Thursday, December 31, 2009

Commentary: Incentives for a Better Decade

KENNEWICK, WASHINGTON - There's supposed to be a certain significance to this, my last blog entry of a decade. That might mean something had I been actively blogging for a decade, but while I have a history of commentary material dating back more than twenty years, this blog has existed for not much more than a single year. And, considering that the way we count decades today the first decade must have only had nine years (1 CE to 9 CE--CE is "common era," the secular term for AD or Anno Domini which had been used for most of two millennia), it seems to me that it could be argued that next year is really the time to present a retrospective anyway. Some things just aren't worth fighting; I like the metric system but I'm never going to convince even Canadian railways to convert their mileposts to kilometer posts.

More importantly, my philosophy in this blog has been to not do "me too" commentaries making points widely made elsewhere. Most commentaries out there capture my thoughts about the decade quite well--about the only good things that happened the whole ten years were related to the Internet and the election of a African-American as President of the United States. Pretty much everything else has been awful, broadly speaking. Just think back to what it was like to fly on a commercial airline in 1999, to listen to commercial radio, or even use the postal service.

Where I diverge from the majority of the commentaries is in their belief that the new decade will usher in substantial improvements. Just as defining the end of the decade as today is entirely arbitrary, this belief that things will almost certainly improve strikes me as extremely arbitrary. In order for macro, societal-level things to change permanently, incentive structures that help shape human behavior have to be changed.

Has the financial system in North America changed to favor longer-term thinking in business? No. Has the banking system in North America changed to encourage more loans to small business or individual entrepreneurs? Perhaps temporarily, but not in any fundamental way. Have business that are "too big to fail" been broken up or restructured so that they are no longer in that category? No. Has anything been done to encourage local media instead of ever-centralized media control? No. Have the world's nations agreed to provide incentives for sustainability? No. Have governments done anything to encourage more sustainable living by individuals? Only in a handful of municipalities in North America, not at any broad level. I could go on, but probably few people are even still reading this paragraph.

The coming decade could well be a excellent era that people will look upon as a mini-renaissance. For that to happen, though, there has to be fundamental change, not just hope for improvement. Health care reform in the United States might be a start, changing some of the incentives in the health industry, though that is far from clear at present. It will take many more changes in incentive structure to make it happen, and until the answers to some of the questions in the previous paragraph (and others) start to become "yes," it seems a better use of energy to try to change some of those incentive structures, rather than naively hoping for the best.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Holiday: Toyland Village 2009

The shadows cast by the afternoon sun highlighted the "Toy Blocks" sculpture in Toyland Village on the Seattle waterfront on 23-December-2009

KENNEWICK, WASHINGTON - Last year, a set of forty lighted life-size sculptures were scattered around downtown Seattle, Washington as the "Downtown Light Spectacular" display, partially covered in this blog. While some of the locations were rather appropriate--a toy boat on the waterfront and a crown in front of a jewelry store--the dispersed locations made it rather difficult to really appreciate the work.

The thirty-four sculptures that made up Toyland Village were located around Piers 57-59 on the Seattle Waterfront on 23-December-2009

This year, that was not an issue. Thirty-four of the sculptures were all displayed together on Piers 57-59 near to the Aquarium on the Seattle waterfront as the "Toyland Village." Putting all the sculptures together allowed scenes to be created, such as the four sculptures that made up a medieval scene seen below.

A set of medieval-themed sculptures stood together at Toyland Village on the Seattle Waterfront on 23-December-2009

The artist behind the sculptures is Randy Bolander, known for his metal tube sculptures usually fabricated at his home in West Seattle. Amongst other things in the past, he was a founder of the On The Edge Sculpture Invitational in Seattle, which has since become the West Edge Sculpture Exhibition.

Chuck Gleich stood next to Randy Bolander's "Baseball Glove" sculpture, part of Toyland Village in Seattle on 23-December-2009

While I only had a chance to see the display in daylight this year, clearly the best time to view the lighted sculptures is after dark, which comes not long after 4 pm near the Winter Solstice in Seattle. The Druids would be proud of the light display.

"Rocking Horse" shadowed the concrete of Pier 59 behind it as part of the Toyland Village in Seattle on 23-December-2009

The "Toyland Village" remains available to view nightly at Piers 57-59 on the Seattle, Washington waterfront through 3-January-2010.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Transport: Riding Central Link

A Sound Transit Central Link light rail vehicle manufactured by Kinki-Sharyo arrived at the International District station in Seattle, Washington on 23-December-2009

KENNEWICK, WASHINGTON - On 19-December-2009, Sound Transit's Central Link light rail extension south to Sea-Tac International Airport opened. With no free preview on the first day and holiday crowds expected, I waited until 23-December-2009 to take my first ride ever on Seattle's first true rapid transit system in the modern era. Sound Transit had opened Central Link between downtown Seattle, Washington and Tukwila on 18-July-2009.

A Central Link train passed underneath the tower at Sea-Tac International Airport as seen from the airport station on 23-December-2009

The new airport station has been somewhat controversial since it is located across the parking garage from the terminal. While certainly the mean distance to airline ticket counters is higher than at the bus stop, the station is actually closer to the airlines at the north end of the terminal, and Sound Transit's estimate of four minutes walking time to the building seems about right. Furthermore, the position of the station allows for a planned straight-forward extension to the south, eventually all the way to the Tacoma Dome.

An interesting mural along the transitway in the SoDo neighborhood of Seattle, Washington was noted on 23-December-2009

As Sound Transit has adopted a "1% for Art" policy, the line includes some interesting artwork, including reflecting sculptures at the airport station, a stylized magnifying glass at Columbia City, and the underground Beacon Hill station has been described as the "$1 billion underground art gallery." Yet, some of the best art visible from the trains actually came from the Urban ArtWorks project, which created the SoDo Urban Arts Corridor on buildings along the former 5th Avenue, now a transit corridor through the SoDo neighborhood.

Note the "mountain" symbol for the Mount Baker station in Seattle, Washington, part of the accessibility signage of the Central Link light rail noted on 23-December-2009

Amongst the things that impressed me about the system was the use of a pictogram in addition to the station name in system signage. For non-native speakers of English, this can be a big help--but some of the symbols did seem a bit strange. A mountain for Mount Baker and even an anvil for SoDo (once a heavy industrial era) make sense, but a deer for Othello and a dove for Columbia City (especially when a heron for Rainier Beach is just two stops away)? There had to be better choices for some stops; Sound Transit's explanations don't strike me as terribly convincing.

