Tag Archives: transportation

Far Beyond the Average Train

Shinjuku Station in Tokyo is the busiest railway station in the world. It carries multiple train lines, including the metro and an above ground railroad, and is used by an average of 3.5 million people daily. It has a subterranean shopping mall and street that stretches for miles. It is teeming with people and it seems impossible that chaos would not be pervasive here. But, this is Japan and Japan is super organized and super functional. So it works.

The metro is clean and logical, and once you get the hang of it, you can get from one end of this vast city to the other in no time. All signs use the Japanese and Roman alphabet so you can pretty easily figure it out even if you do not know Japanese. Getting tickets at the automatic kiosk is a piece of cake and there are so many people that seem to work at the metro who can help you that nothing seems impossible to figure out. So you will never feel stranded. Ironically, nobody really speaks English. The culture is kind and forgiving and they are pretty good at sign language.

And then there are the Shinkansen trains. The bullet trains. Faster than any train on the planet – they rule the train world. They are awesome to ride on plus they are frequent and always on time. They travel around 225 mph and transport you across Japan in super elegant fashion. Nobody takes flights inside Japan when it simply makes sense to just take the train. Imagine this…Boston to Washington is currently 8 hours on our Acela trains. But on the Shinkansen it would be 2 hours. It’s extraordinary and perfectly configured. First class has a green cross to mark the carriages. Second class is barely second class and feels like first class in any other country. The doors of the carriages pull into the station precisely in sync with the openings marked on the platform.

The trains stay for maybe a minute and then they are gone. But the next one arrives within four minutes. There are six trains to Tokyo from Kyoto within 24 minutes. There are different types of Shinkansen trains and the faster they are, the more extraordinary the front of the train looks. And guess what? They are building a new one, the Maglev, that should be ready shortly and it travels at speeds over 300 mph. So, Boston to NYC would only take 40 minutes! City center to city center. I had a dream! You can buy weekly train passes (7, 14, 21 day), called the Japan Rail Pass, in either first or ordinary class travel. They have to be bought outside of Japan and it’s a fantastic deal. Traveling by train in Japan is one of the highlights of traveling in Japan. And it’s about to get even better.

The Bento

Imagine the lunch that you bring to work every day. A microwavable pasta sauce, a Lean Cuisine, maybe your own concoction of carrots and hummus, or a granola bar. And then there is bento – Japanese lunch boxes. They are found practically everywhere in vending machines, but most impressively, they are found mostly in train stations where people race for the train and can grab their lunch box to-go. They are beautifully presented in colorful boxes with a perfect depiction of all of the amazing ingredients inside. They are almost too good to eat. Walking through a bento food stand and looking at the various options is almost as thrilling as eating them. There is eel, sushi, sashimi, chicken with rice and seaweed, roe, and noodles. You name it. All perfectly compartmentalized with the perfect sashay of soy sauce and wasabi (real wasabi) with a pair of chopsticks of course. Grab a drink and you have been fully “bento-nized”.

Bento boxes are different wherever you travel. Outside of Tokyo, the bento will represent the local cuisine and ingredients of that city or town. Then there are holiday bentos such as the specially prepared boxes for New Year’s packed with poached tiger prawns, root vegetables, roe, and chestnuts. A bento is an amazing meal. The origin of bento comes from Makunouchi which literally means “between acts”, as they were originally packed for a light meal to be enjoyed between intermissions of lengthy kabuki plays.

Oh, The Airport Woes

If you are going to get stuck at an airport and your flight is going to be endlessly delayed and possibly canceled, one word of advice, pray to God that you are not stuck at LaGuardia Airport.  It sucks.  Watching delays unfold and getting bad updates and then inevitable cancellations are frustrating and bring out the worst in all of us.  Airline staff is not helpful and nobody has a clue.  Usually, they point to a gate complaint line that is a mile long and have you wait there.  If you are really lucky, you get a snack voucher.  As for a hotel, dream on!     

