Posts Tagged‘train’

Day 21: Auf Wiedersehen Zurich, Hallo Munich.

Our room had finally cooled down to below boiling allowing us a night of rest that wasn’t interrupted by fever dreams. This was after we’d endured the various smells emanating from the restaurant below us, a lovely combination of fetid cheese, cigarette smoke and whatever the rain had dredged up. Suffice to say packing wasn’t filled with that same solemn feeling that all our previous places of rest was, especially as we tripped over each other as we were doing it. Our journey to the train station was thankfully uneventful and we boarded without issue.

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Today’s trip is the last we’ll be taking by train here in Europe. I had hoped to do all of it by train but the realities of train travel in Europe won’t accommodate the many places we want to visit. That and the fact that some trips are simply better done by plane like, say, Berlin to Zurich which would’ve taken half the time to accomplish. My wife expressed her sadness at this fact as it had been quite nice to watch the countryside go past, the green hills a stark contrast to that of what we have back home. I too lament it somewhat, although I do like the idea of not losing an entire day to travel for our last few locations.

We arrived in Munich in the late afternoon and quickly set ourselves to task in getting our laundry done. I found us a place not too far from where we were which appeared to be good and we headed out into the rainy afternoon. When we got there though they informed us that they wouldn’t be open tomorrow, nor the day after, and so couldn’t take our laundry. Perplexed that they’d be closed on a weekday we left in search of another place. Problem was we had no cash, which we quickly remedied, but then the machines only took €5 and €10 notes. Feeling defeated after wasting 2 hours trying to chase a place down we decided to leave it for tomorrow and headed out for dinner.

After stumbling back the way we came we eventually found a small Indian restaurant that seemed quite reasonable. We made the unfortunate error of ordering far too much food and were completely stuffed halfway through it. The waiter even asked us if it was no good, which we told him unequivocally no, but I can definitely see where he was coming from. With the hangries at bay we caught an Uber back to the hotel to dry off and prepare for tomorrow.

We’ll be spending the better part of tomorrow visiting Neuschwanstein Castle, said to be part of the inspiration of the Disney logo (and also home to some Bavarian royalty for a short period of time, but that’s not what anyone really cares about, right?). Hopefully we’ll be able to sort out our laundry too as there’s nothing more…uncomfortable… than wearing clothes again when they haven’t been washed. All else fails it’s the hotel sink for some socks and jocks, although I hope it never comes to that.

Day 18: Auf Wiedersehen Berlin, Hallo Zurich.

Our alarm went off at a leisurely, but not yesterday’s leisurely, time this morning. Today we had nothing more planned than a simple train journey from Berlin to Zurich, our only train journey that had us connecting onto a different route. Buoyed by our success in navigating Berlin’s train network we decided to catch that into the main train station as well, eliminating the need for an exorbitant taxi ride. So once breakfast was out of the way we checked out and began our short trek to the closest train station and our journey to Zurich.

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Getting on our first and second trains proved to be no issue. We’d already caught the same train numerous times over to get us around the middle of Berlin as they all seem to share the same route within the more touristy areas. The second was a train that was very comparable to the Thalys one we’d caught some days prior, being quite new and outfitted with free wifi. However as we got closer to our arrival time I noticed that we weren’t really close to anything I’d call a major station, nor had there been any announcements over the intercom. The time kept ticking away until it past it, and continued to do so until we arrived 20 minutes late.

This posed something of an issue for us as our connecting train was scheduled to depart not 15 minutes after our original arrival time. Try as we might to get to the right platform in time we arrived nothing, our connecting train apparently bang on time. So there we were in the Hanover train station with nowhere to go, the efficiency of the train system cutting us both ways. Undeterred, although a little anxious, I made straight for the ticketing station to figure out where we’d go from there.

The ticketing station runs on those RTA style booths that print you out a ticket with a number on it. I left my wife behind whilst I went in search of wifi, figuring this was a problem I could solve with a little Google-fu. Thankfully these trains run every 2 hours and another one was due to leave in the not too distant future. However for the Eurail pass you typically need to reserve trains before you board them, especially the high speed inter-city ones. Thankfully the ticket clerk was more than able to help us and not 20 minutes after our delayed arrival we were booked on another train.

The rest of the trip was largely uneventful, the German countryside slowly fading away to the rolling hills of Switerzland. The quaint little towns, usually flocked on all sides by crops or vineyards, were a picturesque backdrop to the relative calm of the train. Our 2 hour delay meant we were getting in at around 10PM at night although the city was far from asleep, the Euro cup match ensuring the streets were still filled with people. We managed to find a quiet Italian place to have dinner (one that didn’t have a TV out in the open) which my wife enjoyed thoroughly.

