Valocea Project – history of public transit during the late 20th and early 21st centuries (part 2)

Below is part 2 of the history of public transport in Valocea. Find part 1 here. This half of the post contains a few links at various points to pages detailing some of the transit vehicles mentioned (and in one case, detailing a referenced train station). These links serve to give the reader a slightly better visual concept of what is being discussed. At some point in the (hopefully near) future, I’ll be putting together a post which focuses on vehicles and stations, describing them much more extensively and featuring a large number of links to images and information pages (basically, this future post will do for transit vehicles and stations what the Lennvale post did for that city).

Just after the organization’s formal name change, the intercity rail services they ran were also re-branded. Prior to this, passenger trains run by VRS were simply “Valocea Intercity” trains. A new name and concept was established: going forward, the intercity passenger rail (and bus) services would collectively be known as VINE (Valocea Intercity National Express) services. This designation applied to all bus lines and the vast majority of rail services directly run by V-Net (i.e. not counting the regional sub-agencies, which are administered and managed by V-Net but run their own operations at ground level), though there remain to this day a few lines that are not considered “VINE routes” despite being run by V-Net. The largest example of this is the LVX (Lennvale-Vancouver Express), which runs between those two cities and makes very few other stops. It has its own livery and while it is run by the same entity and obviously is very similar to many of the VINE lines, it is not, technically, one of them (though it is generally shown on maps and documentation meant to show “all VINE routes”, simply being called out with a different color or other visual indicator). Other examples could be a line that has a specific name/history/livery, and rather than just absorb it into VINE, they chose to keep it around with the original name under V-Net management, or a line that simply doesn’t meet the criteria of “intercity” and/or “express” (the line is too small or too slow), but is still operated by V-Net.

As the country’s passenger rail network continued to expand and evolve, the difference in approach between Valocea and the rest of North America became more apparent. With a much higher number of passenger lines, greater priority for passenger trains versus freight, and much more electrification, Valocea’s railway network (for freight as well as passenger lines) resembled those in Europe much more so than it did either the United States or Canada. Not just in terms of the larger picture, but also, the technology and techniques employed for railway safety (signaling systems, train control, etc) were modeled primarily on those in Europe, with some influence from the railways of Japan, as well. V-Net and other agencies continually reevaluated the overall situation, conducting a particularly extensive inquiry into vehicle procurement patterns in 1989. The logical next step after moving toward European methodology was to move toward European rolling stock, which was a better match with that methodology. Once they were able to, some of Valocea’s agencies (most especially V-Net itself) began ordering more railway vehicles directly from European manufacturers, beginning with a large order from GEC Alsthom of France for electric locomotives. The need to procure vehicles second-hand from American agencies was dwindling rapidly, as the need to have newer, more efficient equipment grew. By this time, V-Net and the largest of Valocea’s local agencies were even able to begin offloading some of their older equipment, such as diesel EMD locomotives built in the 1960s, either by passing them on to smaller Valocean agencies, or selling them elsewhere in North America. These older diesel units were replaced in many cases by newer electric locomotives or EMUs (the latter were especially becoming increasingly common on commuter lines with more frequent stops; Bombardier’s MR-90, introduced in 1995, saw extensive use on SATA Dash lines as well as others) as electrification became more widespread. Lines that still required the use of diesel engines stayed with a combination of older and newer diesel locomotives built by EMD.

As SATA’s new buses from the 1988 order were delivered (in several waves over the course of two years), SATA and NFI worked more closely than they had previously, with NFI techs and SATA maintenance personnel coordinating their efforts to spot and eliminate any issues with the new buses, not just in terms of actual problems, but in terms of tailoring them for the specific operating environment they would be used in. This was the beginnings of another program administered by V-Net which would enable closer communication and coordination between the transit agencies running vehicles and the manufacturers that built them, as well as holding seminars, conferences, and training sessions to which personnel from both the agencies and manufacturers would routinely be invited. The goal of this was to allow for maintenance issues to be addressed more quickly and more precisely, for decisions about upgrading, refitting, retiring, and purchasing vehicles (and when each of those things should or should not be done) to be made with more information at hand, and for deeper, more useful feedback from the transit agencies back to the manufacturer. It didn’t gain its official name – the SMART (“Shared Maintenance And Refit Training”) Program – until 1992, when Bombardier Transportation, which had been providing trains for metro/subway operations throughout Valocea for several years, opted to participate. In addition, in order to facilitate the goals of the program, increase Valocea’s participation as a country in the global transportation industry, make it easier for vehicles to be custom designed for Valocean needs, and reduce the need for overseas shipping of transit vehicles, NFI and Bombardier were both actively encouraged to open branches within Valocea. The former did so in 1990, building a facility that was completed in mid-1993. Bombardier followed suit later that same year, but instead of building an entirely new facility, they bought up the site of a Valocean company that was just in the process of shutting down. Few attempts had been made to design and build rail vehicles from the ground up within Valocea, as the country’s industrial base had never been focused in that kind of direction (with the exception of sea-going vessels, all vehicles of any kind that had seen use in Valocea since the 1950s, from cars to planes, were imports). This particular company had produced a few subway car designs, with several having been built and used by Valocean operators, but they were fraught with problems, as they simply did not have the experience necessary to reliably build such machines. Bombardier acquired all of the assets held by that company (which officially ceased to exist), and by 1995, their plant was ready to begin rolling out new rail vehicles.

