Posts Tagged ‘Trains’


Max: Transportation Systems

January 5, 2012

Transportation is something most of us use every day, but notice only when it bothers us or stops working correctly. Every week I take the subway to campus and back and take a local train to visit nearby relatives, but I rarely stop to think about how this wouldn’t be possible at all in Minneapolis because of the lack of reliable rail service and infrastructure. On the occasions that I do stop to think about the transportation I use every day I realize how different the transportation systems in the US and Germany (and in Minneapolis and Munich) are. Even if I had a car and could use the road system I would be noticing some big differences:

The first thing most Americans will notice when first driving on German highways is the stretches where there is absolutely no speed limit. While it seems a little odd at first that this is the same country where you can get ticketed for passing a car on the right, or even driving in a left lane when the one to the right of you is free, it makes sense when you realize that it can be more dangerous to disrupt the normal flow of traffic than to drive very fast. Also, German drivers generally don’t drive faster than they feel is safe. 

The other major difference in road travel, besides the fact that German drivers seem to be, in general, much better (more attentive) drivers than the ones in Minnesota, is in the structure of road networks. Most large German cities, including Munich, existed long before cars or even horses and carriages were in common use. They grew slowly, starting with a wall around the inner city, then eventually broke out of that wall and absorbed smaller cities nearby. The roads developed slowly along with the city, eventually forming a radial pattern with the oldest part of the city in the center. This historic city center is often a pedestrian zone; car travel is limited in this area.

Large American cities, by contrast, usually have a pronounced grid pattern in their street layouts and the entire city is usually directly accessible by car. This is probably the result of deliberate planning due to the fast growth of these cities. Even outside of cities this pattern is apparent: Most of the farmland in the large, flat parts of the US is divided by roads into neatly tessellating squares and rectangles, giving the land the appearance of a patchwork quilt when viewed from the sky. This isn’t the case in Germany, where farms generally have a more irregular shape.

Where the American and German transportation systems differ the most, of course, is in passenger rail infrastructure. American regional and inter-city rail service is either slow, unreliable, or rarely available in most parts of the country. For the majority of Americans it isn’t an attractive option for any kind of travel. The only options these Americans have for inter-city travel are car or airplane travel, neither of which is particularly comfortable or enjoyable. 

Germany, on the other hand, has an extensive rail network that reaches every major city, just about every small city, and even some large villages across the entire country. Train travel is a viable option for those who do not own cars, along with car sharing or comparably-priced flights. The service is usually punctual and has a frequency of at least one train every one or two hours at most stations. The trains are usually fast and comfortable, with the extreme being the high-speed InterCity-Express service that can travel up to 300 km/h and is the most comfortable vehicle in which I have ever traveled (except the one time I flew on business class, but that was orders of magnitude more expensive than a typical ICE rail ticket). Compared to car travel, train travel is comparable in cost (depending on the level of train speed and comfort) and often is about as fast, occasionally even faster (also depending on the location of your start point and destination). 

Perhaps most Americans simply prefer the flexibility and independence offered by cars over the comfort, low cost, and safety offered by trains. Perhaps the US’s geographic size and relatively low population density make trains an impractical option compared to cars and airplanes. Whatever the reason, America’s passenger rail network has a long way to go to match the efficiency, popularity, and ubiquity of Germany’s network.

Until now I’ve covered road and rail networks on a regional and national scale. This leaves out an important component of transportation networks, namely public transportation within cities. It’s hard to make national generalizations in this area, mostly because each city seems to take a unique approach to public transportation. Since I have used the transportation systems of both Munich and Minneapolis/St. Paul extensively, I’ll profile them as examples. I should note that the city of Munich is considerably larger than Minneapolis/St. Paul. Munich’s population is about one million, while Minneapolis/St. Paul have a combined population of close to one-half million, although many more people live in the sprawling suburbs that surround the cities proper.

Munich has a dense, extensive, and robust public transportation system. Its high-capacity backbone consists of the U-Bahn, a subway system of six lines, and the S-Bahn, a collection of suburban trains consisting of twelve spokes that join in the city center to form a single trunk line. These trains are usually fast and punctual (the U-Bahn more so than the S-Bahn). The stations and trains are clean and safe. Although the system sees heavy use and trains can get crowded during peak hours and football games, overcrowding on a scale comparable to the Tokyo subways is very rare. With an extensive streetcar and bus network supplementing the U- and S-Bahn, almost any place in the city and most of the surrounding towns can be reached from the public transportation network. In addition, bicycle paths are available along most streets as another alternative to car travel.