This gate prevented buses from entering the Transit Tunnel in front of an approaching Central Link train on 23-December-2009

The most operationally interesting aspect of Central Link is that it runs in the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel along with buses. Interesting gates ensure that buses do not enter the corridor in front of approaching trains, and the signaling system ensures that buses move in groups on a schedule through the tunnel so that everything can run on time. It's quite a sight at rush hour to see the choreography underground--and having used both, it's a much smoother ride on the rails than on rubber tires in the tunnel.

The Central Link tracks were elevated around the International Boulevard station in Tukwila, Washington, with a view of the hills all around on 23-December-2009

The Transit Tunnel is a key element in making Central Link a rapid transit system. Even the section along Martin Luther King Junior Way that is not grade-separated seemed to have transit priority signals, as the trains hustled right along. The contrast with Portland's MAX light rail system, which sometimes feels painfully slow in the downtown core, is striking. Central Link may be a much more expensive system per mile and may be taking much longer to build, but it will offer clear advantages over other transportation alternatives. The Puget Sound region is finally doing something impressive in public transit.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Holiday: Gingerbread Village 2009

Calison Architecture created the "Muppet Christmas Carol" display at the Gingerbread Village in Seattle, Washington pictured on 23-December-2009

KENNEWICK, WASHINGTON - For seventeen years, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation has benefited from donations to the Gingerbread Village display in Seattle, Washington. Hosted again this year in the lobby of the Seattle Sheraton, it featured seven exquisitely decorated gingerbread houses.

"How the Grinch Stole Christmas" was the clear theme of this gingerbread house prepared by the local Master Builder's Association in Seattle, Washington on 23-December-2009

This year's theme was a "Reel Christmas," with each gingerbread display based on a holiday movie. The choices ranged from the classic (1946's "It's A Wonderful Life" and 1965's "A Charlie Brown Christmas") to the modern (1993's "The Nightmare Before Christmas" and 2004's "The Polar Express"). Each display was prepared and donated by a local architectural firm.

Arguably the most obscure movie chosen for the Gingerbread Village was the "Nightmare Before Christmas" including "Jolly Old Jack" seen on 23-December-2009

The level of detail on the displays was exceptional, from the slide making its way down from a high-level Santa Claus in the "A Christmas Story" house to the Swedish Chef and Sam the Eagle on the roof of the "A Muppet Christmas Carol" house, to the Cocoa Puffs cereal used as the dog food in the "A Charlie Brown Christmas" house.

The inside of the Snoopy's doghouse showed the details involved in the "A Charlie Brown Christmas" display at Gingerbread Village in Seattle, Washington on 23-December-2009

The line to see the display has extended well beyond the lobby but moved quickly at mid-day last Wednesday, resulting in not much more than a half-hour wait, well worth it to see the fine craftsmanship.

The scene itself was black and white in the Gingerbread Village "It's a Wonderful Life" display while the set around it was in color on 23-December-2009

Gingerbread Village remains open for viewing through Sunday, 3-January-2010, at the Seattle Sheraton, located at 6th and Union downtown, not far from the Westlake Transit Hub. More photos of this display will be in a future update to my photo site.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Margin Notes: Shopping, Signs, Ice Kiting

The 110th Ave NE entrance to The Bravern was noted in Bellevue, Washington on 22-December-2009--note the lack of any enclosures

KENNEWICK, WASHINGTON - While doing my final holiday shopping in Bellevue, Washington, I not only visited the "Bellevue Collection" (including Bellevue Square), but The Bravern, a new shopping complex near the NE 8th Street interchange with I-405. I'd really like to know what the designer was thinking--putting an outdoor shopping center in the Pacific Northwest climate full of high-end stores? I don't care if there is a Neiman-Marcus anchoring the complex; I don't plan to head over there and get wet, especially when the only store that seemed worthwhile to me was Sur la table.

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This new guide sign was found in Bellevue, Washington near Main Street and 112th Avenue NE on 22-December-2009--an informative sign, but why was it across the street from the hotels?

The city of Bellevue, on the other hand, seems to be thinking clearly with its new information signs for pedestrians located around the downtown core. The signs may be helpful in finding restaurants and shopping complexes, but some are oddly placed. Rather than being on the east side of 112th Avenue with a Sheraton, Red Lion, and Hilton, it was located on the west side of the street. I guess hotel guests have to commit to walking downtown before they can find a guide sign.

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The South Lake Union Streetcar had just reached its southern terminus near the Westlake Center in Seattle, Washington on 23-December-2009

Another relatively new addition to the pedestrian friendliness of the Pacific Northwest, now two years old, is the South Lake Union Streetcar in Seattle, Washington. The 1.3 mile line is Seattle's first modern streetcar system. The line is severely underutilized in terms of capacity, and is probably best known for its unofficial name--the South Lake Union Trolley, which has the unfortunate acronym of SLUT, leading to "Ride the SLUT" t-shirts becoming a staple in the Westlake area of Seattle.

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At least two people were noted ski-kiting on Keechelus Lake near Hyak, Washington on 26-December-2009

A completely different form of transportation was noted while driving past Keechelus Lake on the east side of Snoqualmie Pass. A pair of people were noted ski-kiting on Keechelus Lake--that's right, using a kite to power them around the iced-over northern end of the lake. This was the first time in many years of crossing the Cascades in the winter that I had seen such an activity there.

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The line between open water and ice covering on Keechelus Lake near Hyak, Washington was noted from I-90 on 26-December-2009

Another first from those years of traveling across the pass was seeing half of Keechelus Lake frozen over and half of it not, as seen in the photograph above. The low water level was fairly typical for this time of year, but the temperature profile was not.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Radio Pick: True History of Christmas Carols

KENNEWICK, WASHINGTON - The series "20 Pieces of Music That Changed the World" may be completed, but Robert Harris' appearances on The Sunday Edition continued with a bonus feature on Christmas carols. Not only was the musical analysis up to its normal quality in this 38-minute feature, but the ecumenical perspective of a secular Christmas coming from a Jewish commentator--well, it was just stereotypically and refreshingly Canadian.

