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My American Airlines RJ190 from RDU was chock-a-block full, and the upgrade list was 32 names long for 3 available seats. Though I am traveling on an AAdvantage frequent flyer Business Class award Raleigh-Johannesburg that cost me 180,000 miles, AA stiffed me on flying up front on their milk run RDU/PHL, but I did get a comfortable Main Cabin Extra bulkhead seat (5D).

Being a Lifetime Gold meant I got to board in the Priority lane, but at the lowest Priority level–Group 4–so that by the time I reached my seat, all the overhead space was gone. So much for “priority” and too bad for all the peons allowed on board AFTER me.

On arrival to the claustrophobic, ancient B concourse at Philadelphia (see photo), I couldn’t move in the congested hallway. Then my Qatar flight wasn’t even listed on the departure board. I stopped an electric cart driver to ask where to find my gate. Maybe it’s missing from the display because Philly doesn’t know where Doha is, I thought.

Business Class passengers flying Qatar Aireays are allowed use of the British Airways premium lounge at Philadelphia. But so are Aer Lingus, Iceland Air, and of course BA passengers. Thus the lounge is SRO (see photo).

Discouraged at the throngs, I walked to the adjacent American Express Centurion Lounge where my Platinum Card privileges extend to entry.

But not today. I was met by a brutish, well-dessed bouncer who extended his arm out to stop me, demanding to know if I was 3 hours or less from my departure time. I admitted that I have a 3 hour, 20 minute layover. Too bad, he smiled toothily, as he forbade entry. So much for my Amex Platinum Card privileges.

I returned to the BA lounge and eventually found a place to sit in the back by the toilets in an area adapted for laptop users. My spirits improved considerably when two very kind and enthusiastic young ladies, one a Filipina and the other from Africa, who work in the club insisted I try the well-chilled Piper Heidseick Champagne, along with a bowl of cashews and a smoked salmon sandwich (I tipped them $5 each; they were shocked, as apparently gratuities are rare). I’m on my 2nd glass as I write this, and hope I don’t fall asleep before my plane boards.

Then a 12.5 hour flight aboard a Qatar Airways A350 to Doha, where I’ll connect to Johannesburg. But in seat 2A in Business Class, I’ll be treated like an emir!

My American Airlines RJ190 from RDU was chock-a-block full, and the upgrade list was 32 names long for 3 available seats. Though I am traveling on an AAdvantage frequent flyer Business Class award Raleigh-Johannesburg that cost me 180,000 miles, AA stiffed me on flying up front on their milk run RDU/PHL, but I did get a comfortable Main Cabin Extra bulkhead seat (5D).

Being a Lifetime Gold meant I got to board in the Priority lane, but at the lowest Priority level–Group 4–so that by the time I reached my seat, all the overhead space was gone. So much for “priority” and too bad for all the peons allowed on board AFTER me.

On arrival to the claustrophobic, ancient B concourse at Philadelphia (see photo), I couldn’t move in the congested hallway. Then my Qatar flight wasn’t even listed on the departure board. I stopped an electric cart driver to ask where to find my gate. Maybe it’s missing from the display because Philly doesn’t know where Doha is, I thought.

Business Class passengers flying Qatar Aireays are allowed use of the British Airways premium lounge at Philadelphia. But so are Aer Lingus, Iceland Air, and of course BA passengers. Thus the lounge is SRO.

Discouraged at the throngs, I walked to the adjacent American Express Centurion Lounge where my Platinum Card privileges extend to entry.

But not today. I was met by a brutish, well-dessed bouncer who extended his arm out to stop me, demanding to know if I was 3 hours or less from my departure time. I admitted that I have a 3 hour, 20 minute layover. Too bad, he smiled toothily, as he forbade entry. So much for my Amex Platinum Card privileges.

I returned to the BA lounge and eventually found a place to sit in the back by the toilets in an area adapted for laptop users. My spirits improved considerably when two very kind and enthusiastic young ladies, one a Filipina and the other from Africa, who work in the club insisted I try the well-chilled Piper Heidseick Champagne, along with a bowl of cashews and a smoked salmon sandwich (I tipped them $5 each; they were shocked, as apparently gratuities are rare). I’m on my 2nd glass as I write this, and hope I don’t fall asleep before my plane boards.

