Monday, June 4, 2012

Vacation 2012, #4: Rail Supplement

I'm train-obsessed. I never tire of sitting in a station--any station--and watching the activity. In both Cologne and Frankfurt we arrived early for our train and I loved to just sit and watch the world go by. There's not as much to watch on the operations side as with an airline; there are no "ground crew" or baggage handlers or fueling or catering operations to watch. And as the motorman stays in his cab and only a conductor can be seen checking the doors before giving the all-clear, there's really only the passengers to watch. But somehow the great crush of humanity going about our millions of individual travel paths makes for compelling viewing. (This is true of airports as well.) And you're right next to the action.

I've long had a thing about rail travel, but in truth I take trains in the US pretty rarely. I use the trains in Chicago and NY as my primary way to get around, and if we layover in Edison I take the New Jersey Transit into Penn Station. But I haven't gone cross-country in the US by train in 30 years. It's always by air. (I guess we drove to Kenosha a few years back and took the Metra into Chicago, but this was an hour's trip.) This is not an accident, I know. Our population is spread out over a vast area, and we really only have high concentrations of people on the coasts. Connecting all the pockets in the middle is nigh-unto impossible, and to compete with air travel you'd need a huge network of high speed rails, which on the face of it seems impractical. An airplane needs relatively little infrastructure: just point it where you want to go.

So it may make perfect sense that we do not travel by train in the US, but it's a path that exacts its pound of flesh. Train travel is the principal way to get around Europe, and trains seem the hands-down winner in a contest of civility with airlines. The three-ring circus of security theater that goes on at US airports is nowhere to be seen on Europe's trains. Anybody can go into a train station here, and people can accompany their loved ones right to the door of their car--actually onto the car and help them get situated. There's security, of course, but it's foot cops and dogs and cameras. Nobody makes xray images of your junk. Food and drink are everywhere (though I see some trains only have vending machines), and you can even bring your bike onto the train. Or your pet. Storage space is ample, and you just have more room generally. It's not perfectly smooth, but there are few jarring motions; accelerations and decelerations are almost imperceptible, and much of the time you have little sense of motion. There are no seat belts and you can get up and walk around during your journey. Indeed, there's usually a concession car with tables and a nice view to encourage you not to just sit in your chair and get blood clots. And you get to actually see the countryside through which you travel! We paid a tiny extra fare for first class from Cologne to Amsterdam, and the cars were beautiful. Reasonably clean and with big leather seats, we even found an empty quiet cabin with a table and six chairs. Nobody disturbed us, and we spent our time playing cards and reading--and writing this post. All very civilized. 

Each city (on a rail line, of course) has its little station, clean and minimal and functional. In many places you pass the remnants of the older rail infrastructure on your way in or out of a city. The older buildings, many of which still bear the town's name, were larger and incorporated indoor stations and even a hotel or restaurant. Some of these facilities are still functional, though typically not as part of the rail system. And many more are off on a forgotten stretch of track, now weed-choked and decaying. I missed a photo going into Berlin of a fantastic old railroad roundhouse off on a long-disused siding. (In fact, I got no photos of any of this, as I was unprepared and the stuff flashed by in an instant.) Nowadays the city station is a minimal affair, a canopy with an electronic ticket machine and occasionally a small waiting room. But it's all quite new and clean and modern, and the trains do a booming business. With tickets quite reasonable and the system so extensive, it's easy to see how people could avoid owning a car or would engage in car sharing, especially in a big city.

(Waiting to leave Frankfurt for CGN.)
(One of several large train sheds in FRA. Originally, these kept rain off folks but left someplace for the steam rising off the locomotives to go. Nowadays it's just picturesque.)

(Now in CGN. A single large train shed--with more glass--and a big wing on the North side.)

(Massive brakes on each wheel of the high-speed ICE.)

(CGN. More platform space added onto the East end of the train shed.)


(Enroute CGN-AMS. We found a room with a table to play cards. Very civilized.)

(SOMEONE is distracted in her card playing. What really sucks is that she ALWAYS wins despite being distracted.)

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