Wednesday, June 24, 2009

America's Luxury Train

If you speak of a luxury Amtrak train to most Americans, even those who frequently or infrequently ride on our national rail passenger system, you will most likely provoke guffaws, snorts and other forms of deprecatory laughter.

Since 1970, when most passenger trains were nationalized into the Amtrak system that has been run and underwritten since by the federal government, the American train ride has not exactly been the world standard of first class travel service.

From 1970 until 1990 or so, in fact, travel by train became a national joke. The cars were deteriorating, the food, once legendary when the private train system was in place, was terrible. Dishes, glasses, cups and silverware were replaced by plastic, food was frozen, pre-prepared and tasteless, and trains rarely arrived on time. Of course, there were reasons for this. First, Amtrak inherited a “featherbedded” union workforce in which too many persons worked on trains but couldn’t be fired. That took more than 20 years to resolve into something more cost-effective. Second, food labor costs rose precipitously, and train kitchens were not re-designed effectively for modern food preparation and delivery. Third, and most important, with the exception of the heavily-traveled northeastern corridor, Amtrak did not own the tracks. The original law gave passenger trains priority. but this was not ever practiced. Freight train companies, which owned the tracks, always gave themselves priority over passenger trains, and a small initial delay could, and often did, expand into arrivals that were sometimes 10-15 hours late or more, especially in the winter on the northern routes.

Passenger trains, in short, were mediocre at best, and had a very poor public image. Train buffs, former and current train employees (who received free travel or a big discount), and those who could not stomach airplane travel (a lot of persons), loyally kept traveling by rail, however. In the 1990’s, Congress reluctantly appropriated more subsidies to enable Amtrak to replace old stock. Individual states, desiring that some of their major cities have Amtrak service, began to subsidize individual train routes. And so, passenger train travel limped into the 21st century and survived.

Perhaps most importantly, the trains themselves, in spite of the obvious shortcomings, drew a larger and larger base of passengers. There is simply no equivalent “romance” about car, bus or plane travel in America. Trains, for almost two hundred years, have created their own idiosyncratic legend, particularly for and about long-distance travel.

Amtrak’s political enemies have long attempted to cut its subsidies and even eliminate it as a public company. They have contended that rail travel should pay for itself (“make a profit”), and be provided by private companies. The flaw in their argument is that there is no national rail system anywhere in the world, nor could there be one, without some form of public subsidy. In fact, ALL forms of public transportation, including urban and intercity buses, air lines, light rail
travel, subways and automobiles (using public streets and highways) are subsidized in the United States. The aftermath of the days following September 11, 2001, when all air traffic was necessarily suspended, only made clearer the need for a modern national passenger train system. (Vice President Joe Biden, who rode Amtrak every day to and from his home in Wilmington, Delaware when he served as a U.S. senator, brings an appreciation of this to the new administration.)

Meanwhile, passenger train travel quality continues to decline. A higher-speed luxury train, the Acela, was inaugurated from Washington to Boston on Amtrak’s own rails, and continues to operate, but its fares are quite high. New rail cars have slowly replaced old ones, and include a number of double-decker cars that serve on most long distance trains. There are four transcontinental routes that begin with trains from the East Coast to the West Coast. From Chicago, there are three routes to the West Coast, the Empire Builder which goes north to Minneapolis-St. Paul and then across the country to Seattle and Portland; the California Zephyr which goes across the middle of the nation to Omaha, Denver, Utah and San Francisco; and the Southwest Chief which goes to Kansas City Albequerque, Phoenix and Los Angeles. A fourth transcontinental route,the Sunset Limited, goes from Jacksonville to Los Angeles via New Orleans, Houston and Tucson.

On all of these routes today, the double-decker coach, first class, dining and lounge cars are much the same (many short term routes use single-level cars), as is the food and service. A positive innovation has been the addition of first class lounges in several large rail stations, including Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, Portland and Chicago. Frequent train travelers can belong to Amtrak Club and accumulate train miles, much as plane passengers do, for future free travel on the Amtrak system.

