Monday, June 23, 2008

Ride the Rocket

So, readers, I'm sure you've been wondering when I'd update you on my Canada trip. Unfortunately, I have been extremely busy trying to catch back up to speed on errands and find housing. Both of these objectives have now been completed, so hopefully my blogging will be more regular.

Anyway, many of you know from reading posts on the blog or through personal interaction that my goal is to ride every rail transit system in America. This trip did not further that goal whatsoever. It did, however, mark the first instance in which I had ridden every rail system in an entire country.

Prochain Station: Montreal.

The world's second largest French-speaking city has a subway system worthy of praise. When Montreal decided to build one back in the 1960s, they brought subway designers from (where else?) Paris to work on the system and the result is a quiet, rubber-tired ride which is entirely underground. In 1966, in time for the Montreal Expo, the Metro was opened. The system has just over 40 miles of trackage on four lines, with 68 stations. It carries some 835,000 per day on average. In comparison, the Washington Metro has 106 miles of track, 86 stations, and of late has been breaking the 800,000 mark frequently. Incidentally, the Washington Metro has only broken the 835,000 threshold once--June 9, 2004 for the state funeral of President Ronald Reagan.

Montreal also operates commuter rail trains under the guise of AMT. I rode one from Lucien-L'Allier to De La Concorde. The ride was smooth and quick, offering good views of Montreal, which the average tourist would not see. In comparison with the American commuter rail services I have ridden, the insides of the train was rather spartan, but as long as one can get from point A to point B, it's all good.

Ottawa has made a name for itself by building busways. I typically hear Ottawa and Pittsburgh held up as examples of why bus rapid transit would work in the United States. And I think it will, if it's built like it is in Ottawa and not like it's proposed in Atlanta--but that's another argument for another time. At any rate, Ottawa has a series of bus-only roadways which make up "the Transitway."

A new part of their transit infrastructure, however, is the prototype O-Train. This service was built on the cheap to demonstrate light rail to Ottawans. It is one of only two instances of diesel light rail in North America, with the other being the River Line in the Camden-Trenton corridor of New Jersey. The vehicles were built for German Railways and some German can be seen in the car (for instance, "drücken" is on the door-open buttons).

The line is single-tracked, except for one passing track in the middle. Only three trainsets are needed to operate the line, which sees frequencies of 15 minutes. Unfortunately, the line does not yet make it downtown, but one can transfer to the Transitway at either end.

Toronto has Canada's oldest and most-developed rail-transit system. The subway opened in 1954 and has expanded constantly since. The system is great for an FRN like myself because of the so-called railfan seat. Unlike the Washington Metro, the operator's booth only takes up the right half of the front, so one can sit directly left of the operator (like on PATH and SEPTA's MFSE) and have an unobstructed view out of the cab. This is especially exciting on these older systems because one can watch the signals change and so on. Contrastingly, WMATA only has signals at interlockings, and they only show three aspects (Stop, Proceed, and Proceed Diverging).

The Toronto Subway is complemented with streetcar/light rail service on the surface. These cute little cars can be seen dashing around Toronto with gusto. They seemed to come quite frequently and certainly offered service I'd love to have in the District. Imagine trolleys every 5-6 minutes running from Farragut Square to Silver Spring on 16th. It would be awesome!
Toronto also has very distinctive commuter rail cars. Operated by GO Transit, these bright green, bi-level cars carry 160,000 commuters each weekday. The Bombardier-built cars were made for GO back in the 1970s, but are now used widely around North America on commuter systems.
And rounding out Toronto's transit system, the trusty Scarborough RT. These short vehicles are fully grade-separated and connect Scarborough to the Bloor-Danforth Subway line. They are the same type of vehicle I would be seeing later on my trip on the Vancouver SkyTrain, although the Scarborough RT is not automated.

It would be almost 2,000 miles to my next transit adventure: Edmonton. Here, the LRT, as it is simply called, operates a short one-line segment totaling 8 miles. Of the nice aspects of the system, in my opinion, is the downtown subway section. In Calgary (and other places, Baltimore and Portland come to mind) the light rail trains operate at grade, competing with cross traffic. Edmonton, chose to bury a five station segment downtown, with one additional subway station at the University of Alberta also underground.
Calgary's C-Train uses the same rolling stock as the Edmonton system (although they also have some newer vehicles), and the operation is similar. Of course, as mentioned above, there is no downtown subway, and stations are located on a transit mall (which is a fare-free zone). There are two lines adding up to almost 28 miles.

