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:

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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.

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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:

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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:

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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.

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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:

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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:

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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.”

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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.

I thought fares to Europe in late January would be rock-bottom, but when I couldn’t find anything reasonable, I figured that Delta didn’t get the memo explaining that’s the lowest period of low season.

My wife and I want to see our son, a pianist, perform with his symphony in Vienna and Bratislava.  The performance will be in the astonishingly beautiful concert hall of Bratislava, Slovakia, an hour by train from Vienna, on the evening of January 29.

Much as we’d like to spend a week in Europe, work and family duties prevent it. We must leave Saturday, Jan 26 (origin RDU), and we must land back home on Thursday, Jan 31.

One reason for the hard date return is that I am flying to Newark the very next day (Feb 1), and then on to Singapore on Feb 2 on SQ’s nonstop EWR/SIN A-350 to try their 18.5 hour flight (now the world’s longest) in Premium Economy.

Since the orchestral performance is in Bratislava the evening of January 29, we would not arrive back in Vienna from Bratislava until midnight, which would make a very early flight on Jan 30 challenging. Thus our return must be Jan 31.

I started first looking at Delta because that’s where my highest elite status is.

Thinking perhaps fares might be cheaper to Munich or Frankfurt than to Vienna (more competition), I checked from RDU to all three cities.  After all, trains leave hourly for Vienna from Munich and Frankfurt, and the service is fast and fun.

However, checking both paid and award seat costs on Delta, my research indicated hardly any difference among those three city destinations for the dates I needed.

More surprisingly, I was getting main cabin fares of $2300-2800 round trip per person on DL regardless of city, which seemed very high for late January.

Thanks to a trusted travel agent friend, I learned that Delta now requires a Saturday night stay to qualify for their least expensive fares to Europe, even in January, and it has to be on the ground, not in the air (as we would be leaving on a Saturday).  That restriction was in effect for decades on many airlines, but disappeared for a time. I was unaware it had been revived.

Leaving Friday, January 25, would meet the Saturday night stayover rule and lower the fare by nearly half, but it presented personal difficulties, so I decided to look at award seats leaving on our preferred date of Saturday, Jan 26.

Lowest Delta SkyMiles award seat mileage RDU/FRA was 58,000 (round trip per person) and to Munich or Vienna 69,500.  That’s regardless of routing or airline partner and regardless of whether leaving Saturday or Friday (in other words, SkyMiles award mileages in these markets are not subject to the Saturday night stayover rule).

69,500 miles? Heck, I know SkyMiles have been devalued like crazy, but still, it doesn’t seem like so long ago when I could get a business class award seat to Europe for less mileage than that.

And those high mileage and high dollar fares would only get us into main cabin, not into premium economy.

In fact, squinting at the Delta.com website, it was hard to tell whether or not Delta is introducing real PE cabins on flights to Frankfurt and Munich by January, 2019.  Looking at paid fares, the website lists “Premium Select” (the Delta name for its PE product) for $2289 RDU/MUC, which is less than the $2842 it shows on the same page for Main Cabin.

Forgetting for a moment that Delta fares to Europe in January without a Saturday stay are absurdly high at well over two thousand dollars, why is Premium Select priced $600 less than Main Cabin in the same market?

Switching from “$USD” back to the “Miles” option in the same date/market inquiry, Delta.com doesn’t show Premium Select class as an option, but rather the same old, dreary, uncomfortable, narrow Comfort+ seating on aircraft to FRA and MUC at 100,000 and 114,000 miles (round trip, per person), respectively.

Huh? Has Delta kept a few narrow Comfort+ seats on the airplanes used to FRA and MUC to shove award ticket flyers into, or do they really mean it is Premium Select at 100,000 and 114,000 miles?

Or is it the other way around?

Any way you look at it, it was too much money and too many miles for Europe in January for me to choose Delta. So I gave up on Delta and looked at my number two elite airline, American.

AA showed a decent schedule to and from Vienna for $1800 round trip in their new Premium Economy class on the RDU/LHR nonstop, which is once again a 777 aircraft (it was downgraded to a 767 during the Great Recession). But that means connecting at Heathrow to British Airways, and BA flights to the Continent are often very uncomfortable and trying.  Too, $1800 still seemed like a lot for January.

