Friday, July 17, 2009

Clippy's log of Midga's Big Trip

Regular readers will know that Rosuav and I are visiting the USA and England. This blog and are your official information sources for details about the trip.

Today we have a guest author on - Clippy, the world's most famous piece of office equipment with gunzel tendencies. Clippy is my official recorder and biographer for the Big Trip to USA and England and will be taking you through the journey step by step.

Ladies and gentlemen, Clippy.


14 July 2009, 1am. What am I doing on the dining table? Midga put me here at about 10pm last night and the house has been quiet ever since (itself a rarity). I was aware overseas trips necessitate some changes but this is ridiculous. Ah well, at least I know I can't possibly be left behind.

7:30am. The house has just woken - all at once instead of one by one as usual. The family farewell Midga and Rosuav for a bit. I've never been separated from my family for more than a few hours, it must be hard.

8am. I sit on the dashboard of Talldad's Commodoore while Midga eats his breakfast. He hands me to Thea for a bit while he dashes into Officeworks (he just can't keep away from the place!) for some power plug adaptors.

8:19am, Holmesglen station. An unmitigated disaster occurs. Midga validates his Metcard as the train is already in the platform and then dashes for the door. He hasn't yet had a chance to put his camera and the plug adaptors into his backpack, and as he jumps aboard and the doors close, my good friend the camera slips away and falls, not onto the platform but through the gap (as in, mind the gap when boarding) and onto the ballast! Midga never panics but I sure did.

8:21am. We get off at East Malvern leaving Rosuav to take the luggage to Spencer Street and grab Skybus tickets. The station staff at East Malvern are great - they ring the station hosts at Holmesglen and explain. The hosts apparently saw the camera fall and rescued it. We cross to platform 2 to go back to HOL and pick it up.

8:30am. The 8:24 Glen Waverley arrives and we board.

8:32am. We get off at HOL and Midga says "Hi, um -" to the station hosts. One of them says "Ah, you're here for the camera?" - good one! He unlocks the station office (Midga's never been in there before, not even in the old days of "You got any twains?") and there's my dear friend and comrade sitting on the table. The host says "You've lost the batteries and there's a bit of case damage" but Midga and I agree that's a very small price to pay. And we jump on the next up Xtrapolis. Thanks tons guys!

9:10am. We get off at Southern Crustaceon, a few minutes down after a Ringwood service held us at Burnley. A quick walk to the Skybus terminal and there's Rosuav. Midga bins the last Australian apple core he's going to produce for a while (these humans are always eating), the tickets are bought and hey! The next bus is arriving in two minutes!

9:18am. Skybus departs 3min down. But who cares? It's a true turn-up-and-go service, the key metric is an average 20min travel time to the airport including waiting time. Getting out onto the freeway is city traffic, but once there the beast shows it has guts! The ramp to the Bolte is taken at speed, and we overtake most of the other traffic - in a heavy 3 axle bus. Cruising at 100km/h in a low floor vehicle is quite something. When we get to the airport the driver's PA announcements are clear and courteous. If it takes a $16 fare to get good service, how soon can we get the price of a Z1 2hr Metcard up to $16?

9:50am. We're in the queue to check in our baggage. Sighs.

11am. We get on the plane. Usual deal.

11:55am. Runway! We must have departed +10 or so.

12 noon. From the air Midga sees a town. Sunbury? Melton? Bacchus Marsh? There's a single track railway leading to it and no hills so it must be Melton.

12:15pm. Pink Panther is on the in-flight entertainment system!

2:30pm. Movie over and it's time to land already! I guess I should have been recording the conversations of the people behind us - it's a bunch of guys from Fuchs talking about their sales strategy. Ah well, Talldad will just have to beat them with good service and dealing in good faith. He can't lose...

2:40pm. Flight crew are buckling in so we must be close to Auckland. It's 10/10ths cloud outside though. Some of the flight crew are the perfect caricature Kiwis, it takes us back to the old days of Knox City Presbyterian Church!

3:20pm. We've landed and are killing time at Auckland international airport. It has a kind of business centre thing in one of the lounges - a writing desk (or escritoire if you feel Goonish) with envelopes, paper (with a letterhead advertising themselves, but who'd begrudge them that?), power and free Cat-5 ports. Rosuav is kicking himself that he left his cables in the hold luggage, because the wifi costs money! My pal the Googlephone is down to 79% charge, not bad for a day away from a power point. What was that criticism of the G1 battery life?

3:30pm. The airport is much like any other. The only thing that's never the same is the hand driers in the toilets - in fact, I can't recall any two airports having the same type. The water fountain here is better than the one at Tulla though - it has some height so you can fit a 1.25l water bottle under the tap and fill it right up. Rosuav has meanwhile bought some wifi time, but the Android browser doesn't like it.

