A Day is 24 Hours

Trip Start May 14, 2010
Trip End Jun 08, 2010

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Flag of Canada  , British Columbia,
Thursday, May 20, 2010

By the time I was packed and ready I had slightly less than 4 hours of sleeping time ahead of waking at 3am for check-out and departure.  The Disney's Magical Express coach was waiting for me on time at 3:20am, so I was loaded quickly and as I was the only person onboard we headed to the Swan and Dolphin to pick up a few extra passengers.

Arrival at the airport was just after 4am so I had to join a queue of other Continental passengers, waiting for the staff to arrive and open check-in at 4:30am.  Security took quite a while, but this was expected, however, due to the early arrival organised by Disney, I had about 45 minutes to kill in the terminal.  Thankfully Orlando Airport offered free WiFi so I had a chance to check on a few things.

Continental's operations at Orlando were pretty impresive - at the gate all the information about the flight was easily and readily available on the monitors, including a list of which passengers were waitlisted, whether their requests were approved and a seatmap indicating which rows of the plane were currently boarding.  It took ages to get every passenger onto the 737-800 and since almost all passengers had wheeled carry on bags the overhead lockers filled up and some had to be checked in.

We left on time and enjoyed the relatively good Continental service, which includes free food and drinks.  The plane had been equiped with the DirecTV service which shows live cable tv during the flight for $6.  Since the flight was only just 2 hours long I didn't decide to buy the service and annoyingly it was not possible to turn off the personal TV so it blared ads at me the entire flight.

Arrival into Houston was very fast – we descended quickly without any engaging of the slats or flaps until we were at a low altitude and lined up with the runway. From my exit row window it looked as though the central part of the city was very far from the airport, and I wouldn't be surprised if this were the case in car-centric Houston.

Upon disembarkation it was easy to navigate to the gate for my next flight, following the signs for the walk from my arrival gate in Terminal E to my departure gate in Terminal C. The airport seemed pretty good, featuring gates in Terminal E that can be used for both international and domestic flights, which must help Continental's fleet flexibility. I used my short connection time to change most of my remaining US dollars into Canadian dollars in preparation for the rest of the day ahead.

My second Continental flight was soon upon me and I found myself sitting on another 737-800, for once sitting at the rear behind the wing. This one must've been one of the first “Next Generation” 737s and did not yet have DirecTV installed. Despite this, Continental are good enough to have drop-down LCD screens at regular intervals above the seats (like Qantas on most of their 737-800s) and on these was screened the usual comedy and variety TV content plus the movie Leap Year. However, instead of offering free headphones, as was the case on the DirecTV flight, passengers had to purchase headphones if they required them to listen to the movie. Breakfast was served again on this flight, as it was over 4 hours in length we received boxes with the muffins served on my previous flight, plus cereal, milk and raisins.

During the flight the weather below us was mostly clear so I was afforded great views of various farms and mountains passing by below us. As we descended into Portland the urban form and layout of the place was much more familiar and sensible than the perpetual sprawl of Florida. There were less highways, some roads were only 1 or 2 lanes in each direction and I caught a glimpse of their famous MAX light rail system. However, the urban form was still quite American, cul-de-sacs and corner bulges were in vogue and most single lane roads were still very wide.

Arrival into Portland was nice and easy. It may have been due to my sitting in the back of the plane delaying my disembarkation, but to my relief when I got to the baggage carousel my bag was already circulating. In another triumph for Portland the light rail system serves the airport, with the station conveniently located at the end of the baggage pick-up area. I grabbed a ticket from the large machines and hopped aboard the waiting 4-car train (2 2-car sets). Services are provided on this branch of the red line every 15 minutes with the trains crossing at the terminus. As I'd just missed the previous service I had a 15 minute wait, which gave me an opportunity to look around the train and station.

The journey into town consisted of 3 distinctly different sections; airport-line convergence, freeway parallel and in town street running. The first section was a taken a bit slowly and sometimes constrained to single track sections, with a 180 degree sweeping curve over a highway to reach the station at the convergence of this line, the other branch of the red line and the yellow line. From here we powered along quickly down the side of a freeway, with park 'n ride and bus transfer stations in a similar manner to that of the Joondalup Line. Stations in this section received a train every 5 minutes or so and appeared to be well used. As we approached downtown the line moved onto the streets, initially on the side before moving into the traffic lanes. Street running seemed to work pretty well, and I wouldn't be surprised if some sort of traffic signal priority was assigned to the light rail to assist in avoid delays.

