Iowa Intercity Bus Service

Another pandemic casualty: intercity bus service. The Dubuque – Waterloo – Cedar Rapids – Marshalltown – Ames bus route shown on the 2015 map below is no more. When I called Burlington Trailways yesterday, they told me that this bus route will not be coming back after the pandemic. What a shame.

Not everyone who would like to ride a regional bus has no other transportation option, though that demographic is sizable and certainly needs to be served. Some of us like to ride a bus because we simply don’t want to drive long distances, especially alone. I lived in Ames, Iowa for nearly 30 years, and go back periodically to visit friends and family. I currently live in southwest Wisconsin, and prior to the pandemic, I was able to board a bus in Dubuque at 10:55 a.m. on any day, and would arrive in Ames on the same bus at 5:00 p.m., in time to pick up a rental car at Enterprise before they closed for the day. On the return trip, I could return the car in the morning, after Enterprise opened, board the bus in Ames at 9:45 a.m., and would arrive in Dubuque at 3:30 p.m. It was all very convenient.

Now, your only choice for using public transportation from Dubuque to Ames is the following:

  • Board the bus at Dubuque at 3:50 p.m.
  • Arrive at Davenport at 5:05 p.m.
  • Layover at the Davenport bus station until 6:55 p.m. (1h50m)
  • Transfer to a new bus and leave Davenport at 6:55 p.m.
  • Arrive in Des Moines at 11:10 p.m., with a 20 minutes layover
  • Transfer to a new bus and leave Des Moines at 11:30 p.m.
  • Arrive in Ames at 12:10 a.m. (no rental car companies open at that hour of the night)

The return trip is even worse.

  • Board the bus at Ames at 10:20 p.m.
  • Arrive in Des Moines at 11:05 p.m.
  • Transfer to a new bus at Des Moines
  • Arrive in Chicago at 5:35 a.m.
  • Transfer to a new bus in Chicago
  • Leave Chicago at 6:30 a.m.
  • Arrive in Davenport at 9:55 a.m.
  • Transfer to a new bus at Davenport
  • Leave Davenport at 10:10 a.m.
  • Arrive in Dubuque at 11:25 a.m.

A parenthetical note about this trip. The eastbound bus arrives at the Davenport Flying J’s Travel Shop, 8200 Northwest Boulevard at 1:55 a.m. Instead of going on to Chicago, you could take a 16-minute cab ride the 7 miles to the Burlington Trailways bus station in Davenport at 304 W River Dr. and then wait at the bus station for the 9:55 a.m. bus to arrive that will take you on to Dubuque. Or rent a motel room to sleep for a few hours first.

This is crazy! Who would put up with this unless they were desperate and had no other travel option? Certainly not a good way to build demand for public transportation across a broader demographic, is it?

Public transportation has been underfunded for decades in the United States and it shows. We ought to be ashamed. We really do need a much better bus and passenger rail network, with good intermodal connections.

Sadly, there was not a single news article on the internet that announced or lamented the cancellation of the Burlington Trailways bus route from Dubuque to Ames (and beyond). I guess intercity bus service isn’t deemed newsworthy, as many bus passengers are considered to be second-class citizens at best.

Another sign of the times: neither the bus companies nor anyone else posts bus route timetables on the internet, and even the Amtrak ones are hard to find these days. They all want you to enter your origin and destination on their website, but what if you want a “big picture” timetable for the entire route? You’re usually out of luck.

Amtrak’s Sunset Limited and Las Cruces

Amtrak’s Sunset Limited currently runs just three days a week between New Orleans, LA and Los Angeles, CA. There continues to be a lot of interest in making this a daily train, and I hope that happens soon.

The Sunset Limited stops at 22 cities and towns. These are listed below, with stops having a station building and waiting room shown in bold.

New Orleans, LA
Schriever, LA
New Iberia, LA
Lafayette, LA
Lake Charles, LA

Beaumont, TX
Houston, TX
San Antonio, TX
Del Rio, TX
Sanderson, TX
Alpine, TX
El Paso, TX

Deming, NM
Lordsburg, NM

Benson, AZ
Tucson, AZ
Maricopa, AZ
Yuma, AZ

Palm Springs, CA
Ontario, CA
Pomona, CA
Los Angeles, CA

As you can see, the Sunset Limited makes only two stops in the great state of New Mexico, and both of them are small towns (Deming 14K, Lordsburg 2.4K) without a station building.

Las Cruces, home of New Mexico State University, is by far the largest city in southern New Mexico, with a population of 103K and a metro area of 218K. It is not served by passenger rail.