Then a 12.5 hour flight aboard a Qatar Airways A350 to Doha, where I’ll connect to Johannesburg. But in seat 2A in Business Class, I’ll be treated like an emir!

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I’m off to South Africa to visit the Kruger National Park again. Last there about two and half years ago, so am overdue for a visit. I try to get back to the Kruger every two years. I never tire of being in the park with the African wildlife, and I like to keep updated on incremental changes to infrastructure, rules, conservation practices, and procedures that come with time.  Readying for the trip, I got a jolt of ugly reality this morning when I phoned American Airlines to inquire about a long-withheld upgrade.

As I explained in early February, I burned 180,000 AAdvantage frequent flyer miles this trip to travel in Business class on oneworld partner Qatar Airways to get to Johannesburg, connecting to Qatar’s gateway cities in the US, of course, via American Airlines. What I didn’t know then was just how mean American Airlines was in dispensing the AAdvantage award travel.

AA agents have advised me for seven months to keep calling to see if an award seat opened on my initial leg from RDU to PHL, which is on a 2-class RJ.  I dutifully phoned again and again, perhaps 20 times altogether, but no dice.

But then today a candid and well-informed American Airlines agent told me why the RDU/PHL leg never opened in First class for me.  It is because the original agent back in February “charged” me 30,000 miles for one way Raleigh-Philly in coach using AnyTime pricing, and then charged another 150,000 miles for the Business class award on Qatar and AA for PHL/DOH/JNB/DOH/JFK/RDU. The agent today finally explained clearly that I can never get upgraded on the RDU/PHL award because it is strictly in Coach, even though charged at the highest possible AnyTime (30,000 miles) award level in that market.

(Of course my 36 banked 500-mile upgrades are worthless to help as well (I asked), as they are always worthless on AA, a classic Catch-22.)

Turns out that AAdvantage partner award travel to South Africa on Qatar in their world-class Business cabin was priced at a reasonable 150,000 miles all-in from Raleigh (RDU) to Johannesburg round trip when I sought to book the trip seven months in advance.  But my outbound route will be Raleigh-Philadelphia using AA on a separate AnyTime award for 30,000 miles, then Philly-Doha-Johannesburg (Qatar), returning Jo’burg-Doha-JFK (Qatar), then JFK-RDU (AA), all allowed in Business class for 150,000 miles.

The agent who originally booked me never explained the 180,000 miles was 150 + 30.

New York (JFK) was not my first choice of connections coming home. Qatar did their part by ensuring award seats in business were available from Philadelphia to Doha going, then Doha-Jo’burg-Doha, and finally Doha to Philadelphia returning.  But American Airlines said back in February that they could not clear me for award travel on the short domestic leg from Philadelphia to RDU returning, not even in coach.  That’s why I ended up traveling Doha-JFK and JFK to Raleigh.  American said award coach seats were available JFK/RDU, but not PHL/RDU.  (Note: the itinerary originally had me returning through Boston, but AA moved me to JFK some months ago on account of reshuffling their BOS/RDU connections.)

No award seats at any level seven months in advance in the Philadelphia to Raleigh market?  Yet Qatar is honoring their partnership agreement for award travel. Knowing how stingy American Airlines has become with award seats, it sure makes it hard for me to book AA when I have a choice.

It is easy to forget how low British Airways has fallen in the airline pantheon after having studiously avoided the carrier for nearly two decades. I have only memories of fine flights on British in better years.  Last week, however, I was jolted back to the harsh reality of today’s despicable BA when I was charged for advance seat assignments even though I’m traveling on a hefty Premium Economy fare.

Time was, I loved to fly up front on British Airways. BA conjured superb service in the sharp end of the carrier’s many 747s, and the airline could rightfully crow about the virtues of one of the best premium cabins in the sky.