Our hotel room is, unfortunately, likely to be the worst of this whole trip. I’ve stayed in rooms this size for work and thought it was too small even for one person. We’ve barely got space to have our bags open on the floors, the desk is built into the wall with a little pouf for a chair and, to top it all off, it isn’t air conditioned. Considering we’re hitting 30+ degrees now this is going to be an issue and I’m honestly surprised that the reviews I read didn’t reflect these problems. Live and learn I guess.

Tomorrow we’ll be heading out to Zoo Zurich as we’ve heard it’s one of the best in Europe. Then we’ll be taking our fill of Swiss chocolate, something my wife thoroughly appreciated when I returned from my last work trip to Geneva. If we do much more I’ll be surprised, especially with this unrelenting heat dogging us at every turn.

Time to sleep.

Day 15: Vaarwel Amsterdam, Hallo Berlin.

My wife stirred long before I did which I took as a good sign. She said she was still feeling pretty rubbish, unfortunately, but at the very least she did seem to be in a much better mood. We managed to get through breakfast and packing up ok, checking out of the hotel and getting into a taxi without incident. Once we’d found our way to our platform, long before our train was due to arrive, my wife started to feel ill again. It’s a pattern that would repeat itself over the course of the day although, thankfully, we had a whole first class cabin to ourselves for the majority of the trip.

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Unfortunately the train ride wasn’t as luxurious as our previous one was, being more like a budget airline than anything else. Our Eurail pass granted us first class seats however there were 6 of them to a cabin. Throughout the trip we had various people come and go in the 4 spare seats we weren’t using although none of them stayed longer than an hour. This was great for my wife who could curl up on the seats and get some additional rest. We drew the ire of the conductor who told us we hadn’t used our Eurail passes correctly, something which the first train we boarded neglected to mention.

The trip over was uneventful, spent mostly reading through my book and playing a couple games on my phone. This train was also bereft of any Internet connection as well, something that torpedoed my plans to post yesterday’s blog and, possibly, catch up on that Mirror’s Edge Catalyst review I had lined up before I left. It was nice to see the transition from The Netherlands to Germany however, the landscapes dotted with wind farms, small towns and various other things of interest.

We arrived in Berlin late in the afternoon (which would be the dead of night at home, something which my body clock is still coming to grips with) and made our hotel. I was a little worried that we were out in the sticks somewhere as I thought I spied our hotel from our train on the way over. By the looks of things though we’re pretty well placed with most of the things I want to see a short train ride away.

I’m hopeful that my wife’s condition will have improved enough by now for us to really sink our teeth into Berlin. I have to admit I was a little disappointed by how little we did in Amsterdam, even if it was a rather relaxing time. Berlin is definitely one of the cities that I wanted to see a lot of and, since we’ve really only got 2 days here, we’re going to have to make them count. Even though our new hotel would be nice enough to while away the hours in I’m certainly not looking to make a repeat performance.

Day 10: Au Revoir Paris, Hallo Amsterdam.

Way back when I was planning this holiday I made sure any travel days had as much slack in them as possible. My paranoia about missing something and throwing the whole holiday out of whack was strong back then and, unfortunately wasn’t made any easier by this morning’s events. You see I’ve never really used the train as transportation, save for a few scant trips around Sydney back in my youth. So the notion of crossing country boundaries via a land based transportation system was foreign to me and, even with the reassuring words of my friends that trains were “the way to go” in Europe I was a tad anxious at the prospect.

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Arriving at the Gare du Nord in Paris I was greeted with a similar level of bedlam that I’ve come to expect at airports of similar size. Then a sinking feeling hit me: was 1 hour enough to navigate this mess and find our train? We initially hopped in a line that appeared to be leading somewhere only to be told that it was for a train to London. A few more helpful people later and we’d activated our Eurail Pass and found the line for our train which was departing in about 20 minutes. So whilst I might have panicked initially really there wasn’t much to worry about.

The train ride from Paris to Amsterdam, which I’m told is monopolized by Thalys, was amazing. The seats were the size of business class seats on any airline and there was more than ample space between rows, even for someone of my stature. The food service was generous with the hostess coming past multiple times in our 4 hour journey asking if we wanted drinks or snacks. Best of all the ride was smooth and incredibly quiet. Basically it’s everything you wish air travel was, save for the fact that for longer trips it loses out on the time factor. Now I wish I had known about the overnight train between Munich and Rome before I had booked the hotels as I think that would’ve been quite the treat.

We arrived late in Amsterdam late in the afternoon and quickly made our way to our hotel which is located right next to the Van Gogh museum. It’s an older establishment, essentially being an overgrown bed and breakfast, but the woman who greeted us at the reception was kind and incredibly forthcoming with information about where we should go. After we got settled in I established contact with an old friend and former housemate who we’d arranged to meet here and we began the trek to meet him at the halfway point.

We met up at a place that reminded me of a lot of the bars in Melbourne, a place called Kriterion, The beers there were extremely cheap and the quiet ambiance of the back street it faced a nice backdrop for sharing our current travel stories. It wasn’t long before we all downed a couple beers and were looking for some food which led us on a winding tour of the surrounding district. We eventually settled on an Argentinian steak place that did their signature cuts very well although the beers and drinks had a distinctly weird taste to them. Satisfied with our dinner we parted ways for the night, although I’m sure this won’t be the last post where I mention our friend.

