Funiculars are great, which is why the main image from our previous train episode featured one — except we didn’t actually talk about that one during the show. It’s a cable car from Wellington, and as it turns out it’s one of hundreds of funiculars in this city. Roman and Kurt are back with another series of railroad tales. All aboard!
First Stop: Wellington, New Zealand
One of the first things you notice driving into Wellington are the various train tracks wrapping up the steep slopes on all sides — not just for the primary public funicular (above), but for tons of private ones as well. Some are single-rail affairs with functionalist fiberglass buckets while others are enclosed and ride more smoothly on a track-spanning rails.
Wellington is a small coastal city crammed in between the water and craggy hills. It’s also one of the most densely populated cities in NZ. But because there’s so little flat land to build on, people have been forced to build up on steep slopes which might otherwise not get built on — an approach that has some upsides and some downsides.
While riding a funicular to and from home might sound like fun, these vehicles have been known to break down. And for some houses, they’re the only way in or out, so residents can simply get stranded. Also, most small funiculars can’t handle large things like furniture and appliances, much of which ends up getting flow in by helicopter instead. But for residents without anywhere else to build, a home in the hills linked to the city by a janky funicular is better than nothing at all!
Next Stop: Goat Canyon, California
Do-it-yourself “rail carts” have really taken off in recent years, often found cruising abandoned tracks in remote places, like Goat Canyon. A sheet of plywood, some bucket seats, wheels, and a motor, and an enthusiast can take a spin with a friend toward the world’s largest wooden trestle bridge. The only catch: it has been abandoned for over a decade, so riders pass over it at their own peril.
It might sound dangerous (and, well, it is) but thankfully these carts don’t weigh a lot. So they don’t have a ton of mass to overstress a bridge, and they can stop relatively quickly if a rider sees an obstacle or some other issue up ahead on the tracks. Plus, people who regularly ride these stretches, they know more or less what to expect.
Not all small-rail operations are illicit — there’s place up in Northern California, for example, near Fort Bragg, called RailBikes. And they rent out four-wheeled, two-seat vehicles that use a combination of electricity and pedal power. For a long time, there was a 40-mile active rail line running between Fort Bragg and Willits. But then, about a decade ago, a key tunnel along the route collapsed, and basically cut the line in two. People on both sides decided to spin up some shorter rail options like this to make the best of a bad situation. And because the collapse was so recent, the tracks are still pretty well maintained.
And there’s all kinds of other rail infrastructure already in place. Stuff like: crossing gates, bells, and signals where the rails intersect roads … which now used to stop traffic so RailBikes can cross, which often gets more than a few curious looks for the car drivers being told to wait.
Announcement: Model Trains in Gift Shop
Neil Young is best known for his music, also has a lesser-known passion: model train sets. He got his first one at age 5, and throughout his years touring as a world-famous musician, he built up a collection of vintage Lionel sets. Neil’s two sons Zeke and Ben were both born with cerebral palsy; in Ben’s case, it rendered him quadriplegic and non-verbal. Neil’s then-wife Pegi, struggling to find good schools for children with disabilities, founded The Bridge School in 1986.
Neil, meanwhile, found a unique way to engage with Ben: through trains. He holds seven patents for his train innovations, including remote control and more realistic sounds. He worked closely with Lionel in the early 90s and they incorporated his designs into the Trainmaster Command Control. Around the same time, Lionel faced bankruptcy, and Neil led a group of investors to bail them out. Lionel, in turn, put out a train set based on one of his albums.
Recently, Neil has started to sell his collection, for a good cause — proceeds are being directed to the aforementioned Bridge School.
Next Stop: Mecca, Saudi Arabia
There’s one particular train line that, for one week a year, reports having the highest capacity of any metro system in the entire world – but there’s a caveat: it only operates for that one week a year. The network is based in Mecca, and the reason it only operates for this short annual period is that it’s designed for a single purpose: moving Muslims around the region during the Hajj.
The whole region is notoriously crowded during this holy week. People flood in during the Hajj because one of the five pillars of Islam is visiting Mecca at least once in your lifetime (or at least for those who are able) during this narrow window of time. It also gets super hot during Hajj, so spending a lot of time outside traveling between sites can be risky. Physical safety is definitely part of what drove this project later on.
