Using trains as a watch

Yesterday, I was cycling through the fields, next to the railway line Amersfoort-Baarn. And I wondered what time it was. At that very moment the train from Amersfoort to Schiphol passed the train from Schiphol to Amersfoort. Ha-ha, I smiled, it is 8.45!

How did I know this? Train timetables are based on a pattern: trains from opposite directions meet each other at a fixed point in time. If you have two trains an hour, a train meets its opposite trains at .00, .15, .30, and .45. Combining this with the knowledge that the train from Amersfoort to Schiphol leaves at .10 and .40, and that it should be somewhere between 8.30 and 9, I was able use the trains as a watch.


Don’t ask me why or how I know about this pattern, because I can’t remember. Must have read it in some train magazine sometime. I check the existence of the pattern regularly while travelling and it seems to hold for most trains in the Dutch railway network. This means that if you would stop the time at, for example, 11.15, and take a satellite picture of the Netherlands, you would see similar trains meeting each other everywhere in the network.

If you want to use trains as a watch, there are a few conditions you need to take into account:

You must be close to a railway line;

You must be able to see the location where trains meet;

The trains must run on time;

You need to have a rough indication of the time – some knowledge of the timetable can help you out.

As you can see a combination of some nerdy knowledge and a whole bunch of luck is necessary to use trains as a watch. But you can’t imagine the joy of this all coming together!


1 thought on “Using trains as a watch

  1. Pingback: Using trains as a watch | Leonie Walta science writing

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