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Alternative travel issues

Alternative travel issues

There are many people now unwilling to fly on commercial airliners. There are various reasons for this. Some people feel that the flurry of government security theatre has made air travel more dangerous.

Others feel that air travel has simply become too unpleasant.

In one case a decision to abandon commercial flying was made after two women on the traveler’s flight were handcuffed. The traveler made the decision that this sort of inappropriate behavior should not be supported, and he has never flown again. Why were the women handcuffed? Because they had to go to the bathroom, and the illegal potty break was attempted within a half hour of the destination, albeit before final approach.

The problem, of course, is finding reasonable alternatives to the current rules. If you happen to own your own aircraft the decision is easy: You fly. Many who own cars but don’t own planes have chosen to drive. Since driving is much more dangerous per mile traveled than flying, this puts us in the odd position of having a government travel safety policy that actually increases travel deaths!

Some have opted to travel by train, on the theory that the worst train seat is more comfortable than the best airplane seat, and that (on corridors that have effective train service) by the time you factor in the time wasted in security, a train is not much more time-consuming than an airplane. It is also a more civilized and less demeaning way to travel these days, and we, ourselves, opt to travel by train whenever possible. Plus, when was the last time you heard of a train falling out of the sky?

But don’t think that trains are risk-free. On 6 July 2002 Arthur Gavender, a retired Civil Engineer, P.E., Commercial Pilot, and Certified Flight Instructor who has flown everything from teeny planes to large corporate aircraft (and, coincidentally, was our flight instructor) took the car-train from Florida to Virginia. During the trip he became convinced that the train was close to (or exceeded) safe speeds for the existing track conditions.

He believed that that the train was more likely to be involved in a disaster than not, and unsuccessfully tried to get either the speed reduced, or himself and his car off the train. He was successful at neither (and, fortunately, the train did not crash).

After arriving in New York, he felt impelled as a safety engineer to do the right thing, and called AMTRAK and a number of federal agencies about what he felt to be, in his professional opinion, a disaster in the making. He recommended speeds more commensurate with track conditions. Two days after the call to AMTRAK, a representative of the railroad contacted Gavender. This man said he was asked to look into the situation by David Gunn, head of AMTRAK. Another voice joined the first on the speakerphone and said he was the AMTRAK Safety Engineer, and that he would look into the matter.

Three weeks later, on 29 July 2002, there was a derailment of the AMTRAK Capitol Limited passenger train, in Kensington, Maryland, en route from Chicago to Washington, D.C. This derailment apparently pushed some buttons, and finally produced some action in regards to Mr. Gavender’s concerns:

• Mr. Gavender was telephoned by the AMTRAK police, who said that they understood that he had made a threat against AMTRAK. He asked if they had read his letter, which they hadn’t, so he faxed them a copy. The upshot of the conversation appeared to be that while his letter was not a threat, he was apparently on the AMTRAK terrorist watch list.

• He got a call from the FBI, who had previously told him that they couldn’t deal with the problem he wished to report, as it was not terrorist related). They said that they understood that he had made a threat against AMTRAK. He asked if they had read his letter, which they hadn’t, so he faxed them a copy. The upshot of the conversation appeared to be that while his letter was not a threat, he was apparently on the FBI terrorist watch list.

• He got an in-person visit from the NYPD Terrorist Squad, who said that they understood that he had made a threat against AMTRAK. He asked if they had read his letter, which they hadn’t, so he showed them a copy. The upshot of the conversation appeared to be that while his letter was not a threat, he was apparently on the NYPD terrorist watch list.

Something over a year later, on 11 September 2003, Mr. Gavender finally heard from a representative of the Federal Railroad Administration, who said that “the FRA has conducted inspections of these tracks and any defects found have been rectified.” Hopefully this has in fact solved the problem of the car train.

However, we note that when David Gunn, President and CEO of AMTRAK, was interviewed on the 24 July 2003 taping of the John McLaughlin show (http://www.mclaughlin.com/library/moo_transcript.asp?id=12), Mr. Gunn said, in regards to the car train:

MR. GUNN: The train? The equipment is pretty good. It’s not brand new, but it’s — the passenger equipment is in good shape, and the auto racks are old. They are old, and actually —

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: You’re going to work on that?

MR. GUNN: We’re replacing — it’s in the eight– billion-eight. (Laughs.)

AMTRAK is under-funded, largely because of the bizarre assumption that American railroads, unlike every other railroad in the world – and unlike air transport or highways – should be self-sustaining. This means that there is insufficient funding available for some of the basics, like track maintenance (although in fact the stretch of track traversed by the car train is handled by CSX, not AMTRAK). While the accident rate for railroads is quite low, we will continue to see accidents that should not be happening, particularly if speeds are in excess of what track conditions will support.

Finally, this should be a cautionary tale to remind you that no good deed goes unpunished. If you see a possible danger – whether it be an accident looking for a place to happen, such as we have seen here, or even a potential terrorist threat – and report it as you ought, you should not be surprised if you are treated about the same as Art Gavender or any other whistle blower.

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