Listen to The Sunday Edition "The True History of Christmas Music"

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It isn't a new show, but if you've managed to go five years without hearing it as I had and you are a regular public radio listener, check out A Car Talk Christmas Carol, mangling the Charles Dickens tale using public radio voices including Tom and Ray Magliozzi (of Car Talk), Robert Siegel (of All Things Considered), Ira Glass (of This American Life), Carl Kasell (of NPR News), and Scott Simon (of Weekend Edition Saturday) amongst others. There's no educational value in the half-hour piece, but if you listen to NPR, you will enjoy it.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Holiday: Adding to Traditions

BELLEVUE, WASHINGTON - Unlike last year, there was no shortage of children at the "McGrady Christmas" today. There was a constant background noise as young boys from toddler age to barely pre-teen wandered the house. In fact, pretty much all the normal traditions had returned, including the sibling rivalry of the Baby Boomer generation, even if one of that generation had to call in from Mexico.

Much of that tradition centers on food, and while the main dish may vary over the years between turkey and ham, it's the snacks, side dishes, and dessert that make the meal, and for the past decade the sisters of the Baby Boom generation have been keeping alive the old family recipes. What was really striking this year, though, with the addition of new dishes from the wife of one of my second cousins, was just how much people who had married into the family had contributed to what we now consider traditions. There would be a different mix of salad, cookies, and pies if not for the women that weren't born into the family.

It's not just the cooks adding to the tradition. A husband who married into the family set up one of the best exchanges amongst the boomers of the whole day. For that matter, the whole concept of doing a gift exchange, instead of people buying presents for everyone in attendance, perhaps the biggest single improvement to the family gathering of my lifetime, came originally from someone who married into the family.

Families and traditions are not just defined by those born into them. They are evolving, and just as diversity adds to so many other aspects of life, it can even improve holiday traditions.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Holiday: The Story Behind Santa Tracker

BELLEVUE, WASHINGTON - This evening, children around the world are tracking the progress of Santa Claus using the NORAD Santa tracker. A tradition for more than fifty years, the North American Aerospace Defense Command watch on Santa's location has become increasingly embellished in the Internet era, and this year Santa may even be tracked using Google Earth.

While the practice of a bi-national (United States and Canada) government agency charged with defending the airspace of North America against outside attack tracking Santa Claus may seem more than a bit strange, its origins date back all the way to 1955. As told in a number of radio interviews this year and on the NORAD web site, in that year a Sears Roebuck & Company store in Colorado Springs, Colorado ran an ad to call a number to talk to Santa--except that they gave the wrong number, a NORAD number (the commander-in-chief "hotline", no less). Realizing the gravity of the situation, what was then "CORAD" acted with creativity and soon was reporting on Santa's location for all calls to that number. The idea was so appealing that it became an annual tradition.

It's probably a good thing that the tradition started in 1955. In this politically correct era, it is unimaginable that--even with the corporate sponsorship that funds the activity today--anything related to government could have anything to do with Santa Claus. Even today, I am surprised that they can print on their web site that "It’s hard to know for sure, but NORAD intelligence indicates Santa is AT LEAST 16 centuries old."

Last I checked, Santa was between Missoula, Montana and Calgary, Alberta--I hope all the children in the Mountain Time Zone are already in bed, and those in the Pacific Time Zone better head for the sheets pretty soon--after leaving out their milk and cookies. NORAD reports that Santa has eaten over 38,000 already tonight...

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Holiday: Garden D'Lights 2009

The Garden D'Lights in Bellevue, Washington included this extensive scene with a centerpiece fountain and even a swan on 22-December-2009

BELLEVUE, WASHINGTON - Last year, a snowstorm kept the number of people visiting the Garden D'Lights at the Bellevue Botanical Garden down, as noted in this blog. This year, with fair weather, the event is overflowing with people to the extent that traffic jams are extending all the way down to the foot of Main Street, and the trails are quite crowded.

An old standby, the snail, was one of the "critters" at the Garden D'Lights in Bellevue, Washington on 22-December-2009

The display added yet more LED lights this year, pushing the total number of lights well beyond the half-million mark to the point that nobody seems to know the exact number anymore. While there were definitely new displays this year as in all previous years, there were many old stand-bys from previous years, including the pond scene, the squirrel, the frog reflected in the pond, and the snail shown above.

A monkey, well-hidden in a tree, was amongst the "critters" in the Garden D'Lights in Bellevue, Washington on 22-December-2009

There are now so many "critters" in the Garden D'Lights, from geckos to ducks to peacocks to the monkey shown above, that a "critter map" is distributed for kids to try to find all of them. The "map" actually does not tell which critter is where, but just gives a list of all the animals and a map of locations, creating an activity for children to match the list with the actual locations.

The aquarium scene inside the Bellevue Botanical Garden Visitor Center was noted in Bellevue, Washington on 22-December-2009

The most impressive scene this year may have been the aquarium inside the visitor center, which now includes an octopus and a smattering of jellyfish as well as tropical fish and plants. With temperatures around the freezing mark, though, the best part of the aquarium scene may have been the ability to view it in a warmer environment.

A jellyfish was included in the aquarium scene at the Garden D'Lights in Bellevue, Washington on 22-December-2009

The Garden D'Lights remains open daily through 2-January-2010 from 5 pm to 10 pm; arriving early or late is advisable. Parking is $5 in the premium area, but there is a drop-off area this year and free parking available farther away. Admission is free but donors are entered in daily and weekly drawings for lights--my mother has of course won a daily drawing.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Culture: 180 Stores (and Nothing to Buy)

BELLEVUE, WASHINGTON - In 1992, Bruce Springsteen popularized the concept of cable and satellite television as a wasteland with his song "57 Channels (and Nothing On)." Today, in the era of digital television, many people have hundreds of channels and I've certainly found situations in which there was nothing I wanted to watch--not even on PBS, the History Channel, and the Discovery Channel.

Yet, it was actually a new feeling for me to walk into Bellevue Square--certainly a far cry from the shopping center of my youth, now with 180 stores--and discover that there really wasn't anywhere I wanted to shop. The same concept of many niche choices as has occurred in television, when applied to retailing, seems to have the same impact on me--I'm not interested in any of it. It seemed to me as I walked the mall that I was looking at the same clothing retailers and the same phone stores over and over again.

