Archive for January, 2011

Dark, cold, broken train: the Dutch high speed rail experience

Wednesday, January 12th, 2011
view of thermos on window shelf of commuter train; dark outside

At roughly 0700, the 6:26 express to Rotterdam went dark and stood still

“The engine driver is trying to restart the… em… locomotive…we’re having a technical problem… In a few moments, we hope to continue the journey.” This was the first in a series of announcements which accompanied the four-hour wait in this dark, cold train which was supposed to arrive at 07:10 in Rotterdam. A voice came from the seat behind me: a fellow passenger who told us what was really happening, and what was going to happen.

Locomotive calls helpdsek

“Ah, that will be the software. This is where the loc has to switch from 1500 DC to 25,000 AC – the software must have glitched again. They’ll be calling the helpdesk at Bombardier soon…”

I turned around and made introductions: this guy sounded like he knew a lot more than the train personnel making the announcements. Turns out he’s not an engineer: he’s a document manager who has been doing a six-hour commute daily (gasp) for many years, between his home up north and his job in Dordrecht.

Me: “25,000 volts… and you say the software is glitchy?”
Him: “Yes. This is the spot where the train has to lower and raise the pantograph. We’ll probably be here for at least three hours.”

25,000 volts… I imagine what the train will look like if the loc makes a mistake.

Loudspeaker: “Our engine driver cannot restart the, uh, software.”

Me: “Why three hours?!”
Him: “The helpdesk won’t be able to help them.”

I imagine the young call-center worker in India with the perfect American accent, taking the engine driver’s call. “No, sir, we don’t make any products for Windows. Oh, REAL windows… and doors? They don’t open? Oh, I see… Hold down the shift while you restart…”

Me: “How do you know this?”
Him: “I take the express train every week.”

Loudspeaker: “We’re sorry. We’ll be calling the Bombardier helpdesk, hopefully we’ll be back on track in a couple of minutes. We apologize etc. etc. etc. free coffee etc. etc. etc.”

Him: “They’ll have to find a locomotive somewhere to come get us. They don’t have enough themselves, so they’ll haggle with another company over the price. Then they’ll send one. It will come from Watergraafsmeer in Amsterdam, though, and it will take a while.”


view of landscape through train window; flat field, train tracks

At around 0930, we heard that a locomotive was on the way to tow us back.

The train is now icy cold, and we’ve discovered common interests (me information architect, him document manager). We while away the time exchanging stories about the journey that kilometers of paper archives are making into the digital realm.

It seems that everyone on this early express knows each other very well. (I wonder why?) A woman across the aisle (works in a shop) is explaining that the pilot of the trans-European rail system has failed and that the French are refusing to have any part of it. Amazing how much these people have learned by just sitting in broken trains.

Loudspeaker: “I’m afraid the helpdesk has not fixed the problem. A locomotive will tow us back to Schiphol airport…”
Him: “If we’re lucky, we’ll make the connection right after 10:00 to Rotterdam.”
Me (thinking about my 11:30 class): “What train is that?”
Him: “The same as this one, a Fyra express. But it’s not clear where they’ll tow us.”

I call the school and cancel the class. If his calculations are right, we’ll never make it. And besides, if it’s a Fyra express, there’s a chance I’ll spend ANOTHER four hours in the train.

He turned out to be exactly right, except that we missed the connection to Rotterdam.

Bonus payments

Him: “Oh, well, I’ll collect some more compensation.”

Dutch rail pays subscription holders like him 7 Euro’s for each hour they’re late. “A colleague made 800 Euro’s like this last year.”

Down, down, down

People who think corruption and bad governance don’t hurt us, here’s your answer. A high-speed network of sorts is coming into being, but look at this sad jalopy it has produced, after literally decades of planning and promising. It’s not even an integrally designed new train! It’s old rolling stock, refurbished and attached to a powerful loc that just pulls it a bit faster. For 40 minutes. Between 2 cities. If you’re lucky. Where did the money go?

In the meantime, we read about 1000′s of miles of new high-speed rail lines in China. Not to idealize, but certainly in tiny, infrastructure-rich Holland, they could have established at least two or three lines between major cities? One died after ten years of discussion. The other is being towed back to Schiphol.

The heating has re-started, and the toilet flushes again.

Maybe I’ll start seriously thinking about tele-teaching.