Train planning by images

I was confused. Furthermore, it was confusing that I was confused. It was all about a train trip that I made almost daily between 2005 and 2012, from Amersfoort to Delft.

Last week, I was making the same trip again. Nothing new, you would say. But something in me decided to look it up in the train planner, which was odd because I know exactly at what time the trains in that direction leave. Another something made me raise my eyebrows when I was advised to change trains in Rotterdam. Over all these seven years I had travelled via Rotterdam. But why didn’t I remember that, and why did I think it did not make sense? Am I getting old, perhaps?

It was something that could not be figured out in an armchair. I needed to get out there, make the trip and find out what was going on. And the bottom line was: I am doing fine – thank you – but my photographic memory is working too well.

The station of Delft has gone through a huge change after I came there daily. There is a new and bigger station hall and the tracks are now underground. I had been there before, so I knew where I was going, but I did not associate it with a place I had often been. So, that could be what made me look up the train times. First puzzle solved.

Rotterdam’s primary station also changed quite a bit since 2012, and while it was a familiar station to me already, it was not a familiar station in relation to my regular journeys to Delft. Tada!

I had never come up with the idea that my brain might use images of stations as its waypoints for travel planning. It just looks as if it does. And if it does not, I am still confused.


Parking in a hairpin turn

It all started off as a classic transport problem. Which road to take from A to B? Google Maps gave, as always, three suggestions for our car trip in the Southwest of Crete. The shortest of which took more time than the longest. That sounded like a nice tour to us. On our Greek map this road was marked a yellow road, which is usually a color that refers to interesting countryside roads with not much too traffic on it. So we took off.

A quiet tarmac road took us up in the mountains to the village of Sklavopoula. With the windows open we enjoyed the smell of the Mediterranean vegetation, drying in the warm autumn sun. We came up to a point where we were to turn left. But was there a left? The two small tarmac roads resembled entrances to private property. But we gave it a shot and took the one that was going up, from which a man on a moped came who did not give us a ‘where do you think you are going’-look.

After a few hundred meters, the road changed into a dirt road. And when I say dirt, I mean not only dirt but also rocks, potholes, and humps. All those things you want to be driving a 4×4 for, which we were not. At first it was not that bad. And we even came across a sign that showed us we were going the right way. Never mind that it was handwritten. Elafonisi is Elafonisi.


The road from Sklavopoula to Elafonisi

When we came further and further into what appeared as no-man’s-land, the road became increasingly worse. But soon we were reassured by a blue, shiny, seemingly out of place waymark, saying the road we came from goes to Sklavapoula. Our second reassurance arrived in the form of an oncoming and even smaller rental car. They stopped next to us, rolled down the window and pointed in the direction we came from, with a question-mark-look on their faces. “Sklavopoula”, I said. He pointed backwards and answered “Elafonisi!”. So we now both knew that it would not be foolish to continue on the road we were on.


An unexpected waymark

Soon the Elafonisi peninsula came into view and we stopped the car. In the middle of a hairpin turn. Just for the sake of it. We sat on the edge of the hill, staring over the sea and were contemplating the different opinions of countries on what was a driveable road. We concluded that we were having a lot of fun, but that we were going to take the longer but faster tarmac road back to where we lived.

Meanwhile, in the door of our car, was a German map of the same area. On this one, our road was not yellow but white. That might have helped in having more realistic expectations. But it would also have killed the adventure we just experienced.



Two hours late

It is ten o’clock on a Tuesday night and I am on a train after an intensive evening meeting, hoping to get home as soon as possible. Outside it is cold and dark, inside the lights are a bit too bright, the chairs a bit too hard and the temperature a bit too low for comfort. But it will take just an hour.

Suddenly, about ten minutes after the first intermediate stop, the train starts braking abruptly. There is a grinding sound of metal or stone. After the train has fully stopped, the coach is filled with speculations about what happened. Over the intercom the engineer declares that he has hit something but does not know what, so they have to investigate.