Bellevue Square really doesn't deserve to be singled out for criticism, as it is no worse in this regard than any other major mall. In Toronto, an astonishing percentage of my holiday gift shopping has occurred at only two chains--Roots and Laura Secord--with the rest of the local malls being ignored. Throw in a Sears Canada and I probably could have avoided the rest of the malls.

Furthermore, it's not like I didn't do any browsing at Bellevue Square. I enjoyed looking at some establishments including the Lego store, Eddie Bauer, and even the big department stores I don't normally get to visit like J.C. Penny and Macy's. Yet, it was striking to me that there was no general book store, a role once fulfilled at B. Dalton in this mall, and no generic toy store, a role once fulfilled by Kay-Bee Toys.

In the end, while I did purchase some gifts this day in downtown Bellevue, I didn't make a single purchase at Bellevue Square. 180 stores and I found nothing to buy--no wonder people turn to the Internet for their shopping, and increasingly their television viewing.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Photos: Holiday Express 2009

The "Holiday Express" rounded a curve beneath construction cranes also decorated for the holidays in Portland, Oregon on 13-December-2009

BELLEVUE, WASHINGTON - This week's update to my photo site features the Holiday Expresss. A visit to Portland, Oregon allowed the opportunity to observe and ride the Oregon Rail Heritage Foundation's "Holiday Express" in its final two days of operations on 12-December and 13-December-2009 along the Willamette River. Also included are other holidays scenes from Sacramento, California and Eugene, Oregon.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Margin Notes: Holiday Oddities

A "Peace on Earth" sign greeted Amtrak passengers in Eugene, Oregon on 12-December-2009

BELLEVUE, WASHINGTON - I guess my sense of humor is fundamentally suspect. When passing through Eugene, Oregon on the train last week--a town considered the runner-up for hippie capitol of world--I was terribly amused to find a prominent building with "Peace on Earth" as its holiday decoration. Peace out, dudes.

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Similarly, the baggage car used on the Oregon Rail Heritage Foundation's Holiday Express is named after philanthropist Gordon Zimmerman, but is sometimes referred to in shorthand as "the Gordo." When I heard, "I think Santa Claus is in the Gordo right now," I about died laughing--was Santa in the Gordo, or was he just gordo (Spanish for, er, rotund)?

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The Holiday Express is featured as the December picture in my 2010 Railroad Calendar, available from Shutterfly as a last-minute gift. The calendar features pictures from California, Massachusetts, Michigan, Ontario, Oregon, and Washington and scenes with the BNSF, Canadian Pacific, CSX, GO Transit, Nickel Plate, Ontario Northland, Ontario Southland, Southern Pacific, Union Pacific, and VIA Rail Canada.

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We've heard (see yesterday's radio pick) that Thomas the Tank engine is a suspect gift because it teaches sexism and classism. I found what I consider much more disturbing gift at a REI store in Issaquah, Washington--National Parks Monopoly. If there ever were something that should be free of private ownership and capitalists, it is the national parks, which should be public property and available to all. I find National Parks Monopoly to be a sacrilege.

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Probably the greatest sacrilege of this holiday season, though, is the "Christmas #1" song in Great Britain. A campaign to end the string of Simon Cowell's "X-Factor" winners as the Christmas #1 at four years has succeeded, as "Killing in the Name" by Rage Against the Machine is #1 after a surprising number of downloads. A 17-year old song laced with an obscenity making it to #1? If this is what passes for a "Christmas miracle" this year, we really have poor judgment when we wish upon a star in this world.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Radio Pick: Thomas the Tory

BELLEVUE, WASHINGTON - I try to find seasonal themes for my weekly radio pick, and this week the CBC obliged. This time of year, many people are shopping, especially for toys for children. An increasingly popular gift this time of year for boys has been Thomas the Tank engine--but did you ever realize the conservative messages inherent in the Thomas stories? Political Science professor Shauna Wilton of the University of Alberta presented such views about fifteen minutes in to the second half-hour of the CBC's As It Happens.

Listen to streaming Windows Media of As It Happens "Thomas the Tank Engine"

Friday, December 18, 2009

Transport: Cascades Corridor Retrospective

BELLEVUE, WASHINGTON - My trip from Portland, Oregon to Seattle, Washington on Monday evening was one of the best of my trips over this portion of the "Amtrak Cascades" corridor. Arriving 16 minutes early, the trip took only 3 hours, 16 minutes, faster than the scheduled time time of three and a half hours for the corridor trains with Spanish-designed Talgo equipment.

This was my twenty-sixth trip over line between Seattle and Portland. My first trip was on Amtrak's now-defunct "Pioneer" (northbound train #25, which operated on the then-Burlington Northern as train #1798) on 24-June-1988. That train covered the 186.6 miles in 4 hours, 16 minutes for an average of 43.7 mph, sixteen minutes slower than scheduled.

My first trip on Talgo equipment occurred on 27-August-1994, when the original test set was running on the route as the "Northwest Talgo" on a trial basis. Southbound train #793 (#1793 to the Burlington Northern) handled the run in a time that would make even today's schedule, arriving 19 minutes early with a running time of 3 hours, 26 minutes and an average speed of 54.3 mph.

The slowest trip would not occur until 1-May-2006. On that day, I was on a late-running Coast Starlight train #14 (all Starlights were late in that era) that lost even more time on that segment because of severe freight train congestion at Willbridge in Portland. It took that train five hours, five minutes to cover the line, 40 minutes slower than scheduled, for a 36.7 mph average.

Four of the 26 trips have been on Amtrak Cascades train #508, the last train of the day (except when the Starlight is egregiously late) northbound out of Portland. On 9-February-2006, the train took 4 hours, 12 minutes to traverse the line (42 minutes slower than scheduled) mostly because of being held for a freight train at Clear Creek near Tacoma, Washington, and being briefly held while a car reported on the tracks was investigated in Seattle. On 8-May-2006, the run was similar, with a four hour running time (a half hour late) mostly because of a delay while the Columbia River Drawbridge was opened.

With freight traffic collapsed in the recession and the additional high-speed crossovers installed, it has been a very different experience this year. When I rode train #508 on 16-May-2009, it took only 3 hours, 12 minutes, arriving in Seattle 18 minutes early, the fastest I have ever experienced, a 58.3 mph average speed. With a few slow orders and crossing over between main tracks, my train on Monday didn't quite match that run, but was nearly as fast, being just four minutes slower for a very respectable average speed of 57.1 mph.

