Upgraded: Free rental cars for electric vehicle owners
If you live outside the United States and spring for a Nissan Leaf, the forthcoming mass-production battery electric vehicle, Nissan will cover your car rentals for long-distance travels. This is interesting. The Leaf only covers 100 miles or so on a single charge, so it’s not necessarily practical for road trips. Nissan’s offer bridges that gap. For now, though, it’s not available to customers in the U.S. No details yet on frequency of rental, distances covered, or other limitations.

Upgraded: Canada’s Via Rail
Via, the Canadian national railway, is updating its cars, with the first new-and-improved sleeping cars and dining cars going into service between Toronto and Vancouver. More comfort on long-haul trains is always a plus.

Upgraded: Your ears
Your ears may soon be a part of your security screening. You read that right: Ears are a biologically unique marker, and as such, may be included in your biometric profile for international travel. If researchers at the University of Southampton in the UK convince global governments, you too, may soon be identified at passport control by way of your ears. (via @elliottdotorg)

Upgraded: Burnin’ rubber
Reader Jeff sends in a video of an Airbus A340-600 brake test. It’s not quite riveting at first, but in the second half of the video, overheated brakes and tires start blowing up, catching on fire, and creating general havoc. I’m not sure if the video is comforting or not. On the one hand, there’s a lot of time between the time the time the brakes are hit and the time the flames start spewing out, meaning there’s a lot of time to evacuate. On the other hand, what the hell are these Airbus staffers doing!? The repeated expressions of “Merde!” aren’t exactly the sign of a plan coming together:

(Thanks Jeff! via the Presurfer)

Priestmangoode Mercury Train exterior 2 High speed rail: The latest innovation in the UK, the latest challenge in the US

British rail hasn’t reached the stature of French, German, Japanese, or Spanish high-speed trains, but if PriestmanGoode’s plans for a new high-speed double-decker train system are any indication, things in the UK will reach a global level soon.

Their pitch:

Introducing an entirely new concept in the way we travel, the train will incorporate a flexible, open plan design allowing for interaction, space and relaxation without compromising privacy. Both commuting and longer haul journeys will be more relaxed, comfortable and akin to modern living, featuring traditional commuter seats (designed to incorporate in-transit entertainment systems) alongside private berths – for families, private parties or business meetings echoing the nostalgia of compartmental train travel. A children’s play area will be integrated into the train and a luxury first class section will mirror the choice offered to air travellers with a luxury lounge and bar.

The exterior of the train, designed to emulate design classics such as Concorde, the Spitfire and Rolls Royce, will be 400 metres long and the extended nose section will be one of the most extreme in the world – vitally important for the aerodynamics of a train which will travel at 225mph.

On the one hand, I’m always excited to see advances in contemporary transportation design. On the other hand, I feel like I’m a tool, just for posting this. Most of these designs are vaporware — you’ll never see any of these in real life. Bars, showers, tennis courts… Ok, no tennis courts. But we’ve seen this sort of innovative design before, but the reality never lives up to the prototype.

Want to imagine what train travel could be like? Check their site and dream the dream.

There’s always hope… except in the United States, where the plans for high-speed rail involve trains sharing track with freight lines. Coal — 45% of volume and 23% of value transported on the tracks — is king in the US. The Economist has a thorough takedown of the prospects for realistic high-speed rail traffic, for those interested.

Categorized in: rail

baby headset atc Upgrades and Downgrades: air traffic control, full body scans, Amtrak wi fi, and more
Upgraded: Kids taking charge in aviation
When I was a kid, I loved — loved! — going up to the cockpit during the flight. I remember sitting in a Pan Am 747 cockpit somewhere over the northern Atlantic, and the captain pointed out some icebergs floating below us. I suppose Dwight Schrute and I have the Pan Am experience in common. But in today’s security environment, kids can’t get that experience… but they can direct air traffic control?!

Upgraded: Amtrak
If you’re traveling Amtrak in the Northeast Corridor, you’ll soon be able to snag a free wi-fi signal, but only in first or business class. A good start, but only available in first/business? Come on. At least offer in economy at a billable rate!

Downgraded: Full-body scanners in the UK
Two women refused to pass through the full-body scanner at Manchester Airport in the UK. One refused, on the basis of her faith; the other cited health concerns. But instead of being given a pat-down option, as is the policy in the US, they were prevented from boarding their flights. “The women were warned they were legally required to go through the scanner, after being chosen at random, or they would not be allowed to fly, an airport spokesman said.”