Not any longer.  First went the incomparable Concorde. (I have a long video I made of a BA Concorde JFK/LHR flight that I need to upload to YouTube; it depicts service that seems like a dream now). Then first class was diminished or replaced on many flights in favor of BA’s cramped, outdated business class seating, and the airline has been in a race for the bottom ever since.

BA’s avarice came back to me as I planned a trip in late January from Raleigh/Durham to Vienna for my wife and me to attend an orchestra concert in which our son, a college sophomore and gifted pianist, will be performing. I opted for the American Airlines nonstop—finally again up-gauged to a 777—to London Heathrow, and then connecting to oneworld partner British Airways LHR/VIE and back.   The AA cabin on that RDU/LHR aircraft will be configured with the airline’s new Premium Economy seats, and I decided to spend extra in order to try it.

Booking the flights almost five months early meant I had my pick of the best PE seats on the American Airlines segments, RDU/LHR and LHR/RDU.  Being an AAdvantage Million Miler Lifetime Gold didn’t hurt, either.

But when I attempted to grab seats on the British Airways codeshare flights (LHR/VIE and VIE/LHR), I was directed by AA.com to the BA website, and there got a shock.  British Airways didn’t give a whit about how much money I paid for the Premium Economy fare or how many loyalty miles I had accumulated.  Turns out that BA doesn’t allow anyone access to an advance seat assignment without paying, not even Premium Economy and Business Class customers unless traveling on a full fare (which no one ever pays, of course),.

That prompted me to look deeper into how BA gets away with it.  I found that once-great British Airway is the only carrier on earth to charge premium class customer for advance seats. And BA has been doing this for 9 years.

The British Airways online seating chart indicated a range of prices for advance seats from a low of $18 (back of the bus) to $27 (most other economy seats) to a high of $39 per seat (exit row with extra legroom). And that’s for only the 2.5 hour flight between LHR and Vienna.

Grudgingly, I blew $108 for 4 seat assignments (4 X $27) after paying the fat Premium Economy fare on AA/BA.  Seemed like a lot for a married couple who want only to guarantee sitting together and sometimes holding hands.

Further research yielded more bad press for British Airways.  Their intra-Euro flights operated on A320 aircraft like London-Vienna reportedly have no legroom and abysmal service.

This new information in hand, I decided we need a modicum of comfort. I returned to the BA website and paid another $12 per seat, per flight to move my wife and me to the exit row on both flights which have extra legroom. Ka-ching, another $48 for British Airways.

Altogether, then, the advance seats alone added $156 to my already-stiff Premium Economy fare, and the BA seats certainly won’t be anything like PE-comfortable.  For $156, hopefully tolerable, but nothing more.

With a moldy, antiquated business class product (“Club World”) only slightly better than Ukrainian Air and woefully behind almost every other carrier, including Aeroflot, British Airways shamelessly piles on more misery by making Business Class and Premium Economy passengers pay for advance seat assignments. BA’s contemptible attitude to customer service makes them a lousy and unequal oneworld partner to American Airlines. My decades-long boycott of the carrier is back in place.

With apologies for not posting a report yesterday, all continues to be well here. Most of Raleigh never lost power because the storm was pretty much a nonevent in Central North Carolina.  Sure, we got some modest 45 mph wind gusts and a bit of rain (see my measurements below), but Raleigh got lucky.

Yet 100 miles NE, E, SE, S, and SW, an epic catastrophe is still unfolding. 96 of 100 NC counties are under emergency orders due to water.

It is forecast to continue raining through Tuesday. Worst of all, NC rivers are now projected to crest Thursday or Friday, the Cape Fear River at nearly 30 feet above flood stage. Many areas in and around Fayetteville were ordered to evacuated yesterday. Similar dire flood conditions exists elsewhere.

Parts of I-95 flooded and the road is shut down in most of the state.  NCDOT is suggesting a detour for I-95 drivers way west through Tennessee and then back east in Georgia. Most roads in eastern and southeastern North Carolina remain impassable due to flooding and are closed.

Yes, Raleigh was spared the worst of it, but much of eastern North Carolina will be a long time–perhaps years–recovering from the massive flooding. It’s too early to know how badly the coastal barrier islands were battered. Early reports are that a lot of beachfront properties were severely damaged. We will know more when people are able to access the beaches.

Having grown up in eastern NC, and with family and friends scattered all over from New Bern to Morehead City/Atlantic Beach to Emerald Isle/Swansboro to Topsail Beach/Figure Eight Island to Wilmington and its many beaches, I am suffering from survivor’s guilt this weekend and haven’t felt much like writing.  The long-term storm damage is devastating.

Rain in Raleigh at our house so far:

Thu to Fri night (about 36 hrs) = 2.0″

Fri night to Sat morning = 1.5″

Sat morning to Sun morning = 1.3″

Total to date = 4.8″

It’s overcast in Raleigh with a steady drizzle today (Sunday).

 

 

I am writing this early (noon) because the power is likely to go out later today.  Winds from Flo have gradually arrived to Raleigh starting about daybreak, but luckily are intermittent and moderate gusts rather than a sustained blow. Gusty periods were punctuated by near calm with hardly any wind at all until late morning, but even now the in-between winds are not strong.

The predicted 5-10 inches of rain is not happening, at least not by midday.  In fact it has hardly rained at all.  Just the odd shower.

Meanwhile, just 130 miles away in eastern and southeastern North Carolina a catastrophe is underway as the storm unleashes up to 30 inches of rain and 90 MPH winds as Florence crawls slowly across the region. Here was the 11am track:

cone graphic

The Neuse River in New Bern overflowed its banks before sunset yesterday and has flooded downtown:

Image result for new bern hurricane florence photos

Raleigh is lucky..

With Florence dithering off the North Carolina coast tonight, the usual uncertainty about what a hurricane will do prevails among professional weather forecasters.  No question it’s pounding the NC beaches north and south of Wilmington, but here in Raleigh, practically nothing.

Surf City Pier before Hurrican Florence

The Surf City Pier on Topsail Island north of Wilmington takes a beating late today before the sun set. Likely this structure will be gone by morning.

Well, almost nothing in Raleigh.  Whispers of wind, then a slight gust.  Some spats of tropical showers.

I want to shake my fists at the skies and yell, Come on, then! Give me all you’ve got, for God’s sake!

Sorry, it’s been a long week, and a lot of us are suffering from storm anticipation fatigue. Here is the way one cartoonist portrayed our collective angst:

Hurricane Florence cartoon 9-13-18

The Raleigh/Durham Airport is open, but warns that Friday could see a lot of cancellations depending upon what Florence does. As of 9:00 PM ET Thursday, tomorrow looks like this at RDU:

  • Air Canada: No flights on Friday.
  • Alaska: No flights on Friday.
  • American: A few early flights on Friday, then no flights through early Saturday.
  • Delta: Operating a near normal schedule Friday.
  • Frontier: No flights on Friday.
  • JetBlue: Limited flights on Friday.
  • Southwest: No flights on Friday.
  • United: Limited flights on Friday

No one really knows, though, because Hurricane Florence is not expected to move much for the next few days:

cone graphic

We’ve had concerned friends and family calling from all over the country.  They’ve all been inundated with news reports that Florence is poised to unleash disastrous wind and rain damage all over NC, including Raleigh, much like the cartoon depicts above.  I assured them that Raleigh is not under water, still has power, and no trees have yet pierced the roof.

So what really gives with these reports of hurricane trouble and woe?  One friend posited that it seemed to be an orgy of Fake Weather News, characterized by ridiculous exaggeration and hyperbole.

I get what he’s saying, and I’ve thought about that, too, this week.  But I think the hurricane news disaster frenzy is unintentional, and, to a large extent, almost unavoidable.

With seven decades of experience with hurricanes, I realize how elusive accurate hurricane forecasting remains. It shouldn’t be, you’d think, but it is. Everything about hurricanes defies science. PhD meteorologists can’t accurately predict their track even when the storms are right under our noses, as Florence is right now, and those learned pros don’t get the force right, either. Just today, for example, the National Hurricane Center said Flo would strengthen when it got close to land, and yet it weakened.  They have repeatedly gotten most things about Florence wrong, and that’s the best forecasting our country has to offer.