As the 1980s gave way to the 1990s, even more clearly identifiable differences between the transportation path taken by Valocea versus that of the US or Canada could be observed. In both of the larger North American countries, the personal automobile had come to dominate local and regional travel, with airplanes filling the role of longer-distance/intercity travel. Passenger rail had withered and continued to do so, along with local public transit options – certainly national or regional rail services had seen the most dramatic decline, but outside of a few select cities, urban subway and light-rail systems weren’t in much better shape, and even bus systems hadn’t fared especially well. This was in stark contrast to Valocea – cars and planes were certainly used by plenty of people, but the country had kept up high standards for auto emissions and regulations, pushed for alternatives such as hybrid and clean diesel engines (neither of which would be viable as mass-market cars until at least the year 2000, but the groundwork for such technologies to become widespread once available was laid at this time), and adopted air travel more slowly and in more limited fashion (and with a sharper focus on international flights; domestic air travel was and is fairly limited when compared with the US). These transportation options simply were not as ubiquitous as in the rest of North America. The flipside of all of this, of course, is the dramatically superior ground public transportation. It was clear even as soon as the early to mid 90s that the long-form plan was working, and all of the money, time, and energy spent building the country’s transportation options up (and the mess that the riding public put up with during the 80s) was now beginning to truly pay off. Despite the improved status of personal automobiles (advances in automotive and related technologies and improvements in city infrastructure management throughout Valocea meant that automobiles were if anything easier and cheaper to obtain and use from the late 90s and on, compared to the 60s-80s), people were beginning to get used to relying on trains and buses to get around, with cars seen as another method alongside them, with its own uses and advantages in certain situations, but not as the “default” method of transportation. And it had become clear that generally speaking, the people of Valocea were quite happy with this arrangement.

The one major exception to the otherwise prevalent pattern of Valocea’s transportation infrastructure and nature resembling that of Western Europe much more than that of North America was in the bus types used. While European sensibilities and rolling stock were prevailing when it came to rail operations, buses were a different story. A similar evaluation process was applied and had come to the converse conclusion that the North American approach was best suited for Valocea. Agencies preferred the “high-back” low-floor design that emerged in the 90s in North America (with the bus having a low-floor front section and high-floor rear section), vs. the 100% low-floor design that had cropped up in Europe (which had a full low-floor from front to back but usually necessitated uneven high-floor “islands” at several points to accommodate wheel wells). Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, it was felt that North American bus manufacturers were still competent, skilled, and efficient; whereas North American rail manufacturers were increasingly becoming irrelevant. Those that didn’t simply cease to exist, change focus to diesel freight locomotives, or change to different product lines altogether, were conforming heavily to American FRA regulations; these regulations were unnecessary and burdensome to Valocea’s rail operators. For buses, this was simply not the case. Additionally, by the early 1990s, SATA and other Valocean agencies had forged close connections with New Flyer as well as other North American bus manufacturers, and saw no reason to give up on those prosperous relationships.

