The war in Ukraine has upset the global food market, and the surprising reason is not that Ukrainian wheat isn’t being harvested, but rather that it can’t leave the country. With Russia blockading sea ports, the only way out for Ukrainian grain is by train. And this exposes the long-hidden patchwork of railway tracks and train standards: trains can’t simply cross the border from Ukraine to Poland on their way to a sea port because the tracks don’t match.
Even beyond the obvious issues of connecting differently sized physical railway tracks — the track gauge — there are different signaling systems, different voltages for electrical trains, different loading and structural gauges, and so on. In Europe today, the political history of the past few hundred years can still be traced back using its railroads, with some parts of the European Union still on 1,520 mm Soviet-standard gauge, rather than the 1,435 mm Standard Gauge, which is also known as Stephenson Gauge, European Gauge, etc.
These complications explain why for example with the current war in Ukraine its railways into the rest of Europe aren’t used more for transporting grain and other cargo: with Ukraine using 1,520 mm gauge, all cargo has to be transferred to different trains at the Ukraine-EU border or have bogies swapped. Although some variable gauge systems exist, these come with their own set of limitations.
In light of this it’s not hard to see why standardizing on a single international or even European track gauge is complicated due to having to replace or adapt all tracks and rolling stock, even before considering the aforementioned voltage and signaling differences. All which may lead one to wonder whether we’ll ever see a solution to this historically grown problem.
Where do you travel every day? Are there any subtle ploys to manipulate your behavior? Would you recognize them or are they just part of the location? Social engineering sometimes gets a bad rap (or is it rep?) in the mainstream, but the public-facing edge of that sword can keep order as it does in Japanese train stations. They employ a whirlwind of psychological methods to make the stations run like clockwork.
The scope of strategies ranges from the diabolical placement of speakers emitting high-frequency tones to discourage youthful loitering to the considerate installation of blue lights to deter suicides. Not every tactic is as enlightened as suicide prevention, sometimes, just changing the grating departure buzzer to a unique tune for each station goes a long way to relieving anxiety. Who wants to stand next to an anxious traveler who is just getting more and more sweaty? Listen below the break to hear what Tokyo subway tunes sound like.
If you were to nominate a technology from the 19th century that most defined it and which had the greatest effect in shaping it, you might well settle upon the railway. Over the century what had started as horse-drawn mining tramways evolved into a global network of high-speed transport that meant travel times to almost anywhere in the world on land shrank from months or weeks to days or hours.
For Brits, by the end of the century a comprehensive network connected almost all but the very smallest towns and villages. There had been many railway companies formed over the years to build railways of all sizes, but these had largely conglomerated into a series of competing companies with a regional focus. Each one had its own main line, all of which radiated out from London to the regions like the spokes of a wheel.
By the 1890s there was only one large and ambitious railway company left that had not built a London main line. The Great Central Railway’s heartlands lay in the North Midlands and the North of England, yet had never extended southwards. In the 1890s they launched their ambitious scheme to build their London connection, an entirely new line from their existing Nottingham station to a new terminus at Marylebone, in London.
Since this was the last of the great British main lines, and built many decades after its rivals, it saw the benefit of the century’s technological advancement. Gone were the thousands of navvies (construction workers, from “Navigational”) digging and moving soil and rock by hand, and in their place the excavation was performed using the latest steam shovels. The latest standards were used in its design, too, with shallow curves and gradients, no level crossings, and a wider Continental loading gauge in anticipation of a future channel tunnel to France This was a high-speed railway built sixty years before modern high-speed trains, and nearly ninety years before the Channel Tunnel was opened.