Monday, December 26, 2011

Training Day

Our visits in and out of Cologne this trip have been met with gray skies and drizzle and unseasonably warm temps. The famous holiday market across the street from our hotel refused to be dampened by the warm temps and lack of snow, but the unrelenting clouds and damp seem determined to cast a pall on things.

So I spent today doing the next best thing to walking in the gorgeous European sunshine. I began the day perched on my usual bench in the train shed of the Hauptbahnhof, eating my portable breakfast and watching the trains come and go. But today is surely one of the peak travel days for any Western country, so there was lots to look at. It's especially fun to see families accompanying relatives and friends to the train station and seeing them to their car (one of many things now denied the air traveler). Then they stand opposite each other and gesture and laugh at each other through the glass until the train glides silently past the platform and out of sight. So many moving little partings after the holiday visits.

The superiority of train travel to air travel is striking in this setting. I have to remember what we sell in my industry; it's not comfort or service (though those things help): no, we're selling speed. America is a big place and very spread-out, and airplanes make it all accessible in a reasonable timeframe. But how much better the experience of train travel is to airplane travel. Everyone has space; your knees and elbows are not guaranteed to be offending someone else; you're able to actually get up and walk around; there are big windows and you're on the ground where there's always something to look at; there is food and drink available, typically in a separate car; you can even sit around a table to work on your computer or play a game of cards. And you don't have to be strapped down all the time. You can even buy a compartment for complete privacy.

Next stop: Hannover Hauptbahnof.

Sitting in the station (wikipedia has a great article on CGN's Hauptbahnhof) one sees a variety of grades of train, reflective of the distance being traveled. The longer-distance trains are shaped like a bullet and move at very high speeds. The local and regional trains tend to be a bit more utilitarian-looking, though everything seems in good repair and reasonably clean. Signage is everywhere and decipherable even to a foreigner, plus announcements are made over an actually-functional public address system in German, French and English (I chuckle to think of the announcements on the NY or Chicago subway systems, which sound exactly like Charlie Brown's teacher in the old cartoons: wawawa, wawa waaaaa, wawa.)

And there's an even more local train system that runs beneath the Hauptbahnhof, Cologne's subway / surface local trains.  I had never been on these, though one sees them all about town. So, it not being a very good day for walking, I decided to buy a day pass and just ride around for a few hours.  On my walks about town, I had come to think that the subway entrances I saw were for a different train system than the surface trains, but this is not the case. All of the city trains appear to spend at least some of their time underground, and depending on the line it may be mostly beneath or mostly above. On my travels today I got to see a variety of both settings.

The No. 9 train at its terminus at Sülz Hermeskeiler Platz.

It never fails to astound me that a train system can be so beautifully developed and (ergo) so brilliantly utilized in a place like Cologne with its one million inhabitants, while a city like Minneapolis, whose metro area is, I think, considerably larger than Cologne's, struggles to put in two or three surface rail lines, and very Johnny-come-lately at that. Cologne, meanwhile, has something like 15 city train lines (some of which extend out to connect a suburban hamlet) and another 5-10 regional rail lines, plus the longer-distance, high-speed trains. (Even Chicago, a much bigger place than CGN, has but 10 city lines.) The surface trains ride on a light-ish rail, typically set flush into the street, but the ride is quiet and smooth apart from some sharp corners dictated by the ancient layout of the town. The trains I rode were not impeccably clean, but they were cleaner than the American subways I'm accustomed to and not rife with vandalism or graffiti.

The implementation is just what you'd expect from the Germans. Everything runs on time, and equipment is smooth and quiet. Even in remote areas there are lighted dot matrix signs counting down the minutes until the arrival and departure of any train using the track. You always know where you are, what direction you're pointed, and when your ride will be there. Clearly some substantial resources have been poured into this system, and the result is a public transit system that many people prefer to driving their cars. There are enough trains that with maybe a single train change you can get anywhere in town without too much walking, and they are comfortable, reliable and not very expensive. And because they had a good transportation system developed early, the town has grown up around the rail lines. What a concept.

Fun to contrast this photo with a similar one from my first visit here nearly three years ago. The number of love locks has grown 10-fold.

Between rides I spent some time walking from train to train, and hopped off some distance from the hotel and walked back, snapping pictures of odds and ends as I went.

One of Cologne's many museums; this one, I think, a city history museum.

A forlorn little beer garden sitting fallow for the cold months.
Lunch on the street; a, um, currywurst bar!

I didn't see anything on my travels unexpected, but using the trains did let me see a bunch of underground stations, plus a few neighborhoods I had not yet walked through. Everything reinforces my sense of Cologne as a really great place to live.

Tomorrow: back to Dubai and on to Hong Kong.


dbackdad said...

Great shots! I love how the train and the top of the station draws you deeper into the picture.

You spoke of going back to Dubai in your closing. I just got an email from an old college roommate of mine from Beirut. Like me, he was an engineering major. He's now working in Dubai. I hadn't heard from him in 20 years. It was cool reconnecting. Maybe some day I'll manage to get out that way.

wunelle said...

It's still dawning on me how the labor force here is all foreigners. All of them. The air traffic controllers are Indian and Brits and some Americans, the ground workers are Indian and Pakistanis, there are Chinese here. More Americans than I might have guessed. We have pilots on furlough--for the firs time in my company's history--and at least some of them have come over here to Cathay Pacific and Emirates to fly 777s. I'd have given it serious thought if I were on the street with them.