Another problem is the timing of reports.  Most things posted online are based on forecast data at least a few hours old, and since hurricanes are so volatile, by the time we read something, it’s already way wrong.  That phenomenon is even worse for storm news that gets printed in the newspaper.  It’s seriously in error by the time we read it.

It isn’t like reporting on what a president said yesterday or on a vote in Congress.  Weather reporting is elusive and time-sensitive.  Weather reporting is always about what was, not what is. So it’s never correct.

Then what are news sources to do?  The National Hurricane Center is a prime source, and everybody goes to it.  But the hurricane doesn’t care about NHC forecasts.  The storm does what it does, more often than not making fools out of the most experienced of meteorologists using the coolest tech and software models available.

The result is mass confusion.  I imagine that news outlets have a love/hate relationship with hurricanes.  Dramatic weather events sure grab eyeballs, but unless you are watching the storm in real time, the information is almost instantly out of date.

Too, perhaps catastrophic hurricanes like Katrina in New Orleans and Maria in Puerto Rico have inadvertently ratcheted up our collective expectations, establishing a hunger for incessant disaster reporting that news media seek to feed.

Maybe.  But when the wind stops blowing and the skies clear off, the thrill dies, and the media moves on, with little follow-up coverage of the unexciting hard work of good people cleaning up and rebuilding.

I just hope that, when it’s over, Trump doesn’t come to North Carolina to toss out paper towels.

It appears that Raleigh may have dodged the bullet, as Hurricane Flo seems to be taking a southerly course after kissing the southeastern coast of North Carolina below Wilmington on Friday.  Here is tonight’s 8:00 PM track:

cone graphic

Raleigh may be spared as a result, receiving only gusty winds and perhaps 3-5 inches of rain, depending upon how far the outer storm bands rotate when it stalls on the NC coast. The relief is almost palpable here in central North Carolina, but the frenzied buying at grocery stores has only barely diminished.

Lines at the liquor store this afternoon, however, were back to normal, and I give the ABC staff full marks for restocking the shelves since I was there last night.

Though Raleigh may hardly feel the hurricane, the NC coast is likely to get pounded with wind-driven rain, 12-20′ storm surges, and severe beach erosion from the heavy surf before, during, and after the event.  Inland areas close to the ocean may see up to 30 inches of rain, which will cause severe flooding.

It’s probably good not to relax too soon despite the new hurricane track forecast.  After all, Raleigh to Wilmington is a mere 129 miles in a direct line on I-40, which isn’t very distant. And Florence remains powerful and dangerous. Earlier today an airplane measured 83-foot waves near the storm’s eye.  While I am not expecting any such ferocious water beyond the coast, a fickle turn northward could once again put us in the bull’s eye of the wind and rain.

Just when I thought Hurricane Flo was going to track north, the 11:00 AM NHS map showed the storm veering south again and aimed directly at Raleigh.

Then tonight’s 8:00 PM track looks similarly ominous for central North Carolina:

cone graphic

Depending on where the storm comes ashore, reports are warning that Raleigh could get 10-20 inches of rain.  Some forecasters say up to 30 inches, a dismal prospect.

So I braved the crazed shoppers at Harris-Teeter again this afternoon and snagged a bunch of just-restocked bananas, as well as butter, milk, and eggs.  Sure, we might lose power, but it’s better to have food than not to have it.  With the two loaves of wheat bread purchased last night, we now have the ingredients for French Toast.

A long queue tonight at the ABC Store (state-controlled seller of distilled alcohol products) in Cameron Village showed off some Raleigh folks’ brilliant hurricane planning. After all, liquor doesn’t go bad and needs no refrigeration, the perfect companion when the lights go out for a week and 30 inches of rain pours through the holes in your roof.

20180911_193500- ABC STORE

My cousin who abides in Norfolk sent this interesting meteorological analysis based on European models.  Friends familiar with the Euro models verified better accuracy compared to American forecasts.  The fact that Florence has tracked south again since last night lends credence to the hurricane track theory posited by “WX Risk” in his video, though his is at odds with the National Weather Service.