Nevertheless, luxury train service, except for the very expensive short-run Acela train, has been mostly unavailable in the United States.. Some trains, such as the City of New Orleans from Chicago to Louisiana, has maintained distinctive Cajun/Creole menus over the years, but only one train has insisted on providing a special luxury service at regular Amtrak rates.

The Coast Starlight travels from Seattle and Los Angeles over and through some of the most spectacular landscapes in America, including mountain ranges, vistas of the Pacific Ocean, some of the major fruit and vegetable-growing farms in the nation deserts and craggy coastlines. This double-decker train offers an extraordinary first class travel experience. Although the bedrooms are the same as on other Amtrak trains, first class on the Coast Starlight also includes a special Parlour Car, a refitted 1950’s car from the Santa Fe’s legendary “El Capitan”. Its lower level is a theater with real theater seats, a wide screen and a small stage. Upstairs there is a small library, a lounge area with plush seats, an elegant dining area and a full bar with bar seats, serving a large selection of cordials, liqueurs and other adult beverages, as well as an espresso machine that turns out decent macchiatos, cappuccinos and lattes. Two full-length movies play each day. Some times there is live entertainment or lectures. Each day there is a wine and cheese tasting in the late afternoon, and a late-night chocolate tasting. In the sleeping room, small chamois travel bags are provided with fine shampoos, body creams, soaps and a toothbrush and toothpaste. Small bottles of American champagne are complimentary. The New York Times, USA Today and Wall Street Journal plus local daily newspapers are available in the lounge, as are several magazines. Although first class passengers may go to the regular dining car for their meals (all food is included with each first class ticket), they may also have breakfast, lunch and dinner in the Parlour Car where the menu choices are more limited, but the fare is decidedly more adventurous. On a recent trip, breakfast in the parlour car featured a crimini mushroom and spinach frittata. Lunches included a farfalle pasta, a chicken & cranberry walnut bistro salad, wine country gemelli pasta or a classic chef salad with turkey breast, ham and jack cheese. Dinners featured beef braised in port wine and goji berries, Zinfandel-braised chicken with artichokes, Pacific bay scallops in a Chardonnay sauce, and Santa Maria ancho chile braised short ribs of beef. Desserts included carrot cake, Granny Smith caramel apple tart, toasted pecan tart and Haagen Dazs ice creams. First class diners could also choose the regular diner car for a sirloin steak, lamb shanks, traditional roast chicken and vegetarian entrees.

There is also excellent service from train personnel on this train. They know they are working on the premier Amtrak train, and show it.

Finally, there is a special Arcade Car for children (and adults who like to play video games). This car is also available to coach passengers. Coach passengers may also, for a small $5.00 fee, come to the Parlour Car for the daily wine and cheese tasting.

The best news is that, unlike the Acela train, Amtrak does not charge extra for their first class service on the Coast Starlight. (But it is definitely more expensive than a coach seat.) Your first class ticket, including your sleeping room, will be the equivalent to any other overnight Amtrak trains. (In fact, it will be noticeably less than first class travel on the Lake Shore Limited, a single level train that goes from Chicago to New York or Boston, and which is decidedly not a pleasant
travel experience.) When you consider what you get, that is, a hotel room and all meals, the ability to see the passing landscapes and the freedom to move about the train and meet other passengers, the cost of first class Amtrak travel for two persons or a whole family is quite a bargain. (The secret is to book your ticket several weeks in advance if possible, or during low travel periods, when rates are at their lowest. Last-minute tickets when the train is almost full can be significantly more expensive.)

There are also two north-south trains a day from Boston to Miami, as well as the aforentioned City of New Orleans that goes from Chicago to Louisiana. A number of other medium-distance trains, including the Capitol Limited and the Cardinal (going from Chicago to Washington), the Lake Shore Limited (going from Chicago to New York City or Boston) and many short-run trains covering the rest of the country make up the Amtrak system. Only the Empire Builder, among these trains, makes a special effort in its first class service, offering a complimentary wine and cheese tasting en route, and lectures during the day.

