Riding the rails has never been more engaging
Can a train power itself? Who were the Great Train Robbers? What’s the longest stretch of straight track in the world? Do ghost trains really exist? Let’s find out with some interesting and surprising facts about trains.
1. Perpetual motion machine?
The mining industry uses trains all the time, as they can haul massive amounts of very heavy material over vast distances. But in Sweden, they’ve come up with a fantastic way of powering these lumbering monsters.
Taking ore from the mines of the northern Swedish mountains, the trains are 750m long and consist of almost 70 trucks, needing an incredibly powerful electric locomotive to pull them, but the journey from the mountains to the shipping points at harbors in Sweden and Norway is almost entirely downhill. This means that the train can coast a lot of the way, using very little power and storing its braking energy in batteries.
It only takes a fifth of this electrical energy to power the train to the harbors, meaning that the remaining 80% can be used to power the train back up to the mines again, resulting in a service that completely powers itself.
2. The best of a bad situation
After his assassination in 1865, Abraham Lincoln’s body went on a tour of 180 cities across seven states before arriving in his home town of Springfield, Illinois to be buried. The train, draped in black, was a massive publicity win for George Pullman who, as well as supplying the carriages for the funeral train, lent a number of his Pullman Sleeper carriages to rail companies wanting to run “Lincoln Specials” to Springfield for mourners to pay their last respects.
Rail travel was still somewhat of a novelty in the USA at the time, and the Lincoln funeral was many Americans’ first look at a train. Despite the prohibitive cost of the Pullman Sleeper carriage, the luxury and finish of something that had previously been very utilitarian was so impressive it became — if not front-page news — then certainly a mild sensation. Demand took off, and Pullman Sleepers were in service all the way up to 1968.
3. Hang on to your uterus!
With almost any new technology, people will come up with panicked theories about the effect it will have on society, morality, physical wellbeing, or any number of other things that Helen Lovejoy won’t-somebody-please-think-of-the-children types love to crusade against. So it was with the railway.
Many people were concerned about the dangers to the body when traveling at speeds of up to an eye-watering 50 miles per hour (80 kph). There were theories that the human body would simply melt away due to the sheer speed.
An even more alarming idea was that women’s uteruses would fly out of their bodies as they were accelerated to that speed. As I’m sure you know, this proved untrue, but in the hang-on-to-your-hats world of Victorian locomotion it was initially seen as a very real threat to health.
Another danger that female travelers faced in the early years of rail travel was tunnels. Not the structures themselves, but the risk of dastardly men attempting to lean over and kiss them in the dark. Indeed, many guidebooks advised women to go so far as to put pins between their lips before entering a tunnel.
4. Underground and underwater
Between 2001 and 2010, the New York City Municipal Transportation Authority, instead of disposing of old trains, saved $30 million by turning them into new homes for… fish?
That’s right. In that time, 2,580 subway cars were taken to the MTA’s workshops in Manhattan, stripped, cleaned, loaded onto ships and taken off the coast of New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and South Carolina where they became artificial reefs, providing new habitats for marine life.
The reefs now provide homes for, among others, sea bass, tuna, mackerel, flounder, blue mussels, sponges, barnacle and coral. “I’ve had pods of dolphins come swim around, and seen sea turtles swimming through them” says photographer Bob Martore, one of the people who documented the project. A pleasingly unusual end for these classic vehicles.
5. Great Train Robbers? Not really…
One of the UK’s most famous criminal acts, the Great Train Robbery, was not named because it was a great robbery (it was really pretty amateurish, if we’re being honest), but because of the amount of money taken. On 8 August 1963, a gang of 15 men attacked a mail train traveling from Glasgow to London and made off with ₤2.6 million (₤55 or €61 million in today’s money).
After loading the money into cars and vans, the gang planned to meet at a farmhouse around 45 minutes’ drive from the site of the robbery. One of the gang members told the workers on the train “not to move for half an hour”, and the police assumed — rightly — that this meant that the gang had re-convened somewhere nearby instead of dispersing in different directions.
At the farmhouse, the gang celebrated and, famously, played Monopoly using the stolen money. The plan had been for one of the gang to then stay behind and burn the farm down, removing all evidence; a day or so after they left, they learned that he’d fled with his share without doing the job. By that time it was too late. The police had found the farm, littered with banknotes, beer bottles and the famous Monopoly set. Virtually the entire gang — all of whom were known criminals — were swiftly rounded up.
6. Plot twist
The course of literary history could have been changed to some degree on the afternoon of 9 June, 1865. Charles Dickens was traveling with his mistress Ellen Ternan (and, slightly oddly, her mother) when their train derailed while crossing a viaduct. Due to a miscommunication, a length of track had been removed, and the resulting crash killed ten passengers and injured 40 more.