What I never understand is why the airlines do not better prepare their staff for dealing with these situations.  At the airport, I saw queues and queues of people trying to get out and I thought how bad airlines deal with this stuff and yet this is where they should shine.  Stranded passengers, helpless passengers, simply giving soothing words and realistic directions and expectations on how to get out of the mess would be helpful.  It is always a drag to watch this debacle.  It could be so much better.  It’s as if they have no training on what happens when stuff goes wrong.  That’s the only time they have to worry and that’s when they can really overperform.  We know the airline food is bad, the seats are cramped, and the service in general on the plane is very average, so how about excelling at this?  Help passengers who are trying to figure out what to do, concentrate on the pre-boarding service, calm people, assure people, and take a genuine interest in getting people into a good frame of mind.  Maybe they should have yoga attendants at the gates helping passengers breath.  It’s a shame. This is an area where you don’t have to do much.  Just be service-oriented and kind.  Is that too much to ask?



A Quibble over Train Stations

So I travel a lot and I love trains.  They are simply better in Europe than anywhere else –
efficient, convenient, and quick.  Frankly, it would be impossible to get much worse than an Amtrak train or even the so-called high-speed version, the Acela.

But I do have some complaints on European train stations.  Firstly, for all of its glitzy grandeur, how did they invent the terminal at St. Pancras in such a lousy way?  St. Pancras offers all of the familiar shopping mall amenities outside the terminal, but once you get inside and pass through security, you are locked in a tiny little world with one bad coffee shop and a badly stocked newspaper place.  That is it.  While I love the beauty of riding between London and Paris in a superfast train, I just think that they can do a better job of tidying up the stations at the end.  On the other end, the Gare du Nord is one of eurostar Gare du Nord photothe saddest examples of how not to make a great impression on your visit to such an amazing place like Paris.  And it feels seedy, the taxi set up is appalling and you know that someone is specifically out there with a view to ripping you off.  Of course, it happened to me.

This time it was the taxi scam.  You wait in the taxi line, you get to the cab, you jump in the cab, and then you notice that the taxi meter, as you are driving through the streets, has €50 stuck on it.  If you have made that trip before, you look at that €50 suspiciously.  When you ask the cab driver if there is something wrong with his meter, he happens to say, “No monsieur, you are in a premier taxi.”  You ask him what is premier about this taxi as you lined up with everyone else on the regular taxi stand – not a premier taxi stand.  He only restates that you are in a premier taxi.  So more or less, in French, you say, “Listen man, I am not going to pay you €50.  I know the fare is supposed to be €15. But I am most certainly going to call the police.”  The gauntlet is down.  He either stops the cab and kicks you out in the middle of nowhere, or he gets it.  This cab driver got it and delivered us to our hotel.  I gave him €15 and told him I was the Angel of Death.  Bottom line – check the meter when you jump in a cab!

guided sightseeing tours peter jones pietro place

Guided Sightseeing Tours

I live in Boston, I am from London, and I am in the travel business.

I watch the endless flotilla of sightseeing buses in their various forms trundle through the streets and main thoroughfares of all of the major cities.  I actually love the double decker buses in London and the hop on/hop offs that have taken over most of the cities of the world.  They truly serve a vital and useful function.  When people arrive in a city, they need an overview just to get their bearings.  While it is not my cup of tea to get stuck in a traffic jam, I sort of like the views and it’s a lazy way of a getting a history lesson.

Most of the time, guided sightseeing tours are brilliant.

The guides are local and with their peculiar accents and personalities they shine.  They are great communicators, energizers, and perspective givers.  They have their arsenal of anecdotes, their funny stories, and they are often our first impression when we arrive in a major city.  God forbid the poor tour group who gets the unbrilliant guide reciting date after date, detail after detail in the most hopeless way.  These are “the Memorizers” – fear them because they are out there and they will take the wind right out of your enthusiastic sails!

Most importantly, to be able to guide at the highest level, to recite history and communicate it effectively, and to move and change the narrative depending on the ebb and flow of traffic, requires concentration.  A guide should never be the driver of the vehicle.  That would detract from guiding and driving.  The other day there was a tragic accident in Boston with a “Duck Boat.” The “Duck Boats” in Boston are a fun tourist attraction – old amphibious military vehicles restored so that they can drive down the streets of Boston and then on into the Charles River.  It is an incredibly successful concept that has been replicated in other cities where tidal barriers permit.

