Thursday, December 30, 2010

Trains, snow, and Sweden - a good combination?

It has snowed in Sweden nearly every winter for the last 10 000 years (and before then too, but 10 000 years ago is about when humans showed up after the ice had retreated).  And for maybe the last 150 years or so, trains have been running through the snow and ice, with various success.  But apparently this winter the train systems have broken down with some trains stuck whole nights out in rural forests, without food and drink, thousands of canceled trains, and switches and rails that freeze and break.  Everybody blames each other (in Sweden that would be SJ [the railroad], Trafikverket [the maintenance company], and the government [currently a conservative-liberal minority coalition]) and the weather (ha!). People start talking about how better things were when the government owned the railroads, and the trains actually run on time.

As on cue, just like last year, the old reliable heavy-duty trains made for winter and to last are brought back to life - here comes the 50+ year old museum locomotives to use again, and in another place on Sweden a 100 year old snowplow is also being used.  One major problem is of course that Sweden has the harshest (coldest, snowiest, etc.) winter in over 100 years, but with global warming more and more snow and colder winters can be expected here.  Another is the lack of financial support for maintenance.  And the third, is that modern trains are too technologically vulnerable (just like our cars, computers, and stoves), and are more electronic than mechanic, and electronics and microchips break more easily.  Plus, the new modern locomotives do not have big good snowplows on them in the front.  It seems to me that a large part of the Swedish winter train failure is not just lack of money, but modern technology.

The Swedish railroad authorities just opened a new museum exhibit called "Oj det snöar!" (Wow, it is snowing!") about railroads and snow through time, which opened on Dec 11. I don't think they expected it to be as relevant as it is this winter.  But still, why is anybody surprised it is snowing?  In the Rocky Mountains a hundred years ago they had trains going through snowdrifts 5 meters tall and the trains were seen as reliable and functional ways of transportation.  And now the trains are having problems with 15 cm of snow. 

All the convenience and efficiency innovation we love so much doesn't work so well when, for example, electrically opened doors freeze shut and there are nobody to shovel off ice snow of a rail switch (apparently this takes 2 people 2 hours of work per switch, and there are 12 000 switches in Sweden, according to the Trafikverket).  What priorities should be prioritized? Convenience in the short term or reliability in the long term. 

I should add that American trains have huge problems too, especially during the last snowstorm.   Sweden has a fantastic train system compared to USA, for example, connecting many of the smaller towns and with fast and efficient trains.  The Swedish railroad system is an important part of public transportation together with commuter trains and bus lines that crisscross the nation and millions of people use these everyday.

My last comment (ha! you think so?) on this is that "Oh boy, it is snowing"!  Maybe we humans have to realize that the forces of weather and other Earth processes (remember the ash clouds from Iceland?) are stronger than we sometimes, and you just have to hunker down, stand back, and not try to travel in the worst weather. Sure it inconvenience us, but come on, it is only in recent years that we even have expected to always be on the go.  

In really severe weather it is best just to stay home (or away) and be flexible with your plans.  The problem is when a little severe weather breaks down systems that have worked before. Another problem is our demand for convenience because what we have to do all the time is so hurried, important, and can't be changed - come on, relax and throw a snowball, make a pot of soup and reschedule your plans. Reduce your need for instantaneous gratification from the web and other non-real sources of friendships, and appreciate the moment and the people around you.  And this summer, by a ticket and ride a reliable (non-plastic) train at a train museum to support their work in preserving the locomotives that are needed when the weather gods hit hard, at least in Sweden.

PS.  PP asked me to add this: Fire keeps both switches and people warm. (link to photo by Nick Suydam on Flickr).

No comments: