11 May 2009

Rail coverage is extensive...and fragile

UK rail services make it easy to reach most of the country, and apparently only cover 50% of what was the previous rail system (much has been shutdown). The London Underground trains, moving almost 1.2 billion people annually, are easy to understand and provide great coverage of the city.

But for all the positive aspects of rail travel and despite its long existence in the UK, the system is surprisingly fragile. Strikes, delays, cancellations, and equipment problems are extremely common, with some of the problems being almost comical (I was on a trail where the driver wasn't feeling well, so he simply stopped the train at the next station, got off, and went home). For example, every autumn the surface rail lines have trouble due to wet leaves making their way into the switching mechanisms, causing delays. Bilandic lost the Chicago mayoral re-election when he couldn't get the snow out of O'Hare in a timely fashion ONE TIME (well, that and a few other things), but year after year trains here are delayed by this same problem, and people just put up with it, although they know it's crap.

In the summer, it can be even worse: the steel used in the rails was spec'd to operate within a certain temperature range, but beyond that range the steel expands so much that the rails actually BUCKLE, making the line unusable. And we're not talking about 100 degree weather for two weeks here; a few too many days in the high 80's can do it. Frankly, after a while you get the impression that the rails are made of chocolate and a little girl in a calico dress merely needs to frown at a switch in order to cause it to erupt in a shower of sparks.

But although the trains give me grief on a regular basis, it's still hard to beat them for getting around easily. That is, when they're running.

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