Of course there is a cacophony of advice on surviving the hurricane from every possible media source.  I perused several dozen articles today and didn’t find anything I didn’t already know.  One piece suggested checking car windows to make sure they are closed.

Really?

So far the best advice has come from a New Orleans friend who survived the long and deep trauma of Katrina.  She suggested laying in a good supply of old booze favorites, plus a bottle of something exotic and new for inventing a “Flo Cocktail” for all our friends—preferably high octane, she mused, so we can cheerily chirp “Whatever!” at everything Florence brings.

Thus inspired, I plan to go back to the ABC Store tomorrow to look for something weird and wonderful.  We already have a goodly supply of single malts, rum, and gin.

Most Raleigh schools and universities and businesses today announced closures, some starting at once, none closing later than Thursday afternoon.

Amtrak canceled most trains coming anywhere south, but that’s hardly surprising any more.  If a whisper of wind blows or a drop of rain or flake of snow falls, Amtrak stops operating.  Shameful, really.  Once upon a time trains reliably ran through any kind of weather.

The waiting is as stressful as the storm’s fury itself.  Hurricanes often defy forecasts just before colliding with land, so tomorrow’s supposed track could look quite different.

Hurricane Florence intensified to a Category 4 bruiser today (Monday, September 10) packing sustained winds of 140 MPH.  Even though it is still more than a thousand miles off the coast of North Carolina, panic and frenzied excitement have set in here in Raleigh as the NWS incessantly beats the drum that we are the bulls-eye.  Here was the projected track as of 5:00 PM ET today:

cone graphic

The storm isn’t forecast to come ashore until this weekend, yet this was the scene at the big Harris-Teeter Grocery Store in Raleigh’s Cameron Village Shopping Center late this afternoon:

20180910_185549

Many shelves bare or nearly so.

No bread or peanut butter or bananas.

No carts left.

Gridlock and bedlam in the parking lot.

Interminable lines behind all the registers, and all lines open.

And it’s only Monday!  Five days away from landfall.

But the mood in the grocery store queues was cheerful as opposed to grim, and behavior courteous.  Lots of smiles.

I am in hurricane anticipation and preparation mode.  And reflection of hurricanes past.

Growing up in eastern North Carolina (born 1948), I have lived through more hurricanes than I can count, including Category 4 Hazel in October, 1954.

I was six years old when Hurricane Hazel came directly over our house in Kinston, NC. I was immensely curious and watched excitedly out the windows as the winds bent over the forest of TV aerials on the neighboring rooftops.

Then the eye arrived: A weird calm and dim sunlight pierced the haze. When the eye-wall moved over us a little later, the skies turned black again, and the winds howled in the opposite direction.  I gaped as all the TV antennas bent back up straight again and then down the other way.  Some snapped off and were swept away.

Hurricanes are notoriously finicky, often defying the best data analysis that the science of meteorology can muster. Chances are, therefore, that Hurricane Florence will wobble away from us, so I am not yet concerned.  If it is still aimed at us on Thursday, then I will get serious about it.  Just the same, I was glad to get the last two loaves of Pepperidge Farm whole wheat bread this afternoon in the supermarket madhouse.

My wife and I moved into Raleigh’s Cameron Village neighborhood three weeks before Hurricane Fran hit in 1996, so we have a pretty good idea what to expect. Fran brought lots of rain in a short time, which was more problematic than the wind (occasionally 100 MPH).  Our house is at the top of the hill, so most of the deluge in 1996 ran off quickly.  As a result, we did not lose any major trees.

However, the Cameron Park neighborhood and the rest of Cameron Village lost a lot of oaks and other big trees when the soil liquefied just as the biggest wind gusts hit.  That happened especially at and near the bottom of hills where water accumulated and couldn’t drain off through the storm sewers fast enough.  In some cases, that also caused serious flooding.