I took the Coast Starlight several years ago, and it seemed that its experience has been maintained with two notable exceptions. One was that the menu used to be a bit larger and even more adventurous, and the other was that first class passengers could leave their shoes out at night and have them beautifully shined by morning, just as they still do on cruise ships.

Millions of Americans travel by train annually, and more are using passenger rail service each year. The United States Congress has appropriated $1.3 billion for Amtrak this year, more than ever before, and has called for higher-speed rail service from Los Angeles to Las Vegas and one other location in the country. As much as a rail travel advocate as I am, I cannot justify or support a $6 billion train for such a short route as L.A. to Nevada (it’s a political payoff to Nevada senator/majority leader Harry Reid), but I do think higher-speed rail travel between New York and Chicago or Boston to Florida is an excellent idea, and probably inevitable.

I should point out here the difference between “higher-speed” trains and truly high-speed trains, the latter sometimes called “bullet trains,” and which currently operate in Japan and a few other places in the world.. Most U,S. trains do not travel at more than 75 miles an hour, even on peak stretches of their routes. “Higher-speed” trains do travel up to 125 miles an hour, as does the Acela. What is currently proposed for selected U.S. routes are higher-speed trains. In order to provide faster trains than this, with speeds up to 250 miles an hour, would require new tracks that would be owned by Amtrak, No such trains are currently in the planning or proposal stage, although if they do happen, they would revolutionalize passenger travel in the U.S., making rail travel even more competitive with air travel.

Today, however, there already exists a notable train experience which fulfills much of the glamor and legend of luxury train travel. That is the Coast Starlight, and it demonstrates what even a public subsidized train system can provide at reasonable cost in our own time if the will and demand for it exists.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Paradox of Dining Out in 2009

In the current economic downturn, it is no surprise that individuals, families and businesses are cutting back in how often they go out to eat and how much they spend when they do.

The paradox is that, just as so many are reducing their spending in restaurants and travel, there has not been a better value in dining out for years. And the value and satisfaction of preparing gourmet meals at home has not been clearer.

It’s mostly simple supply and demand. Restaurants and food organizations must deal with fixed rising overhead costs, including rent, labor, utilities and, to a lesser extent, food costs, but to attract customers, they have had to lower food prices.

We have also observed a decades-long boom in the food hospitality industry, with costly labor-intensive culinary creativity and innovation that has created a whole new class of diners and an enlarged group of “foodies” who dine out with greater frequency. The corporate boom has also magnified expense account dining (even with tougher tax deduction rules), and an explosion of upscale clienteles, private and corporate, has made the restaurant and catering industry into a central and profitable institution in daily
American culture.

Food and dining has become a central element of popular culture in the developed world in ways that have not previously existed. In the past, so-called fine dining was a practice limited only to royalty, the nobility, and later, the very rich. At the beginning of the 19th century in Europe, food preservation advances enabled cooks to become "chefs." and to refine food preparation into formal recipes. Cookbooks began to appear, and the aristocratic classes developed elaborate dining practices. This reached a peak in England where the "Edwardian Age" (named after Albert Edward, later Edward VII, the Prince of Wales and son of Queen Victoria) was accompanied by elaborate and ritualized multi-course breakfasts, lunches and dinners, punctuated with morning and afternoon "teas" and midnight buffets. A relic of this extraordinary daily feasting can be found on some of today's first class cruise ships. (It is perhaps instructive that Edward died prematurely in 1908 from the consequences of overeating and drinking.)

The industrial age also created men and women of great wealth, including in the United States, who quickly adopted and imitated the culinary practices of the nobility.

