Saturday, August 27, 2016

Tunnel Visions: The KC Streetcar

Every once in a while I hop out of Toronto, land in some other city with some other light- or heavy-rail transit system, and look around at different ways of getting around by rail, whether it's on the ground, under it, or above it all.




Cities aren't supposed to be hollow. Cities are meant to be vibrant places, full of people doing popular things - otherwise, what's even the point of the city existing at all? Nevertheless, over the last seventy years, North America has seen many of its cities hollow out. Some managed to hang on; some, like Toronto, ended the 20th century better off than they'd started. Some, like Kansas City, Missouri, are trying to climb back up.

Like other major North American cities, Kansas City operated a substantial streetcar network in the years immediately following the Second World War, at its height running nearly two hundred PCC streetcars on a system comparable in length to Toronto's, today. Also like most other major North American cities, Kansas City dismantled its streetcar system in the 1950s as suburbanization and ubiquitous automobile ownership demolished its foundation. Kansas City was especially vulnerable to this because, hell, look at a map - aside from the rivers that frame downtown, there are no appreciable geographic barriers anywhere around it. Kansas City had room to sprawl, and so it sprawled. Rapid transit was hard-pressed in dense cities; in the midcentury Midwest, it didn't have a chance. Some of KC's streetcars found second lives in cities like Toronto or San Francisco, but plenty of them ended up just being scrapped.

That was how rail transit in Kansas City stood for nearly sixty years, but it's different now. North and south, cities are rebuilding lines that previous generations tore out. As I write this, Kansas City is home to the newest streetcar system in North America - and it'll only be that way for another couple of weeks, until Cincinnati's starts running in early September.

I was in Kansas City to attend the 74th World Science Fiction Convention earlier this month, but I was sure to make time for a brand new streetcar.


System

KC Streetcar #804 pushes north at the edge of the Power & Light District.

The KC Streetcar is, thanks to its newness, a refreshingly uncomplicated system - it's a single line, three and a half kilometers (2.2 miles) long. It spends most of its time on Main Street, crossing over two highways - Kansas City didn't shy away from crashing Interstates through its downtown core - and diverging only to loop through River Market just north of downtown, with each trip beginning and ending outside Union Station. Again, "Tunnel Visions" is a misnomer because at no point does the streetcar's route take it underground; hell, aside from a couple of pedestrian overpasses, it doesn't go under anything. It's a downtown circulator more than anything else, which is understandable. To my eyes, downtown Kansas City is reminiscent of downtown Toronto circa 1975 with more artisanal coffee stores and BBQ restaurants - by which I mean it's full of parking lots where buildings once stood. According to the streetcar's official website, there are more than twelve thousand parking spots within one block of the line - which is one of the major reasons, I think, that the streetcar felt so empty when I used it during the weekdays; there are only twenty-two thousand people living in downtown Kansas City. I mean, this is a place where the downtown CVS closes at 7 PM.

What struck me as immediately unusual about the setup is how the rails were laid. In Toronto, Boston, San Francisco, and other cities I've been in where street-running streetcars have been retained, the rails generally keep to the inner lanes. In Kansas City, it's the reverse; by and large the streetcars run in the outer lanes. This does come with advantages and disadvantages over the usual setup, as where multiple lanes exist, automobiles can navigate around streetcars and passengers don't have to brave a traffic lane to board or alight. From what I'm told, it doesn't make the setup particularly friendly to cyclists, however; I know of at least one point on a bridge near Union Station where there is very low clearance between the streetcar and the pedestrian wall, and there's at least one sign along the route warning cyclists that if the bike's wheel gets caught in the rail, they may be thrown bodily over the handlebars.

Not that they're always on the outer edge; there is some weaving to accommodate turning lanes and on-street parking, and there are places where there's only one lane, so a streetcar taking on passengers can cause traffic to build up behind it. Just like home. But those cars are faster than the streetcar, they'll get where they're going sooner than anyone on foot will anyway, probably.

Once you're on the streetcar, it's very difficult to get lost. You can't stay on it indefinitely, though, since all riders are required to alight at the Union Station terminus - but nothing stops you from getting right back on. Opportunities for connections are limited, but they do exist; the MAX bus rapid transit system - which replicates some of Kansas City's former streetcar lines - has stops near the line, and the 10th & Main Transit Center permits transfers to some of RideKC's regular bus routes. Streetcar service is a bit limited, though, since they don't have many streetcars to go around; on a day like today (Saturday, August 27), when one streetcar is out of service, they can't run service frequencies better than 10-15 minutes.

During my first experiences with the system found it somewhat empty, but that may be because Kansas City isn't yet a public-transit-all-the-time city like Toronto is. I've seen reports that the KC Streetcar is already exceeding its passenger projections, and my experience at 3:40 PM on a Saturday bears that out; from Metro Center to Union Station, it was standing room only all the way, and even more people boarded there for a trip back north. Fortunately, the streetcars have articulated sections much like the ALRVs and Toronto Rockets I'm familiar with, so there was always a good place to stand.


Stations


Library Station on a weekday morning.

My first impression of Kansas City's public transportation system, in the form of an hourly bus that left from an unshaded shelter on a concrete median outside Terminal C of Kansas City International Airport, wasn't exactly the best. Some of the stops the bus passed during its forty-minute trip downtown stuck strongly in my mind, because of how unstoplike they were: just a pole signed "METRO STOP" with a route number, a phone number, and a website. No shelter, no bench, not even a square of sidewalk. If you're talking about Barrie, Ontario circa 1991, that's one thing, but it's pretty thin provender for 2016 Kansas City.

With that in mind, I wasn't expecting much from the streetcar. What I found is that its stations feel like a strange middle ground to me: they're not quite stations, but they're more than just stops. The ones that aren't in their own medians are smoothly integrated into the sidewalk, designed so that they're on the same level as a streetcar to allow step-free access, and built around a central t-shaped shelter. I say "shelter" because there's no better word, but with no walls and a fairly small roof, the shelter that many of them is theoretical at best. While waiting at Kauffman Center during a heavy rainstorm, I had to stand on the far side, off the actual platform, to keep from getting drenched by passing cars.

