Friday, September 29, 2006

Propping Up Amtrak

I am generally against government subsidies. To me, most of them make no sense and the free market will normally balance things out the way they should be. One of the subsidies which bothers me the most is how the Federal government props up Amtrak. One of the senators from my state (Kay Baily-Hutchison) is a major supporter of Amtrak. Once in a while she'll go on the stump, going on about how important passenger rail is to Texas despite the fact that most people who travel fly or drive.

There is no arguing that rail was a big part of Texas history. Texas is so vast, rail was a key component in its modernization. Many towns and cities owe their very existance to the railroads. However, I believe the time for long haul passenger rail for Texas, and, indeed most of the rest of our great nation, is long past. In this day and age, air travel makes a lot more sense.

I recently found a web page which compared auto, plane and train travel by cost, time and how much pollution each one purportedly generates. I thought it would be a good idea to do a little comparing myself to see if Amtrak is really a good value.

I "booked" myself on line 4 fictious trips from Dallas to Chicago, one on Amtrak, one on American Airlines (using their web site), one on Southwest Airlines (again, using their site) and one on Hotwire.com. Each trip used the same dates, two weeks in advance, going with the lowest fair without using promotion codes or other discounts. The results were very interesting.

The Amtrak run cost $204 and the travel time is 22 hours.
The AA run cost cost $204 with a travel time of 2.5 hours.
The Southwest run (code share with ATA) cost $197 with 3 hours of travel time.
I could book on Hotwire from $184 to $231. (Hotwire doesn't show the details until you pick the flight, though I think it's safe to assume the travel time will be between 2.5 and 3 hours if it's a non-stop (tack on a couple more hours if a stop is in the plan).

Cost isn't as much of a factor as I thought it might be. A few years ago I was looking into taking Amtrak on a day trip with my kids. As I recall the price was almost twice what the plane fare would have been and it would have been faster to drive.

Time is a huge factor here. 3 hours versus 22 is a very large difference. All other things aside, it really doesn't make sense to take the train.

The current governor of Texas, Rick Perry, and some other politicians want to create a giant travel corridor from south to north Texas about a mile wide which they call the Trans-Texas Corridor (TTC). This project involves billions of dollars, is controlled via secret contracts with a European company, and will end up being a huge land grab and eminent domain nightmare if it's implemented. One of the provisions is for the TTC to include high-speed rail service in addition to toll roads and cargo rail. There isn't enough passenger service on Amtrak now for it to pay for itself, what makes the supporters of TTC think there will be more passengers if the plan goes into effect?

Passenger rail makes a lot of sense in the Northeast and in other places where large cities are closer together. It doesn't make sense in Texas and much of the rest of the US because it's too slow. I say we get Amtrak off the government dole and let the free market take care of where rail works and where it doesn't.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Elvis-A-Rama Museum, Las Vegas

During our recent trip to Las Vegas, my wife and I found ourselves making a "pilgrimage" to the Elvis-A-Rama museum. Located on Industrial a few blocks off the strip behind the Fashion Mall, this museum holds (as the Travel Channel described) the largest private collection of Elvis memorabilia outside Graceland. It was certainly and interesting and enlightening visit. Our visit was also rather timely since the museum is scheduled to close permanently on October 1st, 2006.

After we paid the admission, we were escorted into a dark room with black lights and fluorescent names of Elvis in different languages and waited while we were given a hyped pep talk about what we were going to see. I thought this rather cheesy, but it was the only part of the displays which could be considered that way.

The museum is arranged generally in chronological order, following the King's career from its root until his untimely death. There were fascinating bits of minutia, such as deposit slips, royalty checks, letters back and forth between fans and friends and much more. There were 3 cars which were once owned by Elvis as well as a variety of costumes and other personal belongings.