With the country’s transportation situation steadily improving, the high-speed rail proposal was revisited in 1990 and ultimately given the go-ahead. Of course, high-speed rail required specialized rolling stock – one could not simply hook up existing passenger cars to a fast locomotive and hit the accelerator. Bidding on the contract was limited – V-Net was looking for not only a company to simply build and deliver vehicles, but to continue to work with them, developing the concept for Valocea’s high-speed rail, with trains and infrastructure being developed in tandem.  In the end, two entities bid on the contract. One was a consortium of Japanese companies Hitachi and Kawasaki, both of whom had prior experience developing Japan’s Shinkansen trains. The other was also a consortium, led by French manufacturer GEC Alsthom, which built the trains for France’s TGV, and supported by Bombardier. Both groups presented strong proposals, but the Alsthom-led consortium was ultimately selected as winner. It was quite a close call, as both the technical and cost scores between the two were extremely close. There were accusations of favoritism from some sectors, due to the pre-existing presence of Bombardier in V-Net’s SMART Program, as well as prior locomotive orders from Alsthom; the counter-argument was that the previous ties that Valocea’s rail agencies had to these companies did not represent an unfair bias, but were simply a legitimate asset that they brought to the table during the bidding process. Their prior experience working with Valocea’s railways was necessarily a considered factor, and the Japanese companies had no such experience. Conversely, they had more experience working with HSR trains that had higher loading gauges, which Valocea’s HSR trains would as well, whereas the European consortium’s experience was limited to building trainsets conforming to the narrower loading gauge common within Europe. While most discussions of favoritism came from Valocean government or media sources who identified the concerns as their own and brought them to the parties involved, there were allegations made by two Valocean news organizations – one a large, nationally recognized paper with wide circulation, the other a small, little-known outfit – that the Japanese consortium was itself upset over what it perceived as a rigged bidding process, and were considering a legal challenge. In fact no such challenge was planned, and when the two news agencies in question pushed the story out, spokespersons for the Japanese companies confirmed that they did not feel there had been any favoritism, concurring with V-Net’s explanation that the prior experience the European companies had working within Valocea was fair to consider and expressing satisfaction with the entire bidding process. In the years that followed, both news outfits were pilloried, as it was discovered that they ran with the story on unconfirmed information from dubious sources, and then even doubled down for a time in the wake of the statement from the Japanese companies, claiming a cover up. Neither organization exists today.

By 1991, construction on the initial line, which would run from Lennvale to Ingram, the Sen-Halu region’s capital and largest city, was underway. Questions arose along the way about just how many stations the line should call at, since a higher number of stops meant slower overall speeds. V-Net was ultimately able to strike a balance that was satisfactory to most agencies, communities, and politicians involved in the decision-making process. The line opened to the public in 1996, an event that certainly qualified as one of the the most significant transit developments of the last half-century. The turnout during the official grand opening of the line, culminating in the inaugural run of one of the new “V-Net Class 1000” trains (which were extremely similar, technologically, to the Thalys PBKA, which was also built by Alsthom and first ran in revenue service in Europe in 1998), was enormous. Lennvale West Station, from which the train began its run, was filled to capacity with Valocean citizens and reporters, and all across streets, bridges, and countryside throughout the entire length of the line between Lennvale and Ingram Central Station, people came out to view and photograph Valocea’s newest rail service in action. The trip from one terminus to the other was just under 2 hours and 30 minutes, over a length of about 450 km. Demand for the line was high, and initially, relatively few of those who wished to use the line were able to, due to the limited availability of high-speed trainsets. The contract with Alsthom specified that the initial batch of trainsets would be delivered in two waves, one in 1996 and one in 1997. However, the opening of the line to the public occurred when only the first wave of 20 sets had been delivered and approved for use; V-Net underestimated the demand, which would have required at least 30 trainsets to truly be met. By the second year of operation, an additional 15 sets had been delivered, and the initial fervor had worn off a bit, thus the line’s usage characteristics settled into something a bit more comfortable – demand remained high, and most trips were booked to capacity, but generally speaking, people were no longer simply unable to even book a seat. By 1998, GEC Alsthom, which officially changed its name to “Alstom” in that year, had provided 42 Class 1000 trainsets, and was an active partner in V-Net’s efforts to expand the network.

Following on from this, further lines were planned and have since been constructed. As of January 2014, there are a total of four lines, comprising over 1400 km of route. Like the TGV and Shinkansen, Valocea’s HSR system, while considered part of a larger overall transportation network, was conceived and built as its own entity, with tracks and infrastructure largely built from the ground up to accommodate the particular needs of high-speed, as opposed to conventional, rail (and to allow high-speed trains to have their own tracks, sharing them with slower traffic as little as possible, increasing safety and allowing higher speeds).

In the late 90s, ordering of new vehicles was stepped up, as the needs of the still-expanding transportation network grew. A 1997 order of electric locomotives from German manufacturer ADtranz was the first and last time that V-Net dealt with that company, as ADtranz was acquired by Bombardier in 2001. Large numbers of locomotives, passenger cars, and EMUs made by Bombardier (particularly from their TRAXX line, which was partially derived from ADtranz designs) and Alstom made their way into the rolling stock rosters of Valocea’s railways, as well as some units from Siemens of Germany and Stadler Rail of Switzerland, during the 2000s.