Upgraded: Turkish Airlines’ mysterious premium economy cabin
Turkish Airlines has pre-announced that they’ll introduce a new cabin between economy and business on widebody aircraft, but don’t call the new product premium economy. It “will exceed the premium economy standards of most other carriers and will be close to the business class of some other carriers,” according to CEO Temel Kotil. Okay, great. But why pre-announce a new product, without details, instead of just… announcing? What are they trying to get in front of?


Upgraded: The notion of a contract in air travel
Downgraded: Airline logistics

The Department of Transportation has revealed sweeping new rules that govern airlines’ conduct, but implementation and enforcement will not be as easy as passing a new rule. Most headlines read that this is a big victory for passenger rights, with the bulk of the attention focused on a new 3-hour limit on time spent aboard a plane, pushed away from the gate. That’s something but this won’t please everybody. (If your flight would be able to take off 3 hours and 5 minutes after pushback, tough luck, you’re heading back to the gate at the 3 hour mark…) Ground delays suck. No doubt. But There will be unintended consequences, and airlines will find ways to address these logistical challenges.

More importantly, in my view, the rules include a provision that airlines can’t retroactively change the contract governing your ticket. This has always struck me as patently unfair: You buy your ticket in January for a March flight, and the airline changes its rules in February; until now, you’ve been stuck with the February contract. Now, the federal government has ruled that you’re covered by the original contract in effect when you made your purchase. Good.

Chris Elliott has pulled the highlights from the actual rules, if you want to review.

Downgraded: Globespan Airlines
Potentially Downgraded: Credit card processors

Scotland’s Globespan Airlines shut down abruptly over the weekend, stranding 4500 travelers mid-trip. For the time being, guidance from the company on rebookings, is available on the former airline’s website. But questions now turn to whether or not the airline’s credit card processor was to blame for the immediate death knell. The processor, E-clear, apparently held back between £30m and £35m due to Globespan. You may recall that Frontier Airlines blamed their credit card processor when they declared bankruptcy in 2008 (though they didn’t halt all operations at that point).

Upgraded, after days of being Downgraded: Eurostar
English Channel rail firm Eurostar had a miserable (and well-publicized) weekend, with a complete shutdown of all their trains, midway through the Channel crossing. And the company handled things rather poorly. For example:

When worried passengers [aboard the trains] challenged Eurostar officials they received a cursory shrug. Some became so desperate for information that they banged on the train driver’s door but could only hear him sobbing inside.

Awesome. That’s the kind of leadership in a crisis I look for… But the company is resuming service and has promised to make it up to the thousands of passengers it stranded, not just in the tunnels, but on both sides of the channel. They’ve vowed that “the company would reimburse them for expenses incurred while they were stranded.”

Upgraded: The number of stars in the Parisian hotel sky
Four stars? Not enough. Bring on the fifth star. At least they haven’t gone the way of the absurdist 6 and 7 star hotel…

Upgraded: Biofuels
A Seattle company has put in motion plans to create a large-scale biofuels operation aimed specifically at airlines. AltAir Fuels has signed up 14 airlines to be launch customers for jet fuel and diesel made from camelina, a mustard-like weed whose seeds can be refined.


db ice3 Will high speed rail kill the airline star?

An interesting read: The NY Times Magazine has a lengthy story on the challenges facing high speed rail in California, and in the U.S. more generally.

The author covers a good number — if not all — of the difficulties in constructing hundreds — or thousands — of miles of dedicated high-speed rail lines. From the political and economic challenge of securing land, to the engineering challenges of building a track that has no traffic crossings.

A German friend once remarked to me that one of the first things he noticed when visiting the US was that the trains actually blew their whistles. The sound of a train whistle was foreign to him. I, on the other hand, grew up listening to the sound of train whistles every morning and evening, as it came into our town, crossing multiple streets that otherwise carried automotive traffic. What was natural to me — cars, pedestrians, and trains on the same surface — was a quaint relic of yesteryear to my friend.

The US passenger rail system isn’t even a 19th century system, despite more modern locomotives. It’s a slow-moving, delay-prone embarrassment.

In any case, high speed rail, while facing an uphill climb, is finally looking up in the U.S. The Obama administration is planning $13 billion in infrastructure investments for rail, and regional authorities are making plans to connect their cities.

High speed rail works wonderfully on short- to intermediate-distance regional routes; shortly after it opened, the Madrid-Barcelona AVE train grabbed 50% of the passengers from the airlines on the route. If the routes are planned right and the speed is right, expect a similar impact on air travel in the Northeast corridor, California, Texas, the upper Midwest, and possibly the Carolinas/Georgia. High speed rail won’t replace trans-continental flying, but it can affect a lot of the high-frequency shorter hops.