Then my travel agent buddy came through with an $1139 fare on SAS, and it doesn’t require a Saturday stayover.  True, it goes through abominable Newark, and true, the domestic portion is on abominable United. Connects through Stockholm going and Copenhagen returning. Notwithstanding those hurdles, at $1139, compared to $2300 or 69,500 miles, how can we beat it?

Lesson learned about Delta. It was my first choice, but mileage and dollar premiums made Delta my last resort for this trip.

In several recent posts, I extolled the virtues of Hong Kong, where everything worked well everywhere, and I took it for granted. Arriving back in the USA from that trip, the first thing I noticed getting off the well-maintained Cathay Pacific plane at JFK Terminal 8 was a broken, very long escalator up to Immigration and Customs.  The steep stairs were not inviting; many passengers opted for the adjacent sluggish and spasmodic elevator, backing it up. I had already noted the crummy, rundown look of Terminal 8 as we traipsed through.

Changing terminals to my connecting flight at Delta in Terminal 4, the jerky, slow and dirty JFK AirTrain was an embarrassment after the precision of public transportation in Hong Kong. Then I endured the inefficient, cartoonish TSA screeners at Delta (in the PRE line, no less), followed by bypassing many broken moving sidewalks in terminal 4. I didn’t see anyone servicing any of them, either.

This situation is even more shocking when considering that JFK Terminal 8 is the newest facility, and Terminal 4 is run by Schiphol, the well-regarded Dutch airport (Amsterdam).

At JFK Terminal 7, TSA finally gave British Airways PreCheck, yet there is no PRE line at Terminal 7 because it is so degraded as a facility.

The obvious blame would seem to lie with the Port Authority of NY/NJ, which also manages LaGuardia and Newark Airports, two other New York-area airports infamous for being ugly, rundown, and inefficient.

My hometown Raleigh/Durham International Airport hosts daily nonstops to London and Paris CDG, which add to its nearly 12,000,000 annual passengers.  We are a small-fry airport compared to JFK’s 60 million passengers per year, but the RDU facility is pristine and the operation runs like a Swiss watch.

Arriving in the Big Apple’s premier airport, JFK, America’s gateway airport to the world, it shouldn’t feel like a Third World experience compared to where I left.  Where is good old American outrage at the state of our crumbling infrastructure?  Why do we tolerate these substandard conditions?

Last week I flew on a Delta SkyMiles award ticket issued in economy class Raleigh to Billings, a free ride which I somehow managed to get for the cheapest possible mileage (virtually impossible in the summer months to Billings because of its relative proximity to Yellowstone). There was a catch, of course:  The outbound routing at the lowest mileage award was a convoluted three flight leg affair: RDU/DTW/MSP/BIL. I didn’t care because I was on vacation.

To my astonishment, Delta upgraded me on all three flight legs outbound. On free tickets at the lowest possible award seat mileage. Imagine that!  Maybe my Delta Five Million Miler/Lifetime Platinum status means something after all.

When I arrived at Raleigh/Durham Airport, though, I hit a snag.  The aircraft assigned to the RDU/DTW flight suffered a mechanical at the gate, precipitating a delay which threatened the short 40 minute connection in Detroit to my DTW/MSP flight. The RDU Delta gate agent working my Detroit flight said I wouldn’t make it, so he switched me to the slightly later (607am departure instead of 600am) RDU/MSP flight to guarantee I’d get it to Billings on time.

Of course I expected to be back in coach where I started, but the gate agent handed me a first class boarding pass on the RDU/MSP flight. On that free, low mileage ticket, a fourth upgrade for that itinerary.   I boarded the direct flight to the Twin Cities thinking how grateful I was to Delta for properly taking care of me.  As we know all too well, it doesn’t often happen.

It’s not just that the Delta systems seem to be programmed better than ever before to recognize loyalty and reward it.  In my observation, there has been a gigantic positive change in professionalism in the rank-and-file customer-facing staff at Delta—the counter/gate agents and flight attendants—compared to the last 25 or so years. At least for a few magic moments, it seems, everything is working as it should, with service consistency nearly universal..

Going home the following week, I was again upgraded on one segment (Billings to Minneapolis) and came within one person of a perfect six out of six upgrades on the connecting flight.  See the screen shot (below) I captured from my phone. There was only one F Seat left, and I was #2 on the upgrade list.

I am not complaining, though.  Being upgraded—on a cheap mileage award ticket, no less—on five out of six flights to Billings and return was awesome.