With only two rail transit systems left, I find myself in Vancouver. Here, the world's largest automated guideway system provides 220,000 average daily trips. The SkyTrain opened in 1985. My first sighting of the system was of the Fraser River bridge, the world's longest transit-only bridge. Vancouver's system currently has 2 lines, but the Canada Line will soon link the Airport with Waterfront Station. Since the new line will use a different technology for its vehicle (still automated, though), I'll have to plan a return trip in late 2009.
West Coast Express is the commuter rail service running along the Burrard Inlet and the Canadian Pacific mainline. One really great asset to Vancouver, I think, is Waterfront Station. The station has a barrier-free transfer between Commuter Rail, SkyTrain, and SeaBus, and the Canada Line will soon be calling there as well. Unfortunately, VIA and Amtrak services stop at Pacific Central Station, originally home to rival Canadian National Railways.
It was quite a trip, visiting all of these transit systems. I still have a long way to go before I finish off the States, but I'm confident that I'll get it done soon enough. Thanks for your patience will I catch up on things. And thanks for reading!

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Pitch In

Just yesterday, I caught another Metro-produced ad encouraging riders to do something-or-other. In this case, it was a corny imitation of a Kung Fu movie telling riders that they shouldn't leave their newspapers on the seats.

Imagine my surprise, therefore, this morning when on my way to the doctor's office, a Metro employee wearing the customary blue metro shirt, blue metro hat, and neon orange and green WMATA safety vest, finished reading the Express and threw it on his seat as he exited at Addison Road. The offending paper is top left.

Metro is concerned about litter (and it is littering, not "recycling") because it just looks, well, trashy. It is also a danger to customers and employees. Earlier this year WMATA reported that newspapers blowing into tunnels were a cause of the track fires which occur all too frequently.

What these ads (and yes, WMATA has a series of them) are attempting to do is get riders to take ownership of the system. This is an important element of keeping the system clean and safe. Just like the almost-constant reminders to "say something" whenever you see something suspicious, WMATA is enlisting patrons to treat the Metro like their own personal property, which, in a way, it is. If you pay taxes in the United States, you own a share of Metro. In Atlanta, MARTA launched a similar campaign, saying "not on MY MARTA."

And that brings me to a question I have for you, dear readers:

How do you handle your subway when you see people treating it with disrespect?

Saturday evening, I got on the train at Dupont Circle. As soon as I entered the mezzanine, I heard a loud banging, which as it turned out, was being generated by some teenager. He was beating on one of the brown columns, in this case, the one holding the Passenger Information Screen. Not only was it irritating, it was potentially damaging to the hardware. He could easily have shaken lose a wire feeding the wait times to the sign.

The day before, I encountered a group of teens who were making a ruckus on the Green Line. One of them was even smoking in the train car. At Fort Totten, they held open the doors on a Silver Spring-bound Red Line train for at least a minute while they waited on some acquaintance to come up from the mezzanine.

In the first case, my instinct was to say something to the juvenile, but I chickened out. Even though the platform was crowded, mostly with people coming from the Pride Parade, I wasn't certain anyone else would back me up. The second case tempted me to call the transit police (at 202-962-2121, in case you ever need to know), but I didn't do that either.

At some level I feel like it's none of my business to get involved, while another part of me is outraged that some delinquent can delay a few hundred people for no reason at all. Why should we, the masses, let a few rabble rousers destroy the security (or at least appearance of security) and serenity of our transit system?

In his book chronicling the history of the Washington Metro, The Great Society Subway, Dr. Zachary Schrag recounts a story of Metro riders taking ownership of the system (from page 268):
"only Washington Subway People on a 10:00 o'clock morning gather in a group to silently watch a girl deface the printing on a column with a penny. In less than five minutes, they were in a half-circle around her and the post. Without expression, a leader or a spoken word, they inched closer moving forward by half-steps. Others joined as they came downstairs. Suddenly the girl looked up, threw her penny on the tracks, broke through the half-circle and ran up the still escalator. The people had spoken about their subway"
(Joan Sugarman, "I Saw It on the Subway"
Subway Magazine
, Fall 1978)
Their Subway. This is an excellent example of the concept of public ownership. Yet in the instances I have seen, riders don't step up to the plate (myself included). Why not? Shouldn't we find a way to stand up for our subway?

What are your thoughts? Do you feel like it's your Metro? Would you take a stand?

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Now Here's an Idea

You know those pesky chain emails you get sometimes? You know how they go. They tell you they've got this really great way for you to save on gas and stick it to the oil companies at the same time. All you have to do is get all your friends not to buy gas on a particular day.

The theory, so the email says, is that if there is a sudden drop in demand, prices will fall. And while this concept is economically sound on the surface, the hypothesis breaks down if you still drive the same amount on the given day. You see, the problem with this proposal is that people just buy twice as much gas the next day, which drives prices back up (if they went down in the first place, which is unlikely anyway).

Unfortunately, demand is not really decreasing. Demand for gasoline only really goes down if you, well, don't demand it. It's not about how much you buy at each trip to the gas station or how many times you go to the gas station, it's the total volume of consumption that really matters.

So that brings us to the idea that should work: Dump the Pump.