But there is one problem and it’s a big problem.

The driver, situated about 15 feet above pedestrians on the street, is doing two separate things at the same time; each requiring their own expertise.  Drivers need to have good vision of everything around them, they need to solve short term problems, and they must stay alert to everything on the road and the sidewalks.  In addition, they have to read traffic signs, respond to hazards, and be aware of their spatial significance.  They are essentially driving a tank through narrow and busy streets.

In addition, they are tour guides.  They have to provide commentary, anticipate what they are going to see, and move their commentary around as the traffic changes its pattern.  So how can you do two things at the same time?  Texting and telephoning while driving in most states is forbidden.

Yet these guys drive around with blind spots everywhere, high above pedestrians, bicyclists, and scooter drivers and they are expected to be 100% alert to the changing driving conditions.

It’s impossible.  The tragic accident that happened the other day was proof of this.

What is the city going to do about this?  It looks at the moment like nothing and why….because Boston Duck Tours brings important revenue to the city of Boston.  Shame on you Boston and shame on the Boston Duck Tours.  Add a separate driver to each vehicle; a second set of eyes to help watch for pedestrians and other vehicles on the road.  It cost someone their life the other day and that is too big a price to pay for profit and gain and tourist dollars.

guided sightseeing tours

New York

I love New York.

I love the buzz of the city, I love the subway, the crazy yellow cabs, the skyscrapers, the tiny neighborhoods, and of course the theater.

The other evening I saw two plays back-to-back: Long Day’s Journey Into Night and The Father.  This was two days after I had gone with my daughter to see The Sound of Music. Nuns, nannies and Nazis, all intertwined around a delightful and timeless score. The Nazi bit was a little grim but it’s pretty light with the sing along stuff! So here I was in NYC taking in Long Day’s Journey Into Night, an intense play, three and a half hours long, by playwright Eugene O’Neill. The Father is a French tale by French playwright Florian Zeller and translated by Christopher Hampton who was the one who single handedly transformed a 1782 Choderlos de Laclos novel to make the incredible play Les Liasons Dangereuses.  It’s pretty intense. It’s a study of the tragedy and gradual deterioration associated with dementia and Alzheimer’s. Brought tears to my eyes as I thought about my father too.  And what to do after all of that? Head to a great restaurant of course and that would be Esca, my favorite restaurant in New York on 43rd between 9th and 10th Avenue.

The next day, I grabbed the metro and went down to the Empire State Building and took a stroll from 33rd to 14th street on the High Line, a fantastic community effort along the discarded elevated train tracks. It dropped me off right in the meatpacking area and I got to pop into Soho House for a quick bite and a view from the rooftop pool across the Manhattan skyline. I then took a walk through Central Park, saw the seals in the children’s zoo and thought how amazing to have such green space in between all of this bigness and towering glass structures.  Of course I ran out of time and jumped a yellow cab to La Guardia. I should have taken the Acela, but honestly, at three hours and 50 minutes, it still doesn’t make a lot of sense when you have an urgent appointment back in Boston.

Plea number 100: Open up this Eastern seaboard corridor Mr. President and run fast trains down the line.

The Acela is anything but accelerated! It’s slow and the service on board is dreadful. Why is Amtrak so bad?

High Line Park

High Line Park

Central Park

Central Park

Long Day's Journey Into Night

Long Day’s Journey Into Night

Trains vs. Planes

Trains vs. Planes

A too tight connection at JFK gave me the opportunity to change up my itinerary, grab a cab to Baltimore Grand Central Station, and take the Acela to Penn Station in New York.  I have to say, when you have the opportunity to ride on the train, it is just so much more civilized than flying.  Frighteningly, there is no security, which means you can arrive only 10 minutes (even less!) before the train pulls in.  And the trains are always on time….well nearly!