One of the more interesting items (to me) was a guitar which was passed around and played when the members of the Beatles met with Elvis in his Memphis home. Along with the guitar was a narrative of the visit (written by John Lennon, I think). It was fascinating to read the account of the meeting of two music powerhouses under one roof.

There is, of course, a gift shop where one can purchase anything from sunglasses to copies of Elvis' divorce decree.

We were told by one of the staff the reason for the museum's closing was that it had been bought by Graceland. According to rumour, another Vegas museum run by Graceland was in the works, but no details were known. The collection in the Elvis-O-Rama was to remain with the private owner, who described himself as a close friend of Elvis from his youth.

It's a shame that such a Vegas landmark will pass. Of course, that's the way it is there - the city constantly imploding or plowing over the old to make way for the new. It'll be interesting to see what happens with any new Elvis museum.

Monday, September 25, 2006

South Coast Hotel Casino

South Coast Hotel Casino

During my recent trip in Vegas, my wife and I stayed at the South Coast. Although located well off the beaten path, it was a very nice place and we enjoyed it very much.

The room was excellent. Our room had a large tinted window overlooking Las Vegas Blvd. and if you stood at the right side of the window and looked left you could get a view of the Strip (or at least the taller buildings on the strip). There was a large flat-screen TV (though we didn't use it much), data ports for high-speed internet access (for a $10+ per day fee), and a very comfortable bed. The bathroom was quite large and was equipped with a very wide counter with a tub/shower and toilet in a smaller ante room. The shower was one of those "rain" type ones - I prefer more pressure coming out but it wasn't too bad. The toiletries were very nice, though I didn't find the shampoo to be "invigorating" as the label indicated. There was a small coffee maker in the bathroom which brewed one cup at a time - more than enough to get me going to the buffet or restaurant for more.

There were a number of restaurants on site including the buffet, the cafe, a Mexican place, an Italian place and an oyster bar along with a Seattle's Best Coffee and an ice cream parlour. The buffet was very good, though not "spectacular." The food and selection were more than I expected or could even fully enjoy, and a great value for the money in my opinion.

The hotel offered a free shuttle to the Barbary Coast on the strip. This is an excellent jumping off point for those who wish to visit the strip and see the sights there. The drop off point is right across the street from Ballys and Caesar's Palace. We were able to cover the area to the north (up to TI) on one day and to the south (To New York, New York) the next.

As were were leaving, we noted there were painters working on the front doors changing the name to the "South Point." I later read that this casino was sold by Boyd Gaming to another company. Hopefully the new ownership won't change much more than the name, keeping this hotel as a great Vegas vacation value.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

In Vegas Steht Ein Hofbrauhaus ...

Hofbrauhaus Las Vegas

I first read there was a replica of the famous Munich Beer Hall, Hofbrauhaus, in Las Vegas sometime in 2005. Ever since then I've wanted to check it out, since it's a lot closer than the original and I can't get to Europe right now. When I lived in Germany I spent many an evening in the Munich HB. I finally found myself in Vegas and decided to give the HB a visit.

The HB in Vegas is a smaller, but an otherwise very close representation of the HB in Munich. The front entrance area is the bar and gift shop instead of a foyer, the main hall is smaller, but
has the same type of long tables as the original. The ceiling is painted much like the original, too. Being in Vegas, the Biergarten was indoors in the back of the building. The 00 (rest room) didn't have the Putzfrau cleaning while you were using the "wall" either. Even the outside of the building looked like the original; though since it's on an American-style street corner it's not hard to miss, unlike the original.

Everyone in the group agreed the food was very good. I had the Schwienebraten with potato dumpling and it was very good and tasted much like I remembered it from Bavaria. My wife had the Saurbraten and said it was good, though I had to take her word for it since I'm not too fond of Saurbraten. The Oktoberfest beer was very good, as well. I'm guessing the Weitzen and other beers were good, too, since copious amounts were downed. I'm not in my 20s any more so I limited my consumption to only 1/2 litre.

