Train Set

Next Stop: Nordstrandischmoor, Germany

In Northwestern Germany, along the North Sea, there is a little stretch of track that connects the mainland with the tiny island of Nordstrandischmoor. The island is less than a square mile in size, but its low-lying areas flood regularly. Locals call this “Land Under.”

Only a few dozen people live on the island, in homes set up high on four artificial mounds, built up so that they stay above the water line. And one narrow gauge rail is the only transit to and from the island.

Unlike a regular set of rails, spaced five feet or so apart, narrow gauge lines are only two to three. They’re cheaper and easier to make, but there’s a catch: they can’t support faster modern trains. Historically, there were main such rail lines around Germany, but as trains have sped up, more and more have been converted from narrow gauge. To and from this island, though, there’s generally little traffic and not much need for speed.

And it’s not just the rail line that is smaller, it’s the trains, too. Some of these look more conventional, with an engine pulling along cars behind it, but many are highly idiosyncratic — at one point, some used wind power (via sails), and today, there are small ones that look like little open-air benches on wheels, and even ones that work like bikes.

Every family on the island owns their own rail car, which can be operated at the age of 15 with the equivalent of a moped license. There are sometimes other ways to cross or ferry goods — when the water is high, for example, boats can dock; and when it’s low, people can walk across the mudflats as long as they’re careful. But the most consistent method of getting back and forth remains this one railway line.

Islanders in the North Sea mostly subsist on a combination of agriculture and tourism. And many of them work more than one job either at the same time or depending on the season, switching from farming to hospitality to coastal protection efforts as needed.

And coast protection is definitely needed with sea levels rising. So they’re experimenting with different solutions, and in extreme cases, they might even have to take entire buildings down, then raise up the mounds under them, and then rebuild on top of that. It can be a real challenge. But some families have lived here for generations, and will do whatever they can to stay on the land of those who came before them. Plus, there are perks: like owning a personal train.

Coda: The Japanese “Point and Call” System

It would be criminal to do a story about trains and not spend some time looking at Japan, with its really rich history of being incredibly innovative when it comes to railways. Many of these are design and engineering strategies pertaining directly to how trains are built, but some of them involve human factors, like: pointing and calling.

The “Point and Call” system employed by everyday rail workers is designed to help improve attentiveness, and in turn: safety. As conductors and others at a station make announcements about, say, a departing train, they might point in the direction the train is going. They also point at signs, buttons, dials — anything they interact with.

Japan did extensive behavioral research to come up with this system. Through testing, they concluded that if their workers associated a habit with more than one sense (for example, if they’re physically pointing out a thing while talking about the action that they’re performing) it can reduce workplace errors dramatically.

But despite the system’s success in Japan, it really hasn’t taken off in other countries as much as one might imagine. But there are places that do use parts of the point and call approach. In New York City, for instance, Metro Transit Authority has conductors point at a sign when coming to a stop, but without forcing them to shout along with it.

In light of this system, some clever New Yorkers decided to create some signs of their own, specially designed to make MTA agents smile … by putting up signs in front of the sign that they’re supposed to point at, with signage phrases like: “Point here if you’re dead sexy.”

And, of course, the operators have no choice but to point.



Producers Kurt Kohlstedt and Martín Gonzalez spoke with show host Roman Mars; music by our Director of Sound Swan Real,  with additional pieces by Scott Joplin and Die Aerzte.

  1. Maxie L

    I love this episode. I have been to the train market in Thailand and it is super-impressive how smoothly the process of pulling the stalls back goes – and they put the stalls back out immediately the train has gone past their bit of the market. The market is near the terminus too so I saw the train driver signal his order to a milk tea shop on the way in, and pick it up as he went past on the way back! It’s not true though that the market was there before the railway line – what happened was that the railway line goes past a market building, but to sell within the market building you need to pay a fee, so some stallholders will set up just outside the market so they don’t have to pay the fee but still get all the customers who are coming to the market. (You see this in markets all over Thailand). Because there are not many trains each day that go to that station, some stallholders must have thought that the land by the tracks was too good real estate to pass up!

  2. Ulrike

    Being from northern Germany, and also being a huge Ärzte-fan, this episode made my day ❤️

  3. Sean Redmond

    Ye should do an episode on the role railways played by the colonisers in their colonies. Although Ireland was in theory a part of the UK, it was nonetheless treated as a colony. The Irish catholic populace were believed to be lazy, poor and stupid: a state they had been left in after the enactment of the Penal Laws in the 1690s.

    At the turn of the 1900s, Ireland had one of the densest railway networks in the world and this network was designed to bring resources from the countryside to the ports as cheaply as possible.

    The purpose of colonies is the extraction of resources for the benefit of the colonisers. It is no surprise that the London government encouraged the building of railways all throughout the British Empaah.

    With independence in the 1920s, the following trade war with the UK in the 1930s and the appeal of the motoring car to the individualistic Irish, the majority of the railways lines were torn up at the beginning of the 1960s. There was a lot of hatred towards the railways then and they were removed with an astonishing rapidity. It was time when anything that symbolised the old Protestant past was done away with. The Georgian buildings in Dublin suffered much the same fate. Only lines that were profitable were retained.

    While this did may have made financial sense in a poor country as Ireland then, little thought was given to them as a future resource. We have the car, what more do we need?

    1. Thisfox

      That’s very interesting. I wonder whether there is a similar lroblem with railway planning here in Australia, another colony of England? Our railways are definitely more likely to go from a coal mine or wheat farm to the docks than from suburb to suburb.

  4. Andre

    Let me start by saying I’m an architect born & raised in Northern Germany. So I love Kurt and everything he does – with Nordstrandischmoor being top of the list.
    I suspect, though, Kurt spent his time in Germany more down South, not up North. otherwise, he’d realize that the lyrics are weird: they keep singing about the island but never mention the name – they mention only the name of the largest city. It’s like Blue Öyster Cult singing about “the island” and the song is called “East Hampton” (quite literally because Sylt is the Hamptons of Hamburg).
    More importantly, I think you’ve missed a grand opportunity: we’ve all made the sound of a steam train chugging and the whistle blowing. I was sooo looking forward to Roman emulating that at the end of the episode “stitchetcher stitchicher, eex-eeeeem”

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