At Penn Station, I never quite understood how to make the transition out to JFK.  I arrived there and sought out some help.  Fighting the commuter traffic which was rushing between stations and platforms, I managed to connect to the Long Island Rail Road ($10) which sped me out to Jamaica.  At that point, I got off there and took the AirTrain ($5) straight to JFK.  I was at the Delta Terminal in no time at all.  Penn Station to the Delta Terminal was 40 minutes.  No traffic, no hassle, and so I wandered to the Delta Lounge, grabbed a bite, and a beer, and got ready for the nonstop to Barcelona.  Loved that day!

While I was getting ready for my flight, I started thinking about the benefits of nonstop flights.  I have to confess that a nonstop on an overnight journey is optimal.  In other words, if you gave me a chance to fly LA – Rome via London for a chance to get more airline miles on BA, I would say no contest.  I will take the nonstop all the way.  By the way, when can you ever use those miles anyway?  How about practically never unless you don’t work and are totally date flexible.  So taking the nonstop to Barcelona from JFK was a solid winner as opposed to connecting over Madrid out of Washington-Dulles.

Delta has improved dramatically over the two years. They are scoring up there with Jet Blue and Alaskan and have left their other erstwhile competitors in the dust. Wake up American!! The business configuration is better than most, the TV and movie selection is pretty good , and the food and service was fine.  On an overnight flight, I tend to get the food out of the way before I get on the plane.  Once the plane is in the air, I am all about taking some sleeping tablets to grab my five or six hours before we hit the European morning.  I must confess to never having breakfast on an airplane.  I would rather grab the extra hour and a coffee and croissant when I hit land.  Have you ever tasted airline coffee?  It is worse than hotel coffee and that is pretty bad!

Update on Cuba

We have a lot of surge in Cuba for business for 2016 and 2017.  Everyone got hot on Cuba at the same time.  Now, Cuba is turning into a high-demand, little supply destination.  Hotel rooms are sold out months in advance.  With talk of more restrictions being phased out, the 36% increase in American tourists will grow and grow.

But where to?

Here’s a brief update on Cuba:

Over 2 million people traveled to Cuba in the first part of this year alone.  There are about 61,000 hotel rooms in Cuba and many are booked 18 months in advance.  Americans still have to travel under a People-to-People status so it is difficult to sneak in and sneak out for a quick weekend in Havana.  Bottom line is that tour operators are starting to turn people to other destinations which is a drag but understandable given the lack of infrastructure and available bednights.  With places like the Dominican Republic and Costa Rica waiting in the wings, Cuba has better get its act together or there will be plenty of hotel beds and not much demand.
Update on Cuba Pietro Place Peter Jones Update on Cuba Pietro Place Peter Jones

Pietro Place Travel Blog Aqua Taxi Post

Aqua Taxi (The Uber Debate)

Pietro Place Travel Blog Aqua Taxi Post

Aqua Taxi

All of the talk, wherever I go, seems to be whether Uber is ethical.

Let’s rewind and remember that Uber started essentially as a high-end, low-cost limo service with smart drivers and GPS. Imagine, these were the first guys in the taxi service that discovered GPS! Like any brand, it started to take off. There was no cash, no tip, no conversation needed, and less than the price of a taxi, all on an app that was highly reliable and told you exactly when and who was going to show up. They then diversified into Uber X which was a lot less than a taxi but the cars were not as nice. Yet it still had GPS relied on credit cards and no tip.

Then the protests began. The basic premise of the protest was unfair competition, no liability, and safety.

If taxis want to compete with Uber, then they should do so on Uber’s terms. Take my city, Boston. Taxi service here is terrible; they are owned by two or three large companies that simply don’t seem to care. The drivers earn a pittance, the taxis are dirty, there is no way of knowing if your taxi is going to show up and, if you don’t tip, they look at you as if there is no tomorrow. So, who is kidding who here? Uber found a gap in the market place – simple as that.

The other night, I took a water taxi from one end of Boston to the other.  I had this vague fantasy of an Uber vaparetto – imagine that!

New Adventures in Vieux Lyon

Gare de Lyon

My confession is that I had never been to Lyon. Well, at least never inside the city proper. I had passed it in my rental car when I was a young kid on my way down to the south of France. I had overlooked this place, and much to my shame, I had never returned until now.