Those kinds of speeds are hardly considered high-speed, but they are competitive with driving and even flying (city center-to-city center), and the consistency shown this year represents the kind of reliability that makes corridor service attractive. If the rest of the Amtrak system were like the Cascades corridor, there would be a different attitude about rail transportation in general and Amtrak in particular in this country.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Heritage: More on 7 Austin Terrace

BELLEVUE, WASHINGTON - Long-time readers of this blog may remember a piece done back in September on 7 Austin Terrace in Toronto, Ontario near Casa Loma. The 1922 building, built for John B. Maclean, the founder of what has become Maclean's magazine, was in limbo, with an unknown developer proposing to remove it in favor of much taller condos using apparently-sneaky tactics, and the community having difficulty figuring out what to do about the situation.

I was contacted yesterday in reference to that old blog post, as it seems that the situation around 7 Austin Terrace is changing. No less than Maclean's has run an article accusing the developer of trying to vandalize the building. As described in the article, many of the heritage features have been removed in an attempt to prevent the city from designating it as a heritage structure. Maclean's identifies the developer in question as John Todd.

Further details revealed by an article in the Toronto Star seem consistent with this interpretation. Thanks to the authority of the Ontario Municipal Board, there appears to be nothing that the city of Toronto can do; Todd has won.

For those who wish to boycott Todd's other developments, there appears to be a partial list on one of his other companies' web sites.

Further developments will likely be tracked at the Heritage Toronto and Toll Keeper's Cottage web sites.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Transport: Almost the 4T Tour

A brand-new "Type 4" light rail car from Siemens worked a Red Line MAX train out of Beaverton, Oregon on 14-December-2009

BELLEVUE, WASHINGTON - The area around Portland, Oregon has led the way on the Pacific Coast of the United States in implementing public transportation. It had amongst the first light rail systems (starting in 1986, preceded only by the San Diego Trolley and legacy systems), the first modern streetcar system (since 2001), and the first heavy rail self-propelled service (opened this year; see my recent blog entry). Furthermore, all of these services plus TriMet buses operate on a single fare system, so that I could purchase an all-zone (there are only three) day pass at an automated machine for $4.75 and ride the entire system all day.

A sign for the "4T Trail" was found at the Central Library stop on the Portland, Oregon Streetcar on 14-December-2009

What I didn't realize until well into my planned explorations of the day was that Portland has established a 4T Trail taking advantage of their transportation system. The four T's are the "train" (MAX light rail), "trolley" (Portland streetcar), "tram" (the Portland Aerial Tram, yet another system), and "trail", a designated path between the top of the Tram and the Washington Park station on MAX. Taking about three hours to complete and costing only a TriMet fare (if one takes the circle counter-clockwise and heads, down the tram instead of up), it's a great way to tour Portland, but not having known about it in advance and concerned about imminent rain, I didn't take trail.

One of the original Czech-built Portland Streetcars, now supplemented by US-built cars, approached the Central Library stop on 14-December-2009

Instead, after a round trip to Wilsonville described earlier, I alighted from MAX downtown to catch the Portland Streetcar. This was my first trip on the streetcar down to waterfront area, where after riding the loop, I transferred to the tram.

One car of the Portland Aerial Tram met the other half-way between Portland's south waterfront and the Oregon Health & Science University on 14-December-2009

The tram, which opened in late 2006, climbs 500 feet from essentially Willamette River level up to the Oregon Health & Science University on Marquam Hill. It takes only three minutes to ride up or down, and the cost to go up is $4. It offers an interesting view of downtown Portland--I will need to go back when the skies are clearer and one can see Mount Hood to the east.

A Type 2 MAX light rail car had reached the end of the Green Line at Clackamas Town Center, Oregon, on 14-December-2009

After riding the remainder of the streetcar line, I next boarded the new MAX Green Line, opened in September, for a trip out to Clackamas. The Green Line is truly a fast service along I-205--once one reaches the Gateway Transit Center where the Red, Blue, and Green Lines go their separate ways. If I were a regular commuter, the slow running through downtown and around Lloyd Center would probably drive me crazy, but I cannot see how any complaint could be issued about running speeds on the new portion to Clackamas Town Center.

Portland may be the leader on the west coast of the United States, but in terms of efficiency in its core area of downtown Portland, it still compares poorly with the legacy systems--mostly subways--of places like New York, Toronto, and San Francisco. Then again, Portland has a quite comprehensive system of more than 50 miles of rail lines for a capital investment of $3 billion--not much more what Toronto is spending to extend the the Spadina subway less than six miles!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Margin Notes: Burgers, Water, Steam

BELLEVUE, WASHINGTON - For the first time in memory, I had the opportunity to eat at In-N-Out Burger (in Rancho Cordova, California) and Burgerville (in Portland, Oregon) within a few days of one another recently. The two chains, both heavily identified with their local regions and fresh ingredients, make for an interesting comparison. I have to say that I prefer In-N-Out's french fries, but Burgerville makes a tastier burger. I suppose it should, considering that their prices are significantly higher than In-N-Out--I paid less than $7 in California for what cost nearly $10 in Oregon. Burgerville also should receive credit for a very tasty chocolate hazelnut shake.

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Neither burger establishment serves doughnuts. I doubt there would be any policemen at In-N-Out anyway, as in the Sacramento area they all seem to be downtown. Maybe I'm just unlucky, but it seems to me that whenever I have walked around the "Sacramento Valley" railroad station and the state capitol building, I run into at least two police cars driving with their lights on, and my recent experience was no different. I didn't think Sacramento had a reputation as a center of crime, but I've not seen the density of police activity in any other city I've visited in recent years.

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Lookout Point Reservoir east of Eugene, Oregon was quite low in level on 12-December-2009

I was in Sacramento to catch Amtrak's Coast Starlight for the trip north to Portland. The train reaches Klamath Falls, Oregon by morning and then passes over the Cascade Mountains between Chemult and Eugene. The snow at high elevations was to be expected this time of year, but I was a little surprised to find Lookout Point Reservoir to be so low in December--taking the Starlight north was once my routine during my undergraduate years and I don't recall it being anywhere near this low in December.