That's irritating enough, in August - but Kansas City isn't Los Angeles, or Houston, or Miami. For now, at least, it still gets cold in Missouri, and snow does fall. These stations don't have windbreaks. I wouldn't want to be waiting at one during a snowstorm, or even just a cold and windy day. Sure, if service was frequent there might be a tradeoff, but there are plenty of times where you'll be waiting ten minutes or more for a streetcar to roll by.

On the whole, there's not much eye-catching about these stations. Many of them don't even have advertisements. They're each equipped with screens that count down until the next streetcar arrival, and have posted streetcar route maps and hours of operation. There are bits of public art scattered here and there; the one that most caught my eye was a model perched on top of the Union Station shelter, at once a streetcar and automobile and jetliner. One would think the wings would make it a bit difficult to run something like that on the streets.


Equipment


A closer look at the trailing end of streetcar #802.

As you'd expect for a 21st century streetcar system, the KC Streetcar has hit the ground running with modern equipment: it provides service with four (count 'em) CAF Urbos 3 Model 100 streetcars on their first North American appearance, though Cincinnati will use them as well and they're already in service in Edinburgh, Belgrade, and multiple French and Spanish networks. They have that clean, streamlined European design to them, with all the vital equipment hidden away from riders' eyes - it's almost as if they're whispering along on a cushion of air. I do mean whispering, too - these cars are quiet. Coming from Toronto, I'm used for the 1970s-era CLRVs to make my organs rattle whenever I'm sitting in a building next to the line; in Kansas City, it took me a while to realize that streetcars were going by, and I wasn't even noticing.

The streetcars are three-module articulated vehicles, rather like the new Flexity Outlooks running in Toronto, but a bit smaller; they're about 24 meters long, with a rated capacity of 148 when everyone's squeezed in. They're numbered 801 to 804, because this is officially the continuation of Kansas City's previous streetcar system, and the earlier numbers had been used already. It puts the smallness of the KC Streetcar into perspective, though. As I wrote this, at 12:49 on a Saturday morning, there were more than four streetcars running on Toronto's 509 Harbourfront line, and it's the shortest one on the system!

I found the streetcar interiors pretty spartan, and I'm not sure if this is a permanent thing or just an artifact of the system being so new. Except for the external "Sprint Wi-Fi" logo on the cars' middle modules, which also advertises the free wireless access that's been implemented along the line and will eventually be activated aboard the streetcars themselves, there are no ads. There was the Code of Conduct posting there to educate Kansas Citians on how to use their new ride, though: rules like "no smoking or eating" and "please let people off before you board" and "do not bring weapons onto the streetcar," because that is something that actually has to be spelled out where everyone can see it in the United States.

The streetcars have a few tricks I wasn't expecting, either. Digitized bells aren't anything unusual - bells and streetcars have gone together for more than a hundred years - but Kansas Citians haven't needed to look out for streetcars since 1957, so when necessary, the streetcars can sound more like oncoming freight trains. That gets attention: it made me jump the first time I heard it.


Ease of Access and Ease of Use


Looking toward the unoccupied control cab in the trailing end of streetcar #803.

The KC Streetcar is the easiest system I've ever used, for two reasons: physically speaking, the no-step streetcar access makes it a breeze to board, and for all other respects - it's free. Absolutely, 100% no charge to the people who riding it, which is probably a big factor in why it's gone so far beyond its ridership projections already. Admittedly, that's a good way to get people thinking good things in what may be their first experience with fixed-infrastructure transit.

There's plenty of room to move around inside, and there are priority seats and wheelchair-friendly spaces as you'd expect for modern equipment, but it's honestly not that comfortable - not that comfort is that much of a problem, considering how quickly one of these streetcars can do a circuit. Besides, with the articulated sections and the hanging straps, there are plenty of places to stand if you can.

The stop request buttons were a little different than I'm used to, but I can live with that. They're only mounted on poles, which means that every once in a while, they're horizontal. What threw me about them was that it wasn't easy to tell whether or not they worked once I pressed them; I'm used to a stop request button sounding a tone immediately, but the KC Streetcar looks to have gone with waiting until the automated stop announcement has been made for the next station before sounding the request noise. I figure it's the request noise, at least, because I didn't hear it all the time - the only consistent one sounded more like the Sweet Cuppin' Cakes version of Strong Bad.

Since the system is so new, and there aren't that many in the area - St. Louis' MetroLink, clear on the other side of Missouri, is the closest - rider education looks to be one of the agency's big priorities. Still, it was a bit surprising when, before departing Union Station, the streetcar operator spoke to everyone aboard the streetcar, giving a brief overview on how to ride. Even if it made it seem more like a theme park ride than a legitimate piece of public transportation infrastructure, it was a welcome thing.


Conclusion


KC Streetcar #801. Look at all its majesty.

One of the big factors in early 20th century urban development was the streetcar suburb: a neighbourhood opened up by a newly-built or expanded streetcar line feeding into the central city. Hell, a lot of them were built by streetcar companies, to ensure future business. Since they were designed with the expectation that people would be making their way on foot when they weren't riding the rails, these neighbourhoods are human-scaled and many remain prosperous today; hell, in Toronto, most of them still have their streetcars.

What Kansas City is trying to do feels like a 21st century inversion of this - using a streetcar to rebuild a downtown, and why not? It's worked elsewhere. When I talked about hollow cities at the beginning of this piece, I was thinking specifically of Kansas City; a downtown doesn't feel right when it's got so many empty buildings, when it's littered with parking lots, when street life seems confined to a mere strip rather than something that spreads through the whole. It's not that surprising, though - look at a map; downtown KC has the look of a psychological island, surrounded by the river and the highways, and those highways weren't built on empty land. There are big rips in the urban fabric there, but the streetcar might be the thing to sew them together again.