Back in the day, pilgrims traveled by camel or on foot. And then when these roads came along, as any urbanist knows, they ironically led to more congestion, not less — especially with the rise of personal motor vehicles. So in 2009, they started building this rail line and the project employed thousands of engineers and even more construction workers who in total had to move nearly 200 million cubic meters of earth. Despite that, the whole thing was completed in just two years, which is incredibly fast, if you think about the scope. And then in 2011, it carried nearly 4 million pilgrims around between these holy sites. They have calculated that this train system replaces the need for over 50,000 service busses, which of course helps reduce that congestion. They could, of course, be run year-round, but the route just isn’t that convenient for everyday commuters, so instead they put it in mothballs for most of the year, then bring it back out for special occasions.
Announcement: Imperial Chariot Break
There’s some old infrastructure lore about the reason why American rails have such a specific spacing – this persistent story is that American rail gauges – as in, the distance between the metal rails – can be directly traced all the way back to the wheel spacing of ancient Imperial Roman chariots. And the logic goes something like this: American rails are spaced four feet, eight-and-a-half inches apart; and that seemingly odd number comes from English spacing standards; and those standards, in turn, were based on wagon construction dimensions; and those had to be standardized so wagons could ride in existing ruts; and those ruts were initially formed by the Roman Empire.
Now, there is some truth to this train of thought, but the legend itself, which has persisted for over a century, is mostly fanciful. For one thing, ancient Roman roads were built more for foot traffic than for chariots. Plus, current gauges were far from inevitable – for a long time, there was no standard gauge in the United States – a variety were used. Ultimately, the relative similarity between modern rail line gauges and ancient rutways are tied more to design than to history. Times may have changed, but the physical constraints of vehicles have remained relatively consistent – axles need to span far enough to support the structures above them, but they can’t be too wide or they might snap.
So modern gauges aren’t really products of Imperial Rome. History rarely lets us trace such a direct line across such a long period of time. Still, it’s also not entirely coincidental that rail spacing tends to fall into a certain range. Because, from a usability perspective, and an engineering standpoint … it turns out: the overall needs and limitations of ancient chariots, medieval wagons, and contemporary railroads are (broadly) more similar than they are different.
Next Stop: Hurricane Turn, Alaska
Way up in Alaska, there’s this one particular train that works differently from probably most trains people have ever taken – it operates on what’s known as a flagstop basis. A flagstop train is basically a train that stops on demand – when someone needs to get off or get on. And this route in Alaska is one of the last of its kind in all of North America!
It’s a bit like flagging down a bus, except a bus also has scheduled stops, and isn’t massive and heavy and incredibly hard to slow down. To help make things easier, the train sheds most of its cars along this rural stretch of its route, leaving only two locomotives, two passenger cars, and one baggage car, making it easier to start and stop.
A lot of passengers are just visitors who are heading out to hike or fish in remote areas for maybe even a couple of weeks at a time. But the railway also provides a vital service for those brave, brave souls who live way out here in rural Alaska along this stretch.
Folks who use the train to get to and from homes in the region also need this route to get supply drops. There’s one service, however, that doesn’t require stopping at all: newspaper delivery! Basically, there’s a rail worker who stands there and tosses out print newspapers for area residents from the moving train!
Final Stop: Bering Strait, Pacific Ocean
For over a century, there have been various proposals to connect eastern Russia and Alaska across the Bering Strait project that would have to spend a bit over 50 miles and would tie North America to Asia in this unprecedented way. Of course, in the current political climate, it’s probably more a pipe dream, but it would be a world changing feat of engineering. And it would be one thing to try and build a set of bridges to span that length, but one of the plans that keeps coming up is actually an underground (and underwater) rail tunnel, which would be something like 20 miles longer than the Chunnel.
With politics and trade in mind, some pretty serious folks pitched various plans for over a century. In the late 1890s, for example, you had Joseph Strauss – who went on to design over 400 bridges, and become the project engineer for the Golden Gate Bridge – who first did his underground thesis on a Bering Strait Bridge. Then in 1905, a more fully fleshed-out plan was all but approved, but got axed at the last minute as the Russian Revolution kicked off. And ever since, from cold wars to hot ones, tensions with the West have been high more often than not.
And then, too, there is little on either side at the points that are closest to each other from like these nations. Plus, if they built a bridge, it would probably also have to be closed down for much of the year because it is so cold up there. And if you went the train route instead, they need to figure out how to reconcile these different gauges for each country. And if they went the tunnel route, well, a 50 mile tunnel would be an incredible undertaking and would set a world record.