My first impression of Singapore was formed in late 1987 when I arrived on a Japan Air Lines 747 in an early iteration of Business Class from Tokyo.  I went back to Singapore quite a number of times after that through the nineties and early 2000s on business, but my recent trip was the first in over a decade.  I was curious to see what had changed since my first time there 28 years ago.

Three decades ago Singapore was hailed as a modern miracle of free enterprise, a gleaming jewel of unfettered capitalism, and the rising star of Southeast Asian prosperity.  It was said to have it all: brand new infrastructure, high tech manufacturing, cheap labor and living costs, a happy and productive workforce, absolute safety, virtually no poverty, a happy populace, and an unmatched quality of life.

Riding by taxi into the city from sparkling new Changi Airport to the sparkling new towers of the city center, I was impressed with the cleanliness and orderliness of everything: the spotless new cars (as if they’ve just driven off the showroom floor), the Interstate-like highway, the flawless landscaping.  It all struck me as if the Disney World team of designers had taken a detour to this tiny island nation nearly on the Equator at the south end of the Malay Peninsula for a similar exercise in creating artificial perfection.  Row upon row of high rise flats punctuated by factories and commercial sites lined the road.  And all seen through the high humidity solar prism of the Equatorial environment.  Even peering up at the thousands of majestic palms planted in precision along the roadway made one squint in wonder and awe.

Then I heard a “ting-a-ling, ting-a-ling” bell ringing, a low volume but annoying, persistent noise emanating from the dashboard.  I leaned forward and asked the driver if he spoke English.  “Of course, yes!” came the friendly reply.

“What’s that tingly sound?” I asked, as politely as I could.

“I am speeding,” he said. “Not much [giggle], but in Singapore every car has a bell that rings constantly if you are over the maximum speed limit, even a little.”

I noticed we weren’t going very fast, and though I don’t recall whether the max Singapore speed limit was then as now (90 km/h (56 mph)), our speed was not swift.  Yet the incessant “ting-a-ling, ting-a-ling, ting-a-ling, ting-a-ling” became irritating very fast, and it would not stop. I would soon discover that all taxi drivers had learned to ignore it.

But this was my first ride in a Singapore taxi, and I was curious.  “Why do you speed?” I asked, innocently.

“Oh, kind sir, because we MUST speed in order to make a living driving a taxi!” came the reply.  “The government regulates our speed, yes, but we cannot make money unless we exceed the speed limit in order to make more trips in the day. You see, do you not?”

As an admirer of capitalism and the profit motive, I certainly did see.  But I thought it curious that a government so famous for encouraging free enterprise would install so petty a damper on that courageous bastion of small business everywhere, the taxi driver.

Having started a conversation with my driver, I sought to delve into the matter of government control and asked him about some of the laws I had read about for seemingly minor infractions like jaywalking.  He chuckled again and nodded, saying no native Singaporean jaywalked or chewed gum because they wished to avoid the high fines.

“If you see people crossing streets illegally or chewing gum, then you know right away they are foreigners.” He laughed. “Better not do it!”

He was correct. Over the next few days I noticed stern-faced uniformed police working in pairs out in force stopping Europeans and Americans for such infractions, including for spitting into the gutter and flicking a cigarette butt into the street.

Over lunch the following day, I asked another taxi driver how he liked Singapore (I had invited him to dine with me).  “BORING!” he exclaimed, laughing. “BORING, BORING, BORING!  Same-same every day.  Nothing to do after work.  No fun!”  I asked him if he liked being in Singapore if he was so bored.

“Oh, yes!  Good place to live.  Good place to raise family.  Always food, always money, very safe.  Just boring!”  He laughed again.  I asked him what he did for fun.

“I fly to BANGKOK!” he said, his face beaming. “Many GIRLS and SEX there!  No sex in Singapore!”

“Oh,” I replied, more than a little surprised.  I had not anticipated this line of discussion.

“Then I take bus to Chang Mai to drink SNAKE’S BLOOD!” my driver proclaimed, smiling.  “Snake’s blood good for giving man MUCH SEX!  I drink only COBRA blood for STRONG LOVEMAKING!”

“Really?” This time more meekly, as I noticed several heads turning in our direction in Muthu’s Curry Restaurant, where we were enjoying scrumptious fish head curry served the traditional way with rice on banana leaves.

“Oh, YES!” he said. “Singapore BORING!  Thailand FUN!”

At that instant the words of a wealthy Swiss seatmate on the JAL flight inbound to Changi came back to me.  He’d told me that he lived with his family in Singapore because it was the safest place on earth.  “Safer than Switzerland?” I had asked, eyebrows raised.

“Absolutely,” the Swiss businessman said. “I can let my 12 year old daughter play in the streets of Singapore at night without worrying about her.”

And so it was.  I found Singapore in 1987 to be full of surprises and contradictions.  At the end of my first visit, I had begun to think of the small city-state as a unique example of what I labeled benign fascism, a place safe enough to let small children roam without supervision day or night, but with a good many strictures on personal freedom and a muzzled press (e.g., the hullabaloo of gagging the Wall Street Journal which had criticized the Singaporean government).  Nonetheless, I fell in love with the country, captivated by its unique charms.

So what’s changed all these years later?  Not too much, I was glad to find, among its better attributes.

Singapore is as clean and neat as ever, almost.  I noticed the streets and subways and cabs were not quite as gleaming as they seemed to me to be in 1987.

Singapore was a tremendous bargain in the eighties, with five-star hotels like the Hyatt going for a hundred bucks a night and sometimes cheaper.  Food was inexpensive, too, and Singapore was the place to go then for cheap electronics.  No more.  Hotel rack rates vie with London’s as the highest to be found.  The cost of living in Singapore has caught up with places like it.

Most manufacturing, high tech and otherwise, long ago fled to cheaper labor and lower living cost markets like China and Vietnam.

Changi Airport has undergone unending renewal so that it is mostly as sparkling as my first impression of it nearly 30 years ago.  Everything works at Changi, unlike some modern airports.  I landed at Terminal 1 and rode the airport train to Terminal 3, there to connect to the MRT (subway) train to my hotel in the city.  The MRT was very crowded with Millennial-age Singaporeans of many ethnic backgrounds—a multi-ethnic population being a hallmark of the city—and was very fast.  A young man of Indian ancestry offered me his seat out of respect for my age, a courtesy which surprised me since I don’t often experience that in the USA any more.

The ceaseless energy of the CBD is still very much part of Singapore, and while it’s not as spotless as it once was, I did not see a dingy side of Singapore except at the causeway border crossing to Malaysia, which is as it always was, rather grim and chaotic, about which I wrote in an earlier post here.

Everybody I met, whether public servants, families on the street, merchants, business people, or service personnel, all seemed happy.  Contemporary Singaporeans seem to enjoy their country and lifestyle as much as they seemed to in 1987.

I had to wonder, though, if they had since found a way to have fun in their leisure time that didn’t involve flying to northern Thailand to drink snake’s blood.  I should have asked.

 

 

You may have seen Emilia George’s recent article in the London Telegraph, titled “10 things I’ve learned working as a VIP air stewardess.” It describes what it’s like to travel with the super-duper, richie-rich, tippy-top one percenters.  For us mere mortals, it’s mind-boggling cute and creepy to process it all, as, for instance, an on-board pet monkey dressed in Burberry.  Outrageous! I thought at first.

Coming back to the piece a few days later when the shock had worn off, I began to compare and contrast Ms. George’s ten points to my own business flying on the Skid Row Big Four of United, Southwest, Delta, and American.  Suddenly, it all seemed rather more relevant.

  1. Money is no object

GEORGE: “£1 million dinner service to a $700 bag of salad, money is no object when you can afford your own private jet. Many people treat them as a taxi service. Rather than having to see each other, a divorced couple who had shared custody of their dog would send the pampered pooch back and forth on their plane.”

ME:  While no scheduled airline has yet had the temerity to charge $700 for a measly salad, my wallet seems a lot lighter after each flight; I’m nickel-dimed for everything.  It’s only a matter of time before they charge to use the lavatory.  That will open the door to pay for lav occupancy by the minute like downtown metered parking places.  Point being, it seems like the airlines regard my money as no object even if I do not share that thinking.

  1. The planes are out of this world

GEORGE:  Bespoke jets of the finest quality and with state-of-the-art technology; the more lavish the decoration, the better. Every super-wealthy owner wants to have the most impressive plane around, so personalization is key, with such things as on-board gyms, disco rooms featuring poles for girls to dance on, and even a solid gold throne.

ME:  Some of the planes I fly on sure seem out of this world; that is, they appear to have come from the third world: stained and torn carpet, dingy dividers, broken seats, ripped seatback pockets, faded paint jobs, and outdated logos.  No solid gold thrones on those planes, either; heck, I’d settle for simply a functional aluminum throne in the lavatory rather than an oft-seen “not in service” sign on the door.

  1. It is a challenge

GEORGE: “Resources are limited when you’re 38,000 ft in the air or stuck on a tiny island in the middle of the ocean. When the client requests something special, it’s your responsibility to make it happen, doing tasks that might see you paying a £500 taxi fare just to get a tin of caviar, or desperately trying to source a 200-piece brass band to welcome your client upon arrival.”

ME:  I’m pretty happy if the beverage cart isn’t out of Diet Dr. Pepper by the time it reaches me—or if the cart reaches my row at all.  The closest thing most U.S. carriers have to caviar is a tiny bag of goldfish crackers (both have something to do with fish, I guess).  Once a guy in the seat next to me put his Sousaphone in the overhead locker above us and crushed my suit jacket, constituting my sole contact with a brass band when flying.

  1. You will be propositioned

GEORGE: “Clients seem to think that chartering a private jet gives them an automatic invitation to join the Mile High Club. If you mix powerful businessmen with pretty girls eager to please, then it’s a recipe for…well, you get the picture.  Invitations to intimate dinners, visits to your hotel room, and inappropriate touching are common. A private owner even had his cabin crew dress up in kinky outfits rather than uniforms.”

ME:  Used to be that some flight attendants—then called stewardesses—had the reputation of being available after work hours for cavorting with customers, but I’ve never seen it happen.  With the current tense atmosphere in the age of chronic terrorism, any such intimation might today be answered with a Taser to the neck rather than with a wink and a nod. I’ve been subjected to plenty of inappropriate touching from fellow passengers on both sides when jammed into a center seat, though of a different sort from what the writer meant to describe.  Just the same, I didn’t enjoy it any more than I imagine the writer did.

  1. Plenty of perks

GEORGE: “Staying in some of the world’s most expensive hotels and dining at the finest restaurants are among the perks. As is having all your expenses paid while you’re away. Clients like to show their gratitude, so it’s not unusual to be offered a generous tip.  One crew were given £3,000 each in cash; others have been given Rolex watches and Hermès bags. If you look after someone particularly famous, you might find yourself being invited to party in the VIP section of an exclusive club or being given backstage passes to see your favorite band.”

ME:  My perks when flying commercial tend to be along the lines of not being involuntarily bumped from an overbooked flight and one time grudgingly being allowed to use the first class lav when the aft lavatories had long lines.

  1. Unusual food requests

GEORGE: “Being asked to serve salmon that’s had classical music played to it all its life is not an unreasonable request, apparently. Neither is having your food served at a particular temperature or only eating desserts covered in gold leaf.  But if you think it’s all champagne and caviar, then you’re mistaken. Sometimes having £70,000 worth of food to choose from simply won’t cut it when all you fancy is a McDonald’s and demand the plane land at the nearest airport so one can be delivered to you.”

ME:  I made what was deemed by flight attendants to be a very unusual food request:  Please, PLEASE, I said, serve me ANYTHING to eat!  I was in coach. It prompted some snickering from the cabin crew that I could be such a demanding upstart, and one FA sarcastically asked me if I wanted them to land the plane so I could get a bite.  Does that count?

  1. It’s a waiting game – and can be very wasteful

GEORGE:  “Unlike flying for an airline, there is no set schedule. Often VIP stewardesses can be away for months at a time as clients like to have crew on standby ready to go. On the day of departure, it’s a common occurrence for them to arrive late or even not at all.  However, it’s still necessary to be ready to depart at a moment’s notice, so you can spend days upon days going out to the aircraft, prepping and waiting. This means that everyday you’ll have to order expensive fresh food only to throw it away.”

ME:  My experiences in the waiting game have been the other way around.  Mainly I’ve had to wait for the planes, rather than the planes and crew waiting for me, usually because the flights were delayed, sometimes for hours, and sometimes they never turned up at all.  The silver lining, compared to Ms. George’s experience, is that no food was wasted because (a) the airlines don’t serve much in the way of comestibles any more in coach, and (b) on the rare occasion that a meal is presented, it’s unlikely that any bit of it could remotely be considered “fresh.”

  1. You’ll cover up affairs

GEORGE:  “Sometimes you will see a regular client travelling with a different female companion to which you’re usually expected to turn a blind eye. Other times you’ll be asked to make sure no traces of the other woman are left behind. This entails scouring the aircraft for giveaways and cleaning lipstick off shirt collars.  Some people, however, don’t want the hassle and just bring their wife and lover on the same flight.”

ME:  I’ve had to cover up unsightly messes left by previous occupants in seatback pockets, and I’ve sometimes covered up my ears in desperation trying to avoid listening to foul-mouthed loudmouths blather on.  That’s about it.  No being discreet about others’ indiscretions.

  1. You’ll be treated like a princess (or prince)

GEORGE:  “Not only will you serve royalty, but you’ll be treated the same way, too. Obviously this is dependent on the owner/client, but if you’re lucky you’ll be given your own driver and assistant while you’re away. Designer uniforms are common, and you may even be given a personal credit card or spending money. And you needn’t worry about going hungry as the plane’s chef will create whatever you like.”

ME:  I am familiar with royalty when flying; that is, being royally peeved off with the airline for not being on time, for poor on-board service, for cramped seating, for high fares, and for a host of other shortcomings and aggravations.  One February night I was given “my own” van driver to share with 20-25 other passengers being transported on slippery Interstates at 2:00 AM when snow cancelled a flight ORD to Peoria. The heater didn’t work.  Our chauffeur spoke no English, had never been to Peoria, and had no map. Neither was there an “on-board chef” to quell our hunger.  But I think we were all glad to arrive there alive.

  1. And carry precious cargo

GEORGE:  “People with the luxury to be able to afford a private jet will usually have quite an extravagant nature, so expect them to bring along some rather weird and wonderful ‘hand luggage’.  One lady brought an enormous box full to the brim with Tiffany’s jewels in beautiful bright blue gift boxes. And one man boarded with an extensive collection of guns.   Animals are also a must-have travelling accessory – I’ve seen falcons, playful lion cubs, and even a monkey dressed in Burberry.”

ME:  I certainly identify with and embrace extravagance, though, sadly, luxury is not a component of today’s commercial flying experience in coach.  On the other hand I’ve witnessed plenty of people acting like apes on airplanes, though none at all decked out in splendid Burberry garb.  More’s the pity.  An uncouth actor is made slightly more tolerable if at least draped in fine garments.

On reflection I’ve decided that next time I get an itch to fly some place, instead of scrimping and saving for months to suffer in a lousy sardine class center seat to Barcelona, I’ll hitch a ride with that pampered pooch ping-ponging back and forth between its divorced masters. All alone on a private jet, the miserable mutt must want company. Who knows? Maybe Fido flies with a solid gold pooper scooper.

 

Business class overseas flying in 2016 is improving, especially on foreign carriers like the Gulfies (Etihad, Qatar, and Emirates) and the perennially successful strivers like Cathay Pacific.  I’ve written about those cabins here and elsewhere.  In a range of airport experiences across the globe this year, though, the biggest improvements I’ve seen are in the sweet life to be had in some of the many international airport lounges.

Setting aside for the moment the Gulf airlines and their unique home airport lounge offerings, I found the Cathay Pacific lounge in the Bangkok airport to be, well, exquisite as soon as I crossed the threshold: tasteful indirect lighting, calming wood paneling, craftsman furnishings, and fine carpet in muted earth colors. All taken together the place confidently whispered “class” in ways the narrow confines of an aluminum tube of a flying machine can never achieve. An aura of reverent library-quiet hung over the space; no television blared to break the spell.  I was grateful, as I prefer noiseless places of refuge.

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The classiest lounge: Cathay Pacific First/Business Class Lounge in Bangkok

The breakfast buffet was a beautifully arrayed selection of perfectly ripe fresh fruit and freshly baked breads and cakes.  Somehow the croissants tasted as buttery and flaky as from the finest Parisian bakery.  Every food item was near perfection, and that never happens at airports.

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Breakfast buffet in Cathay lounge, Bangkok airport

The lounge never felt crowded, either, though many customers were using it when I was there.  I kept thinking of all the fine airport lounges that offer everything but a sense of privacy, yet somehow this one did. I long to experience another lounge which can compare to the elemental combination of ease in the Cathay Pacific lounge at BKK.

The seven CX lounges in Hong Kong (two First Class and five Business Class, including an arrivals salon) are reputed to be equally superior, though time did not permit a taste of any during three recent jaunts through HKG Airport.  I did, however, sample one of the three Priority Pass lounges at Hong Kong (Plaza Premium Lounge, Terminal 1, East Hall).  The facility was spacious and well-maintained, with pleasing interior irregularities to make the room feel less boxy.  It lacked the feeling of complete privacy mentioned above, but was quite comfortable, with good food and beverage on offer.  Altogether, not perfect, but provided a quiet place to recharge.

Not so the threadbare British Airways dump of a lounge at JFK, which Cathay premium cabin passengers use while waiting for their departures.  Thus has it always been since the end of Concorde.  I recall the tremendous pride BA took in their JFK lounges in previous decades.  Nowadays, the place is a scuffed wreck of bad furniture, worn carpets, and over-crowding.  I had trouble finding a place to sit.  The food and drink were mediocre, and the zombie staff halfheartedly went through their paces.  I could hardly wait to leave.  BA has no shame.

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The shoddy BA lounge at JFK looks and feels like a school cafeteria

Delta is gradually revamping its SkyClub lounges, and I was lucky enough to visit the one at San Francisco International not long ago right after it reopened.  Soon after, I visited another refurbished DL lounge at Detroit while waiting for my overseas flight one afternoon.  Both facilities now reflect a refined taste in look and feel, with the elusive sense of quiet I referred to above.  While the Cathay lounge designs are traditional, the new Delta look is modern, with a white motif contrasting with bright colors and lots of light.  Yet the divergent designs each achieve that quality of serenity.

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The beautiful new Delta SkyClub lounge at SFO

Back to the Delta lounges, despite its good atmosphere, the Detroit club filled up quickly and began to feel claustrophobic, whereas the SFO club never gave off that vibe, even when crowded. The SkyClubs at DTW and SFO also offer improved buffets of comestibles, with an emphasis on fresh and healthy choices.  I look forward to enjoying more SkyClub experiences as the re-dos are completed.

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Another view of the Delta SkyClub SFO lounge

KLM’s big lounge in Amsterdam is airy and full of light reflecting off a Scandinavian look and feel.  The openness and sprawling nature of the huge space, together with giant colorful murals of KLM 747s and Dutch tulips, make it memorable.  It lacks the intimacy of the Cathay lounge at Bangkok, but manages to elicit a sense of delight in its friendliness, conviviality, and community.  The food offerings at breakfast time were fresh and delicious, if nothing special, and I left feeling satisfied and happy.

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KLM Business Class lounge at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport

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KLM Amsterdam airport lounge boasts wide open space

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Always a place to find peace & quiet at KLM Amsterdam airport lounge

 

Flying out of Johannesburg on Virgin in Upper Class to LHR, I was surprised that the airline had its own Virgin Clubhouse lounge at such an outlying airport in its vast network.  Perhaps because it was so unexpected, I was elated to roam the interesting, light-filled space and enjoy its youthful modernity and happy staff.  The emphasis on having fun permeates the mood of the place, reflected especially in its innovative drink offerings.  No staid G&Ts, please, at Virgin, just like on board its airplanes.

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Virgin Atlantic’s intimate, richly appointed Clubhouse lounge at Johannesburg airport

The real shocker came, though, when I sat down to order dinner.  The menu was that of a fine restaurant, and I chose the ostrich steak, which seemed appropriate for Africa.

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The fabulous ostrich steak dinner prepared for me at Virgin’s Clubhouse lounge in Joburg

With the meal I enjoyed a glass of superb South African Stellenbosch Shiraz red.  The ostrich steak was divine, cooked to tender, medium-rare perfection, served with polenta sticks, salad, and accompanied by a delectable mint peri-peri sauce. The starter was a delicious minted split pea soup with crème fraiche, and for dessert a bowl of creamy vanilla ice cream. A memorable meal, especially since it’s surprisingly ginned up in an airline lounge.

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The bar area in the elegant Virgin Clubhouse lounge at Johannesburg airport

I was frankly amazed at what Virgin has done with the space. It’s not huge, but the Johannesburg Clubhouse is elegant, quiet, and private, and in a word, classy.  Back in the 1990s I was flying down there on business pretty regularly, often using South African Airways in First Class. That rated me as a guest in the vaunted SAA First Class Lounge there at Johannesburg Airport.

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Work area of Virgin Clubhouse in Joburg

I have to admit that the small Virgin Atlantic lounge is better than SAA. Virgin is a bit player in the Joburg market (locals there now write it as simply Joburg, leaving out the apostrophe), and yet it is a top class facility.

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The quiet area upstairs in the Virgin Clubhouse lounge, Joburg

By contrast I did not much enjoy the humongous Virgin Clubhouse lounge at Heathrow.  It was garish by comparison, over-crowded (think: Grand Central Terminal a rush hour), understaffed, a bit unkempt because staff was not keeping up with the massive flow of users, and the food offerings were ordinary and not often replenished.  I took a shower, and even for that I had to wait a half hour.  But I was grateful to get cleaned up before I left the lounge early, deciding the gate was a less hectic place to wait than the lounge.  The best thing I can say about the LHR Clubhouse is that it’s better than the BA lounge at JFK.

Priority Pass airport lounges vary tremendously, so I wasn’t surprised by the small facility in Colombo, Sri Lanka.  I didn’t expect much and didn’t get much, but it was adequately comfortable, reasonably quiet, and, importantly, had a shower.  Called the Lotus First Class Lounge at Colombo Bandaranaike Intl (Departures Terminal), it was easy to find and convenient to the gate.  Okay, not the sweet life of Gulf airline clubs and lounges, but it was a welcome oasis after a long day on the steamy streets of Colombo.

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Modest but comfortable Priority Club lounge, Colombo, Sir Lanka airport

Dubai has seven Priority Pass lounges to choose from, all but one a dedicated club facility.  The Priority Club “Lounge at B” is unique in being part of a tapas bar and restaurant.  Located near gate B26, the Cadiz Tapas Bar (“Lounge at B”) sits above the main concourse and is agreeably private and quiet.  The food is excellent (eat what you please), and the seating along the outside glass balcony is comfortable and gives a sense of exclusivity.  The club even has several massage chairs.  I spent four happy hours in the lounge reading, working, and napping because of a long connection time returning home through Dubai in the middle of the night.

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The terrace above the concourse at Priority Club’s “Lounge at B” at Dubai airport

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Priority Club “Lounge at B” at Dubai airport

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View from the terrace of Priority Club “Lounge at B” at Dubai airport

The humongous new airport in Doha, Qatar was predictably astonishing in its oil-wealth-fueled flash and sweep, but jaw-dropping even when expected.  The Qatar Business Class Lounge, sited up above the madding crowd of the vast concourse, left me even more agog.  The space is far larger than many entire airports, and with many different environments to try out: a unique comfort and feel for every taste and personality, and each one as expansive as most airport lounges.

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Qatar’s Business Class lounge in Doha

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The enormous water feature as big as a farm pond at Qatar business lounge in Doha airport

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Looking down the length of one side of Qatar’s business lounge in Doha

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Looking the other direction to the 2nd level restaurant in Qatar’s business lounge, Doha

The Qatar Business Class lounge (there is a separate First Class lounge which must be heaven itself) is difficult to describe because I’ve never seen anything like it.  It took me awhile to comprehend it.  Food and drink are everywhere with something nice for every palate. The place is so enormous that I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the weather at each end is different.  Set in the ceiling atop the concourse, the lounge itself has a second level above the main floor, with a large dining room up above.