Alongside the revival and subsequent refinement of mainline passenger rail came similar improvements to many local systems, including tram and light rail networks, metro and subway systems, and local buses. By 2005, a majority of the country’s larger local transit agencies were participating in both the V-Net membership program and the SMART program, meaning that inter-agency coordination was extremely high. During the 90s, several Valocean agencies had been running experiments and pilot programs with contactless smart cards as a form of fare payment. V-Net launched a program in 1996, shortly after the inaugural run of the HSR line, to create a single card that could be usable on any line operated by V-Net. In 1997, a change was proposed to that card, to make it usable not only on all V-Net services, but also, on any service whose operating agency was a member of V-Net. The “V-Card” was rolled out in 1999 in limited areas – mainly in those larger Valocean cities whose transit agencies had been especially longtime participants in the V-Net membership program, and who also already had a smart card system of their own, as both of those factors made such agencies ideal testing grounds for the more ambitious V-Card plan. Though there were, naturally, some bugs and issues that needed to be worked out during the first couple of years, the card was overall considered a success, and over the course of the next several years, was expanded to include more and more transit agencies. Today, one can use this single card, loaded with general “transit cash” or with special passes for any member agency, to travel on the services of any member agency. Considering the high rate of V-Net membership among Valocea’s transit agencies, this means that one can travel through a large portion of the country, moving back and forth between local transit, regional transit, and VINE lines, using only a single smart card to pay for all of it.

The most recent major transit development has been the adoption of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), which is something that really only gained widespread use starting in the year 2000. A medium-sized city near Lennvale, covered in hills and already possessing an extensive trolley bus network, organized some of their routes into BRT corridors in dedicated busways during the 90s (the major advantage for them being that electric trolley buses are far better at quickly scaling hills than either a diesel bus or a tram/LRV). Following on from the success of these routes, Lennvale and some other large cities began making use of such bus lines, operating them through areas that either had a lot of hills in the route, had a demand for transit but not enough of one to require the capacity of a rail solution, or in any situation where a bus is a more viable tool (for example, some of the rapid lines use busways for part of their route, but then leave the dedicated space and move through normal city streets. This would not be possible with a rail vehicle without building more infrastructure along those streets, which isn’t feasible to do on all potential routes). Some of these lines are built with the idea that they can be converted to light rail at a later date if capacity demands warrant, though this has yet to occur with any of the (admittedly relatively few) BRT lines that were created in the Lennvale area. Vehicle wise, these services have been dominated by modern New Flyer articulated buses, including a number of LFA models (which were purpose-designed with BRT in mind and have doors on both sides, an unusual feature for buses in North America), with a mix of propulsion types depending on local parameters and agency preference.

All of this planning and building and developing did ultimately pay off, starting in the late 1990s but much more so in the 21st century. As the transit options grew and improved, so too did ridership and the reputations of the agencies running it. The net effect of this was cyclical; the improvements fed off of each other. More people riding it and spreading goodwill about the reliability and usability of transit meant that the agencies had more money coming in via fares and advertising revenue (as transit ad space became a hot commodity). More money coming in meant better maintenance, younger fleets, and stations that were well kept and had numerous amenities, which in turn helped to keep ridership numbers high and encourage people to use transit. Projects to further improve transit infrastructure were met with enthusiastic approval from the public. A good example of this is the near-total rebuilding of Lennvale’s Central Station, which began in 2002 and concluded in 2005. The original Central Station, a facility located in the heart of downtown, had been constructed, somewhat hastily, in the 1950s as a supplement to the existing main railway stations (of which there are several, most built before Central but a couple after). The transit overhaul increased the importance of this station; the addition of more lines and the reconfiguring of several existing lines meant that it would be receiving much more traffic. Realizing that this would be the case, the plan to rebuild and expand the station was drafted and approved in 2001, and by early 2002, construction was underway. Even before the renovations began, the old station’s limitations had already begun showing themselves in the form of caps on the frequency of some of the more heavily used lines (as demand for services into/out of downtown Lennvale increased, including the addition of both SATALight and Lennvale Metro services which the station had not been originally designed to accommodate, service frequency was unable to continue increasing to match it). During the renovations, the rail and bus lines that already called at the station had to be rerouted; this led to a somewhat more chaotic time for Lennvale compared to the relative stability of the late 90s, transit wise. Still, it was not as bad as The Pinch, due to the extensive experience that the transit authorities had gained during that time and since. Because of the planned importance of the station, the rebuilding project was given an extremely high priority among the city’s various municipal projects, and was completed in about three years. Architecturally, the new version of the station is similar to the main railway station in Berlin, Germany, “Berlin Hauptbahnhof” (which roughly translates to “Berlin Main Station” or “Berlin Central Station”), which opened only one year later. The main designers at the company that worked on Lennvale Central were actually originally from Germany; the company’s founders relocated to Valocea in the late 1970s.  The similarities in the architecture and layout of the two stations can be attributed to the design teams for both having a similar background, not just due to being from the same country, but in terms of the specific architectural methodologies they learned and practiced. One major difference between the two is their size and scope: Lennvale’s station is larger, with more tracks on the train levels within the station, as well as a large bus terminal and light rail station (neither of which are located within the same building as the train station, but are right next to it and considered “part” of Central Station). Several SATA Express bus lines terminate here. The Lennvale Metro station sits on the lower, underground, train level alongside the mainline tracks and platforms. The main reasons for this are Lennvale’s much higher population total and density compared to Berlin (the two cities are close to the same size geographically, but Lennvale has nearly double the total population), and the slightly higher rate of rail use in Valocea vs. Germany. Due to these factors, Lennvale necessarily sees more trains per any given length of time, thus, the new Central Station was designed to accommodate a higher number of trains simultaneously.