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This unusual sign was located at Oaks Park in Portland, Oregon--next to the location where the steam locomotives left the station for "Holiday Express" runs--on 13-December-2009

They cannot be to blame for low reservoir levels, but steam locomotives need water to turn it into steam. When departing after a long stop, they have to "blow off" steam, which creates a nice show for observers some distance away, but also means that in this day of lawyer-induced liability concerns, volunteers had to be stationed to keep people from being surprised by steam in their face during the "Holiday Express" event, and leading to the very unusual sign above posted where the "blow off" would occur at Oaks Park in Portland, Oregon.

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As always when passing through town, I sampled the Portland, Oregon radio dial. KEX surprised me somewhat by still maintaining its full hour of news at noon--a rarity on newstalk stations these days--but the real stand-out was KPOJ. The "Power of Justice" progressive talk station actually feels like a local station by having a full local morning show and then local news inserts throughout the day on syndicated programming. I can't think of another left-wing talk station that operates this way--it's not hard to see how it is a rare major (well, #23) market success in a left-leaning station, most of which barely appear in the ratings at all. With Thom Hartmann filling in on its morning show and doing his national show afterward back-to-back on Monday, it was a bit of Thom overkill, but it was still quite listenable for talk radio, something I could not say for Lars Larson on KXL.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Transport: Riding WES

A Westside Express Service (WES) train sat at the platform at its southern terminus of Wilsonville, Oregon on 14-December-2009

PORTLAND, OREGON - Different transit agencies have different naming conventions. Around Boulder, Colorado, there are the Hop, Skip, Jump, Bolt and Dash bus routes. Metra around Chicago, Illinois uses the names of the original (or sometimes current) railroads for its commuter rail routes (meaning that one can still ride the "Milwaukee" and "Rock Island" even those those railroad have been gone for more than twenty years. Las Vegas has its "Deuce" bus route on Las Vegas Boulevard. Around Portland, Oregon, TriMet (formally the Tri-County Metropolitan Transportation District of Oregon) has chosen to use male names for its rail services. It started with MAX (the Metropolitan Area Express) light rail in 1986, and was expanded with WES (the Westside Express Service) commuter rail earlier this year.

The interior of the WES cars, manufactured by now-defunct Colorado Railcar, was observed at Beaverton, Oregon on 14-December-2009

This visit was my first weekday visit to Portland since WES opened on 2 February 2009, so this was my first chance to ride the rush-hour-only service. It does not operate all the way into downtown Portland, instead connecting with the MAX Red and Blue lines in Beaverton. So, I had to take MAX out to Beaverton to catch the final round trip of the morning on the 14.7 mile line to Wilsonville, Oregon.

Public art was noted at many WES stops, including this piece of interactive art at the Wilsonville, Oregon station on 14-December-2009

The route is mostly part of the former Oregon Electric interurban route that once ran all the way from Portland to Eugene, Oregon. Operated today by the Portland and Western Railroad as the Oregon Electric District, the line still hosts freight service and thus the WES equipment had to be collision-safe with freight equipment, meaning the only choice for passenger equipment was the Colorado Railcar diesel multiple-unit (DMU). Colorado Railcar failed financially as the WES order was being completed, and TriMet actually had to take over the company in order to ensure delivery of its three powered cars and one trailer. As backup, WES recently acquired two former Alaska Railroad Rail Diesel Cars (RDC's) built by Budd in the 1950's.

The recently-acquired former Alaska Railroad RDC's sat at the service facility in Wilsonville, Oregon on 14-December-2009

The Colorado cars had no issues today. I rode on the two-car set (the other two trains are a single car), enjoying the ride which averaged 33 mph (typical for a commuter railroad) with three intermediate stops. On the return trip, I had a nice conversation with the Portland & Western crew, learning that the trains generally carry 6000 people a week, though with school vacations there were clearly fewer being carried on this day. Long-term plans still call for expansion to Salem, so some day the most reliable route between Oregon's capitol and largest city may be riding WES and MAX.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Photos: F7 Cab Move in Toronto

The F7 cab was moved inside the John Street Roundhouse in Toronto, Ontario on 5-December-2009

PORTLAND, OREGON - On 5-December-2009, the F7 cab that will be used for a rail simulator was moved inside the John Street Roundhouse, capping off a big year for moves of equipment to the Toronto Railway Heritage Centre in Toronto, Ontario. Also included in this update to my photo site are pictures from the cab's arrival on 4-December-2009 and pictures from the work session on 5-December-2009.

Holiday: Holiday Express 2009

Former Southern Pacific #4449 led the final run of the 2009 Holiday Express along the Oregon Pacific Railroad in Portland, Oregon on 13-December-2009

PORTLAND, OREGON - Despite my loose affiliation with its preservation efforts, I had not managed to ever ride the annual fundraiser for the Oregon Rail Heritage Foundation (ORHF), the Holiday Express. This year, as the ORHF moves forward building a permanent home for the three steam locomotives owned by the city of Portland, Oregon, I decided it was time to climb aboard.

Temperatures barely above freezing led to a great display of steam from the Holiday Express during a morning run at the Ross Island Bridge in Portland, Oregon on 13-December-2009

The weather forecast looked a bit scary for the final of six days of runs today, but freezing rain and snow did not materialize, and the near-freezing temperatures just made the steam locomotive look all the more impressive as it handled the train single-handedly. The sun even came out during a morning run, highlighting the bright paint scheme of former Southern Pacific "Daylight" #4449 which handled this weekend's trains. Last weekend's trains were handled by former Spokane, Portland and Seattle #700.

On board a mid-afternoon run of the Holiday Express, children and their parents enjoyed the scenic views as they awaited a visit from Santa Claus on 13-December-2009

Both inside and outside, the train was decorated for the holidays with strings of multi-colored LED's. On board, though, there was little need to be encouraged to be in a seasonal mood. Everyone knew that Santa would be coming around, giving out candy canes and posing for pictures with children of all ages. While waiting, there was plenty to see out the windows of the Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge and the Willamette River, and a deer--not quite a reindeer but as close as one will get in Oregon--even made an appearance as the train approached.

Not quite a reindeer, but a deer did stand on the tracks as the Holiday Express approached on the Oregon Pacific tracks near Oaks Park in Portland, Oregon on 13-December-2009

While the views were pretty during the day, what really sets this train apart is the experience at night, with the lights lining the train as it plied the Oregon Pacific Railroad tracks in the Springwater Corridor. There's something special about hearing a steam whistle at night, and watching multi-colored lights illuminate steam from the locomotive and escaping from the train's steam heating system.