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One of many places to rest in peace & quiet in Qatar’s business lounge, Doha airport

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A closer look at the 2nd level restaurant in Qatar’s business lounge, Doha airport

Some of the spaces are frenetic, but there are so many environments to choose from that finding peace and quiet is easy.  I salute the designers for incorporating so many diverse options.  The airline takes care and pride to see every nook and cranny is spick and span, too.

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Yet another private area within Qatar’s business lounge, Doha airport

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Another area within the gigantic Qatar business lounge, Doha airport

Qatar lounges in Philadelphia and Kilimanjaro (Tanzania) were modest and mediocre by comparison, shared facilities to placate the business class traveler. Unexceptional as those lounges may be, it wasn’t lost on me that I had sweet sanctuary even in far-off places like Philly and East Africa.

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Modest but adequate Qatar business lounge at the Philadelphia airport

Such lounges as these I’ve mentioned significantly cushion life on the international road.  When traveling overseas, I seek to relieve the inevitable stress and pain that comes from flying.  Contemporary airport lounges are important bookends in that overall flying experience.  We are lucky to enjoy the current abundance of lounge choices.

As a well-traveled friend and I were discussing my recent resort experience in The Maldives, he observed: Most paradises are phony , including, when you think about it, Eden itself. There’s always a poisoned apple somewhere to ruin things.”

He got me thinking.  Probably right, but I was surprised to find The Maldives—not a place I’d ever yearned to visit—exceptionally wonderful and fulfilling as a tropical paradise.  My wife had expressed a desire to stop there en route to Sri Lanka, and the four days we spent at the Centara Ras Fushi Maldives Resort & Spa (Thai-owned) were close to perfection.  Neither of us wanted to leave when the time came.

Okay, it’s true that I can’t recall a “tropical paradise” that I didn’t enjoy, and I’ve been to many: Hawai’i, Fiji, Tahiti (Moorea), Trinidad/Tobago, St. Thomas, St. John, Barbados, Puerto Rico, Belize, Grand Cayman, Costa Rico, Isla Mujeres (Cancun), several Thai islands, several Philippine archipelago islands, Mauritius, Bali, Vietnamese islands, and others..

Some were more interesting than others, but all had that elusive tropical island feel—you know that white sand like fine sugar, blazing sun, sparkling blue water, coral reef, palm tree allure—which makes me want to believe the fantasy is real.  I guess we all feel that way to some extent.  Even the popular TV series, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., repeatedly uses the trope “Tahiti” to refer to a calming psychic diversion in the mind of the main character.

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View from our villa at Centara Ras Fushi Maildives Resort

I never took much to resort life, though one endures it to experience certain parts of the world.  Being a veteran, therefore, I figured the Maldivian resort would be okay but boring.  I set my expectations accordingly and took plenty of books to read.

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We chose not to book an over-water bungalow

It’s always great to find things are better than imagined.  We could have booked an over-water bungalow, but having done that on Moorea in Tahiti, we instead chose a regular seaside room with no frills.  We paid for the room and half board (breakfast and dinner, which included three hours of unlimited cocktails) and got a nice upgraded room with a Jacuzzi and gorgeous sunset view, surrounded by palms, frangipani, bougainvillea, and hibiscus with a fresh breeze blowing off the reef.

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Our villa

The tiny islet on which the resort sits can be circumnavigated on foot in about 20 minutes.  The resort is the only thing on the little island.  It is surrounded by a coral reef which is perfect for snorkeling or diving. We spent hours every morning and afternoon exploring the reef on several sides of the island.

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Frangipani

Where are The Maldives?  It’s a common question in the USA.  The Maldives are 1190 islands and atolls spread across a wide swath of the northwestern quadrant of the Indian Ocean.  Low-lying, with the highest point a mere 7 feet above sea level, the archipelago is especially vulnerable to tsunamis and rising sea levels.  An NPR story some time back reported that that the Maldives will no longer exist in 20-25 years if global warming continues to raise sea levels at the rate they were at that time.

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The 1190 islands of The Maldives from space

The usual drill for tourists to The Maldives is to arrive Malé airport and immediately leave via speedboat or seaplane for whatever resort was booked. Most of the fancy places, of which there are scores and scores, are sited on their own private atolls with no other human habitation.

Thus one lives in a resort bubble of unreality when in The Maldives. Firsthand interactions with everyday events and people there are not possible because no everyday Maldivian life coexists on the resort islets.

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View of the reef from te over-water bar

But there is a more imminent risk than tsunamis percolating. German media recently had a lengthy story about ISIS and The Maldives. Apparently per capita world-wide The Maldives have provided more fighters to ISIS than any other country.

There was even a picture of a demonstration in Malé recently where ISIS flags were carried and prominently displayed. The current Maldivian president takes the attitude that boys will be boys.

The report makes me wonder when the first ISIS kidnapping of Japanese, Chinese, Sunni Arab, or Western tourists will occur there in the dead of night when a boat of zealots from Malé lands on one of the posh island resorts like the one we were on. There are unlimited targets to choose from, none with the slightest means of defense. That would be the death knell for the Maldivian tourist industry.

Oddly, though, because the resorts are so isolated, tourists are not likely to learn of such problems while there. Such is the sharp, and ever sharper, division these days between the haves and the have-nots, a worldwide trend. Which is one reason I never cottoned to resort life anywhere.

Nonetheless, my wife and I enjoyed the bubble, which had its own unique adventures. For instance, we were warned that the many Titan Triggerfish in the reef waters can be aggressive to snorkelers, but I didn’t think they’d bite like a vicious dog. I’ve been snorkeling and diving for 45 years without ever having been attacked by any marine animal. Though I stay clear of sea snakes, box jellyfish, and Portuguese man o’ war, I’ve swum with stonefish, lionfish, big sharks, big rays, moray eels, and barracuda without incident.