Whether the streetcar's expansion plans reach fruition, or whether it never goes any further than this - that's always the struggle, isn't it?

Previous Tunnel Visions

Monday, August 22, 2016

Things You Should Totally Read #1

Recently I realized that I was only reviewing things so that I could criticize them. Not only is that unhelpful, seeing as how a lot of these things are works of short science fiction older than I am, it's unhealthy - constantly seeking out things you don't like only has negative effects, psychologically and physiologically. So in the spirit of being more helpful and more healthy, I've been inspired to start out this irregular series looking at current bits of fiction that I think are good and worth your time.

My own bits will be brief, because I'd rather you spend your time with the authors.

Onward!

"Of Peach Trees and Coral-Red Roses" by Mina Li

I'm not too familiar with Li's work. In fact, this was the first thing of hers I'd read, but when she brings skill like this to the page, I'm certain it won't be the last. This is a fantasy story that I felt did a thought-provoking job at not only inverting the typical fairy-tale-princess setup but weaving deeper meanings into it. I don't know if they were intended by Li or it's just a result of me bringing myself to the table, but good stories aren't inert; they start internal conversations. "Of Peach Trees and Coral-Red Roses" had my brain chugging for a while afterward, so it's successful in that regard. Plus, I know things I didn't know before, like the notions of good fortune associated with peach trees and bamboo. It's a worthwhile story that broadens your horizons, and this is one of them.

It's free to read at Kaleidotrope, so I suggest you do it!

"The Last," by Premee Mohamed

When I was in high school in Central Ontario they made us read CanLit. So much CanLit. Stories about people in the cold north woods, in the windswept prairies, in the frozen Arctic, people alone and struggling with the angry environment at every turn. If I'd had stories to read like Premee Mohamed's "The Last," I would have enjoyed it a lot more. This story is so very Canadian - drippingly, meltingly so. I mean, it is a story about cowboys that wrangle sentient icebergs. I read this on my smartphone browser and couldn't put it down. It has a fine, polished edge and a cold heart - much like an iceberg, in fact! This will definitely be on my Aurora nomination list for next year, because it is that good. Mohamed is another author I expect to go far in the years ahead.

"Runtime," by S.B. Divya

Finally, people are realizing that novellas can stand on their own. "Runtime" is one of the first standalone novellas to come out of Tor.com Publishing, and in the low-word-count constraints of the form S.B. Divya has created a future that feels real, alternatively gleaming and grimy, hopeful and hopeless. It pivots around Marmeg, an eighteen-year-old cyborg who upgrades herself with rebuilt parts rescued from behind dumpsters and can write fresh code in minutes, and her struggle to win a punishing rough-country footrace. It's rich with the technical crunchiness that you might expect from an Analog story, coupled with a good human core. The characters were well-built, and the world felt like a logical extension of the present day, rather than a logical extension of, say, 1977.

I read this one as a physical, printed copy, and I suspect that heightened my like of it even more, but read it however you want to! This one is definitely in the running for a Hugo, and it'll be on my nominating list next year.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

A Horizon of Desperate Events

Black holes are unpleasant things to be around, and that's not just because they're places so warped that mathematics means nothing inside them. All the familiar rules get twisted up around them, and if you're not skillful or you're not paying attention it's easy to end up getting your big, shiny starship trapped forever. Given the right black hole, you could cross the event horizon and the only indication would be all the light of the universe winking out behind you. You're perfectly fine, for the moment -- but you're always getting closer to the singularity, the ultimate destructor.

This is kind of how I feel about modern politics, specifically the United Kingdom's vote to leave the European Union. Seventeen million people decided it would be a totally rad idea to skim the event horizon, and come now, it couldn't possibly be as bad as the rest of the crew was saying. Except now the universe has gone out behind them, and every trajectory in spacetime leads closer to the singularity, and they're realizing that playing chicken with a black hole is, in fact, not the wisest decision anyone has made.

I'm seeing commentary pop up now -- Charles Stross, for one, has a good rundown here -- that the UK may not have crossed the event horizon after all, that there's still a way out of the situation and a way to stay in the European Union. Whether it's a second referendum to say "actually, about that, wasn't that a capital joke, simply capital" or clauses in the Scottish and Northern Irish constitutions that could give them vetos over leaving the EU if you squint, there's a lot of desperation out there to walk it back.

Personally, I think it's not going to happen. Things have already gone too far for that. A wound can be healed, but it can't be uninflicted. Words, once said, cannot be unsaid. Democracy is an axiom of the United Kingdom and the European Union, and saying "whoops, just kidding!" undermines that whole foundation. I know it would be better for everyone for the UK to stay in the EU; my personal preference is for them to stay.

But they can't, not anymore. Look at it this way: if you took a shit on your boss's desk, how well-disposed do you think she would be to your frantic, frenzied apologies, your begging to not be fired, when she discovered you wiping your ass with a dayplanner? We've all experienced times in our lives where we wish more than anything we could rewind time, use the Omega-13 to correct a single mistake, but that never happened for any of us and I highly doubt it's going to happen for the UK.

The EU is not going to take a punch to the face with a smile. They're going to break the UK to the greatest extent they can, pour encourager les autres. Even as someone whose background is English, who knows people over there who are already broken by this -- I honestly can't say I blame the EU, or that I would do any different were I in its place.

In their way, institutions can be as cold and as mechanical as black holes. We forget that to our peril.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Short SF Review #24: Perspectives

"Perspectives," by W.R. Thompson
Originally published in Analog, November 1983

"You realize how dangerously tense things are up here, don't you?"
Bob looked puzzled. "What do you mean?"
"I mean that this is the most stress-filled environment in which humans have ever attempted to live."