Minneapolis and St. Paul have no real subway system. The transit system for this metropolitan area consists chiefly of a bus system which provides good coverage within the city limits and connects busy areas like the downtowns and the U of M campuses. The city had a streetcar network but this was dismantled in the 1950s because a bus system was thought to be more economical. Rail seems to be making a comeback, however, with the recent construction of a light rail line (a sort of compromise between streetcar and subway) with another line currently under construction and a third in planning. Bicycling is especially prominent in Minneapolis/St. Paul: Bike paths are common and all buses and trains are outfitted with bike racks. Biking is especially popular among university students, who (unlike in Munich) usually live within short biking distance of campus. In the suburbs, however, transit coverage is usually spotty and limited to commercial centers. Because of this and the sheer geographic sprawl of the suburbs, residents there are often left with car travel as the only practical option.

It’s been interesting to look at how two different countries, or two different cities, solved the fundamental problem of getting people from one place to another. It’s a sign of how far modern society has come with this task when I can step into a train in one place, step out fifteen minutes and ten kilometers later, repeat this daily with hundreds or thousands of other people and not even give it a second thought most of the time.


Emily: Trainride daydream

October 8, 2011

It was no shock to anyone that Emily had neglected her blog for well over a month.  Always jumping around…quite like a flea.  And in her defense, quite like a flea with a pedigree pup on her plate; too enthralled with wandering through the thicket of fine hair, too busy burrowing beneath the scales of skin to sip on sweet nectar, and often too frazzled by the jarring movements of her host to sit back with pen and paper and reflect…and more often than not, this flea thought…”I am just a simple flea that no one should take interest in, and having no thumbs I can’t begin to imagine how I might use a pen…”  Scholars maintain that the written language of Fleagli has been lost for generations; in fact…however, I digress…

Oct 2nd, 2011. On another sweaty afternoon, Emily found herself on another train.  Sharing a compartment intended for eight passengers with twelve other adults and one baby (rather doped up on opium), she was wedged between a rusty arm rest and a rather plump woman in a sea green sari.  Her arm accumulating the sweat of the lumpy lady, the family opposite her showing no sign of relent in their staring, she attempted to escape.  Out the window, past the plethora of squatters shitting on the side of the tracks, past the bicycles and rickshaws accumulating at the railroad crossing, her mind transported her through time and space…to fresh air…on a mountain side…

Dharamsala.  Waking up to feeling cold was a stark contrast to nearly a month of waking up drenched in sweat.  This couldn’t possibly be India anymore – the humidity of August was absent.  No horns sounded in the distance.  And where was the thick air salted with exhaust and the shouts of early morning vegetable sellers?   Outside the drafty door a pony shuffled around the cement slab trying to shield itself under the eaves of the tin roof.  Pellets of rain pounded, the symphony nearly deafening.  Careful not to disturb the girls sleeping on either side of her, she was silently thankful of her impulse purchases from the misty mountain town of McLeod Ganj just a couple nights before – tugging the wooly green hat around her ears and zipping up her blue rain jacket she simply sat and listened and was.   Three days passed this way – timeless and fleeting all at once.  She scaled giant boulders, ate orange mushrooms gathered from the forest, watched monkeys wrestle under wispy clouds that rolled through the mountains, wandered up the rocky path to Triund’s snowline (absent of snow this time of year), tiptoed past cow pies while spying out her out space to donate to nature, sliced vegetables hauled up the mountain by donkeys, gazed up into the blanket of black and stars as the campfire crackled by her barefoot, mud-caked feet.  The hike down (much easier than the six hour ascent) was made bittersweet by the promise of a possible glimpse at His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama for a mere twenty rupees.  Chance would have it that on the very five days that she happened to be in Dharamsala, he was giving his first public speech that summer.  And luck would have it that as she and her comrades sat amongst the crowd of dreadlocked hippies, red-robed monks, and worldly travelers that she spied him walking by.  His speech, translated from Tibetan to English, Spanish, Portuguese, and Hindi on the fuzzy frequencies of tiny radios was…nothing special.  Or so it seemed at the time.  He spoke of compassion, of asceticism, of meditation and the path to a happy mind.  It wasn’t until she was wandering away that it struck her – his ideas didn’t inspire her to change, because they were thoughts that pervaded her mind for years.  It was a blessing to feel so at home in the company of strangers in a strange land so very far from home.  Simply being was a blessing.