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Beware the nesting Titan Trigerfish

My friendly encounters with marine life ended when I was attacked and bitten on my right calf by a large Titan Triggerfish on the resort island’s reef. The teeth marks were impressive, and there was a lot of swelling around the bite.

Too late I read up on the Titan Triggerfish, a species that grows to 30 inches and has a reputation for going after swimmers and divers. The one that got me was darned big and colored very bright yellow with blue and black highlights.  There were several other big ones in the area, too. I was surprised at the sheer size of the fish, let alone its aggressiveness. Needless to say, we didn’t return to that area of the reef.

Despite the deep bite marks and heavy swelling, I partied on, though literally limped from the big bump.  The local dive shop manager described me as incredibly lucky though “looking like Mike Tyson punched your leg.”

It didn’t keep me out of the water. On subsequent snorkels we found a lobster and saw quite a few sharks. Also got into a big school of what appeared to be silver jacks. Very impressive swimming in the center of hundreds of fish, each twice the size of my hand. Saw a different type of triggerfish, too, iridescent blue and quite curious without being aggressive.

We located several large coral heads directly off our beach at about the 30 ft mark. The coral seacliff was sheer, and the water beyond quickly turned a deep blue and then inky black in the abrupt abyss. Hovering over the edge between the lively coral with its hundreds of species of marine animals and the emptiness of the majestic deep blue sea was awesome, the snorkeling experience I hoped for.  By itself, being there made the trip to The Maldives worth it.

We snorkeled out to the edge of that far abyss one last time early the final morning. The fish population on the coral ledge at the drop-off was again astonishing, some of the best I’ve ever seen anywhere, save the Great Barrier Reef 35 miles offshore Port Douglas, Queensland, Australia.

We encountered fierce currents and thermoclines at the edge, to be expected. Water column clarity was near crystal. We were careful to stay at the edge and not to venture beyond.

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So the fly in the ointment for The Maldives, aside from being remote and in danger of being swamped, may be socio-religious upheaval.  If so, it would upend a huge money-making machine.

Before we departed, for example, we counted roughly 70 over-water bungalows and 30 villas on the sand, including ours, at the Centara Ras Fushi Maldives Resort alone. Figure $500 per night for the landslide units and $700-900 per night for the over-water units. Conservatively, that comes to a gross revenue just for that resort of more than $26 million per annum.

Of course that’s gross, and that place (and all the rest like it among the other 1189 islands) have got to be expensive to maintain, though labor is cheap. Every last item is imported at great expense. There is a hefty tax burden passed along to tourists, too. Still, the margins must be pretty good, and that income stream certainly ought to be protected by the government.

That said, I think of what happened in Egypt. The tourism industry there has been decimated by extremists. Is it a real possibility in The Maldives?  Who knows?  But the prospect certainly seems to put that particular paradise on risky footing.  A false paradise, oh yes, just as they all are when check-out time comes.  Maybe also a temporary one.

Everybody knows the first three words of literary genius Alexander Pope’s famous rhyme, “Hope springs eternal” from his work, An Essay on Man.  I never thought the great man’s poem would pop into my brain while I was trolling for a Delta SkyMiles award ticket, but it did.

The now-hackneyed phrase is often used out of context of the second verse, which goes like this:

Hope springs eternal in the human breast;

Man never is, but always to be blessed.

Those three words of the lead stanza of Pope’s ditty, written 1732-34, were skimmed off and became a proverb almost at once.  The entire work goes much deeper. Hardly as superficial as the single phrase “Hope springs eternal,” An Essay on Man has been interpreted as man affirming faith in his deity.

In the sharp words of the second verse, Pope is scolding mankind for not appreciating what we are already blessed with (“Man never is”), instead forever pining to be blessed with whatever it is we hope for.

Pope’s humbling second stanza words came to mind, oddly, this week when I searched for a Delta SkyMiles award ticket from Raleigh to New Orleans in November over four days to visit an old friend who is about to buy the farm (her way of describing dying from cancer).  Not much hope sprang from my breast as I began fishing at the Delta website, especially because I was using my sister’s gift of all the miles in her SkyMiles account. It was a meager 23,000 miles.

With so few miles to work with, I had reason to lack hope and assume the worst, that is, no way could I find an award ticket to the Crescent City. Delta has, after all, slashed the value of frequent flyer miles and jettisoned its award charts from public view.  Though I appreciated my sister’s generous gesture, I didn’t begin looking with much confidence.

Contrary to all my assumptions, however, plenty of SkyMiles award travel itineraries RDU/MSY were showing for the week I needed for just 19,000 miles roundtrip, plus $11.20 in taxes.  I was able to book the exact dates and nearly the exact times that I preferred. Frankly, I was shocked.

Another revelation awaited when I chose my seats—all in main cabin because this was the cheapest award travel mileage ticket on the route:  Delta’s upgrade robot had automatically upgraded me to Comfort+.  The bot even got all but one of the four seat assignments correct (aisle in the bulkhead row).

Delta’s IT department seems to have been busy improving their auto-upgrade systems to account for customer preferences.  Or maybe I just got lucky with the seats.  The main point is that I was upgraded to Comfort+ on the least allowable mileage award for main cabin travel.  (Delta’s system even asked me if I wanted to be placed on the first class upgrade queue, though I am not holding my breath on that one.)

The ease with which I was able to book the travel I needed with such paltry mileage got me curious, so I started testing other city-pairs, such as RDU/SEA.  The least miles for an award ticket to Seattle was 23,000, and a goodly number of award itineraries came up in my searches across a spectrum of dates.

Astonishing, I thought, which brought Mr. Pope’s poem to mind, that is, the second stanza about how we all hope to be blessed while never appreciating that we already are.  I’ve groused about Delta’s diminution of its SkyMiles program and its high-handed disappearing act with the award charts because, by all appearances, it was a big fat devaluation, pure and simple.  It was that, and we all know it.

Nonetheless, I admit that my assumption about their program overhaul being all bad was wrong.  SkyMiles is definitely not transparent any more on the macro scale that it used to be.  However, individual city-pair searches can reveal reasonable mileage award value, depending, I am sure, on dates.  For instance, I didn’t check, but I doubt I’d find any 23,000 mile round trip itineraries RDU/SEA on offer around Thanksgiving.