The 1980s were interesting times for science fiction. The gosh-wow-isn't-this-gadget-rad-as-heck stories and odes to pocket-protected engineers solving technical problems that had once dominated it were an increasingly smaller part of a larger galaxy. The Space Shuttle had begun to fly, and proved the 1970s dreams of two-week turnarounds and $10-per-pound orbital launch costs to be just that--dreams. The world was becoming more like science fiction every day, but to some science fiction writers, the world was always trying to take it away.

A lot of those writers ended up placing stories in Analog, and as a result, many Analog stories in the '80s are built around space boosterism and reflect the anxieties of authors that, just as it had been possible to reach for space, their hands were being slapped away by "budgets" and "physics" and "U.S. Senator William Proxmire (D-WI)," about whom they complained mightily. Stories that come out of this zeitgeist often look rather... warped to modern eyes.

W.R. Thompson's "Perceptions" is one of them. Set in the near future of 1983, so probably ten or fifteen years ago, the United States has set up a lunar colony as the core of a space mining operation. Buffetted and battered by its dependence on Earth and its politicians, a deep vein of uncertainty and stress is piled on to the ordinary concerns of space life--you know, that unless everything keeps working, everyone will die. Into this comes Charles Augustine Hacker, a psychologist sent up to study the effects of stress in the colonial environment. Makes sense, really; a lunar colony runs in completely different circumstances from anything on Earth, and you'd want to have an outside opinion on mission-critical things like psychological stability, for the same reason you'd want air traffic controllers or nuclear reactor technicians to be in good mental health.

But he isn't 100% on board with the idea of space colonization, so in the world of a 1980s Analog story, he is of course the villain.

Hacker has an argument behind him -- the colonists act weird to his eyes, beyond their general-but-understandable unwillingness to dwell on the hostility of their environment; they're as sober as a temperance convention, they're careful to a fault, they use jargon-filled slang that implies they'd rather think of themselves as machines. He also has a solution: for the colonists to return to Earth, before their society snaps. The colonial leaders, being the colonial leaders, don't think much of this solution, and when they discover where Hacker's coming from, they immediately make plans to resolve the situation to their benefit.


#

I'll admit that the execution of "Perceptions" may suffer from being, as best as I can tell, Thompson's first professional sale. I know that my first sale to Analog, back in 2012, doesn't match up to things I'm creating now. Still, readers can only engage it by how it was executed, and honestly, I still can't decide if the author *intended* the reader to look askance at the story or to take it at its word. When I first read it on the subway, I reached a point where I said to myself "oh, I see what's going on, all these expectations that're being set up are going to get toppled," right until I reached the last line and the tower of expectations stayed defiantly upright.

The story is built around the colonists' realization that Hacker has an ideological axe to grind: specifically, that technological advancement had made civilization more and more stressful, that "technology has destabilized the foundations of life" and "form[s] dangers to life and limb which are beyond human comprehension." The leaders decide he lacks intellectual honesty because he filters things through his viewpoint rather than theirs, and come to the conclusion that abandoning the colony would end up dooming all of humanity to a new Dark Age. So, being calm, rational individuals who are in no way suffering from severe psychological pressure, they decide to give Hacker a nervous breakdown.

Yeah.

That's pretty much how it ends. The colony's director wonders how long it'll be until he can sleep soundly again, even though he's convinced himself that he's saved the colony -- and there's a lot of convincing going on in this story. The colonists convince themselves that they're totally okay, that Hacker is full of shit solely because he has a particular viewpoint, and that all of their actions are worthwhile and justifiable.

The key thing that the story appears to gloss over, though? Hacker isn't wrong. The moon is far more hostile than any environment on Earth. Stress can be a real problem, and it can sneak up on you. "I don't feel any tension," says Bob Dubois, the colonial director, as if that settles things. But tension is funny like that, and it's something I can speak to. I've been working the same job for nine years now, but it's only fairly recently that the tension migraines started to appear, and even more recently that I discovered they were tension migraines. You can think you're calm, collected, and in control and be totally unaware that the dam holding back everything has started to buckle.

I thought that this story would end by, in part, vindicating Hacker. Much of the story's middle is a dialogue between two characters justifying the colony's customs to each other, which I read as the characters trying to convince themselves that they were right, that nothing was wrong with them. There's never any self-awareness, never any doubt; the colonists know they are the Good Guys Here. It's like they're terrified to interrogate their own beliefs, in case they discover something they'd rather leave hidden.

In their own way, the colonial leaders are no better than their villain -- but you could make an argument that they're worse. They barely bother seeing if Hacker can be swayed, with the doctor justifying the induced breakdown by saying that he can't be reasoned with. What's left unsaid is that, to all appearances, neither can they.

"Perspectives," to me, is greater than the sum of its parts. It's not many stories that leave me thinking for days after I read it, wondering whether the author was pointing to this thing or that one.

what do you mean i haven't used this category for FOUR YEARS woooooow


Previous Short SF Reviews:

Sunday, April 10, 2016

On a Rail to the Future

If you were to take a measuring tape to one of the many railways embedded in or buried under Toronto's streets -- not recommended, incidentally, because those tracks are heavily used -- you'd find something unique, if a bit pedestrian. Every railway has a track gauge, which is just how far apart the rails are. The miniature railways you'll find at certain tourist attractions may have only a fifteen-inch gauge, while the broad-gauge railways of India, Pakistan, and San Francisco's Bay Area Rapid Transit are five and a half feet wide. In Toronto, you'd find that the rails are built to a gauge of 4 feet, 10 7⁄8 inches -- just slightly wider than standard gauge -- and nowhere else in the world will you find operating tracks built to that specification.

It's not because Toronto wanted to be unique and special. It goes back to 1861, when the first horsecar lines started operating in the young city; the rails were built with that specific gauge so that the carriages in use at the time could themselves take advantage of the rails. As the streetcar system expanded, the track gauge was maintained so that the same equipment could be used across the entire network, and as the Toronto subway was initially aiming to use streetcar-derived rolling stock, the underground railways use the same track separation because of one decision a hundred and fifty years ago.