Even the one seat in the back of the bus was comfortable: 10C in Comfort+ (bulkhead aisle just behind First).

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I was also impressed that I could track upgrade standby status on my phone through the Delta app rather than staring at the gateside screen. Since MSP Airport was jam-packed, I was happy to monitor my chances while staying out of everybody’s way.

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MSP G gates were SRO on a Tuesday night this summer.

Another instance of the new, improved service culture at Delta occurred in Billings.  My cheap mileage award ticket included the three flight legs outbound mentioned earlier, along with a 3.5 hour layover in Minneapolis returning.

The long connection turned out to be a blessing because the BIL/MSP flight was two hours late. A goose smacked into the plane which was originating in Minneapolis, damaging the avionics, which precipitated an aircraft swap.  The Billings gate staff kept us well-informed about the nature of the delay and the new departure time.

But the Delta folks in Billings provided more than just accurate information.  They brought out a wide variety of snacks, bottled water, and fresh hot tacos for everyone at the gate suffering through the long delay.  The staff even kept us informed about the free food, announcing when they were bringing the tacos through security after having them catered from somewhere off-airport.  The tacos were delicious!

If Delta keeps making my travels so easy and stress-free, then what am I am going to complain about?  Maybe that the sauce on the free tacos wasn’t spicy enough?  Or that my Bloody Mary on the first flight didn’t have a lime?

During a recent trip to Hong Kong to research public transit, my wife and I spent a day on Hong Kong Island exploring much more than Central (the HK CBD).  Instead of the usual tourist places, I wanted to test out the public bus services to less well-known parts of the island where regular folks abide, including Aberdeen (west side of the island) and Stanley (south side).

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View from the top front seats of the 970X bus in Kowloon headed toward the Kong Kong Island tunnel.

It didn’t take long to figure out that we could take the 970X transit bus, a 45-minute trip directly from Kowloon to Aberdeen (runs every 12 minutes, like most of the hundreds of double-decker transit bus routes in Hong Kong). The bus cost me HK$2 as a senior (about 30 U.S. cents) and HK$11 for my wife (about US$1.50).

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Many of the older Kowloon buildings are cooled by window units. This 15 story residence is modest by today’s high rises.  Note men and women alike in Hong Kong employ umbrellas as sun shades.

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Photo above is of the tunnel approach from the Kowloon side, with Hong Kong Island visible across Victoria Bay in the distance.  Note modern high rise residential building on the left.

We paid the bus fares by swiping our rechargeable Octopus Cards, transit cards universally accepted in Hong Kong on subway trains, buses, ferries (even the quaint Star Ferry between Kowloon and Hong Kong Central), and increasingly in retail stores like 7-Eleven.

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Above are three photos taken on Hong Kong island while on the 970X transit bus ride Kowloon to Aberdeen from the perspective of the upper deck in the front seats, amply demonstrating the dense urban nature of residential Hong Kong, an area seldom seen except by residents..

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The above photo is of Aberdeen looking across the narrow bay to Ap Lei Chau Island.  Before continuing on our circular journey around Hong Kong Island, we stopped at the local Aberdeen market.  And “local” it is, with nary a tourist to be seen.

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The Aberdeen market includes meat and veggies of all sorts, but I was especially interested in the wide range of fresh seafood. Above photos are of the live crabs, fish, weird crustaceans that look like the Balmain Bugs I used to savor in Australia’s Queeensland, and all kinds of live shellfish.

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For lunch we took a tiny ferry (also public transport) across from Aberdeen to Ap Lei Chau Island to find the “Cooked Food Centre” in the island’s market building (an entirely different market from the one in Aberdeen). Note in the first (top) photo that the Octopus Card is even accepted on the little ferry boat (the sensor to the right of the pilot next to the fare box).

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Cooked Seafood Centre on Ap Lei Chau Island.

At the Cooked Seafood Centre, we mastered the technique required, which is to first buy food (usually live seafood) downstairs from the fresh seafood vendors in the vast hall that is the market, and then take the purchases upstairs to be prepared by the cooks in the many small food stalls (see above photo).

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Live crabs I selected from a vendor downstairs.

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Same crabs as barbecued by the vendor upstairs.