There they go, into the dark, not knowing what they will encounter. Probably fearing casualties, but professional enough not to let that get in the way of taking action.

Meanwhile, the coach remains silent. There are a few phone calls and message bleeps. There is nothing to see apart from some distant houses and a nearby electricity post. A few lights reflect in the water. My phone tells me that we are in the middle of nowhere – as far as you can be in the middle of nowhere in The Netherlands. The place trains always tend to get stuck.

The train itself is completely silent, nearly all systems are switched off. Some of the lights fall out, and at one end of the train they completely extinguish after some time. There is no heating either. You could hear people moving on their chair. With my jacket over my legs to keep warm I try to read a book. But I am too tired and put it aside. With the battery of my phone almost dead waiting becomes quite boring.

After a short hour the personnel moves from coach to coach to explain what they found. It turned out to be a bizarre accident with no casualties. The train crashed into the front of a car in which a driver and a passenger were still seated. It was a mystery how this car got on the tracks, there was no crossing nearby.

What was possibly a life changing event for the people in the car and at least bad night sleep for the train personnel was sort of a relief for the train passengers. Something really happened, without casualties, and we were not stuck between the fields for nothing.

It took another very silent hour before something started moving. The train’s engines were started up. Soon after, we left. At about the time I had planned to be in bed. I stared out of the window and saw the brand new stations, the place where I had seen pheasants running through the sand before they were built years ago.

It felt strange to leave the train when we arrived at a big interchange station, to instantly mingle with people who had not experienced what we did. I considered walking to the front of the train and observe the damage but the thought of getting home as soon as possible won.

And so I found myself running for a connecting train as if nothing happened. For me it was just two hours later than planned.

Manchester Airport

It is a cold and rainy Thursday afternoon on Manchester Airport. The flight I took from Amsterdam just landed and rolls to its gate. At the left side, a man in a yellow coat waits until the aircraft has stopped and then places a safety cone underneath the tip of the wing. Apparently, the people in the back rows are soon allowed to leave through the back door and walk over the platform. The man will stay out there and direct us to walk around the cone, avoiding the area under the wing. At least, that was what I expected. But the cone wasn’t enough.

What happened next must have been the result of mixing up working schedules, a lengthy health and safety meeting, and some lady taking the wrong bus to work.

Out came a woman, dressed in a skirt and high heels, hiding herself in a high visibility overcoat with cap and pushing an unidentified rolling device towards the wing. With her big pair of glasses halfway her nose she was the complete opposite of the usually broad shouldered male platform employees. And so she acted.

The device contained a long red line of which she took the far end and walked cautiously to the stairs at the back door of the plane. She attached the line that did not want to follow the course she tried to force it into. Then she walked back, rolling up the line with a winch until it hung about a metre above the ground, fluttering in the wind. Not an easy job, you know. The line got stuck halfway rolling it up, so she had to redress it again.

Manchester Airport

All this took place at a comically low speed – or do seconds take longer when you are waiting to alight a plane? Our platform lady should probably have been at her desk in a  lawyers’ office. But for some reason she ended up on the platform of Manchester Airport on this particular Thursday.

The Amstel station birds

Amsterdam, just an ordinary Sunday in the 1980’s. Tram 12 stops in front of its final destination, the Amstel station. My parents and I get off and take the somewhat unpleasant but functional lower entrance, up the stairs and into the main hall.

It is that kind of place that amplifies every sound produced by people or machines and blends them into this familiar station background noise. While my father buys three tickets to Arnhem from the ticket office, I look up to the giant wall paintings that refer to a period when train travel meant a major step forward in our mobility.Amstel station

Walking through the tunnel and up the stairs for the westernmost platform, the murmur and footsteps of people gets slowly exchanged by a whole new soundscape. The glass box that surrounds the tracks offers bathroom acoustics to pigeons and starlings who like to hear themselves sing. And they are not afraid to use it. Their calls are dominant, together with the bleep that sounds every 15 or so seconds at the metro platforms in the middle. Unless trains and metros are passing through the station.