Why do I bring this up? Because it's a simple illustration of how history echoes; not only can simple choices have wide-ranging consequences, but the past reverberates in the present.

These rails haven't even been used for fifty years, and yet they're still here.
This is not something a lot of people appear to understand. Case in point: Hillary Clinton, the presumptive heir to the Democratic presidential nomination because, well, her last name is "Clinton." Back in 2010, while she was still Secretary of State, she commented on the issue of African economic development, but in the sort of tin-eared way that only a Westerner who thinks history is "just a bunch of things that happened" could.

"For goodness sakes, this is the 21st century," Reuters quoted Clinton as saying. "We've got to get over what happened 50, 100, 200 years ago and let's make money for everybody."

Think back to rails for a moment. Toronto's unique track gauge is the result of a simple choice a hundred and fifty years ago, but it's not going away. To remove it from the face of Earth would not only mean tearing up eighty-two kilometers of streetcar lines, but the complete re-railing of nearly a hundred kilometers of subway and the retrofitting of hundreds of subway trains and streetcars. It would take a supreme effort to make the gauge go away.

The Western conquest and occupation of Africa lasted for decades. It carved scars that will never heal. Just as the outlines of the Roman Empire are visible in the shape of the world today, two thousand years later -- hell, there's a legend that says wagon wheel gauges go back to ruts cut by Roman chariots -- in the forty-first century, the damage that the West caused to Africa, and Asia, and, hell, anywhere that wasn't the West, will still be visible.

It will take a supreme effort to for the conquered and oppressed regions of the world to heal. It is not something that can just be "got over." To make a statement like that betrays not only privilege but unthinking privilege, and helps illustrate why Clinton is fortunate she's going against candidates as oozily unlikeable as Ted Cruz and Donald Trump.

History is loud, and we live in an echo chamber. The voices of the past still whisper today.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Tailings of the Golden Age #5: The Trouble with Telstar

"The Trouble with Telstar," by John Berryman
Appeared in Analog, June 1963

These space-jockeys have their own vocabulary, and their own oh, so cool way of playing it during the countdown. I'm pretty familiar with complex components, but they were checking of equipment I never heard of. We had gyros--hell, our gyros had gyros. And we had tanks, and pressures and temperatures and voltages and who-stuck-John. It was all very impressive.

Analog doesn't have a reputation as a hard-science magazine for nothing. Open a copy from the 1960s: amidst the stories and John W. Campbell's angry denunciations of scientific orthodoxy, you'll find ads from outfits like Republic Aviation and General Dynamics and Allied Chemical. Analog gained a reputation as being filled with stories about engineers solving technical problem because, to a great degree, that's the audience it was aimed at in the '60s--and that's the audience that John Berryman's "The Trouble with Telstar" was written to appeal to.

Mike Seaman has a problem that, presumably for once, doesn't have anything to do with his name. He's one of the top men behind the communication satellites made by Communications Corporation--truly, a staggeringly inspired name, but I've seen ones in real life every bit as ridiculous--and these satellites are failing in a way that can't be pinned down. There's a lot of talk about busted solenoids and backroom back-and-forths about who's responsible, and the story takes its sweet time getting to the point: apparently, it'd be cheaper to send a man (because 1960s) into orbit to repair the satellites. Much of the story deals with Seaman training for his mission and dealing with friction from the established astronauts, who look at him as a jumped-up repairman. Granted, they're not wrong; he's flying the mission not because he's an ideal astronaut candidate, but because he came up with the idea for the orbital repair and his bosses volunteered him. Life in the private sector sure is grand.

Once in orbit, Seaman fixes the satellites and there's some brief peril, because there's always got to be some kind of peril. Fortunately, with the production of fresh space debris that totally won't come back to haunt anyone ever, the day is saved and Our Hero™ can claim his reward in the form of his boss's secretary, who only dates astronauts. ("If you haven't made at least three orbits, she won't even have dinner with you.")

Maybe this would be entertaining to an engineer in 1963 who has to deal with crap like this on a regular basis, but to a non-engineer like myself in 2016 it's just... boring. I can see why Campbell printed it, because John W. Campbell loves him his stories of engineers solving technical problems, but that doesn't change the fact that it's aggressively mediocre. I mean, there wasn't even any quote from it ridiculous enough to stick in my mind for use at the top of this post. It's just inert, but that didn't keep it from being on the cover of the issue it ran in!

Now, to be fair, there were some parts in there that struck me as interesting--but only in a historical context; had I read the story in 1963 they would not have stood out. Berryman did earn a nod in that he anticipated neutral buoyancy training for EVAs a couple of years before NASA picked it up. Seaman is launched to orbit in a Dyna-Soar spaceplane, which at the time would have placed the story in the late 1960s. In reality the Dyna-Soar program was cancelled six months after the issue disappeared from newsstands, so the story has an unintential alternate history vibe to it now. Berryman's frequent use of "telstar" as a standard noun for a communications satellite felt like a brush with a parallel dictionary, before the terminology of space had settled firmly down into what we have today.

As well, the story is only passively sexist, which practically feels like a victory for something printed by John W. Campbell in 1963. The secretary character has no character, is described little beyond "small, dark, intense... pert [and] lively," and the punchline of the story is her being dumped by Seaman: "no dame was worth that ride."

I will note that the John Berryman who wrote this is not the John Berryman who's listed on Wikipedia. Unless you're a weirdo like me reading old magazines for fun, there's no real reason for you to have heard of him; the science-fictional Berryman's career was dominated by short fiction, and trailed off shortly after "The Trouble with Telstar" was written; his last credit is 1986's "The Big Dish," which was also an Analog cover story, and he died in 1988.