3:50pm. The combined geekiness of Midga and Rosuav can't make the browser work, so hooray for the money grubbing airport beancounters who specified broken internet standards to make sure people couldn't steal bandwidth. Local time is 5:50pm but it's already completely dark outside. Not much plane spotting to be done. Midga has a snooze so I'm off duty.

4:40pm. Midga tries out the local Burger King (that's Kiwi for HJ's). An Aussie $5 note brings a box of mini doughnuts (maybe the Kiwi alternative to onion rings?) and $3.50 in New Zealand coins. Nice.

5:15pm. We're on the plane again, due to take off at 7:45pm local time. We were scheduled to leave at 6:20 but when we got in it was showing 7:05 for some reason. And then the flight was held to wait for some pax transferring from a late running flight from Brisbane. The crew chief says we'll be on time into LAX though as there's a tail wind.

5:49pm. Push back. The usual PA annoucement mentions "We realise you may have seen this safety video before" - nice.

7pm. Some forms have just been distributed up and down the plane for entry to the US. Are you entering the US to engage in espionage? Tick yes or no. Wow. Interestingly, all the date fields specify DD/MM/YY!!! On an official US government form!

8:30pm. Dinner is over. Midga does a Come Bumpers (the wine doesn't cost him a penny) while Rosuav puts the crew to the Chocolate Test by asking for another piece of cheese. They pass with flying colours (no pun intended).

8:45pm. One of Rosuav's longish term projects is to create a database of Looney Tunes episodes, categorised by characters and a rating out of ten. That means spending time watching them all... happy days!

9pm. Midga must be sleepy, he's unpacked the airline issue blanket and stretched out. Time off for me.

15 July 1:50am. It's daylight outside but they keep the plane dark (lights down, windows closed) so people can sleep. The Looney Tunes are done to a logical point, Savoynet is caught up and Traal is playing random bits of music. We've been climbing at intervals during the flight, now at 38,000ft. The IFE flight data screen gives it all in metric!

3:15am. The cabin has just been lighted and breakfast is going to be served. It's incredibly bright outside, dawn reflected on a layer of white cloud, so the window shutters are mostly staying closed. Under 2hr to LAX, anticipation is building.

4:20am. Breakfast is taken away. The sun has risen high enough that we can open the window without being permanently blinded. (Not that I have any vision to lose, but if Midga loses his I'm out of a job.) Instead of a complete layer of white cloud it's a belt of mist at about our altitude and a matrix of cirrus clouds several thousand feet below. Outside air temperature is -48C and there's frost on the outside of the window.

4:40am. 45 minutes to our destination. Still at 11277m and 948km/h.

4:50am. Midga and Rosuav have agreed to keep different time - Ros will change to LA local time while Midge stays on home time - until we all settle on Eastern time when we get there.

5:10am. Landfall! Looks pretty rocky. No photos though, the window is too small (about A5 size!).

5:14am. All that's visible out the window is hills, but it looks like Mythbusters territory!

5:27am. Landed! There's a while lot of new tail liveries to photograph. Ehee!

5:51am. Finished a VERY long taxi and the usual disembarkation. Waiting in queue for immigration.

6:28am. Through the queue, got our bags, where now? So, with not a penny between us, half a globe away from anything familiar, without even a map (Traal couldn't find wifi), we start walking to where Midga hopes the Bank of America is. A friendly rent-a-car place gives us final directions.

8:14am. Finally opened our accounts! Time for a hot chocolate and wifi at Starbucks.

9:29am. Rosuav lingered somewhat over the wifi, and then we had to see about some telephony. Now how on earth do we get to the station before our train goes?

9:45am. We get on a Metro Route 42 bus to get to Union Station. The bus looks about 30 years old, seats feel like a steel frame with a cloth cover. It has a bike rack on the front! The driver is a carbon copy of Grumpy from the 733. Most of the pax don't talk to him, even to say thanks when getting off. The bus has some guts, or else it's just being flogged badly. The pull cord runs along the windows! Ticketing is a hybrid of touch cards and pay-per-trip; the driver doesn't handle the money, and the ticket machine doesn't give change! Let's not copy this system.

10:40am. We get to Union station after a grand tour of the rough bits of LA (ie most of it). Glad to be out and personally unpunctured. Union station makes up for it though. Very grand - the main entrance walkway is the size of South Yarra including all tracks! New signage has been done with respect for heritage - same font, same colour, same raised stone lettering. Time for a Sunday Survey. The Metro Red Line platforms are a carbon copy of Melbourne Central but slightly bigger and with a higher ceiling, making it even more open and airy. The walls are simple ribbed concrete but it's clean so it looks nice. Unfortunately we didn't get a chance to ride the Metro. :( Midga got approached twice in very quick succession for the usual "Can you spare any change buddy", but this time the usual "Sorry, haven't got any" was true. He thought it best to qualify the answer as "Not US coins sorry, I've got some Australian money but that won't help you"! There's no evidence of vandalism at the station, which is surprising considering its locality. There are signs up everywhere saying "No loitering, no trespassing, no soliciting" - hm, I think we can skip the idea of an overnight in LA. Not without a guide who knows exactly which areas to keep well clear of.