Currently, if you want to utilize the Sunset Limited from Las Cruces, you need to board a Greyhound bus in Las Cruces at 1:20 a.m., and after you arrive at the Greyhound station in El Paso at 2:30 a.m., you need to take a cab or walk 0.4 miles in the middle of the night to the Amtrak station where you’ll have to wait until 1:22 p.m. to catch the westbound train or 3:10 p.m. to catch the eastbound train. Or later, if the train is not on time.

Returning to Las Cruces from El Paso involves arriving by train westbound at 1:22 p.m. or eastbound at 3:10 p.m., taking a cab or walking the 0.4 miles to the Greyhound station, and then waiting for the 3:25 a.m. bus to Las Cruces, where you will arrive at 4:30 a.m.

How’s that for convenience?

Would it be possible for the Sunset Limited to make a stop at Las Cruces between El Paso and Deming? Yes, but…

In order for the Sunset Limited to make a stop in Las Cruces without building a new rail line, it would have have to leave Union Pacific track and take BNSF track to Las Cruces, then on to Rincon, where it would take Southwestern Railroad track through Hatch and down to Deming where it would rejoin the Union Pacific track, adding 41 miles and some additional time to the trip both eastbound and westbound.

Other option would be to connect Amtrak’s Southwest Chief to the Sunset Limited by adding a new passenger route between Albuquerque and El Paso, with stops in Socorro and Las Cruces along the way. The rail between Albuquerque and Belen is owned by NMRX, and between Belen and El Paso by BNSF. Alternatively, the new passenger route could run entirely on BNSP track if you took the Rail Runner Express from Albuquerque to Belen with the new passenger route running between Belen and El Paso.

Yet another option would be to add a short passenger route like Rail Runner between Las Cruces and El Paso along 42 miles of BNSF track.

The best non-rail option would be to have a dedicated Amtrak thruway bus between Las Cruces and El Paso that would be in sync with the Sunset Limited train schedule and take you directly to and from the Amtrak station in El Paso. (The wonderful Van Galder bus service that runs multiple times per day between Madison, Janesville, South Beloit, Rockford, and Chicago serves as an excellent model as to what can be done by a well-run bus company.)

Finally, a shuttle between Las Cruces and El Paso in sync with the Sunset Limited train schedule could be offered, similar to the RoadRunneR shuttle that runs between Lamy and Santa Fe for the Southwest Chief stop at Lamy.

Retirement Challenges

I retired from my full-time position on May 21, and am now working three hours a day, Monday through Friday, for the same company, 100% remote. It is intense work, but at least it is only 15 hours per week now, and the pay is good.

There are a lot of potential projects that present themselves for an encore career, but I’m finding that I live in the wrong place to do any of them. Some are going to be impossible to do without substantial help from others.

One thing I’ve learned, especially during the pandemic, is that I need to be with people in the work that I do. A 100% remote interaction with others is unsatisfying, and I certainly don’t want to spend the rest of my life doing that.

The project I am most excited about is Mirador Astronomy Village. Nothing like it has ever been done in the United States before.

Mirador would be a residential community that is astronomy-friendly, and the majority of that residential community would be permanent residents (in other words, not vacation homes for the wealthier among us). Mirador would have no dusk-to-dawn lighting, and no one living there will ever have to worry about a neighbor putting up a light that trashes their view of the night sky or shines into their home. Mirador would have a public observatory and provide regular astronomy programs. Mirador would also have private observatories for research, astrophotography, and visual observing.

Ideally, Mirador would be located where it is clear most nights and winters are mild. New Mexico, Arizona, and West Texas immediately come to mind.

The challenges? Mirador is going to need a land donation and a group of people who can take some financial risk to build it without jeopardizing their personal economic stability. Astronomy is such an important part of my life that I am willing to move, even to a remote location, for the opportunity to live in an intentional community of astronomers and astronomy enthusiasts. What I don’t know is whether there are even 20 others in the entire United States who would make the move for such an opportunity. Running a classified ad in Sky & Telescope for a year accomplished nothing other than “great idea, let me know when you get it built.” Well, even though I have passion, knowledge, and leadership skills to make this project a success, I do not have financial resources beyond providing for myself and my family. I can’t personally fund a development.

Many other projects and activities interest me. None of them can I do in Dodgeville, Wisconsin.