If you're really interested, you can read "The Trouble with Telstar" for free at Archive.org. There's also a Kindle edition available on Amazon for $5.45, which is utterly ridiculous; the entire June 1963 issue of Analog cost $0.50, and even with fifty years of inflation factored in, that's only $3.91. But unless you have some specific interest in the history of the field, there's not much to recommend spending your time with it.

Previous Tailings
#4 - "Industrial Revolution" (September 1963)
#3 - "Next Door, Next World" (April 1961)
#2 - "In the Imagicon" (February 1966)
#1 - "Blitz Against Japan" (September 1942)

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Tunnel Visions: The Docklands Light Railway

Every once in a while I hop out of Toronto, land in some other city with some other light- or heavy-rail transit system, and look around at different ways of getting around by rail, whether it's on the ground, under it, or above it all.


London! Home to the mother of metros, the sprawling London Underground, opened in 1863 and connecting the core of the Square Mile with the commuter fringes of Metro-land, and you can't seriously believe I was going to do one of these things about the Underground, can you? Entire books can be, and have been, written about the Underground. Books can be written out individual lines of the Underground, lines which are more complicated and cover more ground than entire systems that have previously appeared in Tunnel Visions. Maybe if I spent a couple of years living in London and using the Tube every day, things would be a bit different, but today it's just not on. I mean, come on. This is the first time I've got out of North America for this. Baby steps.

What's far more manageable on a sightseer's budget is the Docklands Light Railway--a network which you could easily miss, even as a transit fan touching down in the capital. It doesn't have the history or the character of the Tube, for sure, and it's not well-known enough to show up in blockbuster movies even when it would make sense to in the narrative--I'm looking at you, Thor: The Dark World--but it is small enough to hold a picture of in one's head, and concise enough for an outlander to get at least an impression of in the course of a week and a half.

That's small in the context of London, of course. What you've got to remember is that London is gargantuan. The DLR... the DLR is less so.

System

Two DLR trains pass over the waters of Middle Dock in Canary Wharf, above the skyscrapers of the City of London.

As its name suggests, the Docklands Light Railway was built to serve the Docklands region in the East End, and not Heathrow Airport. It started running in 1987, when the light rail renaissance saw rails being laid across Europe and even bits of North America, and when the Docklands were still transitioning from being, y'know, docks. Today it reaches across the London Borough of Tower Hamlets and beyond, linking Greenwich and Beckton to London City Airport and the claustrophobic, sweaty subterranean hell that is the Bank-Monument station complex. My friends mocked me about it and my desperation to use alternate routes between platforms after the incident, but that's exactly what it is. Come on, tell me I'm wrong.

By the early 1990s the DLR remained fairly limited, with lines connecting Tower Gateway to Island Gardens at the southern end of the Isle of Dogs and from there to Stratford in the north--though even then, the underground connection to Bank and the eastern extension to Beckton were under construction, as was the station at Canary Wharf. It wasn't until 1999 that it was taken south of the Thames through Greenwich to Lewisham, and it hopped the river again ten years later as part of an extention to Woolwich Arsenal. Today, the system touches on wide areas of East London beyond those pockets served by the Tube or the new Overground, and is big enough that it could be dropped down into a North American city on its own and be one of the continent's larger networks. There are plenty of cities over here that would love to have something like the DLR.

In London, though, it's just another part of the patchwork transit that shuffles people across the capital like so many things that are shuffled. Hell, Mark Mason--who's famous to me for performing the not-entirely-sane act of walking the extent of the London Underground on foot--doesn't even think it should be considered part of the same system, and he's not wrong. From the technology it uses to the nature of the route, the DLR feels more like some other city's transit system grafted onto London after some marathon urban surgery session. Considering that that feeling holds clear today, almost a year after I first stepped foot on the thing, I'd say there's a firm point to it. Nevertheless, there is noticeable overlap between the DLR and the Underground--automated announcements, for instance, are shared between them, such as the one that often reminds riders to keep their Oyster contactless payment cards separate from others to avoid card clash. Worthwhile advice, incidentally, as I discovered that my Presto contactless payment card did, in fact, cause card clash.

The future will see it tied more tightly into the transit knots that bind the capital together, though. Construction on Crossrail, the mammoth fifteen-billion-pound project that will route even more suburban trains through London from 2018, is advanced enough that I could see the grand shell of the future station at Canary Wharf and the works underway at Custom House and the portal near Canning Town--connections that will further open up east London. Though I don't imagine many tourists will end up that way regardless. For me, my explorations of the DLR made me wonder when someone would take note of my accent and ask what the hell I was doing out there.


Stations

A late-evening DLR train waits beneath the glass roof of Canary Wharf station.

As of this writing, Docklands Light Railway passengers have their choice of forty-five stations to alight at, although Woolwich Arsenal is the odd station out here for being the only one beyond Zone 3 and therefore the only station I never even tried to reach--I mean, come on, if I was going anywhere beyond Zone 3 that wasn't Heathrow, it's be Cockfosters. Of these, seven link up with the Underground--though Canary Wharf's "link" is more theoretical than actual, considering the tales I've heard of people losing their way between one and the other, and the jet-lagged wandering about I had to do before I found it--and other connections enable transfers to the Overground and the Emirates Air Line, because I guess there will always be people who want to see the Millennium Dome from the air without having to get on an airplane. If you're looking for a plane, though, you can pick one out on the London City Airport departures board they've thoughtfully installed at Platform 3 at Canning Town.

There's also substantial integration with mainline National Rail services throughout the system, though I was only to experience it at Lewisham, the terminus of the DLR's branch into Greenwich. When I alighted there, I ran into a tide of people coming from the other end, a veritable Bloor-Yonge transfer's worth of people streaming out of the National Rail station. There were quite a few taxis waiting to pick up fares, but for a suburban transfer station, its commuter parking was surprisingly nonexistent. I come from a Canadian perspective, remember--the suburban stops on Toronto's commuter rail lines feature multi-storey car parks. The only allowance for parking I found nearby was for the Tesco next door, and with a £70 charge for staying longer than three hours, I doubt it's welcoming to commuters. Hell, for that rate you could park in the City, I'd imagine. Though I don't know if there are any parking garages there, between all those old roads with oddly specific names like "Old Jewry" or "Poultry." Not Poultry Road or Poultry Street, mind you--just Poultry.