Eyes stinging with exhaustion, head aching, her mind fluttered back to the present.  The compartment reeked of baby poo and the eyeballs ogling her seemed to have multiplied.  Sixteen hours of train ride remained before she would be delivered to the holiest of India’s holies: Varanasi.  Toting the backpack her sister had given her when she left the States a mere two months ago, she climbed to the third tier bunk of the crowded compartment.  Nestling her ukulele against her chest, she drifted off to dreamland to frolic with the friends of yesterday on the plains of nowhere at all.   The jumping flea would reflect on her journeys again soon…maybe on another train ride…in another town…soon.


Eric: 24 Hours in Marrakech

July 13, 2010

This weekend I went to Marrakech, the “Capital of Tourism of Morocco” as one of my Moroccan friends calls it, and had quite the interesting time. I took a 2:30 am train from Fez on Saturday to get to Marrakech, as I didn’t want to miss any of my class. I much prefer having 7 hours to sleep on the train and get to Marrakech in the morning. Not much a fan of sitting through 7 hours without air conditioning, I bought a first-class ticket this time. Even though it did cost more, it was worth it at least for the first couple hours of the journey. I had the entire compartment, which seats 6 people, all to myself and was able to lay across 3 seats comfortably. As the sun began to rise and we passed through more stations, people began to get on. It was at 11 am that I arrived in Marrakech, the temperature of which at the time was 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit).

Standing under the burning sun, I called a taxi and got to Djemaa el Fna without getting overcharged. I met my roommate  at one of the orange juice stands and went to the hotel, which was built in riad style, with rooms surrounding a central open space.

Djemaa el Fna was among the first UNESCO Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. At daytime, few stands except the orange juice stands could be found in the square. At night, the place turns into this massive crowded area full of food stands and other exhibitions.

After checking in the hotel, a couple of us went to walk through the souks (traditional markets) of the medina, which is actually the largest in Morocco. Compared to the souks of Fez, Marrakech’s shop owners are a lot more aggressive at selling things.  of going into their shops. Different parts of the souk sell different items, ranging from clothes, leather goods, scarves, carpets, species, wooden boxes, silverwares, and more. It was really a huge maze, and after walking through the souk, it took us a while to find our way back to the hotel.

After the walk, we returned to the hotel with semi-heatstroke to rest until the day cooled down. I fell asleep reading and woke up to find rain pouring down, which didn’t last that long, but made the day a little more bearable. Two other people and I decided to walk through the souk again to find some souvenirs. I also got to see how they put buttons on a leather jacket after one of the girls made the purchase.

Close to nightfall, we walked back to the hotel to meet up with other people for dinner. The square was full of people and smoke from the food stalls. It was hard to walk through the crowd without getting separated from the group. We stopped to get a few glasses of orange juice. It may be because of the hot weather, or the fact that it’s fresh-squeezed right in front of us, but orange juice tasted so good in Marrakech. And with one glass costing only 3 dirhams, I would have finished 5 glasses straight had I not been saving my stomach for food.

We ate at one of the food stands in the center of the square. I ordered a plate of “Fish mix”, which consisted of fried fish, fried calamari, and fried shrimps, successfully fulfilling my crave for seafood, even though it was quite greasy. After seafood, I was up for some more unusual food. First stop: snail stand. I have eaten snails before, and they didn’t taste bad, so I didn’t really think it was a big deal to eat snails. Here they put snails in a huge pot of broth, cook them, and serve right from the pot. The small bowl full of snails we got tasted a little chewy and salty (you eat them using a toothpick to fish the snail out of the shell). The broth tasted a little peppery, but was delicious overall. Contining with the spirit of Andrew Zimmermand, I walked up to one of the stands that displayed goat heads by myself, and ordered a quarter of a head (at least that was what I thought I ordered). To be honest, it was just a plate of meat and tongue (I had eaten similar things before), and maybe a little brain, nothing more exciting. It did taste really good with bread, and I was happy that I tried it. After ending the night with a couple more glasses of orange juice, it was time for bed.

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