On our platform the train to Maastricht is ready to leave. The engine roars under its heavy job to pull its carriages, which themselves only produce the sound of wheels rolling on tracks when they pass by.

Still 15 minutes to go until our train arrives. The information display, a roll of film inside a box, already shows the stops and the final destination of our train. Getting bored, I start looking around and see a starling eating from a box of fries left behind by a traveller.

Then my eyes turn back to the track, and in the distance I can see a train approaching. But it is not slowing down to stop. A few seconds later a goods train is running past our platform leaving all my hairs upright and my ears blown inside out. It takes a while before I can hear the birds again. And what’s more, the information display starts rolling again, rolling and rolling until it stops at the following train. Is our train still going to arrive?

Fortunately, someone in a control room seems to take over the display, so, after a while, the right information is shown again. A few minutes later, the train arrives and we get in. Soon after we leave the station, I start staring out of the window, calmed by the regular rhythm of the train wheels passing the joints in the track. The Amstel station birds are already far behind me.

Getting there

If you want to get to your destination, focus on the journey.

It is one of the most common advices for anyone who wants to achieve something. In sports, business, music, health, whatever. Some very useful words of wisdom. Why?

The journey is more important than the destination.

But if that is so, why do I bother to get to a destination at all?

When planning a cycling holiday, the beginning and end points of each stage usually become very prominent in my mind. “What are you doing today?” “I am cycling from A to B.” “Nice! I would love to go to B sometime.”

This summer, while cycling from A to B, I figured what I actually wanted to find at B, my daily destination. The answer: a roof, a bed, a shower, good food. That’s all. And, since it is not such a problem to find these things in Western Europe, it does not really matter where the destination is. As long as it is somewhere along a nice cycle route.

Another example. I know two people who (independently from each other) have done the pilgrimage on foot from The Netherlands to Santiago de Compostela. It takes months to get there. So what do you expect they did when they arrived? Sit back, relax, take a couple of weeks or at least some days off at this milepost? No, they both went home as fast as they could. Which they hadn’t expected to do beforehand.

It is not just some good advice from books to focus on the journey. It is what happens. We are always thinking in destinations, and their attractive names. We even build nice buildings at typical destinations – train stations for example. But everything in the view of the arriving traveller blurs except for signs leading to the nearest exit. It is only when the station is your point of departure that you are confronted with the architecture and might save some time to look at it.

Of course, I could give you the advice to look up or behind you when you arrive at your destination. But I won’t. It is just not nature’s way.

Centraal Station Amsterdam

Picture: Amsterdam Central Station.

Picture a Plane

Some months ago I was on a train, wasting time. Not that time on a train is generally wasted, but I was doing nothing else than being on a train and getting worked up about what I was seeing.

In front of me was an information panel showing the destination of the train, Schiphol. The fact that Schiphol was an airport was clarified by a pictogram of an airplane. And this pictogram was what I was so worked up about.

Plane pictogram

Look at it. It shows all the essential features of an airplane – fuselage, wings, vertical stabilizer – but it doesn’t picture a plane. It might have been a plane at some point in time, before it was squashed against the wall by a giant flyswatter.

An airplane is a very three-dimensional means of transport. It needs its wings to get up in the air and stay there, and it needs its vertical stabilizer to keep it going in the direction you want it to. Usually, means of transport are pictured from the side. That works very well with bicycles, cars, trains, buses and helicopters, but not with airplanes. You will overlook the wings, and without those it will crash.

If these wings are so important, let’s picture the plane from above. Or from beneath? I couldn’t tell the difference because the vertical stabilizer, without which the plane will most certainly crash, has now gone missing.

plane above pictogram

A front view maybe? In that way both wings and vertical stabilizer are visible. But it also leaves you with the feeling that you are standing on a runway about to be run over. No, thank you.

The solution is to picture the plane from an angle. This way all its features are disclosed and in the right proportions. It actually looks like a real airplane! Thanks to the anonymous GB who shared it on the internet for free. You saved my day.