It was not until the mid-20th century that fine dining and hitherto exotic ethnic cuisines began to be available to middle class Americans. Radio and television, paperback cookbooks, Julia Childs, and more reasonably priced restaurants multiplied interest, even as Americans became more affluent and had more money to spend on what and where they ate. American soldiers returned from World Wars I and II, Korea and Viet Nam having tasted the cuisines of Europe and Asia. Recent immigrants from Mexico and South America brought their national dishes to the American table, as had earlier immigrants from Europe. At the same time, American farmers began producing more and more organic food, a greater variety of fruits, vegetables and cheeses while transportation advances made possible delivery of virtually any reasonably fresh food
product from anywhere in the world to kitchens all over the United States. A long-term "food boom" had taken place.

But with rising unemployment, furloughing and downsizing growing everywhere, one of the first areas of private and corporate expenditure cutbacks is in lifestyle luxuries such as travel, entertaining and dining out. In simplest terms, many restaurants, booming only months ago, find themselves nearly empty at previous peak times, even as they must pay the same rent, employ a chef staff and a wait staff, and pay for fixed costs such as utilities, insurance and business fees. To draw customers back, many upscale restaurants. are creating “happy hours” (early and late), ‘early bird” dinners and other special prix fixe menus and other promotions.

This is happening across the country, particularly in cities and areas where the new upscale food culture has flourished.

As a case in point, the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul have seen an explosion of new restaurants and an increasingly sophisticated clientele in the past two decades. Whereas 30 years ago, serious French, northern Italian and innovative American menus were rare or non-existent, and choices of ethnic cuisines limited, today many such restaurants now are open in the two downtowns, neighborhoods and prosperous suburbs. Virtually all ethnic cuisines are now represented as well. Furthermore, the growth of restaurants which serve organic, wild-caught,and locally-grown menus has been significant.

There has been, in short, a dramatic change in availability of choices for the serious Twin Cities diner.

A few months ago, however, local restaurateurs began to notice significant drop-offs in their business. The most popular high-end restaurants, always seemingly full (especially on weekends), now had tables available even at peak hours. Weekday evenings were suddenly bleak, and even the busy daily downtown lunch business was noticeably off.

Many diners also downsized their restaurant choice. Fast-food and other lower-priced restaurant chains now received increased business even as their higher-priced independent colleagues saw their gross receipts wane.

Restaurateurs know that raising prices is exactly the wrong strategy in such a time (even as government bureaucrats and policy makers do not seem to understand this basic economic truth). Higher menu prices only further drive away regular customers and discourage new ones.

It is a time like this when a "dirty little secret" of fine dining comes, by necessity, to the fore. The caveat is that at least one member of a "foodie" family needs to be a good cook. If this is so, and especially if more than one family member knows how to prepare food, then fine dining can be available almost every night at a fraction of what it would cost in a restaurant. The finest prime meats, freshest seafoods, best produce, and the best wines can be purchased at local grocery stores, supermarkets and specialty shops (in some cases, better than what was purchased by the restaurant). Freshness is known, menu choice is almost infinite, and the meal can be enjoyed without babysitters, valet parking, extra sales taxes and tipping. Instead of a steak dinner costing $75 or $100 (or more) per person (when all the cost are added), it will cost $20 or $25 (or less) per person. A multi-course gourmet dinner that might cost $100 or $150 (or more) per person at one of the best local restaurants, may cost $25 or $30 (or less) per person at home. When two or more are dining, this represents a dramatic savings. The downside is that someone has to do the cooking, someone has to clean up, and there is no special feeling of dining out.

The latter means that dining out still thrives, and the restaurant that maintains and enhances its special character, menu choice, and good service while at the same time adjusting to provide more value for its dining experience, will survive through this economic downturn.

For the time being, however, it's a buyer's market. And a good time for those who write and sell cookbooks.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

After Pawlenty, a Deluge

When Republican Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty announced he would not run for a third term a few days ago, it unleashed a torrent of announcements from political wannabes in both major parties, and a few in the significant third party in the state, the Independence Party (IP).

Pawlenty had been elected twice as governor with a plurality, defeating his DFL opponents because there was a serious IP candidate in the field. In 1998, in fact, the IP nominee Jesse Ventura had won the governorship in an historic upset.