  • Provide astronomy programs at a public observatory
  • Volunteer at a classical music radio station, perhaps even hosting my own classical music program, or at least providing recordings and commentary
  • Volunteer for a symphony orchestra
  • Bring the best music of new and neglected classical composers to a wider audience
  • Passenger rail
  • Paved off-road bicycle path
  • Develop a comprehensive outdoor lighting code/ordinance that has support, will get enacted, and will be enforced

One current activity related to classical music is necessarily 100% virtual. Back in April, I created a groups.io discussion group called Classical Music Little-Known Favorites. I posted a note about it to the hundreds of people I am connected to on LinkedIn and Facebook, and that garnered only a single subscriber. Since then, I’ve been working diligently to find interesting and accessible classical music to feature. I am pleased with the results so far, only no one else is posting anything. Still only one subscriber besides myself. There must be at least 20 people in the entire world who have a passion to seek out and champion the best classical music that is not yet commercially available. How do I reach them?

Currently, my astronomical work is focused on stellar occultations by minor planets for IOTA. I spend about 20 hours per week running predictions, recording the events from my backyard observatory, analyzing the data, and reporting the results. My backyard observatory is wholly dedicated to this work. Wherever I end up living, I would like to continue these observations. This adds the complication that I will need access to a dedicated observatory for occultation work—either my own or one that I share with other occultation enthusiasts. That observatory should be within walking distance of where I live.

I would like to live closer to my daughter and her family in Alpine, TX. Even though I would prefer to live somewhere not too far from civilization (thinking quality health care, mostly) with a unpolluted night sky, I am beginning to consider moving to a larger city like Tucson or Las Cruces where I can better pursue my classical music interests in addition to astronomy. Tucson has direct Amtrak access to Alpine (a huge plus), but Las Cruces has no connection to Amtrak. The Sunset Limited needs to come to Las Cruces (between the El Paso and Deming stops), or at least there needs to be a bus that takes you directly to and from the train station in El Paso.

I am concerned about the direction this country is heading, and that is entering into my future plans, too. I am a non-religious progressive who believes that local, state, and federal government should be strong, competent, and efficient. There can be no higher calling than a life dedicated towards public service. I am pro-government, pro-tax, pro-education, pro-science, and anti-gun. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere where Trump got the majority of the vote in 2020. If the current Republican insanity continues (and they have most of the guns), we progressives may be forced to consider forming our own country. Or moving out of this one. Before things get any uglier. Living in an enlightened and compassionate society requires giving up some of your liberty and freedoms for the health and well being of everyone. That’s a given.

Science News

Some people are molded by their admirations, others by their hostilities. – Elizabeth Bowen (1899-1973)

I have many admirations, and one of them is for a bi-weekly magazine called Science News.  My first introduction to this amazing publication was in 1973, when a friend of my recently-divorced mother, Frank Gillotti, started giving me his copies after he was finished reading them.  I was a sophomore at Hoover High School in Des Moines then, and by my senior year I was a subscriber for life.

Science News has been around a long time.  It started way back in 1922 as Science News-Letter, and remained that until 1966, when it became Science News.  Today, Science News has an international circulation of about 94,000—alarmingly, down quite a bit (like most magazines) from its peak circulation of nearly 250,000 in the late 1980s.  Unlike most magazines these days, Science News is not saturated with advertising, but is instead chock-full of well-written, accurate, and timely news and feature articles about all areas of science, technology, and mathematics.  Yes, astronomy and space science are covered thoroughly!  And, with each bi-weekly1 issue numbering 32 pages (though, occasionally 40+), it is easy to find the time to read or at least skim it cover-to-cover every two weeks.

In my early years reading Science News, one writer I particularly admired was senior editor / physics editor Dietrick E. Thomsen, whom I was so fortunate to meet at the AAS Meeting in Ames, Iowa in June 1986.  Sadly, he passed away in 1988.  One thing I remember about him besides his always-excellent articles was his passion for passenger trains, and his growing distaste for air travel at the time (and it has only gotten worse).  At that time, I had never ridden on a passenger train, but nowadays I ride Amtrak regularly, and love it!

Another fantastic writer in those days at Science News was space science editor Jonathan Eberhart (1942-2003) whose brilliant and unconventional career was sidelined by multiple sclerosis by 1991.  The AAS Division for Planetary Sciences (DPS) has awarded the Jonathan Eberhart Planetary Sciences Journalism Award annually since 2009.  J. Kelly Beatty (Sky & Telescope) was the first recipient (in 2009), and Emily Lakdawalla (The Planetary Society) won the 2011 award.

Science News maintains an excellent web site.  One feature I really like is they provide a complete list of sources and references for their magazine articles.

And, Society for Science & the Public (SSP), the nonprofit corporation that produces Science News, also produces an excellent website for readers ages 9-14, Science News for Students.

Check out these wonderful resources regularly, and while you’re at it, don’t forget to subscribe!

1Science News published weekly through April 12, 2008.  Science News began publishing bi-weekly on May 10, 2008.