For 19,000 miles round trip on my first try, I’ll take it, and, yes, I feel blessed that the renovated system worked for me…this time.

Only this time?  Well, perhaps I am not yet ready to affirm my faith in the SkyMiles gods. I guess Pope was right after all, because I already find myself hoping rather than trusting that SkyMiles will work for me the next time I need to book award travel.

“You never know what worse luck your bad luck has saved you from.” ― Cormac McCarthy, No Country For Old Men

“I’m a greater believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it” ― Thomas Jefferson

“The sun doesn’t shine up the same dog’s a– every day.” ― Old Southern aphorism, to which the common retort in the South is “Amen, brother!”

Luck, chance, Providence. Whatever, luck was with me most of last week when I flew Delta RDU to Milwaukee and back.  Things didn’t look good at first, but improved dramatically as my itinerary unfolded, culminating in the last leg kissing the tarmac at Raleigh before Delta’s big systems crash Sunday night. Looking back, all three quotes above were proven correct.  Luck was with me, and I am sure glad I don’t have to fly on Delta this week.

My journey began midweek with a 5:00 AM flight to Atlanta, requiring a strident and unwelcome 3:15 AM alarm.  I’d been working until almost midnight, so I was cranky as I drove to RDU and navigated the airport’s new highfalutin tiered parking—tiered pricing, that is, depending on the “convenience” of the area in the garage.  I was sorry to see Raleigh’s airport, once focused on its users, put on airs to justify raising daily parking prices again. Thinking about it, the bile rose in my throat as I found a spot and locked the vehicle.

RDU’s TSA Pre line at 3:55 AM was a breeze.  These days so many people are Pre members that the queue gets long during the day, and sometimes I duck under the rope to the regular line if it’s significantly shorter.  Last week, though, I was through security in less than five minutes.

The SkyClub at Raleigh opens at 4:15 AM, but with a five o’clock flight, what’s the point?  I skipped it and went right to the gate.

There, Lady Luck smiled on me the first time with a First Class upgrade.  Since my flying fell off a few years ago, I now have to depend on my Lifetime Platinum status for sharp end access on Delta. Even after logging over five million Delta SkyMiles, upgrades have become rare. Tired and sleepy, I particularly savored this one, and I relaxed.

After boarding and ordering a Bloody Mary as a soporific, I mused foolishly on how big the MD-88 seemed compared to the ever-present CRJs used on many flights these days.

And I am ashamed to admit that I became pettily irritated that no limes had been catered for my Bloody Mary.  The First Class FA told me “Delta doesn’t provide limes at ‘out stations’ like RDU” despite my insistence that Delta has provided limes at RDU since 1960. He claimed they never did and didn’t believe me.  Maybe it was his calling Raleigh/Durham an “out station” as if my home airport was an uneven mud field in Papua New Guinea that got under my skin.

Sipping my Bloody Mary and stupidly pouting that it was naked without a proper lime, I pondered another triviality; that is, how much I dislike the common practice now of most airlines, including Delta, of closing every window shade at gates “to save energy” (translation: saves the airline money from not having to cool the plane at gates).  Most passengers do not open the shades, and most FAs do not enforce the FAA rule that window shades must be open for takeoff and landing.  Thus more and more flights are made blind with most shades down. I have always enjoyed looking out the windows as we fly.  Even after all these years flying amazes me.  Why, I wondered, have people become so jaded?

I shouldn’t have dropped my guard so early.  Business flyers stay fully armored with shields up until deplaning at destination because, of course, with the airlines, anything can and does happen. I could see from my perch in seat 1C right into the cockpit.  Well before the boarding process was completed, I knew we had a problem. Maintenance guys were scurrying in and out, conferring in not-so-hushed tones with the captain.  He and the first officer soon announced some unknown electrical malfunction was going to delay us, but he didn’t yet know for how long.

Bad luck had followed good luck, and the vodka began to burn in my throat as I cataloged my options if I missed my connection in ATL.  A quick check on Kayak, FlightAware, FlightStats, and Delta.com wasn’t promising.  Flights throughout the day to Milwaukee were full.  My silly, petty thoughts of a few minutes before were replaced with a mental menu of decisions to pursue to get me where I needed to be. I began to make calls to Delta’s Elite line and to punch the tiny virtual keyboard on my Samsung with my fat fingers.

So, I thought, as I worked the possibilities to beat the system, I got up at 3:17 AM for this stress?  Sitting in First Class on a flight that doesn’t make its connection is only marginally better than hunched down in the center seat of the last row of economy by the lav.

We pushed back from the gate an hour late, and by then, following Thomas Jefferson’s advice that one’s luck improves with hard work, I had backup itineraries in place if I missed my connection.  However, my luck turned again: I made my flight in Atlanta, if barely. I high-tailed it to the connecting gate, miraculously on the same B concourse, and there found another happy surprise: a second First Class upgrade.  My luck had improved once more.

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Delta’s B Concourse in Atlanta

The connecting flight arrived Milwaukee on time, and the return flights MKE to Raleigh connected through Detroit with some touch-and-go issues, but no trip-shredding delays. Delta’s big systems crash, which soon after shut down the entire airline’s operations worldwide, gave Cormac McCarthy’s quote new resonance for me: “You never know what worse luck your bad luck has saved you from.” If I had been forced by the first delay to travel the following day instead, and to return a day later, I might have been among the hordes of Delta passengers stranded.

Regarding that disaster, from which the airline has yet (as of this writing) to fully recover, here’s a video Delta posted on its website of CEO Ed Bastian.  This was a calamitous disruption, yet Mr. Bastian’s statement struck me as ambivalent more than as conciliatory, certainly not the customer-focused message it might have been:

http://news.delta.com/ceo-apologizes-customers-flight-schedule-recovery-continues

Hope your luck holds!

Anatomy of a 1935 railroad timetable

The author Rex Stout, creator of the peerless private detective duo of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, wrote his masterpiece “The League of Frightened Men” in 1935.  In the tale his character Nero Wolfe, a denizen of Manhattan, admonishes a client that “You had better run, or you’ll miss your train.”  Stout then has Wolfe add this stern observation on the subject of possibly missing one’s train:

“It occurs to me that no publication either before or since the invention of printing, no theological treatise and no political or scientific creed, has ever been as narrowly dogmatic or as offensively arbitrary in its prejudices as a railway timetable.”

