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America’s love affair with the automobile is being replaced by rail writes CD-Traveller’s managing editor, Adrian Lawes

You’d be forgiven for thinking that there is a typo in the headline. Don’t we mean America’s love affair with the car? But times are changing in the US and trains are becoming more popular.

Over 33 states are investing in train options. to try and relieve congestion.This nugget came from Bob Stewart who is chairman of the National Association of Railroad Passengers.

We haven’t got a similar body in the UK. NARP, founded in 1967, is a charitable body that lobbies and educates about the advantages of rail travel. Some states like South Dakota don’t even have a passenger rail system. While many of us think of the US as just a country of cars and freeways, at one stage rail travel was the main way travelers crossed the vast expanses. But after WWII, the car became dominant.

Today rail is having a resurgence. Why? Are Americans wearying of the delays, the petrol costs and the accidents that interrupt car journeys? The answer, according to Stewart, is yes. But they aren’t turning to airlines either. Security issues, increasing add-on costs to base fares, delays at airports and the sheer time it takes to get through airports before you even get on a plane are putting Americans off.

When I first went to the US 30 years ago, not many cities had their own rail systems. Boston, Chicago, New York and San Francisco did, but it didn’t always link to airports. To get to New York’s JFK you took a bus or the train to Howard Beach and caught the bus from the long-term car park.

 

So much has changed, as Bob Stewart explained. Los Angeles has installed a light railway system, Portland in Oregon has integrated the airport with bus and train systems. In the central part of Portland, the light railway system is free. Denver has 39 miles of railway. In Miami in Florida, a new rail system links the airport to the Tri-State railway system. Rail is the flavor of the month!

So how does the NARP operate? Each week of each month some of its 25,000 members write and submit rail reports on their journeys. Any issues raised are taken up by rail companies be it the national company AMTRAK or the smaller locally run networks. But it isn’t really like our Consumer Focus that represents rail passengers to the railway companies. NARP does take ups individual cases sometimes if it is a serious issue, in which case they will contact their sources at Amtrak. As Stewart says: “we are Amtrak’s cheerleader and critic depending on the issue.”

When Mr. Obama announced support for high-speed rail links and found most of the money to go ahead, it looked as though a new renaissance in rail travel might occur. But three states, Florida, Wisconsin, and Ohio actually turned down the money! Can you imagine a county doing that in the UK? We might argue over the route of HS2 as it plans to link London and Birmingham and then splitting to go to Leeds and Manchester but a route would be found.

But, just as in the UK, Stewart says it is politics that determines some the rail services. AMTRAK doesn’t even have the luxury of being able to plan years ahead because it receives its $1.5 billion subsidies each year. Until it gets that vote, it doesn’t even know whether it will be in business next year! And this is a company that moved over 32 million people last year on sold-out trains.

Infuriating as this must be to AMTRAK, it grieves Stewart too. “Give me $15 billion,” he says, “and I could construct a reasonable, truly national rail network.” Given how much money is wasted federally and how much has been spent on quantitative easing, this is a tiny sum. In the UK, we subsidize our railway network three times over the US figure.

When we visit the USA, many of us use public transport because we are used to it and the thought of driving through places like New York or Chicago makes us wary. So rail is a real option for the visitor. Jokes made about the rail network 30 years ago are no longer valid. Every sort of person uses rail. Trains are clean, well maintained and as punctual as most trains are in the world. What hasn’t happened is frequency unless you are visiting the north east of the US where trains running from Boston through New York to Washington DC run many times a day.

As airlines have faced changing consumer demands and higher costs, many have stopped services to cities with populations of 25-30,000 or so. Can railways step in and fill this breach? There is a route from Chicago to Los Angeles but only eight percent of passengers travel the whole route. All others just use it for linking city visits. And, as Stewart says, what will happen in 2050 when the population of the US is expected to have grown by another 100 million people? Freeways won’t be able to cope. Rail may be the answer. And some of it will be high-speed rail.

California, which likes to espouse its green credentials, is probably going to be the first state to implement a high-speed rail system. Oddly enough the second state is Texas – the state we most associate with the oil industry especially since the late JR Ewing used to try to corner the market in those old episodes of Dallas. And it is from the city of Dallas to the other large city in Texas -Houston – that the first high-speed line, after California, will probably run. North Carolina and Illinois are just two states implementing the increased use of rail.