As we crossed one of the many bridges into downtown I began to appreciate what a nice place Portland may be. A properly defined and active central area, some suburbs, good parks and a nice scenic hill behind it all. First stop after arriving was the train station at the end of the downtown area. This facility was in surprisingly good nick and benefited from being at the end of the 2 “transit malls” that the MAX lines run through downtown on. At the station I received my tickets, seat allocation for the afternoon's trip to Vancouver, and checked-in my case.

My disappointingly brief exploration of the city began with the MAX taking me to the other (southern) side of downtown to the Portland State University (PSU - nonsensical name since Portland is within the state of Oregon) terminus. From here I observed the MAX vehicles as well as the somewhat distinct Portland Streetcar system. These operations cross here, with the streetcar travelling through the university's central pedestrian square. The streetcar (tram) is separate in that it runs only within the central area, almost completely on the street, with dedicated vehicles. Most of the line falls within the city's “free rail area” and it seems to be heavily used by locals and visitors alike. I took the tram down to the southern waterfront terminus and back, taking me past the temporary Cirque du Soleil Kooza tent as well as the southern redevelopment area and the new gondola system up the hill to the main health campus. With a tram, light rail and a gondola, all this city is missing is a proper heavy rail system.

Back at PSU I had no choice but to MAX it back up to the station as the departure time for the Amtrak Cascades service to Vancouver was drawing near. I could board the train when I arrived and this was done by simply walking out of the station building and across the tracks to the correct ground-level platform and hopping up into the correct car. For it's charms Portland Station is not sophisticated. As I was walking through the station a regular Amtrak train was departing, I'm not sure if it was the in service Coast Starlight heading to California or an empty movement.

The dedicated Talgo-designed and built Cascades tilting train sets are low to the ground and reminiscent of TGV carriages. They feature shared axles (not bogies in this case), connecting 9 relatively short cars, (2 business class, 5 coach class, another is a a lounge and another is the bistro). I booked myself in Business Class since it was only a small surcharge to upgrade, giving me a larger seat next to the aisle and the window and priority boarding and border formalities. Also included was free newspapers, and I was brought back to earth that as much as I liked Portland it was still in the USA when I saw an article debating whether TV show Glee was too racy and controversial and one of the cinema listings had the movie “Kick-A**” to censor the full title “Kick-Ass”. I was surprised at how small the leg room was for a train. That said, the leg room was ample. Each carriage also features overhead CRT screens that are meant to show maps of the train's location and other videos. During my trip they only showed 2 movies (Invictus, which is on every transport entertainment system this month it seems, and Dear John), lying dormant half the time.

Our mid-afternoon departure provided many hours of visible riding time as the sun is not currently setting until about 8:30/9pm. Between Portland and Seattle the scenery was mainly forest with a bit of pastoral land and the train set a pretty good pace. At Seattle we had a 20 minute stop to restock the bistro and cross a few trains. Indeed the stretch between Portland and Seattle was quite busy, with us passing big BNSF freight trains at most loops. From Seattle north to Vancouver the run was pretty similar, but with more slow sections as we wound our way around the various sounds. The track into Canada was particularly bad – many sections had unwelded rails and almost every bridge (including one that was wooden trestle!) reduced us to a crawl. Imagine what kind of time penalty these restrictions place upon freight trains that are over 1km long! It took us about an hour to get the short distance from the Canadian border into Vancouver's Pacific Central Station, where the driver even had to manually set the points to bring our train into the fenced platform for border control. During the trip I dined on and drank items from the bistro, which were pretty well priced, although most things are in this part of the world.

To my surprise, Canadian border authorities asked only a few questions and let me into their country with minimal fuss. This contrasts to my previous border experience, which was drawn out with additional questioning and the provision of extra documentation. From Pacific Central it was only a few minutes on the SkyTrain to Burrard Station in the central city, from where it was another few minutes on foot to my hotel. Being a bit after 11pm at night I was concerned about the frequency of the SkyTrain but was pleasantly surprised with services were still running every 6-8 minutes! Presumably such frequencies are achievable as the system is driverless, reducing running costs significantly. Although, I see in the paper that there are concerns of whether the public transport body, TransLink is receiving enough revenue to be able to cover its future operational costs. I checked in with ease and quickly investigated the free in room WiFi before hitting the pillow after what was 24 hours of travel from one hotel room to another.
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