The biggest problem for most people was loss of electricity.  Our power was out for 10 days after Fran, and we lost most everything in the fridge and freezer.  I bought a lot of ice the night before it hit and filled up our camp coolers.  So we had milk, eggs, cheese, etc. for three days before all the ice melted.  By then I was able to range around Raleigh and find isolated places selling bags of ice to replace it.  That helped.

Here’s my advice for surviving the hurricane (if it comes):

Obviously, it isn’t wise to stock up on frozen or cooled foodstuff when a hurricane is bearing down.  I saw idiots at Harris-Teeter the night Fran hit with shopping carts full of frozen meat.  I knew the lights would soon be out, and sure enough, we lost power just after midnight.  So much for their frozen chickens.

A really important tip is to park vehicles in a shopping center or school lot in the open (not under any trees) to avoid getting damaged or crushed by falling limbs and trees. Also because many cars become trapped in neighborhoods after the storm due to fallen trees on the streets.

Another reason to move cars to high ground (as well as open ground) is to avoid flooding.

Of course make sure cars are full of gas well in advance before the inevitable run on service stations.

Stock up with plenty of batteries, flashlights, and candles.  Get a battery-powered radio.

Despite being without power, we did not lose gas or water during or after Hurricane Fran (we have gas heat, hot water, stove, and range), so we could continue to take showers in comfort.

Make sure your cell phone batteries are well-charged.  Cell service is sometimes restored ahead of the power grid.

Look around the yard and secure anything light enough to become airborne in high winds.  That includes things like wheel barrows.  Lock away or tie down everything loose.

Our experience was that the best in people comes out after a storm like this.  Neighbors will help each other in times of need.

Let us see what the rest of the week brings.  Chances are good that the track of Florence will wander away from Raleigh.

Reliable and frequent passenger rail service in the United States over many under-600 mile distances could compete well with driving or flying, but perennial Congressional funding neglect and the public’s love-hate relationship with passenger trains have long stalled realization of that opportunity.  While we sit idling in congestion on crumbling roads and bridges at the end of engineered service life and beyond planned capacity, trains zip by on adjacent tracks.

It is usually freight trains gliding by, not passenger.  Still, they are moving faster than traffic on the highways. So why don’t we have many—often not any—passenger train options? The short answers are, We don’t like to be taxed, and most Americans got out of the habit of riding trains after World War II.

Railroads in the late 40s and 1950s devised a marketing slogan in an attempt to win back travelers stuck in traffic jams in their shiny new postwar cars: “Next time, try the train.”

Image result for next time, try the train

It didn’t work.  Improved roads and the new Interstate system, though paid for (as now) by gas taxes, seemed “free” to users. The exuberant prosperity of the era meant nearly everyone could afford a car to drive on the “free” roads.

The airplane filled the mobility gap for longer distances.  For 600 miles or less, then-uncrowded Interstates and the automobile lured travelers to the romantic, if unrealistic, notion of freedom on the open road.

The private automobile perfectly fits the fiercely independent streak characteristic of my countrymen.  After all, what red-bloodied American would choose not to be the master of his or her own conveyance, rather than humbly submit to a bus, train, or plane driven by someone else?  The oft-heard cry “Don’t take away my guns!” has a twinned, deeply-ingrained Yankee value: “Don’t take away my cars!”

Goofy illustrates the point in the classic 1950 Disney cartoon about “Mr. Walker” and “Mr. Wheeler” called Motor Mania.  It’s so timely that it’s hard to believe that the brilliant production is 68 years old.

By 1971 privately-operated passenger trains had to be rescued by the government to avoid complete failure.  Amtrak was formed to operate all trains, regardless of route length.  Long distance trains, such as those going cross-country, have endured despite what Amtrak’s murky accounting has claimed were steady losses.