The six cars of the Holiday Express disappeared into the distance on its final run for the year on 13-December-2009

While the last Holiday Express may have run in 2009, the ORHF is always actively seeking support for its efforts, and we can rest assured that the Holiday Express will be back in December 2010.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Radio Pick: Hanukkah Song

PORTLAND, OREGON - This week's award for over-reported non-story goes to Senator Orrin Hatch's new Hanukkah song. Appearing widely across many programs, the only coverage of the song that I found worthwhile was NPR All Things Considered host Robert Siegel talking to the reporter that started it all--Jeffrey Goldberg. If non-news makes a program, at least provide some real background--which NPR did quite well in this four-minute segment, my weekly radio pick for this week.

Listen to streaming media of All Things Considered "Hatch Writes Hanukkah Song"

Friday, December 11, 2009

Culture: Game Shows

SACRAMENTO, CALIFORNIA - I view watching certain game shows as a possible sign of commitment to life-long learning. Some people in retirement watch soap operas, but my Great Aunt Pauline mostly watches a wide range of game shows. Her cable package includes the Game Show Network, which includes a variety of both classic shows, like the $100,000 Pyramid and Family Feud, and a variety of newer shows, including Deal or No Deal and Catch 21.

Deal or No Deal may be entertaining, but the contestants really don't need any skill to play the game. Catch 21 is somewhat better, as one needs to answer basic-knowledge questions, an alarming number of which seem to be from the entertainment industry, in order to be subjected to the luck of the draw--or at least to have any control over it. Still, luck plays a major role, which probably adds to the appeal for a general audience, but means that the best player doesn't always win.

By these standards, the all-time best game show is probably Jeopardy!, hosted by Canadian Alex Trebek, which continues to run to this day, distributed by King-World. Skill with the clicker may make a difference, but mostly what matters is deep knowledge of the world. Jeopardy! has had a major impact on North American culture, with people phrasing answers in the form of a question for no other reason than the influence of the show, and its theme music being the most common way to keep track of a thirty-second period.

There is a newer game that I think rivals Jeopardy! in some ways. It's not found on the Game Show Network or even in syndication, but on the Discovery Channel. Cash Cab has a great premise--a cab that pays you instead of you paying a fare. Of course, in order to earn cash, one has to answer questions. They may not be as hard as the ones on Jeopardy, but they're good enough for my taste. Host Ben Bailey, who not only came up with the concept but had to get his New York cabbie license, manages the game while driving passengers to their destination. If they miss three questions, they have to get out and hail another cab; if they need help, they can do a "mobile shout-out" (the "life line" we became so familiar with through Millionaire) or a "street shout-out" to a passer-by on the sidewalk. Plus, one gets to learn the geography of Manhattan by paying attention to the cab's route. This is the most clever game show to come along in some time, and it's probably no coincidence that it is on the generally more intellectual Discovery Channel.

Of course, I don't take cabs. Maybe Portland can have a cash streetcar?

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Margin Notes: Sun Dog, A380, Jackrabbit, Soul

A sun dog appeared as an American Airlines flight took off from Toronto, Ontario on 7-December-2009

PLACERVILLE, CALIFORNIA - Rainbows are a relatively frequent sight, no matter what songwriters would have one believe. Sun dogs or parhelions, which are like mini-suns with rainbow colorations, are also supposed to be fairly common, but I can't remember seeing prior to this Monday, as the plane I was traveling on took off from Toronto. The sun dog pictured above, as well as its mirror twin on the other side of the sun, were readily visible.

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Prior to takeoff, I noted an Emirates Air A380 at the terminal. I hadn't known that A380's were already flying to Toronto; apparently, they have been scheduled in regularly since June. The 517-seat Airbus actually didn't look that wide or tall; it simply looked fat--it was berthed with one skybridge to each level of the plane.

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A jackrabbit watched a railfan inspect the Union Pacific rail yards in Roseville, California on 9-December-2009

I'm starting to wonder how the jackrabbits in Roseville, California aren't all fat. The past two times I've visited the Union Pacific rail yards in that town east of Sacramento, I have been greeted by jackrabbits as if they were deputized by the railroad police. Could their constant presence be a simple function of grain leaking from rail cars in transit?

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It was not jackrabbits but hamsters that have been used to advertise the Kia Soul, and long-time readers of this blog will recall the Gleich family's take on the Kia Soul hamster ad. My rental car for this visit happened to be a Kia Soul. I can now testify that the car is actually quite roomy, not sized for a hamster, and actually seems to be pretty functional. A neighbor even commented on how cute it was--this is a car that puts the unergonomic Chrysler PT Cruiser to shame.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Culture: Small Town Music

PLACERVILLE, CALIFORNIA - I've been quite critical of the individualistic culture of the United States, which in most large cities leads to very selfish, each person for him or herself attitude that makes it almost impossible to build communities of any consequence, sometimes even in church congregations. Money seems to be at the root of the difficulties--if it doesn't make money, it doesn't last if it comes into existence at all. In smaller towns (read: "Red America"), though, exceptions to this pattern seem to be far more common. Sometimes it's good to see community-building and "just for fun" activities taking place.

I had such an opportunity this evening. My "cousin" Jimmy and I had gone out to one of his favorite dinner locations only to find that the steak deal had been canceled because of the recent storm. However, his friend Randy showed up and invited us to travel a few miles farther down the road to Folsom to watch him perform at an open Blues jam session. We followed him down to the historic center of Folsom, and found a bar at street level in a "haunted" hotel, the Old Folsom Hotel.

The only thing haunted on this night was the music. The anchor act was Fire and Wheels, a group that will soon be traveling to Memphis for a major Blues competition, and it was easy to see why. These guys were talented musicians, and their use of synthesizers to make an electric guitar sound like a variety of other instruments was remarkable.

What made the evening, though, was the open jam. A parade of different local musicians joined portions of the group to make even more music, and the quality was still quite high. Furthermore, everyone just mixed through the crowd, talking musicianship, music technology, food, and beer. And, while the event was clearly good for the bar's business, this really wasn't about money. There was no cover charge (though there could have been), there was no food for sale (people were buying pizzas at a nearby location and bringing them in to share), and the owner of hotel was mixing with the crowd, clearly enjoying the music.