It’s no wonder that even the brilliant and successful Rex Stout harbored such a cold, unsympathetic feeling for railroad timetables in the first half of the twentieth century. The option for on-demand, inter-city mobility by private automobile didn’t yet widely exist. Everyone perforce traveled by train, and thus all rail passengers were in thrall to the services defined in timetables. Travelers marched inexorably to the beat of the timetable. Another character in the same Rex Stout novel alludes to this 1935 reality when he quips that an article should be written on the subject called “The Tyranny of the Wheel.”

The need for predictable, reliable railroad scheduling and safe, dependable operation, after all, was the impetus for the establishment of standard timekeeping and time zones across the country in the post-Civil War 19th century.  Too, the rhythm of departures was driven by the need to optimize the carrying capacity of the rail corridors on which trains moved; the station-by-station schedules published in timetables were the formal documentation of that carefully analyzed operational pulse.  Every public timetable was correlated to the internal company timetable over the same route.

The same capacity optimization need exists today in a mostly freight train era. Every railroad operates according to its TSP, or Transportation Service Plan, which is just as carefully planned to match the capacity of the rail networks with the timing of freight trains—and the occasional Amtrak train—on the corridors.

Thus, in the late 19th century and first half of the 20th century when passenger trains defined the way people moved, timetables were a necessity for efficient railroad operation in addition to being a convenient marketing and informational tool for the traveling public to know what trains went where and when.

Over time, the public railroad timetable became much more than mere schedules. The ubiquitous timetable evolved into a uniquely American art form, chockablock full of fares, accommodation descriptions, each train’s consist of cars, travel advertisements, diner menus and prices, and various admonishments, with fine print, footnoted arcana detailing station stop rules and conditions.  It’s a cornucopia of information specifying how we traveled.

Beginning right after World War I and through the Roaring Twenties and 1930s Depression Era, timetable covers were often printed in two or more colors, the better to attract the public’s attention by differentiating each rail company’s identity more sharply.  This trend included the establishment and marketing of distinctive railroad logos and slogans which became familiar to the traveling public, such as the Great Northern Railroad mountain goat, the Pennsylvania Railroad keystone, and the New York Central’s “Water Level Route.”

It was a marvelous time in American and rail history, and the public timetables documented that era for eternity equally as much as Egyptian pyramid hieroglyphs did that ancient period of human history.  I will explore and highlight some of the stories embedded in public railroad timetables in words and pictures through intermittent posts like this one to allenontravel.

I’ve chosen to start with a cursory look at the Great Northern system timetable for the summer of 1935 because it was in use contemporaneously with the publication in August of that year of the Rex Stout novel I quoted from above, “The League of Frightened Men.”  The term “system timetable” means the thick booklet lists every passenger train operated throughout the entire GN network, which in 1935 covered many routes and trains between the Pacific Northwest and Chicago (reached via close-tied Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad).

The cover grabs one’s attention right away in its bold red and black, GN goat logo, and a reminder that Great Northern is the “Route of the EMPIRE BUILDER” which is “Completely Air-Conditioned” to guarantee hot weather comfort aboard.  At the bottom of the front page in drop-out white lettering against a black background is the simple statement “GLACIER NATIONAL PARK” to emphasize the spectacular natural beauty of the American West through which its trains passed.

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Inside the fold a full page, two-color advertisement was devoted to describing the luxe and excitement of traveling on the Empire Builder, the GN’s premier train between Chicago, the Twin Cities, and the Pacific Northwest, taking note of piercing the Glacier Park, and including a God’s eye photo looking down on happy, well-dressed families with kids reveling in the comfort of the Builder’s “Luxury Coaches.”

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Note the careful itemization of decision points important to discriminating would-be summer, 1935 travelers: low rail (coach) and sleeping car (Pullman) fares—lower than before (it was the middle of the Depression, after all); lower dining car prices; the comfort of A/C (a luxury in the 1930s); the importance of a clean and quiet environment (read: no coal soot or cinders penetrating the sealed, air-conditioned cars); the many places reached (Glacier Park twice mentioned, along with several Pacific Northwest cities, Alaska, and California).   Clearly, Great Northern’s marketing and art departments were as fully engaged with timetable design and content as was the transportation (operating) department with basic schedules.

All this interesting data, and we haven’t even opened the timetable to the first inside page yet!

Rex Stout’s grievance against timetable tyranny was widely felt at the time and nothing new.  American humorist Will Rogers, who died on August 15, 1935, the day after Stout’s “The League of Frightened Men” was published, took a dig not at the rigidity of schedules, but at the inherent complexity of the timetables themselves, with this quote:

“There are two things I don’t care how smart you are, you will never understand. One is a psychiatrist’s court testimony, and the other is a railroad timetable.”

From time to time allenontravel will unravel the mysteries and wonders of public rail timetables up to about 1970, covering elements such as:

  • Schedules and footnotes, including mainline varnish (the nickname for a railroad’s best trains) and branch line mixed trains (meaning mixed freight and passenger service—usually just a coach or two)
  • System maps, including elevations, and a list of cities served indexed to timetable pages
  • Fare types and tables by class, such as Pullman sleeping care rates
  • Train consists, including accommodation choices (the term “consists” was used as a noun by railroads to mean a car-by-car description of each train’s accommodation type and services, such as Pullman sleepers, diners, lounges, and coaches)
  • Travel highlights: what’s along the line worth seeing and stopping for, including side trips
  • Dining car sample menus and prices
  • Railroad general office list of manager names, titles, and locations
  • Offline connecting schedules with other railroads
  • Advertisements for land, for freight shipments, for sending rail tickets by telegraph, etc.
  • And much more…

Indeed, so much and so varied information packed into a single system timetable leaves no doubt that Will Rogers and Rex Stout were accurately describing the general public sentiment of the time.  If all you wanted to know was what trains went from A to B, then timetables could be daunting.

But not to us, as we will see in my occasional posts on the subject of railroad timetables.