Whatever the real numbers, today’s Amtrak president, former Delta CEO Richard Anderson, and his Board are considering major cuts to the long distance trains.  The reasons given have to do with not being PTC-ready (PTC is Positive Train Control, a Congressional rail safety mandate).  The new policy means the Amtrak Board would insist the following trains, or portions thereof, among others, be discontinued:

  • Southwest Chief (Chicago-L.A.): between La Junta, Colo., and Dailies, N.M., and through Topeka, Kan.
  • Cardinal (NYC-Chicago): over the Buckingham Branch Railroad between Orange and Clifton Forge, Va.
  • California Zephyr (Chicago-San Francisco): 152 miles of UP’s Green River subdivision west of Grand Junction, Colo.
  • Texas Eagle (Chicago-San Antonio): 110 miles of UP’s Desoto subdivision south of St. Louis, Mo.
  • City of New Orleans (Chicago-New Orleans): a total of 18 miles on Canadian National around Memphis, Tenn., and New Orleans

(For the complete list, see here)

Some think this action is the beginning of the end of many or most federally-funded interstate passenger rail service outside the NEC (Northeast Corridor: Washington-NYC-Boston). That would leave only state-supported intercity trains, such as North Carolina’s Raleigh-Charlotte “Piedmont” services and Virginia’s rail services Washington-Lynchburg and Washington-Norfolk. Currently, three round trip Piedmonts ply daily between Raleigh and Charlotte, and ridership is growing in that busy lane (about 170 miles), otherwise dominated by congested highway traffic on I-40 and I-85.

Plenty of under-600 mile corridors outside the NEC exist where passenger rail, if reliable and more frequent, could attract higher ridership and provide more competition to both air and highway modes. To name a few: Chicago-St. Louis, Chicago-Twin Cities, Dallas-Houston, Seattle-Portland, Charlotte-Raleigh-Washington.  Some services, such as Chicago-Milwaukee and L.A.-San Diego, work well already. Improvements to reliability and added frequencies could result in dramatic increases in ridership everywhere.

Look at what’s happening in England and Western Europe, where most distances are less than 600 miles (with grateful thanks to David Briginshaw for providing many of the Western Europe stats):

  • In Britain, check this out for a look at the massive revamp of the U.K. rail network, and be sure to watch the short embedded video.
  • German Rail’s (DB) long-distance passenger traffic grew by 6% (from 19.5 billion passenger-km in the first half of 2017 to 20.6 billion) in the first half of 2018, despite a continuing decline in punctuality.
  • In June DB reported that 2 million passengers used the 387-mile Berlin-Munich high-speed line within six months of the opening of the final section, more than double the riders on the old line during the same period in 2017.
  • DB will add two more “Sprinter” limited-stop trains taking DB’s connections to five a day each way, providing 23,000 seats between Berlin and Munich. The Sprinter trains take 3 hours from Berlin to Nuremberg and 4 hours from Berlin to Munich.
  • Eurostar (London-Paris and London-Brussels) passenger numbers increased 4% in the first quarter of 2018, compared with the corresponding period in 2017 to reach 2.36 million, while sales revenues climbed 9%.
  • Eurostar says it witnessed a 27% increase in the number of U.S. passengers travelling on its services, while business trips increased by 6%.
  • SNCF Voyages (French National Railways’ passenger services) achieved 8.6% growth in 2017 revenue.
  • High-speed rail in Europe has had a serious impact on air in corridors where journey times are 3 hours or less: London-Brussels/Paris, Paris-Brussels-Amsterdam, Cologne-Frankfurt, Madrid-Barcelona, Milan-Rome, for example.
  • Rail market share in Italy is rising thanks to marked improvements to service frequency and quality. For example, Trenitalia offers four classes on its top-of-the range Frecciarossa high-speed trains to compete with Italo-NTV’s three classes.
  • This has resulted in rail dominating air in the Rome-Milan market (297 miles), once Alitalia’s most profitable route, and also in the Rome-Naples market.

This is exciting and encouraging news from overseas about what rail service can do in relatively short corridors, and I haven’t cited any statistics on the dramatic rail service expansions in China. Mentally transposing some of those Bit and Euro services to the USA, it’s easy to see how intercity passenger trains of less than 600 miles could become a great alternative way to go if we had the imagination and will to make it happen.

We can do it. American determination and skill got us to the moon between 1961 and 1969 during tumultuous times and over three Presidents of both major parties. It’s time for Americans to update their thinking and vigorously support our country’s intercity passenger rail potentialities in markets under 600 miles.