PART 4: History of the project
So WHY, one might ask, am I trying to develop a fictional country set in the real world with a peculiarly obsessive focus on the transit systems of said country?
I was casually interested in transit related topics for quite a while, but really got into it (as well as into some vehicle fanning – taking some photos and identifying different models, etc.) only within the last couple years. It was at that time that I found this place, which is a pretty cool site to discuss transit-y things and get information. In one of the sub-forums, there was a long discussion (which had started years before I even knew this site existed) titled “Anyone create their own transit system?”
That got me thinking: that sounds like a fun idea! So I started brainstorming how I might go about doing this myself. Of course, being a fan of trains and city buses, one of the first things I did was geek out over exactly what types of vehicles might serve in what capacity. But that was an indulgence; such minutiae absolutely have a place in the project, and it is an aspect I enjoy, but that was WAY too early for it. What area would this transit system serve? Am I going to take a real city with a cruddy or practically non-existent transit system, and re-design it? Or is it going to exist in an entirely fictional city? If so, is THAT city part of a real state? Which one? For that matter, is it even in the US?
These questions swirled about in my brain, and it took a while for me to parse it all down and decide what I wanted to do. Eventually, I came to the decision to invent a US city, and the state to go with it. I didn’t want to put it in a real state, because then it’d be subject to that state’s policies and attitudes toward, and amount of prioritization given (or NOT given) to, transit; I felt I needed control over those things in order to create the city and system I wanted, without having it be completely unbelievable. So I started developing it that way. The “main city” (which was originally conceived by itself, before I had a state or country or anything, when it was just “Create a transit system and a city to put it in”) became Lennvale (after agonizing over it for like two weeks; names are HARD!), and was set up to be the largest city in the state (in both area and population). The state’s name was “Valocean” (it changed to “Valocea” when it became a country, partly because I actually do think it sounds better, and partly because trying to come up with a good demonym for a country called “Valocean” was a maddening prospect). After wrestling with exactly where I wanted to set it, I decided on the Pacific Northwest. I didn’t want to just have it be next to California, because I didn’t want it to end up resembling California too closely (since that’s where I live, and I wanted to do something a bit different). At the same time, while I considered the east coast, when it comes to “places I’ve never lived”, I know a lot more about the Pacific Northwest than I do the east, and there are a lot of aspects of it that seemed to work, in terms of the “feel” I wanted for this place. So, I started creating map concepts that essentially rearranged the real west coast into something that could accommodate a 51st state. i.e., something along these lines:
That is VERY rough; this map represents an idea that is still very much in the early planning stages. It never got farther than that because I was feeling rather constrained by all the realities and baggage (no pun intended) that would come with it being a state in the real US, especially when it comes to the nature and extent of passenger trains.
Because, let’s not forget, here in America, we basically don’t have such things. Sure, there’s Amtrak, and a bunch of commuter rail operations, but they all suck to varying degrees and for varying reasons. Yes, I said suck. There is not a SINGLE passenger rail operation in this country that I am aware of that isn’t – in at least one significant way – horrendously deficient when compared to one of the better European or Asian passenger rail operations. (If someone knows about one that can really compare to that level of overall service and reliability, let me know. Also note that when I say “passenger rail”, that still excludes urban rail – subways, metro system, light rail, and the like. Though, things aren’t really much better on that front than with passenger rail, really, mainly because such rail operations usually fall under the prevue of notoriously cash-strapped and mismanaged local transit agencies).
As time went on, the scope of the transit aspect of the project grew. First, it was just the bus and urban rail system of one large city. Then, there was regional commuter rail, too. Then, inspired by a bunch of new research I did on various rail operations, I suddenly couldn’t get away from the idea of a whole huge regional rail network, linking several districts via intercity service, with each district then having its own commuter and urban level transit operations. While this was all very cool, it was starting to not make any sense. And on more than one level, too. Firstly, I was faced with a really crappy choice.
Option A: this rail network, while extensive, isn’t necessarily all that great, in terms of performance, efficiency, age of vehicles/infrastructure and maintenance, and overall rider satisfaction. At best it’s a little better than most of the Northeast Corridor services (NJ Transit, Metro North, LIRR, etc).
Option B: this rail network is extensive AND great. It provides a level of service and reliability that far exceeds that of pretty much any other rail network in the entire country. Why this one state has this one super amazing massive rail network that is totally kickass, while 99% of the passenger rail in the rest of the nation is mediocre-to-awful, is a complete mystery.