Dickens’ carriage was left teetering on the edge of the viaduct and he clambered gingerly out through the wreckage to safety, only to remember he’d left the manuscript for the final part of his upcoming serialization of Our Mutual Friend on board, so climbed back in to retrieve it. He also tried his best to tend to the wounded, some of whom died in his care while waiting for help to arrive.
The incident affected Dickens severely. He lost his voice for two whole weeks afterwards, and developed a (some would say entirely understandable!) fear of train travel.
“I am a little shaken,” he wrote a few days later to a friend. “Not by the beating and dragging of the carriage in which I was, but by the hard work afterwards in getting out the dying and dead, which was most horrible.”
7. Ghost trains exist
The underfunded and unloved British rail network comes in for a kicking from commuters all too often. What’s even stranger is that in order to keep some lines open, rail companies will run “ghost” services that aren’t advertised, and operate just often enough to keep a line or a station open, saving on the cost of consultation, possible renovation or total removal, and the public backlash that would come with removing a route, line or station only for ticket prices to keep increasing.
So, on these lines, the very occasional train — often a single carriage, offering either no sensible connections or no advertised way to buy a ticket, — will trundle up and back, stopping at virtually abandoned stations to pick up and drop off absolutely nobody, purely to keep railway companies and local governments happy.
Polesworth station in Warwickshire, for example, had six weekday services up until the end of the 1980s, now has just one – the 07.26 to Crewe. The train only stops as it’s traveling north; it can’t stop on the southbound track as the bridge to that platform was removed in 2005 and never rebuilt, rendering it inaccessible.
While major commuter lines suffer soaring prices, overcrowding, angry commuters and badly maintained infrastructures, the ghost trains rattle on, a symbol of utter folly.
8. Musical stations
They’re sadly being phased out, but stations in the Czech Republic used to have their own identifying jingles based on something relevant to that town or city.
Whenever there was a station announcement in the town of Pardubice (famous for its horse race), travelers would hear a snippet of “Já mám koně”, a children’s song about happy horses. Traveling through Prague’s main station would yield a burst of Czech composer Bedřich Smetana’s national classic “Vltava”, while down south in Brno you’d hear “Hvězdy jsou jak sedmikrásky nad Brnem”, a tale of a romantic evening in the city.
Each major station had its own unique story to tell through its jingles, but now the Czech national rail company is phasing them out in search of “more uniformity across the network and less confusion for passengers”. What a sad, petty thing to do.
9. Supply your own carriage
— Amtrak (@Amtrak) July 5, 2020
If you’re wealthy enough to own your own private railway carriage, you can travel in style across the USA, as Amtrak will let you hitch your carriage onto scheduled train services between specified locations.
You don’t have to buy a ticket (saving you money), but you do have to pay an annual registration fee for your private carriage, as well as for a yearly safety inspection, a mileage rate based on where and when you’re traveling, and additional charges for any extra services you might require from Amtrak. Oh, and you have to buy the carriage in the first place of course.
On balance, perhaps it’s better just to travel with everyone else.
10. Straight ahead
The longest stretch of completely straight track in the world is in Australia. It’s part of the Trans-Australian Railway, and crosses the Nullarbor Plain for 478 km (297 miles), not deviating even slightly. It can even be seen from space, according to former astronaut Andy Thomas: “It’s a very fine line, it’s like someone has drawn a very fine pencil line across the desert.”
Originally built as part of an incentive program to encourage citizens of far-flung Perth (and Western Australia as a whole) to join the newly formed Commonwealth of Australia, the Trans-Australian Railway is part of the Indian-Pacific line, a service that runs between Sydney and Perth. A one-way trip takes between 65 and 70 hours, depending on scheduling, and it’s widely accepted as one of the great railway journeys of the world.
Travel packages come with all meals included, fine wines and cocktails, luxurious sleeping arrangements, and stops at strategic points to see some of Australia’s most stunning scenery. The price for all this? Well, packages start at $2,599, so get saving!
11. Who gives a sh*t anyway?
No, it’s not that I’ve run out of facts, this is simply the words that came together to make up the name of a rail line: specifically the Wgasa Bush Line, a now-retired rail line that transported visitors around the outskirts of San Diego Zoo for over three decades.
Andy Faust, son of zoo designer Chuck Faust, confirms the story. “They were having a brainstorming session to come up with a name for the line and had hit a brick wall. No good ideas at all. Someone, in frustration, said ‘WGASA’. No-one knew what he meant. ‘Who gives a sh*t anyway?’ came the reply.”
Chuck Bieler, one of the zoo officials sent it to be approved by the committee. “Wgasa was just a neat African-sounding name. They said, ‘That sounds great,’ without any knowledge of what it meant. I was one of the few who did. We got a lot of chuckles out of it, and it survived the years.”
Bieler, who later became the zoo’s executive director took to telling people that the name actually stood for “World’s Greatest Animal Show Anywhere.” Now the line is defunct, the truth can be told.
Did you enjoy learning about trains? We have more fun facts and travel inspiration on Kiwi.com Stories.