There should be more scenes like this in North America.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Travel: Going to California for Snow

A snow globe was unexpectedly surrounded by real snow in Diamond Springs, California--elevation just 1800 feet--on 8-December-2009

PLACERVILLE, CALIFORNIA - People in Toronto, Ontario were quite surprised not to see any snow the entire month of November, as this was the first time since the current weather stations opened more than 75 years ago that this had never happened. Furthermore, the trend continued in December--while there were flurries noted in the air as I left town yesterday, there still had been no accumulation on the ground in the entire first week of December.

Normally, one comes to the state of California to get away from snowy weather and head for sun and warmth. While locales like San Diego (or anywhere in the Southland) would be safer bets within the state for warm and dry conditions, my destination of El Dorado County in the Sierra foothills should have also been a safe bet. Placerville rarely sees any snow, period, and hadn't seen any real accumulation since 1972.

That changed this week. A storm started before dawn on Monday, dumping about seven inches of snow in the immediate vicinity of Placerville. This was the largest accumulation of snowfall in the area since 1923. Driving from Sacramento, I was surprised to find the snow level on US 50 at about El Dorado Hills at about 1000 feet in elevation, and conditions unsurprisingly became more wintry as I continued east and higher to Placerville at about elevation 2000 feet.

Today, I had a chance to walk around an area of Diamond Springs west of Placerville and found winter scenes that I had certainly seen before--in Ontario, Massachusetts, or the High Sierra in California, not the relative lowlands. Sacramento media reported on shelters for the displaced and homeless to avoid freezing and on power outages as if they were from Seattle, Washington or Minneapolis, Minnesota. It all sounded familiar--there's no brain surgery involved in the opening of a shelter or in reminding drivers how to drive in the snow--it just doesn't seem to belong here.

The peculiar local angle on the snow accumulation comes from the citrus growers at lower elevations. Mandarin orange farmers in Penryn, California have received a lot of attention as temperatures dipped to 25 degrees Fahrenheit. Cold--close to freezing--is actually good for the species, causing a higher sugar content in the fruit, but actual freezing leads to the entire crop being lost. With one last night of freezing temperatures expected tonight, it will not be known if more than $2 million in crops have survived until tomorrow.

That's what I get for heading to California--the very weather I normally would have been experiencing, but haven't been, at home.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Transport: 100th Trip by Air

SACRAMENTO, CALIFORNIA - Today, I departed on my one-hundredth trip that involved at least one segment of air travel. It took me more than twenty years to reach this landmark, racking up just over 450,000 miles on 38 different airlines.

There was a certain irony in this trip being the one-hundredth, as it took place after the longest period of time I had gone without being on-board an aircraft in a decade. Not since 1999, when I did not fly--and basically did not travel--until the winter holiday season, had I gone more than four months without taking to the skies for one reason for another. Being unemployed this year, though, I have not had the money to travel and in fact am making this trip using frequent flier miles from all those previous experiences. (Not that even this is inexpensive anymore--the fees and taxes for this frequent-flier trip cost more than USD 150 just to get out of Toronto.)

It was also reminiscent of my first transcontinental trip. Like that trip twenty years ago, I was on American Airlines and was routed through their hub in Dallas-Fort Worth. The connection took place in the dark, so I did not see the brown-tinted concrete that had made such an impression on me in that first visit. In the terminals, though, things didn't seem much different to me than on that last visit, or amaizngly the only other time I connected through DFW in 2005; most of my connections have been through Chicago.

In fact, nothing much seemed to have changed in the flying experience since my last flight. Security procedures still seem to be the same as last year, the quality of airline service doesn't seem to have gotten any better (it could scarcely get worse--even peanuts or a substitute are a thing of the past on the major carriers these days), and major airports are still charging for wireless Internet access. Fellow American passengers were agressive and rude, drawing shaking heads from more patient Canadians. The only minor change to note was that even the pilots seemed to be surprised just how bright pink and green the de-icing fluids were in Toronto.

Still, in December, the whole name of the game is to get to one's destination, and American Airlines did at least manage to do that, reasonably close to one-time.

Airlines ranked by miles traveled (number of flight segments in parenthesis):

  1. America West, 54,780 (38)

  2. British Airways, 48,358 (15)

  3. American, 47,999 (21)

  4. Swiss, 35,608 (8)

  5. United, 33,310 (24)

  6. Continental, 27,282 (14)

  7. Air Canada, 26,300 (13)

  8. Northwest, 24,015 (22)

  9. Lufthansa, 22,046 (7)

  10. Alaska, 20,280 (24)

  11. Delta, 16,888 (12)

  12. Air France, 14,342 (6)

  13. Southwest, 12,365 (23)

  14. ATA, 11,350 (10)

  15. US Airways, 9,932 (7)

  16. Swiss Air, 7,490 (2)

  17. US Air, 7,061 (6)

  18. WestJet, 6,050 (3)

  19. Frontier, 5,540 (4)

  20. TWA, 5,480 (4)

  21. Sun Country, 5,020 (4)

  22. ExpressJet, 2,753 (3)

  23. Pinnacle Airlines, 1,650 (3)

  24. American Eagle, 1,535 (5)

  25. Horizon Air, 1,119 (5)

  26. Cross Air, 892 (2)

  27. Mesa Airlines, 692 (2)

  28. Tyrolean Air, 504 (2)

  29. AirTran, 368 (1)

  30. Air Wisconsin, 347 (1)

  31. Shuttle America, 345 (1)

  32. Skywest, 257 (2)

  33. Air Canada Jazz, 254 (2)

  34. Austrian Arrow, 254 (1)

  35. Atlantic Coast, 253 (1)

  36. Styrian Spirit, 208 (1)

  37. Trans-States, 135 (1)

  38. Chicago Express, 123 (1)

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Photos: Toronto Holiday Scenes 2009

The Amsterdam pedestrian bridge along the Toronto, Ontario waterfront was decorated as a sailing ship for the holidays on 5-December-2009

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's update to my photo site features scenes of the season. Holiday events and displays around Toronto, Ontario in December, 2009 included the Canadian Pacific Holiday Train, the CBC's Sounds of the Season fundraiser, the CN Tower, the official tree outside City Hall, and more.