Paris Gare de Lyon 1 042814

Here I am, heading to the Gare de Lyon, en route to the city of Lyon, via the TGV. The journey time is two hours. This is the gateway to the Alps and to the south of France. The station has a beautiful glass atrium and houses the Train Bleu Restaurant which has been serving good food to train travelers and Parisians for over 100 years. Famous for its central clock, it is one of the busiest stations in Paris, especially during the summer and winter months. The skiers come in the winter, the sun worshippers in the summer, and wine drinkers all year round.

The station was advertising a mini exhibition of Caillebotte and it got me thinking about museums and how many I need to visit. Too many and not enough time. I grabbed a sandwich at Paul, fearing the refreshments that would be served on board, and boarded the upper-deck of the train for a sprint across Burgundy, through Beaujolais and into the Rhone Alps.

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What is unique about Lyon is that it is a city of two rivers – the Rhone and the Saone. It has a fabulous transportation system that uses trolley buses and also has a brand new metro system. It is a hilly city, which keeps you fit, and it was the first city in the world to introduce the city bike concept, the Vélo’V. Paris followed shortly after and since then the proliferation of city bike is everywhere from Berlin to Boston, Washington to Turin, and even the Romans have a city bike system! There are bike lanes everywhere and like Amsterdam, you feel the power of how modern transportation thinking has taken over this city. In addition, there is a delightful funicular much like the one in Montmartre that takes you from the lower town to the upper town in Croix-Rousse.

The old part of the city, Vieux Lyon, is the largest Renaissance center in France. The original Roman remains of the city are not terribly impressive, but the Cathedral of Saint Jean Baptiste and the old, winding streets with Medieval and Renaissance architecture mixed together more than make up for the lack of decent Roman ruins.

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Lyon was the capital of silk and up to 60,000 looms wove fabric destined for the beautiful parlors of Europe. In the area of Croix-Rousse, silk craftsman and weavers moved up onto the high point of the city as a healthier option and essentially created a worker’s cooperative in this area. The silk workers were called Les Canuts.

Because of the terrible conditions that they were subjected to, there were many mini revolts against the establishment. A number of insurrections took place during the 19th century and the Canuts Revolts are a huge part of the history of Lyon. When the Croix-Rousse was incorporated into Lyon in 1852, it became the most important working class city in France. Now a trendy neighborhood, the history of Les Canuts is marked by several museums and is etched in the minds of the people of Lyon.

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In addition, Lyon has a grand reputation for its murals. There are several huge murals called Les Mur des Canuts that decorate a block of buildings in the Croix-Rousse. Fantastic and extraordinary trompe l’oeil paintings that grace what was once a dilapidated wall block. Now they are the most famous murals in the modern world! They truly are larger than any other and are refreshed every 10 years to keep up with the ever changing neighborhood.

Lyon mural 3 042814

Lyon is the home of French gastronomy. Its dishes served in the ubiquitous Bouchons are not for vegetarians or the faint of heart. Gratin d’andouillette (sausage with cheese), quenelles de brochet (fish or meat wrapped in egg and breadcrumbs), lots of brains and cow stomachs, plenty of animal heads, blood sausage, and kidneys stare at you on the menu. Saucissone de Lyon is the game here. This is also home to the world famous Paul Bocuse who has a bunch of chain restaurants and one particularly amazing three star restaurant just outside of the city called Auberge du Pont de Collonges. Book a year in advance!

It is the home of the Lumiere brothers who founded cinematography, one of the largest squares in all of Europe – Place Bellecour, beautiful Renaissance buildings, Medieval walkways, and it is a lively city because of a large university population with a large university population and a great nightlife.

It has easy access to the south of France and to the capital city of Paris. Not to mention, you are one hour away from the Alps and skiing, one hour away from Beaujolais country, and you are in the heart of the great Rhone wine areas like St. Joseph. Currently, they are building a tunnel through the Alps that will make the connect time between Lyon and its Italian twin city Turin only one hour and twenty minutes. Right now it takes around 5 hours. It is a great idea although the neighbors are up in arms. Progress…Oh, well.

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