Given that background, I was gratified to discover that the DLR maintains the English tradition of maintaining odd names that made sense a hundred or a thousand years ago. I mean, it'd never occur to me to name a station "Mudchute," especially existing as it does between calm parkland and undoubtedly super-expensive housing on the Isle of Dogs--but hell, there was a chute there for getting rid of mud during construction a hundred and sixty years ago, and it's not likely to have any competition in the name department any time soon, so why not? Just up the line you'll find Crossharbour, which provided a brief reminder of home, because even disgraced British criminals like Conrad Black need transit stations to lord over, even if he's actually a baron.

One thing that struck me fairly early on about the DLR--in fact, it's the second entry in my notes--is that there are spots where you can easily see one station while in another. Granted, this isn't unheard of outside London, since there are points along Toronto's Bloor-Danforth Line where the lights of the next station are visible in the distance, bright against the tunnel's darkness. But following the pedestrian path through the closely-bounded confines of Millwall Park, Island Gardens Station had only just disappeared behind a bend of foliage when the signs for Mudchute came into view, and East Ferry Road doesn't seem nearly developed enough to sustain a justifiable catchment area for both stations. Aside from a pub advertising cash prizes for trivia night (£1 per person to enroll), it's lined with the sort of brick-solid workmen's homes that have undoubtedly been colonized by professionals who spend their days in Canary Wharf shuffling around other peoples' money.

Appropriately enough, then, Canary Wharf refined the concept beyond anything I was familiar with. From its DLR platforms, the station at West India Quays is clearly visible from Canary Wharf, which itself is clearly visible from Heron Quays, to the extent that the Underground connection at the Jubilee Line applies pretty much equally to Canary Wharf and Heron Quays--staying as I was down by Island Gardens, I frequently found it easier to hike to Heron Quays and be one station closer to alighting.

That is, if you're able to alight at your station at all. It's a good thing that DLR trains allow passengers to pass from one carriage to the next, as on the Toronto Rocket; at Cutty Sark for Maritime Greenwich (a committee-chosen name if ever there was one) and Elverson Road, the standard DLR trains are actually too long for the platforms, requiring automated announcements reminding riders to move to the center of the train to alight, because allowing people to walk off onto, say, the third rail would be a Bad Thing Indeed™. TfL gets around that by keeping the first two and last two doors shut, but if thirty-two years of life has taught me anything, it's that I'm shocked as hell that you don't see people trying to force them open. Maybe it does happen and the news just doesn't cross the Atlantic.


The DLR's Deptford Bridge station, well done up in concrete, stretches across Blackheath Road.

Another thing that struck me about the DLR is how much variety there was in the nature of its stations. Not architecturally, I mean--the oldest is younger than I am, and so many of them are trapped in that late-20th century glass-and-steel style that can't hold a candle to the sort of stuff that Leslie Green designed for the Underground a hundred years ago. No, in this case I just mean the way they interact with the cityscape around them. Take, for example, the terminal stations at Bank and Tower Gateway--the former accessed by a five-minute march (I timed it) from the District Line and Circle Line platforms through cramped and overheated passageways, and the latter accessed by a five-minute walk from Tower Hill station, though to be fair I started my clock from the platform, and most of that time was spent getting out of Tower Hill station. Once all the other tourists peeled off toward the Tower of London, the route to Tower Gateway was bright and open and much preferable, honestly, and from it the DLR sets off comfortably above the London streetscape.

Much of the DLR is elevated, at that. Along the Isle of Dogs, it only meets the ground at Mudchute--where a man who looks like he's just come from the modern office, smartly casual dress with a backpack slung over one shoulder, alights with a Sainsbury's bag weighed down to translucency and hurries away past a sign bearing Boris Johnson's promise that it's only seventeen minutes from there to Bank--and then only to sink underground to Island Gardens and thence to Greenwich; before the extension was tunneled under the river, Mudchute and Island Gardens were both elevated stations. Island Gardens, beyond its vaguely-nautical flair, is a bit of an imposing station if only becuse of what I presume are ventilation shafts for the tunnels--if it ever shows up on an episode of Doctor Who, presumably they'll prove to be disguised planetary defense laser cannons or something. Other stations, like Cutty Sark for Maritime Greenwich, are deep enough underground that there's enough room to put the tunnelling shield they used to build it on display, while ones like the Beckton terminus are at ground level.

Then there are places like Stratford, and though it's no Stratford International it's still a riot of walkways and platforms connecting to the Central Line and Jubilee Line, the London Overground, National Rail, and three distinct branches of the DLR itself. Ten months on, I remember it mostly as "busy." I managed to find the platform for the DLR branch I wanted just after I left, and even then it only ran as far as Canary Wharf. The thirteen-minute wait for the next train was the longest I experienced in London, and is leagues better than most American transit agencies I've ridden with. After I lived through those lucky minutes and headed away, the train passed construction sites, former Olympic venues, well-maintained greens and buildings with letters falling off the sides. There was a gritty industrial feeling to it all, I thought, much like Scarborough as seen from the RT.

As in Scarborough, it can get cold on the DLR's platforms at night. After 11, when the trains have pulled back to every ten minutes, there's plenty of time for bracing winds off the river to blow in.

Equipment

A DLR train picks up new passengers at West India Quay station.

If I could only use one word to describe the Docklands Light Railway, it'd be "automated." Like the SkyTrain in Vancouver and like the future bearing down on us like a shotgun full of robot parts, the DLR's trains drive themselves across the network with no direct human intervention outside of the transit control center. At least, that's how it works as an ideal. In reality, automation is still a fickle, finicky thing, for which everyone can thank their jobs for as long as they still have them.