The American Public Transportation Association (APTA), is hosting this annual event for the third time on Thursday. It encourages Americans to beat high gas prices the only way they can: by not purchasing gasoline. Locally, WMATA is giving away a $100 SmarTrip card to the rider who can guess the number of riders who will use the system on June 19.

Nationally transit ridership is up, up, up. This is certainly a good thing, but local officials are quickly realizing that their policies have not funded transit enough in the past. Now demand for space on the train and bus is increasing faster than the supply of space can. Even here in Washington where it already seems like everyone takes the Metro, even more people are crowding on.

Some transit officials at WMATA are suggesting that Washington might need to go to mandatory staggered work schedules, reports Planetizen. It seems like trains are going to be so crowded with $5 gas that they will literally be in danger of exploding and spewing commuters all over the nice station architecture.

Ok, so maybe the Metro isn't that bad, but if $5 gas is going to be bad, how are we going to cope when it gets even higher? Can we even cope? I don't know if $5 gas is one of the signs of the apocalypse, but Sonny Perdue, Governor of Georgia, supporting transit expansion is. And that's just what he did shortly before pigs were seen flying near Jonesboro last week.

That's right, Mr. Perdue, who has been doing as much as possible to ignore the problem since he was elected in 2002 as Georgia's first Republican governor since Reconstruction (1872), has agreed to the idea, saying that he "fully supports" the commuter rail line to Lovejoy, south of Atlanta. And why is this so shocking? Because the federal government had already earmarked some $87 million in funding, along with $106 million in programmed state DOT funding. The only component missing was operating expenses (more info). But the state chose not to build. Repeatedly.

So instead of having the foresight to build a commuter rail line five years ago, when he took office, Mr. Perdue waited until the project was urgently needed to throw his support behind it. Now it will take some time to prepare the project for operation, meaning that gas might be nearer $6 a gallon by the time the train pulls into the station. And while I applaud the governor's decision to get on board, he (and many other politicians around the country) need to be chided for waiting until a crisis occurred before taking action.

So the long and short of it is that we commuters may have to deal with standing room only for now. Transit fixes take time to work out. We can't afford to wait any longer to start addressing these problems. We need action from our elected officials, and that action has to start with you, dear reader. Write your elected officials. Tell them how you feel.

And tell them to dump the pump on Thursday.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

From Atlantic to Pacific

At long last, I have returned from my trip between the "two great oceans of the world." After traveling some 4229.4 miles, I visited every major city in Canada along with a few smaller ones as well.

Except for 250 miles traveled by car between Edmonton, Calgary, and Banff, the entire trip was by train. Along the way, I was snowed on in the valleys of western Alberta and rained on in the rain forest of British Columbia. Our train passed muskegs too numerous to count and through cuts of some of the oldest rock on the continent.

The journey across this mighty land revealed a people diverse and proud. From the seafaring Nova Scotians to the lumberjacks of the West, Canada stretches across an area second only to Russia in overall size. And it was the railroad that kept it together.

Our train passed through communities whose only connection to the rest of the Dominion and indeed the rest of the planet lies in the spikes and ties of the Railway. For most of the trip through the pine forests of western Ontario, no humans were to be spotted from the windows of our carriages. With a land area greater than that of the United States, Canada contains only one tenth of the population. Most of that, according to humorists Will and Ian Ferguson, is located near the "U.S. border, where they huddle together for warmth." It is no coincidence that this population pattern follows the railway.

It is, as explorer William Butler once remarked, "the great lone land." The Canadian spent almost 24 hours crossing the Canadian Shield alone. Even after traveling for almost 2000 miles west of Toronto (to Edmonton), the Rockies are still below the horizon.

Of course, there is much, much more to tell about my long trek across the wilds (and civils) of Canada; and I will fill in the details. It is a busy time for me however. I start a new job on Monday and I'm looking for housing*. But fear not, I will update you as soon as I can. Thanks for reading.

*So if any of you know of any four bedroom houses for rent within a 10 minute walk of a Metro station, preferably along the Green Line or in Eastern Market/Capitol Hill sections of DC, please let me know.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

There Isn't a Train I Wouldn't Take

Hello dear readers. I'm sitting here at an internet cafe in Toronto while taking care of a few internet-related things. I thought I'd update you on my trip so far.

I've now travelled 1,488 miles across Canada--not even halfway. It's almost 2,000 miles just for the next leg of my trip, on The Canadian to Edmonton. Along the way I have seen many wonderful places, and I will have much to say about my travels and the lessons that America could take from Canadian planners.

So far I have experienced the atmosphere of 4 provinces, and have visited the wonderful metropolises of Halifax, Montreal, Quebec City, and Toronto. My journey has taken me from the cold Atlantic to the smallest and most easterly of the Great Lakes, Ontario. The next part of my trek will be through the Muskeg and across a sea of wheat. And even after two days and two nights on Via's premiere train, the Rockes will not yet be in sight.

This country is truly a land full of wonders and discovery. I can't wait to share my experiences with you.