I chose two large rust-colored, mottled crabs after counseling with one of the chefs upstairs as to which of the many crab varieties has the best flavor (see two above photos). Our chef prepared the crabs with barbecue sauces, garlic, ginger, and spring onions. The crabs were sensational (bottom pic)! I needed my lifetime of eastern North Carolina Blue Crab-picking experience to extract every morsel to do them justice!

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Weird saltwater crustacean as I selected it (and its pal) from a seafood vendor downstairs.

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Same crustaceans after cooking upstairs.

I also chose two very large crustaceans that look like a hybrid between Atlantic Caribbean lobsters and Gulf shrimp (see two above photos). They reminded me in appearance of Balmain Bugs, a crustacean I used to eat in Queensland on the NE coast of Australia. These were prepared with garlic and hot red chili sauce and were scrumptious (picture immediately above).

It was not cheap! Together the crabs and weird crustaceans were HK $450 (US$60), and the food stall charged another US$15 to prepare them, but you only live once!

Leaving Aberdeen after lunch on the 973/73 bus Aberdeen to Stanley and then the 6/6X bus from Stanley to HK Central, we were treated to more dense residential development.

Any first-time visitor to Hong Kong should take the 6 or 6X bus from HK Central to Stanley and back. But not to see Stanley, though you might enjoy a quick glimpse at its unremarkable bay. While humble Aberdeen retains some of the grit of its fishing village roots, Stanley has gentrified into a cutsie, inauthentic, Mediterranean-inspired tourist trap that isn’t worth spending much time in; well, unless you like overpaying for iced coffee and imported beer.

That said, the 6 and 6X transit bus rides to Stanley and return offer spectacular views, made even more so if you snag one of the four upper deck front seats (they are often vacant because locals prefer a shadier seat). And the round trip by transit bus is far cheaper than a taxi or tour bus.

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Above photos are of gorgeous Repulse Bay, which lies between Central and Stanley. The enormous residential tower depicted immediately above has a square hole in the middle.  That hole was constructed into the building because, according to feng shui principles, it’s unlucky to block the dragon who lives in the mountains from accessing the sea. If the dragon can’t get through, he might knock down the building.

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Above pic is of one of the many small, but highly effective roundabouts that are not more than a painted circle in the center of the intersection. They work well.

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Just above photo is of the Wan Chai-Admiralty area of Hong Kong as the 6/6X bus comes over the mountains into the northeastern side of the city.

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The three pictures above are of the view coming into Central. The pictures are a bit washed out due to over-exposure (the sun was above and in front), but still illustrate that Hong Kong is a big, beautiful city.

After a full day of exploring parts of Hong Kong island, all by public transit, we closed the circuit back to our Kowloon hotel by taking the Star Ferry to Kowloon and then the 1/1A bus from the Kowloon ferry terminal to Nathan Road at Jordan Road. Every mode, including the Star Ferry, accepted the Octopus Card (universal transit card) for fare payment, even the itty-bitty ferry at Aberdeen to Ap Lei Chau island.

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Above photo is of the Star Ferry upper deck interior.

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Central’s famed “Central” skyline from the pedestrian bridge leading to the Star Ferry.

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Enjoying the skyline view from the Star Ferry as we cross to Kowloon.

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Last photo is a Star Ferry heading back to Central as our Kowloon-bound ferry passes in Victoria Harbour.

I admit to being a public transit geek who enjoys learning best practices from good transit systems worldwide by testing their network services, but, honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever had so much fun doing it as in Hong Kong!

I’m no stranger to the transit system in Hong Kong, having used it on trips to the city since the 1980s. However, on a recent six-day visit there, the purpose of which was to focus on the Hong Kong public transit network and operation, I was astonished at how well it works.

I’ve never used Hong Kong public transit exclusively until this trip, and I did it without even trying hard.  Public transit in Hong Kong is so good, I now realize, there is no need to drive or to take a private car or taxi.

During our six days in town, my wife and I made our way around 100% via transit, plus the use of our own feet. Our Hong Kong transit modes on that trip included ferries, double-decker buses, light rail trains, and subway trains (also called Rapid Transit trains).

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Hong Kong Airport train station at Kowloon

We got off to a good start by using the Airport Express train to get into the city when we arrived, which connected at the Kowloon station to free buses that drop passengers at hotels or workplaces.

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K1 free shuttle bus at Kowloon Airport train station to get to hotels

We stayed with public transit through to our return to the airport, too, never once using a taxi or private car. What a joy it was to be able to do that.