Like the SkyTrain, DLR trains can be operated by a human when necessary, and on Monday, August 11, 2014 I witnessed a hell of a lot of DLR trains being operated by humans. The previous night, a disabled train at Westferry and a signal delay had halted movement across the entire DLR network, a delay that lasted at least as long as it took me to ride the Tube from Monument to Bow Road and then walk to Bow Church, where I found two trains frozen at their respective platforms with doors wide open. Even when the system wasn't rebounding from a major collapse, I found my path crossing with human staff fairly often, though generally in the form of fare inspectors. I encountered fare inspectors--they may have been the same person, actually, now that I think about it--on the first two trips I ever took on the DLR.

The trains themselves are fairly unremarkable, and if not for the general '80s-retro blockiness of their design and the English accents in the announcements and among the passengers, I could have been back in Vancouver. Presumably owing to London's present cool and rainy climate, there wasn't much air conditioning that I recall encountering along the system, and if you wanted ventilation you cracked a window as if you were on a bus. Their self-driving nature means that passengers can get a good view down the tracks from the front car, but unlike Vancouver, there's no single seat in the middle that makes you feel like the captain of the train.

Still, the rolling stock is small and personal enough that the "Light Railway" part of the DLR's name isn't just an affectation. They're not that much bigger than the new streetcars that have begun to hit Toronto's streets, and which will be the backbone of this city's light railway network if it ever gets off the ground. Still, I don't imagine that many tourists get out to Tower Hamlets, and there are plenty of politicians out there who would be shocked to find that a city as world-renowned as London is willing and able to build light railway networks where they're called for.

Ease of Access and Ease of Use

The way up to Tower Gateway, the original Central London terminus of the DLR.

Once I figured out how to get from Canary Wharf Underground station to Canary Wharf DLR station, things were pretty easy-going from there. The Oyster card is pretty foolproof, and I had plenty of chances to practice on the Underground before I made it to the DLR--hell, the biggest issue I encountered was that DLR stations lack turnstiles, and so there'd constantly be the little voice in the back of my head trying to convince me that I'd forgotten to tap my Oyster card and that I'd really rue this day. As I recall, the biggest problem with tapping in ended up boiling down to "where is the Oyster card reader"--at Heron Quays, in particular, it seemed like there were only a couple of readers, set down at a detour from the escalators that took passengers up to the hull-shaped platform. I made sure to tap on the way out, as well, even though I was travelling on a 7-day Travelcard and may not have needed to. But that's the way it goes sometimes. If we didn't do things we didn't need to, the world would be a lot less odd.

Likewise, it's easy to get into DLR stations. The elevated ones I visited all had escalators and elevators, and I'm given to understand that that sort of access holds true for the system as a whole--considering it opened in 1987, when people had actually started to give a shit about other people, I'd expect nothing less. The stations themselves change from side-platform to center-platform with little rhyme or reason--Canary Wharf DLR has a Spanish solution setup with six platforms, the first time I'd encountered one--but the platforms are all equipped with LED boards telling you where the next three trains are going from there, and how long it'll be until they leave. Still, access isn't ideal--at some elevated stations, like Westferry, changing from one branch to the other means you have to descend from the station to street level, cross a couple of streets, and then climb back to to the far side platform and hope you haven't missed the train.

As long as you're there, though, you'll be able to make it open for you. DLR trains don't necessarily open all of their doors automatically; instead, like the Phoenix Metro and Toronto's newest streetcars, each set of doors comes with a button that you can press to open them, though a lot of the time you'll be preempted by people alighting through the same doors.

Signage on the DLR is of the same quality that I encountered on the Underground, and it shares the same Johnston font. Also shared are the "Travel Better London" posters, though some were not entirely as applicable--the "Remember to Stay Hydrated" one, for starters, which made far more sense in the context of a poorly-ventilated, standing-room-only Metropolitan or District Line train running through 150-year-old tunnels. It stuck with me for a while until I realized the reason it was giving me so much trouble was because "oughta" and "water" don't rhyme in a Canadian accent.

DLR ticket vending machines at Deptford Bridge station.

Generally speaking--I'd prefer to dispense with the hedging, but I didn't visit them all and I'd rather not rely entirely on fallible memory--DLR stations are equipped with ticket vending machines that allow you to top up your Oyster card by cash, credit, or debit, capable of speaking a panoply of European languages like Polish, French, and Swedish, and they had no problem at all with my North American credit card. Considering the way things are going, though, these may be on the outs in another few years; during my time in London, I kept seeing advertisements and reminders about how riders could use bank cards directly to pay for Tube or DLR fares, without having to first load money onto an Oyster. It's the sort of innovation I'd imagine Toronto picking up in, oh, another forty years or so.

Conclusion

A Stratford-bound train waits to depart from the terminus at Beckton.

This write-up was on unfortunate hold for a while--hell, as I write this, it's been nearly ten months since I took off from Heathrow--but I'm still glad I experienced the DLR and the area of London that it serves. I was there for the World Science Fiction Convention, and if it had been anywhere in London but ExCeL, I doubt I'd have wandered into the DLR's territory, something that's probably true for a great majority of the tourists that visit London. It felt off the track beaten by tourists, beyond the places that everyone says you have to go to when you visit there, and consequentially it felt valid to me, more real--that I was experiencing the city as it is when the knots of foreigners aren't gawking, that I could start to feel the pulse of the capital.

Seeing as how I am a foreigner, it's a bit hollow, I know. I don't claim to understand the DLR--a week's worth of disconnected rambles, generally independent of needing to get to a specific place by a specific time, can't match the experience of someone who relies on it from day to day. Having thought about it, though, I feel like no matter where we go in the world, we can only really understand shadows.

Maybe that's enough.



Previous Tunnel Visions
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