Over time, lacking his party’s control eventually of both houses of the state legislature, the conservative but cautious Pawlenty, a former GOP house majority leader, became more and more assertive. After agreeing to increased “fees” to balance the state budget in a previous legislative session, and then being accused of raising taxes by some in his conservative base, Pawlenty became adamant about not raising taxes, even as the state fell into the national recession. In 2008 Pawlenty received considerable national attention when he became a finalist for John McCain’s choice for vice president, and although he lost to Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska, he had clearly been bitten by the national bug.

In the session recently concluded, Pawlenty pulled off the most significant political maneuver of his two terms. Thinking they had the GOP governor cornered, DFL legislative leaders played political chicken going up to the final hours of the session and expected Pawlenty to cave in on raising revenues. Instead, the governor shocked the DFL and the state by invoking often little-used powers of line item veto and unallotment. Instead of caving in, or being forced to call an unpopular special session, Pawlenty took on the responsibility of balancing the state budget, a constitutional requirement, entirely by himself. His current term ends in January, 2011, and although the move had made his election to an unprecedented third four-year term possible (if not likely), Pawlenty soon afterwards withdrew from the 2010 race.

He now presumably will concentrate on finishing out his term, and on putting together a national presidential campaign for 2012.

Some DFLers, faced with Pawlenty’s popularity, had been holding back a decision to run for governor. No serious Republicans were reportedly considering running against him. But now with the incumbent out of the race, there is a deluge of well-known candidates.

Already announced or virtually announced on the DFL side are speaker of the state house Margaret Kelliher, former U.S. senator Mark Dayton, state legislator Paul Thissen, former state legislator Matt Entenza, state representative Tom Bakk, Ramsey County attorney Susan Gaertner, former state senator Steve Kelley, state senator and 1994 DFL nominee John Marty, and state Senator Tarryl Clark. Mayors R.T. Rybak of Minneapolis and Chris Coleman of St. Paul are running for re-election this year, so cannot announce formally for governor until after the election, but both are expected to run. State legislator Steve Simon has also frequently been mentioned for higher office.

On the Republican side, announced or presumed candidates include House Minority leader Marty Seifer, GOP national committeeman and businessman Brian Sullivan, state representative Laura Brod, former state house speaker Steve Sviggum, businessman Mike Vekich, state representative Paul Kohls, former state auditor Pat Anderson, former state legislator Charlie Weaver, state senator Geoff Michel, state senator David Hann, and state senate leader David Senjem. Incumbent congresswoman Michele Bachmann has been mentioned as a possible candidate, but has indicated she is running for re-election from the 6th District. U.S. Senator Norm Coleman, in the closing days of his recount dispute over the 2008 election, has also been suggested, but it is unlikely at the present time that he would even consider the race. An intriguing dark horse candidate, who has not indicated publicly any interest in running for governor, would be Ben Whitney who has just retired as U.S. ambassador to Norway. Whitney, a successful businessman, ran the Minnesota campaign for Bush-Cheney in 2004.

Initially the favorite for the DFL endorsement and nomination, speaker Margaret Kelliher was hurt by the end of the session rout of the DFL by the governor, but she remains as a formidable candidate. Now leading in all the polls, admittedly primarily the result of name recognition, is Mark Dayton, Some observers dismiss Dayton as a political has-been, but this also happened in 2000 when he came from behind to handily defeat the DFL-endorsed candidate for U.S. senate in the primary and went on to an easy victory in the general election. Dayton is remembered fondly by senior citizens for his efforts on their behalf while a senator, and if no other candidate emerges strongly, he could end up the DFL nominee. Matt Entenza is married to the CEO of United Health and presumably has unlimited funds for the campaign. He presumably will work aggressively to block an endorsement, and will run in the primary even if someone is endorsed, as may Dayton. The dark horse in the race may be legislator Paul Thissen who represents a Minneapolis/suburban district, and is one of the most highly regarded of the young DFL legislators in the state. With such a crowded field, a number of the younger DFL activists could coalesce around his candidacy.