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Bus from Kowloon to Hong Kong Airport

MTR (Metropolitan Transit Railway) runs it all in Hong Kong, including most of the big buses (see https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/MTR), and MTR’s “Octopus Card,” which can be recharged like a prepaid credit card, is the universal fare payment option for all MTR services and most other public transit modes. The Octopus Card is indispensable, thanks to the dense Hong Kong transit network on which it can be used. The card, combined with the frequent and dense transit network, freed us from ever having to seek out private conveyance.

The stats for the MTR system are astonishing, as Wikipedia notes:

“The Mass Transit Railway (MTR) is a major public transport network serving Hong Kong. Operated by the MTR Corporation Limited (MTRCL), it consists of heavy rail, light rail, and feeder bus service centred on an 11-line rapid transit network serving the urbanised areas of Hong Kong Island, Kowloon, and the New Territories.

“The system currently includes 135.6 miles of rail with 159 stations, including 91 heavy rail stations and 68 light rail stops.

“The MTR is one of the most profitable metro systems in the world. It had a farebox recovery ratio of 187% in 2015, the world’s highest.”

Transit types (modes):

  Heavy rail

  High-speed rail

  Light rail

  Airport Express

  Inter-city rail

  MTR Bus

Number of lines:

  Heavy rail: 11

  Light rail: 12

Number of stations:

  Heavy rail: 93

  Light rail: 68

Daily ridership:

  Rapid transit (subway and above ground): 4.815 million

  Others: 0.628 million (April 2018)

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MTR Rapid Transit trains run above ground in New Territories, below ground in Kowloon and Hong Kong Island.

5.4 million daily transit riders out of a total Hong Kong population of 7.4 million is mind-boggling.

Trains run every few minutes all day, yet so many riders choose transit that the trains can be at capacity even during off-peak hours.

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MTR transit “Bumblebee Lady” uses a “stop” paddle to regulate riders entering subway trains during busy periods.

At peak times MTR dispatches hundreds of “Bumblebee Ladies” (my name for them, as they are dressed in yellow and black tunics) to act as traffic cops at subway and light rail stations. They keep queues orderly and patrons civil as they wait to be stuffed into completely full trains. I am pretty certain MTR borrowed the technique from Tokyo Transit, and it works well. MTR must hire for cheerfulness, because every such lady we encountered was upbeat, happy, and eager to help. Very knowledgeable as well.

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“Bumblebee Ladies” patrol the MTR subway/rapid transit platforms and are happy to help riders!

Having ridden extensively over all three regions of Hong Kong (Hong Kong Island, Kowloon, and New Territories) below and above ground by bus and rail for six days, I can attest my awe at the robust infrastructure, especially of the rail networks. Everything works, and it’s all so clean and new-looking. The reach and scope of the entirely electrified rail network alone makes me jealous; we in the United States are so very far behind.

Fellow blogger and New Yorker Ralph Raffio (Mr. Meatball) visited Hong Kong for the first time not long ago and came away with the same feeling.  Here’s what Ralph said to me about Hong Kong transit:

“Nobody (except for Disney maybe) moves people from one place to another as efficiently as they do in Hong Kong. Every major U.S. city ought to have the equivalent of Hong Kong’s transit system, including  the Octopus card. If I was the mayor of New York, I’d get myself to Hong Kong pronto, and bring back a few of their mass transit officials with me.”

Hong Kong transit is all easy to use, too. My wife and I quickly mastered the Airport Express train, as well as the buses, light rail, and subway lines throughout Hong Kong Island, Kowloon, and New Territories.

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Indicators on board each subway/rapid transit car tell riders which stop to take for connections to other rapid transit lines (above).

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Subway/rapid transit platform signs (above) announce train arrivals. Signage isn’t necessary on some lines because trains run more or less continuously every few minutes all day.

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Station signs like the one above direct riders to the correct exits to their destinations. This feature quickly becomes addictive, especially at underground stations with multiple exits.

As already mentioned, Bumblebee Ladies manage queues at peak periods when trains exceed capacity (even when trains are coming every 3 minutes).

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During off-peak times, trains are not so crowded, but seats are still at a premium (above). Note everyone doing what we all do, utterly engrossed in our Smartphones. My observation was that transit riders are of all ages, but skewed to a younger demographic, as seen in this photo.  Note how clean the train looks. That’s amazing considering 4.8 million subway riders per day.

