After a long absence, back to Valocea!

So recently, with things calming down after the tumultuous last few months, I’ve found my head back in Valocea again. Still working on the mapping, the planning, and of course, the transit.

One thing that I found myself thinking about a few days ago, is how far it’s come since its original inception. I started reflecting back on how this project came to be, and what kinds of decisions I’ve made (and what I’ve learned from it), and it’s kind of crazy how much it’s changed. The original concept, of course, wasn’t for a country at all, but a state that would be added to the existing US. The idea was to change the shape of the continent – specifically, the Pacific Northwest – to allow for enough extra land to accommodate a 51st state. Basically, it would have been something like this…

For some reason I never got around to adding the name “Lennvale” to this map, but it would be the black dot located slightly southwest of Salem.

or this:

This was the one that really warped the shape of the west coast quite a bit!

Note that at this time, it was called “Valocean”, with the “-n” sound meant to fit in with the theme of it’s two real-life neighbor states. Those crude maps are as far as I ever got with the geography of the place; I had trouble nailing down just what I wanted to do, because (as you can see) I found it very difficult to come up with a way to do this that didn’t make it look really unnatural. Not just because of the aspect of “changing what’s familiar” (i.e. we’re all used to looking at the REAL northwest coast, so for it to be different in this way is weird to try and process… I think getting used to the current Valocea, a large island that sits off the coast but doesn’t change the shape of real existing landmasses at all, is easier), but also because it just didn’t look very good on its own merits. It was awkward the way the land just kind of stuck out from the side, with Oregon becoming this giant L in the second version. And of course, I wanted to have Amtrak run through Lennvale and at least one or two other cities in Valocean, but in order to do that without bypassing the real cities it currently stops in, the Amtrak lines in question (the Coast Starlight and the Cascades would be the two that would have realistically gone through Valocean) would need to either zigzag back and forth across state lines repeatedly (as would be the case in the first image), or those real cities would have to move a significant distance (as in the second image).

As for the transit, I was envisioning Lennvale as the one really transit-heavy metropolis in the state. A city with maybe a million or so people, there would be extensive and reliable bus and urban rail transit modes, and several commuter rail lines. I was influenced mainly by what I know, i.e. the systems I’m most familiar with, so Caltrain, Sounder, and the like. Of course, I wanted Lennvale’s transit options to be better than those, meaning more reliable and with more overall coverage. GO Transit’s rail network became my model. 6-8 lines stretching out a modest distance from the city, which would run frequently during rush hour, with some off-peak service (like once every hour and such). These services consisted entirely of diesel locomotives (in particular, EMD F59PHIs and MPXpress series locos) hauling Bombardier bi-level coaches. All of the above equipment is pretty much ubiquitous in North American commuter rail outside of the Northeast US. There wasn’t really any kind of “Valocean rail”, because that’s what Amtrak is for. Other cities in the state had perhaps decent-to-good transit for a US city as well, but I wasn’t planning to put in much detail for any cities aside from Lennvale, and I didn’t envision anything in the way of a large network connecting all major cities, let alone covering a majority of the whole state. There was minimal to no electrified rail outside of urban trams or subways, with perhaps electrification of Lennvale’s commuter lines being considered for the future.

Or, in other words: outside of the superior reliability, the nature of Lennvale’s public transit system would be that of just another large American city, a west coast city in particular. There would be nothing all that uncharacteristic about the transit – the same was true for the state as a whole, as well as Lennvale in particular.

The nature of transit in the Northeast Corridor (“NEC”, and from here on, I’ll use “NEC area” to refer to that whole region, including as far north as Boston and as far south as DC) was an eye-opener. Here, you had several commuter rail agencies overlapping through the busiest stations, and on top of that, Amtrak’s high-speed (such as it is) service and regular rail services also cruising through the same corridor. Large stations with multiple tracks running through them (and often with high platforms, as seen in that photo of Jamaica Station in New York; here on the west coast, I associate those with subways. Our commuter and passenger rail stations use these dinky little nothing platforms), lots of people moving in and out of trains and stations, and lots of overhead electrification. Of course, I knew in vague terms about the NEC, and that that region had more and better trains, but still, it wasn’t until I really started digging more deeply that I saw just what that really meant. I started thinking, man, my ideas for this so far have been WAY too small. Once exposed more fully to these concepts, I wanted to emulate them in Valocean. Forget having only one major commuter rail operation that connects one city with a bunch of suburbs via a piddly 6-8 lines of all-diesel, all the time. I wanted my own version of something like Penn Station (even though there was also something about it that really bugged me, aesthetically… more on that in a minute), with like a million different commuter and regional lines passing through it. So I started thinking about how I could change things, and then something else happened.

Like with the NEC, I “knew” about the trains in Europe and Japan. But, also like the NEC, my knowledge was limited to that same vague general concept: they have more trains and better service. It was an abstraction. Until I started digging more deeply here, as well, and my entire outlook on what I wanted out of my fictional cities and transit systems changed.

Forget New York and the NEC. The passenger rail networks that exist around Paris or Tokyo are almost as far ahead of the NEC as the NEC is ahead of the SF Bay Area. We’re a joke next to them when it comes to passenger rail. Our one and only “high-speed” rail service, Amtrak’s Acela Express, putts along at an average of 110-130 km/h (about 70-80 mph). Compare that to the TGV, which averages 210-225 km/h (about 130-140 mph) across its ten lines. And it’s not just HSR, the conventional-speed rail services of France or Germany or Japan, from intercity to commuter, outclass us by such a margin that it’s laughable. Only the NEC can even compete in that league, and its hampered by several poorly designed and poorly maintained stations, old rolling stock, and sub par management. On that first point: I mentioned Penn Station, and while it’s an important, busy rail transit hub, it’s also a freaking dungeon. Closed-in, claustrophobic, dark and dingy with low ceilings, bad passenger flows everywhere, and positively ghastly train platforms that serve to de-emphasize the actual moment of boarding a train as being in any way important or pleasant, instead partially hiding the vehicles from view and making you want to spend as little time as possible there.