There is no frontrunner for the GOP nomination either. National committeeman Brian Sullivan almost beat Pawlenty in 2002 for the GOP endorsement, and continues to be active in conservative circles, but he reportedly will not have the support of former GOP congressman Vin Weber this time. (Weber and his group supported Sullivan strongly in 2002.) Bachmann, if she ran, could conceivably win party endorsement, but would almost certainly lose in November if she were nominated as well. Pat Anderson will be seeking the support of the Ron Paul faction of the GOP, but might be unable to assemble a broad base of support necessary to win election.

There are two interesting dark horse candidates for the GOP nomination. One is businessman Mike Vekich, an accountant and successful entrepreneur. He is a political anomaly because he is a Republican from the Iron Range. He has been one of Governor Pawlenty’s go-to guys in recent years, successfully running MNSCU, the state college system, among other projects. Presumably, he could raise the funds necessary for the race, but he is mostly unknown to state voters, and will have to find a way in a few short months to stand out from the crowd of other candidates.

The other dark horse has so far not publicly indicated he is even considering the race for governor. Ben Whitney is the son of one of the state’s most prominent moderate Republican figures, Wheelock Whitney (who himself was the 1986 GOP nominee for governor), and his great, great uncle (by marriage) was one of the state’s most successful 19th century governors, John Pillsbury. Ben Whitney built a strong organization of young GOP activists when he ran the Minnesota GOP presidential campaign in 2004, and a great many of these activists would presumably be attracted to his campaign. Most importantly, although he is pro-life, Whitney clearly has appeal to moderates in the party, and independents, many of whom abandoned the GOP in 2006 and 2008, and could be unifying figure for a party now badly split into factions.

The Independence Party has played spoiler to the DFL for more than 20 years, not only in the race for governor, but probably in the 2008 senate race as well. In 2010, candidates of the prominence of Tim Penny, Peter Hutchinson or Jesse Ventura won’t likely be in the race, but the party will have a candidate, and its nominee will probably receive between 2-5% of the general election vote, perhaps once again enough to make the difference.

It is important to stress, however, that the gubernatorial campaign is only beginning. Other candidates, not mentioned above, could enter and change the chemistry of the race. Some of those mentioned will choose not to run. The economy, state and national, will play a role not yet evident more than a year away form election day.

The very large number of prominent candidates for governor in both parties is probably unprecedented. This is a sign of how serious this race is being taken, and how much is at stake politically for the party whose nominee will occupy the governor’s residence in the next four turbulent years.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Reality in the Discussion About the Supreme Court Vacancy

Nominations for U.S. supreme Court vacancies have become so ritualized that it is easy to forget the political reality in which they are made.

Democratic President Barack Obama won the 2008 election in both the electoral college and the popular vote. His party expanded its margins in both houses of Congress. A first vacancy in the supreme court has occurred and President Obama has nominated Federal Appeals Court Sotomayor to replace retiring Justice Souter.

The reality is that the new president, with a large majority in the U.S. senate, can be confident that any nomination he would make (except one with egregious flaws) would be confirmed. Judge Sotomayor is a very experienced judge. Conservatives, of course, would not prefer her to take this seat, but conservatives are no longer in power in the national capital. Justice Souter, although appointed by President George H.W. Bush, turned out to be one of the most liberal members of the court. If anything, Judge Sotomayor is a more moderate judicial figure (I base this on her record), and conservatives should be relieved. Of course, what a new justice will do over time on highest court is not predictable at the outset of his or her term, but I think it is fair to say that the court will not be lurching to the left with this new member.

Some conservatives are making much out of a particular statement Judge Sotomayor once made, and are critical of some of her past decisions on lower courts. It is reasonable for her to be questioned about these at her confirmation hearing, and for conservatives to use this hearing as an opportunity to educate the public once again about the two competing judicial philosophies that dominate American jurisprudence today. But no one should have any illusion, barring some unexpected disclosure, that this nomination can be defeated, or from either the conservative or liberal point of view, that it should be.