Stewart, not surprisingly, is all for this but he is more concerned by new legislation which comes into force in October 2013. From that date, individual states will have to fund any railway system up to 750 miles long. They will have control. For those states that moaned about federal parsimony for years, now they and they alone will take the responsibility and the blame for establishing and keeping those lines going. They will have to come up with the funds to run the trains. And that is his concern. Will they find the money? Will the network continue to exist as it does now? Or will it expand and states jump at the opportunities that a bigger railway system might bring to their economies

Going through the Cascades on Amtrak

For the visitor, there must be endless possibilities if new railways come to pass. In cities, we’ll be able to get around more easily. New rail links will offer tourism potential. I have written of the AMTRAK service between Los Angeles and Portland Oregon and the wonderful combination of sunshine on Californian beaches contrasting with the snows of the Cascade Mountains in the north of the state and in Oregon. My train had not only visitors on it, but those who were traveling because rail is relatively inexpensive.

Stewart pointed out to me that there are many freight lines. Could passenger services be brought back there? Could the freight line that goes part of the way through the Mojave Desert be opened so that visitors can see what the desert is really like? And could there be stopovers so we can be taken to see the old mining towns and the old Western heritage in places like Ridgecrest? Since AMTRAK provides holidays as well as rail travel is this something we could look forward to? Stewart thinks that’s for the future. At the moment he just wants more services, more routes, and more members to strengthen his hands in twisting the arms of politicians that hold a tight rein on the money coffers.

And for us visitors, it would give us a chance to see more of this huge country without the hassle and tiredness caused by driving or flying.

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Featured

Now that June is on upon us and the weather is improving (ie no more bank holiday weather with luck), we are into the season of the village days. These village days are the way that money is raised for community projects. It could be for a new hall at one extreme, its maintenance or it could be just for local charities. It brings people into the villages and some people I know go from one to the other in June. The end of the season comes at about the time the schools break up for the summer holidays.

Most village days involve the local schools and clubs and a parade. In our village, the parade is in fancy dress and accompanied by music that continues throughout the day. The theme this year is the circus. A variety of stalls, nearly 50 in all, have to be there, almost by tradition, and our bookstall will probably have a couple of thousand books on sale as they are collected all through the winter months. Wrapped around the one actual village day is a week of events, largely for the villagers like concerts and quiz nights. Some villages have guests to open their days but, in truth, they are no more than draws to try and attract visitors. So by that definition, a village day is tourism. But tourism on a very local scale. It’s also tourism that often gets overlooked by tourist authorities. It might be mentioned on their websites in the list of events but that’s about it. Advertising is local, often just posters staple gunned to trees and the village notice board or the library if there is one. So visitors haven"t attracted from tens of miles around because they won’t be able to find out. And that’s a pity since most villages produce a great day out

Virtually every weekend in June we have a village day in our district and on some Saturdays, two or three.

You may have the same in your area. And if you want to let others know where they can go for a good day out, e-mail us at [email protected] and it will be listed in our events section.

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Travel Destinations

The figures for what we visited last year have been released by ALVA, the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions. Among their 42 members, they are responsible for nearly 1,600 different attractions. But not every attraction is a member and not every member provides figures so there could be more popular places around.

Last year more of us visited their attractions than ever before. The figures were up by nearly 11% over 2009 which may not be that surprising given that 2009 was a year when more of us holiday at home.

Rather obviously, those that didn’t make an entry charge filled the top 5 positions with the British Museum being the leading attraction in the country with over 5.5 million visits. This was down on 2009 but figures go up and down depending on the appeal of new exhibitions and improvements. The other four were the National Gallery, Tate Modern, the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum all of which are in London. The first attraction which charges was the Tower of London with 2,389,000 visitors, less than half that of the British Museum.

Outside London, the leading attraction was the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow (again, free entry). It was followed by Chester Zoo, (because of all the TV exposure?) Edinburgh Castle, the Baths and Pump Room in Bath and the Eden Project in Cornwall. Apart from Kelvingrove the others all charge for entry. The first Welsh entry is St Fagans just outside Cardiff.( also free)
One place that did show a decline in visitors is Liverpool. After being one of the two European Cities of Culture in 2008, it had a large increase in visitors in 2008. Having seen it then, many decided to stay away in 2009. So the Mersey Maritime Museum saw numbers drop by 7%, the World Museum by 23%, the Walker Art gallery by 46% and the Tate by 50%. Just to confuse my logic, the Lady Lever Art Gallery increased numbers by almost a quarter!

Overall, 21 attractions each had more than 1 million visitors and Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire managed to attract an extra 40%. Still, if it attracted 10 times as many visitors it would still only match those of the British Museum and that would really please its owner, the Duke of Marlborough.

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Travel Destinations

New Orleans is widely known throughout the world for its carnival, its food, and its French-Creole-American mix. It attracts people from all over the world the UK included. Yet if you are British there is not one single scheduled flight to this city. Why is it that places like Raleigh-Durham and Charlotte have direct connections yet New Orleans misses out? Which would you rather go to? Which has the greater tourist potential?