It will probably come as no surprise that I was struck by the number of bikes, both those in use and locked up on the streets. This is a town that was made for bikes, the distances between places short and the streets built around them. What also took me aback was the similarity of architecture from street to street, enough for a new tourist like myself to get lost in (and I did more than once). There are colourful and unique places to be sure however in general most streets had a very similar look and feel to them.

Tomorrow we’ll finally do something we’ve been wanting to do since we landed in Europe: a bike tour of the city we’re in. Our hosts here at Hotel Fita had good things to say about the tour we chose so hopefully we’ll get a good look over the city proper. After that we’ll probably visit the Anne Frank house as our host had said that it was much less busy in the afternoon. Potentially after that I might be swayed towards a night of debauchery with my friend, a known fiend for finding interesting places to drink in foreign countries. Should tomorrow’s post come a little late then you’ll know why and you should probably not assume the worst.

If another day passes however, send help.

The Tiniest Electric Train.

I’ve never really been one for trains, neither those that serve as public transport or their diminutive brethren that grace the basements of many, but the technology behind some of them is quite impressive. Indeed you can’t go past the Shinkansen of Japan, trains that are so fast that they regularly compete with airlines for the same passengers and have recently achieved astonishing speeds. However beneath all the technical wizardry that powers those impressive machines lies some incredibly simple physical principles, ones that can be replicated with some copper wire, a couple magnets and a battery:

The way it works is incredibly simple. The “car” of the train is made up of a couple high-strength magnets that are oriented in the same direction, ensuring that their magnetic fields flow in the same direction. Then when the car is placed onto the track  of coiled wire they help complete a circuit with the coil of wire around it. This then creates a magnetic field around the car and the resultant force between it and the permanent magnets results in a force that’s vectored forward. However the time it will be able to do this is limited however as the creation of the magnetic field consumes power from the battery. Most estimates online have the run time somewhere around 30 minutes or so from a typical alkaline AA battery.

Indeed one interesting thing about this train is that it relies on the high internal resistance of regular alkaline batteries to function properly. You see a typical battery has what amounts to a current limiter inside it, preventing anything from drawing current too fast from it. If they used say a NiCd style battery, which has an incredibly low internal resistance, I can see the results being either much more spectacular (like the car flying around the track) or catastrophic (like the battery overheating and the wire melting). Actually now I’m kinda curious about what would actually happen.

Now where’s that old battery charger of mine…

The Other Kind of Engineering.

Us engineers usually like to work in controlled circumstances, taking our time to analyze the problem and develop a good idea about how the solution will look before diving in head first. Sometimes however we’re chucked in the deep end and we need to come up with a solution on our feet with the resources that are available immediately, leading to a term I like to refer to as field or ad-hoc engineering. I can’t tell you the number of times I would be working on my beloved first car trying to install some widget only to find the exact part I needed would be a good 30 minutes drive away. This probably explains why it has mostly fallen apart 5 years later, after all my various hacks disintegrated.

There’s also another side to ad-hoc engineering and that’s finding a novel solution from something that wouldn’t normally server its purpose. It was the following article that brought this all to mind:

During the holiday season, many people place toy trains on circular tracks beneath their Christmas trees.

This month, at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, physicists and engineers built tracks inside one of its fusion reactors and ran a toy train on them for three days.

It was not an exercise in silliness, but in calibration.

The modified model of a diesel train engine was carrying a small chunk of californium-252, a radioactive element that spews neutrons as it falls apart.

It’s really an ingenious solution to improving their calibration techniques, even if at first glance it seems rather silly. If you take a look at any major engineering project I’m sure you could find many more examples just like this, although I bet more than a few of them involve copious amounts of duct tape.

My university studies were filled with examples like this, especially the final year which saw me and 3 other students work on what was essentially a media PC running MythTV with a custom intuitive interface. The case itself was salvaged from an old instrumentation rack, the controller board for the front panel was actually an old keyboard that had been torn apart to fit the bezel and all of the PC parts were from one of the project member’s old PCs. I’d love to say that the whole thing was held together with hope, strings and bailing wire but it did turn out pretty well with us coming second in a university competetion. I’d have to credit the other members of the team with the success though as I had relegated myself to being the project manager (which in hindsight was a terrible idea, we should’ve done that stuff collaboratively).

Strangely its this kind of engineering I find most satisfying. I’ve wasted many hours scrounging through my garage for that one thing that will mostly do the job whilst I sort out a better solution. It’s also the reason why I find it hard to throw anything out as I know that the second I do some strange use will pop into my head and I’ll curse myself for throwing it out. There’s a good reason why we have a 3 car garage at our house with not a single car parked in it. 😉