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The advertising wrap above is for the University of Minnesota’s dental clinics. Which apparently specialize in “gopher teeth”. Intriguing.

And I can’t help but notice that they refrained from putting this LRT car at the head of an LRT train, possibly because the image would be too much, “oh, God, here comes the LRT to eat us all!”

Taking a day off to visit Minneapolis was a good idea. There’s only so much time you can spend on board one train. So even though I hopped out of St. Paul’s Union “Depot” (seriously, “Depot”? It’s as big as Toronto’s Union Station!) and immediately hopped onto another transit vehicle, it did me a world of good to get up, stretch my legs, and explore.

Minneapolis/St. Paul’s LRT network is a little on the small side. I was able to ride its entire length within about an hour and a half. However, it means business. It connects the twin cities’ two downtowns and the world famous Mall of America. The trains themselves operate at ten minute intervals throughout most of the week, and offer sleek three-car trains. And even though they operate in the middle of the street, they have definite priority over competing car traffic. I cannot recall a single instance of having my LRT wait at an intersection for a light to change. The service is fast, and seems well used.

I count it as a decent accomplished that I walked into and out of the Mall of America without buying a single thing (even after stumbling on the mall’s Barnes and Noble; I got my book fix with Powell’s, thank you very much). While there, I spotted a surprising number of Blue Jays fans, come to see the mall, and ride the LRT to the game.

I didn’t stick around Minneapolis’ downtown, however. It didn’t seem inviting. A lot of the street traffic has been pulled into its connected elevated walkway network (a must for this winter city) and the place generally seemed to cater to office workers and sports fans and, given that this was a Saturday, there weren’t many office workers about.

And, surprisingly, despite these admittedly major attractions (and let’s not forget the airport), Minnesota’s LRT network did not seem to open up the city to me. I noticed this when I considered whether or not to catch a movie while visiting. I was able to do this in Denver and Sacramento, but when I tried to look for a decent theatre within walking distance of an LRT stop, none were available, which was kind of weird, and frustrating. Expansions are planned in the next five years, however.

I did, however, find a very pleasant neighbourhood called Stadium Village near the University of Minnesota’s campus near “East Bank” station on the LRT. Although the place was clearly between semesters, there were plenty of friendly places, including coffee shops, bars, and a place where I had a most wonderful wood-fired pizza. I sat in a coffee shop and added another thousand words to a new draft of The Sun Runners.

And I can’t complain about the LRT’s connection with my Amtrak train. Sunday morning, I got up bright and early and caught an early train back to Union Depot, well in time for my train run through the Wisconsin Dells, Chicago, and home (tomorrow) by way of Buffalo.

Photos of my day can be found here.

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Sat, May
21
2016

Big Sea to Big Sky

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On Thursday morning, I boarded the Portland Streetcar to take me to Union Station and my trip on board the Amtrak Cascades. This intriguing service uses Talgo-built articulated trainsets that lean into curves in order to take them at higher speeds. It’s a sleek service that caters to business travellers and it’s pretty zippy too. I was in Seattle by noon.

If I had to compare Portland to Seattle, I’d say it’s like comparing Vancouver to Toronto. Of course, these analogies don’t hold up perfectly. Whereas Portland was a compact, progressive city (minus the craaazy real-estate market), Seattle was a more business-like, skyscraper city that wished it was Portland. Seattle has all of the things that make Portland great, from beautiful views, a hopping city scene, streetcars, LRTs (and even trolley buses, which Portland does NOT have), but they just don’t seem to put it together quite so well.

But that’s praising with faint damn. I wish I had more time to properly explore Seattle. Chinatown smelled great and deserved a dinner stay. And I also had a wonderful coffee at a place that was not Starbucks while I waited for my train to take me back east.

The Empire Builder goes east through the Cascades and the Rockies. Here, the mountains are more compressed, such that the trip through the scenery lasts less than a day. Still, it’s a beautiful run. We go through the Pacific Rainforest, mist-shrouded peaks, resort towns, and Glacier National Park. After Glacier, however, Montana flattens out. People who say that North Dakota is flat may be mistaking it for eastern Montana. At least, when we came out of eastern Montana, we had badlands to look at. North Dakota also seems wetter, since eastern Montana looks to be well within the Rockies’ rain shadow.

I’m typing this now in Minneapolis, having spent two nights on board a train. That’s a little bit much to take in a roomette, but it only makes me appreciate stretching my legs even more. And Minneapolis has given me lots to see. More on that tomorrow.

Have a look at my Seattle trip here, and my trip through Washington and Montana here.

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Thu, May
19
2016

Portland Pilgrimage

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Portland, Oregon, is something of a holy site for certain urban planners. This was the town that tore down an expressway to build an LRT, and is seen as the beacon that all progressive-minded urban centres aspire to. Want bike lanes? Look to Portland to see how it’s done. Want pedestrian friendly streets? Portland. Food trucks? Portland.

So, as an urban planner and a transit enthusiast, I was long interested in seeing the city. Now that I’ve been, does it live up to its hype? I think it does.