The service was excellent, probably enhanced since the place was rather empty (I'm told that Thursday is the slowest day of the week). Our server, Victor, took very good care of us.

I highly recommend if you find yourself in Vegas and want to experience some good Bavarian hospitality, check out the HB. It's across from the Hard Rock on Harmon Avenue.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Texas Roadhouse? Not Any More

A Texas Roadhouse manager requested compensation for business lost due to the fatal shooting of two police officers. How horribly insensitive and ridiculous.

In 1998 or 1999 A Texas Roadhouse restaurant opened near where I lived at the time. Being the first new restaurant opened in the area in a number of years, it was quite popular. My wife and I went there a few times. I have to admit, eating peanuts and throwing the shells on the floor appeals to me in a very primal way; and this was one of the features of the restaurant which appealed to me along with good food and good service.

On one visit, the server accidently spilled an entire glass of very cold cola in my lap. To make things worse, I was wearing some very light-colored beige pants. Needless to say, my pants and my mood were ruined. Instead of apologizing and trying to placate my dissatisfaction, the server laughed at me and tried to make some kind of joke out of it. I asked to speak to the manager, who also made light of the situation and didn't even say "sorry about that, accidents happen" or anything along those lines. I expected at least an apology or an offer of a free dessert or something, but there was no such offer. Because of this, Texas Roadhouse became "Restauranta Non Grata" to me. (OK, the Latin may not be exactly correct, but you get the idea.)

Another Texas Roadhouse opened near my new home last year. My wife and I started eating there. The service was great and the food is very good. However, after reading this piece on Snopes.com, in future I think I will avoid Texas Roadhouse anyway. I can forget the manager in Virginia being a cad and give my local manager the benefit of the doubt that (s)he is a great person and supports our local police and other public servants. However, the response from the corporate office leaves a lot to be desired as well. Take my experience with the first Texas Roadhouse and put it with the terrible response of the corporate office in this police case and I have to think that such insensitivity is part of the corporate DNA and thus a reason to spend my money elsewhere.

There's a Logan's Roadhouse not too far away. They have the great "make a mess with peanut shells" experience going. I think I'll eat there instead.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Madonna Into Space?

Lawmaker proposes shooting Madonna into space

A member of the Russian Duma proposed legislation to let Madonna be a "space tourist."

Any chance she can be launched into space and left there?

I realize I critisized "celebrity-centered" headlines on CNN recently. However, although this story is about a celebrity, it actually is news-worthy because it's not just about something Madonna did or didn't do, but also about the Russian Space Program and their attempts to earn money launching people to the International Space Station for cash.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Are We Too Celebrity-Focused?

OK - so Paris Hilton gets arrested for suspicion of DUI. Unless I live in the area she was driving in, should I really care? So, Brittany Spears in an attempt to get away from a mob of photographers jumps into her car and takes off without putting her child in the car seat. Perhaps a bit of bad judgement, but should I take time to ponder if she was a terrible mom or not? Babies of celebrities are born. Congratluations to them, but I don't know them personally so should I "Google" to try to get a sneak peak at the child?

On my Google home page, CNN has at least one article a day dealing with some kind of celebrity news. This is from the RSS selection of "Headlines." With everything going on in the world, in the grand scheme of things, are details of Tom and Katie's relationship really that important to anyone other than Tom, Katie, their family and close friends?

How many people know where Darfur is and what's been going on there for the past 3 years? How many people realize the gravity of Iran enriching uranium or North Korea trying to build a missile which can hit a target in the US? How many of us know about the good things going on in Iraq (like the transfer of authority of the Iraqi armed forces to the Iraqi government which happened earlier today)?

I realize people have wanted to hear celebrity gossip since there have been celebrities. There are those who fill their whole lives reading about the rich and famous. I just wonder, though, if we're taking in a little too much ignorance about the world at large to focus in on stuff which, in the long run, have little importance compared to other things which can profoundly impact our lives?