11:10am. Our train to Chicago is called, so we make our way there. The underpass is just like the one from the sorely missed Spencer Street Station - and interestingly, there's no crime or vandalism there. We go up the ramp to Platform 11 with nostalgia, and there's a low level platform with a rake of bi-level carriages! We go on board, dump the luggage and then Midga takes me to get down the consist. 99 Genesis is on the front! But there's no dome cars alas.

11:45am. We're settled into our cabin and ready to resume gunzelling the station, what we can see of it without disembarking. To our right is platform 12, then an extra road and a high level platform full of departmental equipment. On the other side are the interurban and metro platforms. The weather shelter looks normal from down here, but a rumble says otherwise. The roof continues past the end of the platform, and curves round so we can see - there's a tram line on top! And following the line we see more tram platforms right among the rail platforms. Why not?

11:52am. We're off! Local time is 6:52pm so we're 7min down, but who cares. There's a whole heap of good gunzelling spots along the side of the track - carriage stabling, Metro train maintenance yard, and an intermodal yard. The intermodal yard is almost totally hidden from us by a rake of locos - all high horsepower main line jobs, and the rake is as long as the yard, probably 1.5km or more!

12:24pm. The happy gunzelling places finish. Nearly dinner time.

1:50pm. Back from dinner. The dining car has a great view - of all the passing freights. Some are easily 1.5km long, and there are five of them in 86 minutes! Track, wagons etc look like a model layout somehow - clean, even and in good running order. Heavy rails and close sleepers help too. Maybe models look wrong due to faults in the prototype... Incidentally, just about every factory seems to have a rail siding, and lots of them seem to use it. The other thing I notice is that flat diamond crossings (a local freight track crossing the main line at or near right angles) can be taken at full speed.

16 July 12:55am. It's 8:55am local time and we're in Gallup, New Mexico. The boys have just had a massive breakfast (all paid for as part of the sleeper fare) and it's time to explore the train. There's two locos up front, 99 and 170. Both high speed GEs, with streamlined noses (not an EMD, not a DL, not even an AN, but streamlined) and with a full width body. The horns are quite musical, not quite like our five chimes but way better than a V/Locity. Next is a single decker baggage car, then come the bi-levels. They all look similar from the outside, like any good set of carriages I guess. All the cars have a stairway in the middle, leading to the vestibule and toilets. Only one exit, Airbus would be horrified. Standing in the vestibule is like standing in the doorway of a low floor bus - we're right down on the ground so there's a sensation of speed and we look locos in the axle boxes. Walking through the train is all done on the upper level.

First is "transitional sleeper" 39010, with a section just for the crew up front. After that sleepers 32073 (ours) and 32066. They have a few sleeper cabins on the lower level and more up top. Half the car is centre corridor with cabins on both sides, and half is side corridor. We have a half size cabin, which consists of two facing seats which fold down to become the lower bunk, and a top bunk that swings down the same as ever other type of sleeper (except it's arranged longitudinal instead of transverse). There's almost zero space for storage with the bed made up - no cupboards, just a hook with 250mm of space between the wall and the beds. We're managing pretty well though, with the big wheely in the hold area downstairs. There's another cabin across the way so we can only see out our side unless we go to the vestibule. And interestingly the upper bunk is totally above the window, so Rosuav can't see out at all. The vestibule has a water cooler and an urn of complimentary coffee - this is a premium class on a premium service after all.

Next is dining car 38057. It has a kitchenette in the middle and tables at each end. The view is great. The lower level is crew only, probably food storage and cooking, with just serving up top. Then there's Lounge car 33000 - really nice, not quite the dome car Midga was hoping for, but it has a glazed section up high in the sloping part of the roof (like a Tangara) and massive side windows. On the top level it's a mix of tables and rotating seat sets facing sideways/diagonally, on the lower level it's all tables with a cafe at one end.

Then come the plebs in sitting cars 34042, 34008 and 34074. They have a few seats on the low level for wheelchair passengers (remember these cars use low level platforms, so low level entry is perfect). Seating is 2+2, which on a loading gauge like this means there's heaps of space. Seat pitch is generous too, even better than the refurb Overdue which I thought was nice. All the cars seem to be full, not bad for a premium service in the middle of an economic crisis.