Contrast the above with some of the stations in Germany or France, the designers of which clearly understand the value of inviting space and passenger flow. And it’s neither oldness nor newness that causes Penn to look like crap; Gare du Nord, the example used above for France, is quite old, while Berlin Central, the example used above for Germany, is very new (completed in 2006). And, Japan gives us examples of stations that – likely constrained by space considerations, given Japan’s size and population density – do not have open, sweeping areas like the above, and in fact, as you can see, aren’t much bigger than the areas within Penn. But they are still welcoming and pleasant; they don’t feel like dungeons. And Japanese station designers certainly know their stuff when it comes to using the available space well and promoting efficient passenger flow.

The real tragedy of Penn is that it didn’t used to be a dungeon. It was, at one time, possessed of nice, open areas, grand architecture, and a feeling of celebrating, rather than hiding or suppressing, the experience of moving between platform and train. It was positively European in its design, as you can see in this gorgeous photo at Alas, that was all destroyed, to make way for the monstrosity that now sits under Madison Square Garden.

On top of all that, there is the reality that – while the services inside and immediately around the NEC might be pretty good by American standards – those services still can’t connect you to much else outside the NEC area because there’s hardly anything else for it to connect to. Where would it go? Travel north of Boston, or south of Baltimore and DC, or west of New Jersey, and you’re back in anti-train land. Isolated pockets of commuter rail services that are almost decent (i.e. Chicago, LA, SF) punctuate an otherwise barren landscape of all-diesel once-a-day Amtrak routes that are probably running three hours late.

Which brought me to my next problem. Ok, so I want to expand Valocean’s rail options. I could make the commuter rail in Lennvale electric, and create more routes, but I’d need cities to go along with that. And what about some kind of extensive state-level rail instead of just relying on Amtrak? Is there really enough space contained in this little state to warrant this? It could connect to cities in other states, but… where the heck would it go? Eugene, Oregon? Aside from Portland and Seattle, there ARE no major metropolises anywhere even remotely close to the location I’d envisioned for Valocean. Oregon and Washington (and much of Northern California, for that matter) just aren’t at all lined with dense population centers the way the NEC area is. You have huge open and very rural spaces between cities, the largest cities are 500-600k tops… the demand for an extensive rail system just isn’t there in the same way. So I’d end up with a west coast NEC: there would be this one state that has this amazing rail service, and around it… nothing.

I also liked the idea of high-speed rail, but there was no way I could introduce that into the mix in a way that would make ANY sense. That we don’t have any HSR in the US aside from the hilariously slow Acela, and that initiatives to start building HSR have cropped up in several areas over the last few years (such as the one in California, which can charitably be described as being on life support) is kind of a big deal. To have a 51st US state that had successfully built a high-speed rail system would change that historical, political, and logistical landscape quite a bit. Rewriting the history and current nature of rail travel in the United States is NOT what this project was supposed to be about.

But I couldn’t go back. The image, the idea, of a massive transit-centered metropolis, of a city with huge, gorgeous, clean train stations, always busy, always active, from which one could catch any one of a number of efficient, reliable, electric trains to anywhere else in the entire countr- errr state, it was still a state at this point… anyway, that idea had taken root in my mind, and would NOT go away. I spent a good amount of time trying to decide if I wanted to just junk the whole 51st state idea entirely, and take on the creation of an entire country as my project. Of course, there were other things I learned about that helped spur the decision, such as the incredibly byzantine and unnavigable swamp of regulations imposed on passenger rail vehicles by the Federal Railroad Administration. Not dealing with that certainly held some appeal. And at this point, it wasn’t just the transit; I really liked the idea of defining my own ideas for their history, culture, and other aspects of their society, even though I find those things really difficult to create! Getting away from those aspects which permeate all US states (despite the political and cultural diversity of the 50 states, there are still some fundamental commonalities to the experience of being “an American”) would allow me to more freely do my own thing.

Finally, I made my decision, and began working on what was called in my Word docs: “Valocean (country ver).” Of course, it wasn’t long before I realized that “Valocean” really didn’t work that well as a country name, especially in regards to the impossible prospect of trying to come up with a demonym for a country with that name! So, the much more fitting “Valocea” was born, with the original “Valocean” itself becoming the demonym.

And that brings us to now. Since making that decision to change it to a country, I’ve been slowly but steadily working on the project, building up information on the geography, history, culture, and transportation. There is still relatively little that is in “presentable” form (i.e. I know some things about the culture and history but it’s all too vague and disjointed for me to put together any kind of coherent write-up for others to read, though I hope to change that at some point), but it continues to grow. And while I still love the setting for its own sake and will continue to develop the place and the transit systems, the idea of using it as a setting for actual stories – some sci-fi or fantasy, some not – has a lot more appeal to me now than it did when I first started. I’ve had several ideas, including changing a couple of preexisting story ideas I had that took place on Earth that have been moved into Valocea, which is actually a pretty exciting prospect.

So! No significant reason for posting this, really – I just started thinking about the history of this project, and began writing down thoughts as they came to me. Started adding more details and links to images and info, and before I knew it, I had a huge post written. If you ever wondered about how I came to decide to make the change from US state to full, independent country, well, there you go.

-Saito S


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