The answer as to why there are no direct connections to the UK and Ireland, France, Spain, and Germany to name just a few countries is because none of the current US carriers has ever had a base at New Orleans. American Airlines has a base at Raleigh Durham and US Air has one at Charlotte. There is no Louisiana airline (I think) and certainly no airline that flies to Europe or nearly anywhere else outside North America. So you fly to Houston or Dallas if you want the nearest link to the UK or any of the other gateways we have to the US, change and fly to New Orleans that way. Years ago, British Airways used to stop over on flights to Mexico but today, Mexico is the only international destination that is served.

New Orleans plans to attract 13 million visitors a year by the time it reaches its 300th anniversary in 2018. Currently, it has about 10 million visitors. The rebuilding after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 hasn’t altered the style or the appeal of New Orleans. The French quarter is as much as it was (and bigger than you expect). The food is still wonderful, spicy and a mixture of different nationalities but imbued with that New Orleans special mix. The music still draws crowds be it jazz or blues. Bourbon Street is as it always was. It is unlike any other American city. It’s part European, part American but mostly itself.

So for somewhere unique to visit try New Orleans. And one day you might be able to fly there without going somewhere you didn’t want to go to first.

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Travel Destinations

Last month we gave you the low-down on what to see and do in Doha – the Qatari capital that is making claims to be the region’s next big travel hotshot. But there’s more to Qatar than its capital… Leave Doha for a day and get to grips with the former fishing town of Al Khor – only a short 45 minute drive away

We’re not going to mince words; Qatar’s main draws are most definitely in Doha. However, when you’ve exhausted the capital, there are a few places further afield that warrant a visit and Al Khor (Arabic for ‘stream of water’) is arguably the pick of the bunch. Once famous as a center for the pearling industry, life here moves at a more sedate pace than Doha making this former fishing town the perfect place for a pleasant week-end break.

What to see

Most visitors head straight to the harbor where you can see the distinctive silhouette of dhows (traditional Arab sailing boats) bobbing up and down. For a different perspective of the Al Khor landscape, consider cruising the azure waters of the Arabian Gulf on board a show. Meanwhile, beach babes will relish Al Khor’s wonderfully unspoiled beach; here you can laze on sand whiter than a dentist’s chair while soaking up the rays of the Middle Eastern sun.

Of course, Al Khor isn’t solely about sun, sand, and sea – the sleepy village has a fascinating history and up until the mid-nineteenth century, pearl diving was the main source of income for the locals. The pearling journey (called Al ghawa al Kabir) typically took from three to four months, usually June-October of every year when the waters were warm, and whole communities came to the shore to see off their menfolk who were renowned for their courage and stamina. However, the discovery of oil in the 1930s altered the fate of Qatar with many pearl divers becoming employed in the burgeoning petroleum industry, which transformed the tiny Gulf state into one of the richest countries in the world. The decline of the pearl trade soon accelerated as Japanese businessmen began farming cultured pearls (created by placing a shell bead inside an oyster manually) and selling them at a small fraction of what a natural pearl cost. A visit to the Al Khor museum – housed in an old police station – will reward those looking to learn more about the history of Muscat’s relationship with the water. This miniature museum is also the place to view archaeological discoveries dating from the Neolithic and Bronze Ages as well as weaving, wood carving, and other traditional Qatari crafts, plus some gorgeous gypsum carvings. Once you’ve completed your cultural odyssey, nearby attractions include mangroves and pretty public gardens that are ideal for picnics in.

Yet ultimately while there are things to see and do in Al Khor, a trip to this town cannot be described as a ‘must do’. Make no mistake; there are definitely more compelling places to visit in the Middle East. Despite this, if it’s peace, seclusion and a change of scene that you’re seeking, then Al Khor scores.

Where to Eat:

At Ain Haikitan Restaurant diners can feast on familiar Arabic fare (think fattoush, mutabal and more), at Pizza Hut prices; don’t leave without trying the fantastic falafel sandwiches. Alternatively, make a beeline for Beitiut Pearl Restaurant. The food here, while perfectly adequate, is unlikely to win any awards but the arresting vistas of the coast make Beituit Pearl a great spot in which to sip sweet mint tea or to quench thirst with a refreshing fruit juice.

Where to stay:

Al Khor’s appeal as week-end getaway is bolstered by the sprawling Al Sultan Beach Resort (www.alsultanbeachresort.com). Perched picturesquely on the waterfront, the resort boasts vast bedrooms with arresting sea views and a smattering of superb restaurants. Leisure facilities include a temperature controlled outdoor swimming pool (rumored to be the largest in Qatar), high-end health club and top-notch tennis courts.

How to get there:

Al Khor is situated 40km north of Doha. Follow the Al Shamal (meaning ‘north’) road out of Doha city center all the way to Al Khor. The drive should take approximately 45 minutes.

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