Portland is like Vancouver concentrated, minus the horrendous real-estate speculation. There are mountains in the distance, a lot of waterfront property, and a very pedestrian friendly downtown. I also ate quite well. And though I was interested in seeing Portland’s LRT in action, it was the streetcar that impressed me the most.

Portland has established two streetcar routes (three, if you consider the clockwise and counter-clockwise variants of its loop line) moving through its downtown. Unlike the LRT, these routes operate in mixed traffic, with stops closer together. The equipment may be modern, but the set-up is a throwback to the traditional streetcars of old.

And yet the streetcars moved, and were well-used. The key is that the tracks and the roadway have been designed to work together, rather than against each other. If cars want to turn right or left at intersections, they do so in dedicated lanes which don’t impede the streetcars’ progress. The streetcar also hugs the curb lane, with stops comprising of bump-outs from the sidewalk (a practise taken up during the rebuilding of Roncesvalles Avenue in Toronto.

The streetcars don’t move nearly as fast as the LRTs do (these operate at subway speeds), but they do move with the flow of traffic, and get people where they want to go. Also, with their links to the wider LRT network, and to key destinations within the downtown core that the LRTs do not reach, they provide a useful service for riders. This is how new streetcar routes should be made, and it’s even a suggestion for how Toronto could adapt some of its streetcar operations (such as they have already done on Roncesvalles Avenue).

Portland’s LRT was fast and efficient, getting me from the downtown to various suburban neighbourhoods quickly (and for a $5 day pass). Denver’s LRT emulates Portland quite well, but surpasses it in some ways. I could have used more maps, and better “next train arrival” displays, but those are minor complaints. Portland is, by now, a venerable system.

I also checked out an aerial tram, made pilgrimages to Powell’s Books and Voodoo Donuts, and checked out an interesting suburban commuter rail operation. You can see photos of my exploration here.

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I packed five days worth of clothes for a ten day trip, assuming that I would have time to do laundry around the halfway point. I assumed correctly, and found a decent place within a ten minute walk of my hotel here in Portland. My batch of clothes were washed and dried within about an hour, and I was able to fold everything and take them back to my hotel room in time for me to head out to supper.

While heading over to the drier, however, I did encounter this disconcerting sign below the driver pictured above…

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So, this happens often enough that one needs a sign posted to remind people to… check?

Tue, May
17
2016

Zephyr and Starlight

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My apologies for not being able to update but, as you can imagine, the Internet has been pretty spotty while en-route.

And there’s a fair argument, here. What are you doing logging into your Internet when the Rockies or the Sierra Nevadas are right outside your window?

I re-boarded the California Zephyr after grabbing the Denver LRT one last time and heading to Union Station. Again, I’m really impressed at what the city has achieved here. I got in around 7 a.m. on a Sunday and the place was hopping. The coffee shop was serving latte, there were scores of people sitting on the leather chairs or the big oak tables, making use of the free wi-fi and doing business. Denver has clearly staked a lot on its investment in its downtown, and it appears to be paying off.

This stands in pretty sharp contrast to Sacramento, which I visited for a second time while laying over for about ten hours for my connection from the Zephyr to the Coast Starlight. I did have time to go see a movie (Zootopia. It’s fun.), but as we hit the evening hours, the sidewalks of the city metaphorically rolled up. There was no place to sit and have a coffee. Even Old Sacramento, which wowed me the last time I was there, was deserted and shuttered. All-in-all, the vibe was not pleasant, and I ended up sitting inside Sacramento’s Union Station for the final three hours, with little air conditioning and not even any wi-fi.

There was one nice place, though: a ma-and-pa restaurant attached to a ma-and-pa business hotel called the Vagabond Inn. It was definitely for the cheaper set, but it was utterly charming for its modest nature. Unfortunately, it closed at 9.

This kind of undercuts the work Sacramento has done to try and revitalize its downtown core. If it has a reputation, at any time, of being a place where people don’t go, that’s a millstone around your neck.

But that’s my only complaint about this stretch of the trip, however. Amtrak has been wonderful. The Rockies provided the expected views, and the Sierra Nevadas beyond Reno topped them. The food was good and the company pleasant, and I appreciated being able to sleep on my back, even if the roomettes are kind of cramped. The Coast Starlight is another underrated gem, allowing me to wake up to the southern Cascades in northern California and to see my first volcano (Mount Shasta). Really cool.

Also, the Coast Starlight has an excellent parlour car with wi-fi. It doesn’t get the traffic that the Zephyr’s dome car gets, but that was helpful for me as I ended up putting down around 10,000 words on the third draft of The Sun Runners. I’ve always wanted to write on a train and, now that I’ve done so, I want to do it again.

The Zephyr was consistently on time throughout my trip — even arriving early at certain stops, requiring us to wait for a bit, and giving us the opportunity to get out and stretch our legs. We had one delay on the Coast Starlight which put us 45 minutes behind at a stop, but most of that delay was caught up by the time we were heading into Portland.

As I write this, Portland is about a half-hour away. I’ll be spending the next two nights there before making a quick trip to Seattle and then boarding the Empire Builder for the start of my journey home.

A link to pictures will come once they’re all downloaded. Probably tomorrow.

(Edited to Add, Wednesday, 10:28 p.m. PT): The photos have been uploaded here.

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