Neither option had any appeal. There were other factors, as well: still relating to trains, there’s the issue of vehicles. Because the Federal Railroad Administration’s approach to crash safety standards is “make it super heavy and loaded with extra steel crumple zones so that when it hits something, it might survive”, the type of vehicles (for both motive power and passenger cars) that are allowed to operate on US passenger lines are quite limited. This is in stark contrast to the approach to rail safety in much of Europe, which can be summed up as “put lots of advanced safety systems in, and make extensive use of modern signaling and train control systems so that the vehicles don’t hit anything in the first place.” For my purposes, one approach was clearly superior in terms of allowing me to actually develop the rail system the way I want, with the vehicles I want. Another difference between Europe and the US is the approach to freight rail, and in particular, how it relates to passenger rail; while the freight rail network of the US is excellent – arguably better than that in Europe – it has come partially at the expense of passenger rail (not just in terms of history, but even today; a good number of the really huge delays that Amtrak is notorious for come because they have to play second fiddle to freight trains, since those companies own a lot of the track Amtrak uses). Again, I found myself leaning toward the European model – even acknowledging its downsides for the efficiency of the freight service itself – for my little fictional corner of the world.
And there were other things. The more I thought about it, the less satisfied I was with the idea of simply trying to create another US state, while keeping it believable as a US state, in terms of culture, attitudes, values, industry, and other things – certainly as they relate to transit, but also just in general. I wanted to do my own thing. And trying to do that while adhering to certain underlying constants that exist in any and every US state, even as diverse as they can be, was just too constricting.
So it grew and grew, and finally burst out of the confines of that mostly black-and-white map, emerging into glorious color out in the Pacific Ocean. Well, a little ways out, anyway.
Not only do I have more freedom, but this also allows me to do more with less. Obviously the presence of this country will have an impact on the rest of the world, but countries are still wholly separate entities compared to US states. The idea that there was this ONE state with markedly different attitudes and priorities when it comes to cars, transit, trains, etc., was not really workable. And I had this huge rail network planned, which would go… where? Again, it was just weird: this ONE STATE has this super extensive network just for getting around the state? I could have connected it to places in Washington or Oregon (and considered this for a time), but that won’t go very far. The west coast is just way more spread out than the east coast: the major cities are much farther away from one another, and between them, there is often nothing but rural or agricultural areas with smaller towns dotting the landscape. This huge rail network just made no sense. So I either had to alter my plans, or alter reality (adding major population centers to the existing states or moving state borders around even more than I already was, or something along those lines).
By making it its own country, I can do more customization with less alteration of reality. Which is really a lot better.
And with the switch to an entire country, the focus of the transit aspect expanded even more. Suddenly, I was free to lay down details about intercity and regional rail, and even high-speed rail! Which was something impossible with the “state” version, because the US doesn’t have any, excepting the “almost ok” Amtrak Acela. But even acknowledging the existence of the Acela, the fact that it’s the ONLY high speed rail in the country is actually kind of a big deal when it comes to the current sociopolitical climate of America as it relates to mass transit. To suddenly say, oh, there’s also another state way over here that has high-speed rail, by the way (while only 500 miles south of said state, California struggles to even get its high-speed rail plans off the ground), would constitute a massive change. Dealing with the repercussions of that change was not something I wanted to do; changing the nature of trains, transit, and the attitude toward those things throughout a large chunk of America is NOT what this project is about.
Of course, it’s also more work this way. A country just has more to it in terms of… well, everything, than a state added to the existing US. All of this must be planned out; nothing just gets to be filed under “Well, since it’s part of the US, this aspect is kind of taken care of”. But you know what? I’m still making progress, I’m still able to come up with ideas, and I’m still having fun planning all this out. It’s obviously extremely slow going, but I don’t really mind that. It’s also completely unique among all of my creative projects, in that it’s not a story, at all. There IS no story. The entirety of the information about the country simply exists for its own sake. Which means that in a way, it’s a project that can never end. There is absolutely no way I will ever fill out EVERY LAST CONCEIVABLE DETAIL about this place. One person simply could not do so, not for an entire country created out of thin air, in one lifetime. Thus, from now until the day I die, if I want to go back to it and add something else, there will be room to do so. I actually kind of like this aspect of it. Since there’s no end, there’s no rush, no feeling of “once I reach this point, it’s done” to it. It’s always there, and whenever I feel like working on something, but am stymied on all of my actual story projects by the dreaded random writer’s block, I can look at Valocea and try to flesh it out just a little bit more.
Although, perhaps I should say, there’s no story yet. A couple friends of mine have suggested that once it’s in a more thoroughly developed state, it could serve as a setting FOR stories. Which is actually a very interesting idea. A fictional city in a fictional country, with a short story or novel or what have you written that takes place in it (in other words, treating it as if it were a real place, and not looking at it any differently than setting a story in San Francisco or London or Beijing). If I wanted to REALLY go all meta with the idea, then I could frame such a work as a story that takes place in Valocea… written by an author who lives in Valocea.
And who knows! Maybe someday, someone other than myself might want to write a story that takes place there. There are definitely some interesting possibilities…
So! That’s pretty much it, as far as how this whole project came to be. As time goes on, I’ll be adding more detail about the country, its people, history, the lands themselves, and of course, most of all, the transit systems.