If the Research Triangle in our area had a public transit network this broad and deep, I could leave my car at home for most trips.

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The bus system is as good as the rail system, too. See above photos of the MTR buses. Double-decker buses in Hong Kong are standard, not something for tourists (there are very few single level buses). Note all the routes shown at this one stop listed on the sign (above photo). And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

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Also note the high density residential building of the type that’s common in Hong Kong (above photo). A lot higher than we are used to in the Research Triangle, yet this is one of hundreds like it there.  All that residential density feeds public transit ridership.

In fact, MTR (the Hong Kong transit agency) maintains a mind-boggling network of ultra-frequent bus services, and all the buses are roomy, fast, and those nimble double-decker jobs, as I said above. The buses run everywhere to connect to the rapid transit and light rail lines. The rail lines, combined with the spider-web of frequent bus services, plus the convenience of swiping the Octopus Card for fare payment, are what make driving unnecessary.

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Nearly every bus route in the three regions of Hong Kong (Hong Kong Island, Kowloon, and New Territories) runs at frequent intervals of 3 minutes to 15 minutes. The bilevel buses increase capacity (note capacity of bus in the above photo), which is usually 90 seated and 47 standing, for a total of 137 per bus.

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I couldn’t much tell the difference between peak and off-peak frequencies. Buses run all the time and are masters of Hong Kong roadways (above photo was taken shortly after 1:00 PM, hardly rush hour). Buses rule!

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MTR sells advertisements wrapped on buses (above photo), which no doubt boosts its revenues.

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Though Hong Kong streets do not have dedicated bus lanes, long lanes on each block are for buses only (above photo), often stretching the entire block from corner to corner. These areas are dedicated bus stops, and other vehicles are prohibited. This has the effect of expediting the stops. It’s a pleasure to watch it in action, as bus after bus efficiently enters, stops, and returns to traffic lanes. Other vehicles routinely give way to the many hundreds of buses on every street.

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Adjacent to the stops are painted queue-up areas for specific bus routes (above photo). Also note the bus-only lane striping in the street I was describing in the previous paragraph.

The big impediment to driving in Hong Kong is 24/7 roadway congestion. Buses get preference lanes, though not in BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) dedicated lanes. Public transit is so pervasive and convenient and comfortable that no one needs to own a car except for vanity.

On board all buses are digital signs announcing the next stop in Cantonese and English. Automated recorded verbal announcements are made in both languages of the next stop, too.

MTR trains have lots of realtime information signs at stations and on trains to direct passengers; however, MTR has not yet found it necessary to utilize such electronic signs for bus stops. Every stop is sheltered, well-marked and signed, identifying which routes stop there and directing patrons to the correct sidewalk queue-up lanes. Bus schedules are printed in two languages at each stop.

I found these inexpensive, passive bus information devices extremely easy to use. They were always accurate in my experience and met my needs without requiring any other means, such as a system map. As someone who has always pitched for electronic signage at bus stops, I am now convinced such expensive measures are not warranted everywhere.

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Photo above is of the incredible Octopus Card, which is the universal fare payment means for all Hong Kong transit, including ferries. Just tap the card as you board a bus, ferry, trolley, rapid transit train, or light rail train; the card reader on the vehicle beeps and shows the amount remaining on the card. The Octopus Card is essentially a rechargeable debit card for transit. It can be replenished at MTR stations at ATM-like machines in 30 seconds or less.

Note my card is marked “Elder” which cost just HK$2 per ride (about 30 U.S. cents) on most transit modes. Sometimes age has its benefits.

I guess I never realized how much mobility freedom such a card provides: Just get on any transit mode and tap it to ride. An Octopus Card equivalent perfectly complements a frequent transit network. When we have such a universal fare payment system in the Research Triangle that works everywhere and on every mode, I believe we will begin to see big increases in ridership based on the convenience of using one card.

My wife and I became ardent MTR bus riders. Trains, too, but the bus network is essential to connect us to the rail stations, and often the bus alone met our needs in Hong Kong. I am still amazed that we spent almost a week there using 100% public transit, never once getting into a taxi or private car. That wasn’t our plan when we arrived, but the convenience of the Octopus Card and the incredible MTR bus and rail network got us to the literal far reaches of Hong Kong.

And it was all fun and easy to use. Otherwise, we would have taken taxis.