Lost amid the above breakdown of the evolution of Valocea’s rail and bus transportation are the country’s ferry services. Given how much water there is within the defined national limits of Valocea, it’s only natural that there would be many such services, used for both leisure travel and commuting. Yet, ferry transport does not have the interesting and tumultuous history that bus and (especially) rail transport had. They have always been there, they have expanded in logical ways as the country continued to grow and change, and today remain present in a large number of cities. Services connecting various points along the Pascale Sea (the long channel of water that separates the northern and southern “arms” of land), as well as those connecting some of Valocea’s inhabited islands to the mainland, are especially well-used.

In modern times, air travel has also expanded, though not to the degree that rail travel has. International flights are of course common, and there are several major airports spread throughout the country. Domestic flights, while they have markedly increased in number since the 1970s, are still not nearly as prevalent as they are in the United States. Even with only a moderate number of high-speed rail lines as yet built and parts of the country served only by conventional speed rail, it remains by far the preferred method for travel within Valocea.

The one area where Valocea can be said to fall short when it comes to rail, in comparison to the United States and Canada, is freight. It is true that the freight rail infrastructure of those countries outstrips it in terms of capacity as well as speed and priority of operations (though to be fair, some of that is a conscious choice; the priority given to freight trains is sometimes a direct cause of Amtrak delays in the US, whereas in Valocea, it is an intentional policy that if there is a scheduling conflict between freight and passenger trains, the latter is given priority unless an unusual circumstance dictates otherwise). On the whole, freight takes longer to move in large quantity and usually costs slightly more in Valocea. Still, the disparity in overall freight rail efficiency between Valocea and the rest of North America pales in comparison to the disparity that exists in passenger rail (part of the reason for this is that a large number of freight lines in Valocea are electrified, as opposed to nearly none in the US and Canada, which helps keep operating costs down).

Today, Valocea is widely considered one of the best countries in the world when it comes to public transportation. Coverage is extensive, service is reliable, there is a great deal of interconnectedness, and many conveniences abound (most notably the near-universal smart card). Lennvale, with it’s multiple transit networks, central location, and status as Valocea’s most populous city, is the best-known example of this, especially to those who do not live in Valocea, and it is fair to say that overall, it is in fact the most developed “transit metropolis” in the country. Nevertheless, there are a number of other large cities that can compare favorably to Lennvale in terms of the overall efficiency of their transit systems, and even many small and medium sized cities still have extensive transit options for their size. And of course, linking all of Valocea’s local and regional systems together is V-Net. Valocea has far more rail line per square kilometer than either Canada or the US; its coverage is more akin to that of Japan or Western Europe, and it continues to expand, with new high-speed lines and more electrification. For many, it is not only a useful tool, but a pleasant way to get around; a good number of people who could own a car if they wanted to don’t, or own one but simply choose to use transit much of the time. The world-class nature of Valocea’s transit options at all levels is a significant source of national pride for many citizens, and as the 21st century continues, these transit options can only expand and improve; Valoceans have no reason to look back.

-Saito S

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One thought on “Valocea Project – history of public transit during the late 20th and early 21st centuries (part 2)

  1. Pingback: Valocea Project – history of public transit during the late 20th and early 21st centuries (part 1) | Saito Nexus

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