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February 06, 2008

Trains and Planes

At 1PM, someone trusted by our driver at the train station in San Rafael, Mexico “knew” that the 1:20PM train to Chihuahua wouldn’t arrive until 2PM. In fact, it didn’t arrive until almost 3PM. No one seemed to know about the full delay since there were both vendors and railroad employees waiting for the train from 2PM on. Such delays are common on the Chepe Express; two days before the train hadn’t run at all.

While we waited on the platform, we had plenty of time to notice that only one wire went from the utility poles on the street to the houses and businesses. There was power but no telephone. On top of the train station there is a mast for radio telephone which some people use. Along the railroad track there are old telegraph wires, but they are apparently no longer in use since they hang to the ground from some poles and make a trellis for vines. The trains spend a lot of time on sidings of the one rail line, waiting for each other to pass.

“Communications problems,” I said with a superior air knowing that Telmex’ effective monopoly has retarded telecommunication development in Mexico.

Almost exactly a day later we were in O’Hare waiting for a flight to Burlington. Half an hour prior to the scheduled 7:05 PM United departure, all the fancy displays at O’Hare said “on time”. When we got to the gate, a big LCD with Burlington weather said there were just two minutes until boarding. Mary has this habit of looking out the window instead of at the electronic screens; “there’s no plane here,” she said. She was right.

“Minutes until boarding” disappeared from the display; I had sort of thought it might go negative.

“The plane is coming from the hanger,” the gate agent announced. “It’s had some maintenance but it’s on its way over now.” She had lots of communication equipment: a landline phone, a computer, two cell phones one of which also had walkie-talkie capabilities, and a PA system to talk to us with.

Half an hour later there was still no plane at the gate. O’Hare’s big but it’s not that big. I was going to question the gate agent more closely but noticed that she was looking out the window the same as I was to see whether anything was parked at the gate. On the LCD, new departure and estimated arrival times were posted every ten minutes – always ten minutes later than the previous post. Once the boarding clock ticked down from fifteen to one again but that didn’t bring any plane. Twice the agent told us that she had been told that the plane had now left the hanger. Once, inexplicably, she’s said it just landed – maybe it flew across O’Hare.

Finally a plane did arrive. We boarded quickly and were assured that we would get a speedy clearance and have a speedy flight because of stronger than usual tail winds. What the pilot didn’t know and couldn’t tell us was that a problem with the evacuation slide indicator lights had been fixed but not yet tested. Not sure I want to go down a slide into Lake Champlain in January but no one asked me. That test (which didn’t involve deploying the slide) took forty minutes. Then we went home.

So, with all the modern communications technology in the world available, United didn’t do any better at telling its passengers when they could expect to depart than the operators of the Chepe Express did. Anyone who flies frequently knows that this isn’t an isolated failure.

Moral is that both Mexico and the US have a lot of modernizing to do if we North Americans are going to compete in a global economy. I know the Chinese railroads had there own problems last week but China is getting better fast at the information technology needed for a huge economy and its infrastructure to function. Trains and planes ought to run on time; the whole economy suffers when they don’t. When they’re late, people need to know. I think we’re buying a lot of gadgets but don’t have the will to put them to good use.

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