2:55am. It's 10:55am local time and reservations are being called for lunch. Anton the chef is quite a character - the way he makes his PA announcements is nothing short of theatrical!

3:50am. Albuquerque - the famous Bugs Bunny navaid. We take some snaps of ostentatiously Turning Left, that'll be worth some fun later on. There's a few minutes here, enough for recovery time and train servicing. The locos are fuelled from a road tanker, windows are washed with a squeegie on the end of a long pole, axle boxes are checked (by a guy with a prominent ID tag but no hi vis clothing at all) and the dining car is restocked. It's all low level platforms, some like a super stop (about 300mm off rail level) but most are just a concrete hardstand at about rail height. They didn't take the opportunity to continue the concrete to the rail line tram lines though. It feels so wrong to cross the track just anywhere, but the locals seem to do it all the time. Knowing the speed the freights run, we look carefully both ways before stepping out.

4:37am. We're still at Albuquerque - we were supposed to have left 40 minutes ago but there's still pax boarding. We're in the lounge car looking down on the next track. It has wooden sleepers, but they're spaced about a sleeper width apart! And there isn't a single dog spoke missing. The ballast is finer than most and full of dirt - due for a bit of work. The rails themselves are big - a lot more to step over than ours, and with a wider head.

4:59am. We depart at last.

6:01am. Stop at Lamy, New Mexico - there's a heap of historic rollingstock around the station, wooden boxcars, a single decker streamliner car done up as a dining room, and an old Pullman named Hamilton done up as a home.

10am. Just passed the Raton Pass and tunnel into Colorado, and on this side of the mountain it's raining. It's steep, tight curves and not a place for a derailment so we're taking it slow. It would be Rather Good to hear a bunch of roots blown EMDs take a freight through here - alas those days are long gone, it'll all be high horsepower stuff now.

11:50am. La Junta - crew change stop. A coalie goes out while we wait - two locos (plus two pushers at the back), about 1.5km of fully laden coal cars, and without any excessive use of the throttle it gets to 30km/h in about 250m! Less exciting than listening to five Ts on the quarry train, but it just makes perfect sense in every other way.

1:40pm. We've just been told about breakfast arrangements for tomorrow, and to change our clocks to 10:40pm, Central time. Midga is ready to turn in and give me a break.

17 July 4:40am. Breakfast and lunch are over, and we're on the final stage of this leg to Chicago. Time for some general thoughts about US railroads - or at least the Super Chief line. Locos are big. The smallest (and oldest) are GP38-2s, and they seem to be used like we use Ts. And the sheer amount of traffic is mind blowing. We might have one or two Melbourne-Perth double stack trains a day - over here there's more like one an hour. And that's AS WELL as all the other trains - coalies hauled by four Dash-9s, quarry trains, livestock trains (with new build double stack height livestock cars), TOFC, bulk liquids, you name it. And to top it all, Route 66 (the road that runs sorta kinda parallel) is full of semis. The size of the freight task is one metric of a country's economy. If this is a recession, boom time must be unbelievable.

Another curious thing is that the freight railroads, while right up to date with high capacity wagons and big locos, is still in the steam age in terms of branch lines and private sidings. On leaving LA (and again in most other places) we noticed that every factory or industrial land anywhere near the rail line had its own siding - although everything around Westall has that too and it means nothing. But we saw a scrap metal yard with a single open wagon in, and a crane compacting bits into it - obviously it had been shunted in for filling and would be shunted out again later. In Oz the railways would charge a four digit figure for the shunt and the customer would decide it's easier to use a road trailer. I wonder how it works here.

Track quality is another mix - standard sleeper spacing is much closer (= high quality), axle loads are higher, loading gauges are bigger, but there's just as much rough track as on the V/Line network. Level crossings are about as common, although there are some obvious recent grade separations (mostly done by lowering the road). But none we've seen so far have bells, only booms and flashing lights. The use of the loco whistle at crossings is much more pronounced. There are practically no fences along rail lines, and often no back fences of the houses next to them. Hence Idiot Dave has to make a big thing of "Don't ever play on or near railroad tracks".

In general the American people are friendly and ready to help tourists as much as possible. They can't pick accents though, or else they can't believe that a couple of Aussies would venture right across the globe. Most of them are aware we had a huge bushfire, and Midga can shock them by saying it was about 10 miles from where we live. :) The only thing to get used to is their manner of speaking. If we respond to a general making-conversation type conversation with "uh-huh" it's considered rude, but here it's normal.

Right now we are in Chicago Union Station, which is a big enough topic for it's own blog post.

1 comment:

talldad said...

Hi Clippy

Any further progress?

You can't still be at Chicago Union station, unless you have become separated from teh rest of the party.