (it only makes three trips a week per direction), the slow pace of the trip, and its unreliable adherence to its timetable (although there's something to be said for getting to Houston ahead of schedule!) make it unattractive to business travelers or people who are otherwise in a hurry. Such is the nature of a passenger rail service that operates on tracks intended primarily for freight usage. For that reason, I'll probably be sticking to Southwest for most of my trips to New Orleans.

However, I did find the trip to be relaxing and enjoyable, and I'm glad I decided to ride the train in this particular instance. If conditions permit, I might just ride the Sunset Limited again someday.

Krewe of Pygmalion 2011

So a month ago I rode in the 2011 Krewe of Pygmalion Parade in New Orleans. In typical Thomas fashion, I didn't get around to writing and posting pictures until now. Better late than never, I guess. Anyway...
The wine-themed Krewe of Cork parades through the French Quarter. I had never been to New Orleans during Mardi Gras season before. I enjoyed the festive "vibe" the city possesses during this time of year; it really is a different place than it is during the summer or fall. The French Quarter is decorated for Mardi Gras like most communities would decorate for Christmas, with green, gold and purple flags, banners, bunting and ornaments everywhere. Here's one example of the elaborate Mardi Gras ornaments that adorn the historic buildings of the Quarter. Our parade followed behind the Krewe of Sparta parade. The morning of the parade, their floats were lined up along Julia Street in the Warehouse District as they made last-minute preparations for the evening. Our floats were lined up a few blocks away.
As we made our way from the Warehouse District to the parade's staging area, we began preparing by putting beads on hooks to make them easier to access and throw. Although I was surrounded by several large bags of beads, doubloons and other throws, I didn't know how quickly I would go through all of them and so when the parade started I was careful to ration my throws so that I wouldn't run out before the parade ended. However, by the time the parade reached downtown I realized I had many more beads than I could get rid of so I began furiously flinging handfuls of them to the crowds. I still had one big bag of beads left over by the time the parade ended.
Here I am, in costume and ready to go as we waited on Napoleon near Magazine for the parade to begin. In retrospect, hanging beads from my arms in preparation to throw them was not a good idea, as they got easily tangled. Students from the James M. Singleton Charter Middle School await the start of the parade. This school was one of several middle and high school marching bands that participated in the parade. I was really impressed with these kids' stamina - they marched, played and danced non-stop for the entire three-hour duration of the parade. Here's the entire "staff" of our float. Float Lieutenant Dave Ghisalbert, who recruited myself as well as several other folks to participate on his float, is on the far right.
Here are the crowds along St. Charles. Notice the stepladders with the seats atop them that the kids sat in. This is very common, are level the float which made it easy to toss beads and other throws (which, aside from beads, doubloons, blinking necklaces, plush toys for kids, moon pies and even Zapp's potato chips) across to them. The St. Charles portion of the route is very family-friendly, with lots of children and no women baring their, well, you know. Another view of the crowds on St. Charles. The guy in the brown shirt uses that net to catch beads and doubloons. The crowds along the downtown portion of the route, which goes up Canal Street and the back down to Tchapitoulas and ends at Poydras, were a bit rowdier and less family-oriented than the crowds along St. Charles.
Another parade crosses Bourbon Street early Sunday afternoon. I was pretty wiped out after my parade on Saturday, so I spent Sunday relaxing, recuperating and enjoying the festivities. I was originally supposed to travel to Dubai the following Monday, but that didn't happen.

All in all, it was a fun experience and I appreciate the opportunity to have participated. Dave sent us our applications for the 2012 parade last week. I am definitely going to do this again next year.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Requiem for a bracket

So I had Ohio State, Duke, Florida and Kansas in the Final Four.

Needless to say, I am hating college basketball right now.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Lady Cougars are going dancing

While the rebuilding men's program had a season to forget, the UH women's basketball team had a surprisingly good year, winning the C-USA regular season title en route to a perfect 16-0 conference record and a 26-5 overall record. As a result, they've punched their ticket to the NCAA womens' basketball tournament.

The Lady Coogs, who enter the tournament as an 8 seed, will face 9 seed West Virginia in the first round this Sunday in Waco.

Congratulations to the Lady Cougars and first-year head coach Todd Buchanan. Good luck and Eat 'Em Up!

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The 2011 model humans have arrived!

I know I'm rather late to the party, but I'd nevertheless like to offer a belated congratulations to my cousin Liz and cousin-in-law J.E. on the arrival of their two twins, Iris and Theo, last week.

Twice the diapers, twice the fun! Or maybe not. But welcome to the world regardless...

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Oops, nevermind...

Received the "we think we have our staffing needs worked out, so we don't need you to come over here after all" e-mail from the Dubai office on Sunday morning.

That's right. The day before I was supposed to leave.

Needless to say, I'm a bit annoyed right now.