But don’t expect the airlines to remain complacent. Expect lobbying, advertising, and side-deals from the airlines to try to quash high-speed rail. Maybe not quite at the level of GM’s quashing of streetcar systems — the airlines don’t have that kind of money or clout right now — but keep your eyes open. You know the airlines are watching.

Junked streetcars Will high speed rail kill the airline star?

(image 1, image 2)

Categorized in: rail

Last week, I was trying to book tickets for travel between Barcelona and Madrid on the relatively-new AVE high-speed rail line. I soon realized that the price quoted on the website of RENFE, Spain’s national railway, depended on the language in which you chose to conduct your searches.

When I searched the site earlier that day from my office, I searched in Spanish. A one-way ticket from Barcelona to Madrid could be had for around 44 euros on a “tarifa Web,” their Internet special fare with 30 day advance purchase.

When I was at home, ready to finalize my purchase, I opted to search with the site language set to English. The price was nearly 110 euros.

(On the positive side, RENFE’s full-fare ticket is still less than the $253 per person that Rail Europe is charging… Where on earth is that fare coming from?…)

A little digging revealed that the Spanish-language RENFE site offered three tiers of ticket, including the deep-discounted 15-day advance purchase “Tarifa Web” and the discounted 7-day advance purchase “Tarifa Estrella.” (Terms of which are described here.)

The English-language site only offered the full-price fare, with an indication of how much that fare would cost if you bought it in the station vs. on the web. Web and Estrella fares were missing.

My one year of high school Spanish, limited travel experience in the Spanish-speaking world, and Google Translate were enough to figure out what I was buying on the Spanish-language site. And I was able to get the lower fare, using a US billing address and an American Visa card, with two tickets costing less than one ticket on the English site. But why is this necessary?

A quick search shows that other English-speakers have had similar experiences, and that some users have been unable to complete a purchase at all.

The bothersome part is that RENFE has actively constructed a site that looks and acts differently for different users, based solely on their language. It’s not based on your IP address, or your billing address. It affects Americans, Britons, and anyone who opts for English in the same way.

I just did another search, for different dates, and it’s not just a fluke. It’s systematic. Here’s a screenshot of Spanish-language search results (note that fares in the search images below are different from what I booked):

renfe in spanish Rail website charges double if you search in English

And here’s the same search, on the English site:

renfe in english Rail website charges double if you search in English

A very different look on the English site. And no discounts.

(The two-price system reminds me of a trip through eastern Europe in 1992. At the Vilnius train station, where I was trying to buy a ticket to Warsaw, the rail station cashiers had a simple standard for outsiders: The fare was 200. 200 rubles, dollars, Deutschmarks, whatever. Your nationality determined your currency. It always cost 200.)

Segmenting your customers, and pitching different products to them accordingly, is one thing. Discriminating against them wholesale is quite another.


An unnamed RENFE representative writes in:

Subject: Renfe website doesn’t charge double
The information found in the Upgrade Travel Better blog, stating that the price for tickets purchased in the English language option on Renfe’s website is much more expensive than in the Spanish version, is incorrect. The prices referred to in the above-mentioned information relate exclusively to the Timetables Search section; legally, Renfe is obliged to publish the prices to which the various discounts are applied. However, when tickets are actually acquired (by pressing the shopping trolley icon) the purchaser is taken directly to the ticket purchase application, which shows all special offer prices, identically in all languages. The area designed for purchasing tickets also has an English version.

As I indicated in my comment last night, it is indeed possible to find the discounted web fares. But this misses the point: The initial English quoted price is still double the initial Spanish quoted price. Why would anyone who searches in English assume that the price would go down from there? There’s no indication on the initial English search page that web or estrella fares even exist.

Renfe’s English site is the equivalent of going to a supermarket and seeing a pack of gum labeled for sale for $5. If you see the $5 price, you’ll probably just leave it there. Or, you could ask the cashier about the price, and when he doesn’t know why it’s so expensive, he could call over the manager, who would politely explain that you could buy the pack of gum for $1. So, yes, after much time and negotiation, the gum actually costs $1, but why would you go through that trouble?

Renfe’s response shows that they’re content to sell their services with mislabeled prices. Why is this an acceptable business practice, exactly?

The folks from Renfe just won’t give up on denying that their site misrepresents their prices! But they admit their site needs work, and they indicate that a relaunch of the site is coming. If the response to this post is any indicator, that relaunch can’t come soon enough.

This post is already incredibly long, so I share their latest e-mail to me, and my response to it, after the jump. (more…)

Categorized in: rail, travel