Train Set

Roman Mars [00:00:01] In Williamsburg, Virginia, there’s never too much of a good thing. Whether you’re a foodie, a golfer, a history buff, a shopaholic, an outdoor enthusiast, or a thrill seeker, you’ll find what you’re looking for. Explore the grounds of America’s first English settlement in Jamestown, or shop along the quaint streets of historic Williamsburg and Yorktown. Dig into the forensics of the country’s earliest settlers, or experience a day in the life of one. Williamsburg is the type of destination that you can go back to again and again and have a completely different experience. So, plan your visit now. Whether you’re a driverless car engineer or an augmented reality designer, Squarespace is the online platform to help you stand out with a beautiful website, engage with your audience, and sell anything. With Squarespace, you can collect email subscribers and convert them into loyal customers, display posts from your social profiles on your website, and even use the Analytics feature to gain insights to grow your business. Head to for a free trial–and when you’re ready to launch, use the offer code “invisible” to save 10% off your first purchase of a website or domain. This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars. The greatest mode of transportation is the funicular, which is a special kind of train pulled by a cable that runs up steep slopes. But, you know, trains are great even when they’re not going up treacherous terrain. I was in Union Station in Denver recently. This is one of the stops on the California Zephyr, which runs from Chicago to Emeryville, California. And I firmly believe if we introduced more beautiful stations to enhance the romance and more lines to enhance the utility of trains, they could become a key part of our infrastructure again here in the U.S. like they are in so many other countries. My colleague, Kurt Kohlstedt, is also into trains. So today he and I are going to talk about some of the most ambitious, fascinating, and downright crazy train designs the world has ever seen. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:02:02] That’s right, Roman. Today we’re talking about trains, only trains, and nothing but trains. 

Roman Mars [00:02:08] All right, then. All aboard. 

Conductor [00:02:14] Greetings, passengers. This is your conductor speaking. Our first stop today is Crush, Texas. Crush, Texas. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:02:24] Back in the late 1800s, most of the land in Texas was pretty sparsely populated. So, this huge state had vast stretches that were home to less than five people per square mile. And so, trains were critical infrastructure, enabling some level of connectivity in these remote places. 

Roman Mars [00:02:41] I mean, even now, I think of a lot of Texas as being pretty thinly populated. So, like, sure, I can imagine it was much less populated way back when. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:02:50] Right. So now picture this. One day in 1896, a town sprouted into existence in a remote part of this wide-open state. But it was only temporary. For that day and that day only, it boasted the highest population of any city in Texas. And it was created by a regional rail company designed around a single event in which two trains would be rammed into each other at speed, on purpose, in front of tens of thousands of spectators. 

Roman Mars [00:03:24] So let me ask you a question to begin with. Why did they want to crash two trains into each other–other than that would be really, really cool?

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:03:31] I mean, that’s the main reason, right? The place was called Crush, not because they were going to crush two trains together, as you might imagine. It was–and I swear I’m not making this up–actually named after a guy who came up with the idea to stage the crash. A man named William George Crush. 

Roman Mars [00:03:55] It’s like his calling was written into the stars. This is a kind of amazing eponym for the ages. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:04:05] And William Crush worked for the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad, or “K-T” for short. And so “Crush” became the de facto name of this place that the railroad company built to house the event. And the collision event itself came to be called The Crash at Crush. 

Roman Mars [00:04:24] The Crash at Crush. “Sunday! Sunday! Sunday!” But actually, what day of the week was it? 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:04:31] It was September 15th, 1896, which was actually a Tuesday. 

Roman Mars [00:04:37] Okay. Okay. “Tuesday! Tuesday! Tuesday! Crash at the Crush! Your ticket will buy you the whole seat, but you’ll only need the edge!” 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:04:46] You know, I’m not sure there was seating, but yes, you’ve got the right idea. And one of the craziest things to me is that this wasn’t even the first time a railroad company had staged and publicized a crash like this. 

Roman Mars [00:04:59] Like, I can’t, you know, claim to be an expert here. But, you know, I don’t know if inviting people to watch trains crashing spectacularly into each other is the best way to call attention to, you know, your railroad services. I’m sure you want people’s association with train travel to be, you know, safety and comfort and convenience and things like that. Not crashing. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:05:18] Yeah, right. It seems like a very odd choice, but the economy at the time wasn’t doing great. And so, the company was open to kind of new ideas about how to make money in other ways. Plus, they had dozens of old, decommissioned, 50-ton locomotive engines that were basically just gathering dust. So, in part, they figured, “Hey, why not put these engines to some kind of good use?”

Roman Mars [00:05:41] So it really is like a demolition derby? They’re using old vehicles that they don’t really care about–except for, you know, unlike a demolition derby, there’s only two vehicles competing, everyone crashes, and everyone loses. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:05:52] Yeah, right. Everybody except the railroad company, assuming they can turn a profit. And they kind of cleverly decided to make attendance itself free. But people would still have to pay about $100 roundtrip in today’s money to get to and from Crush. And of course, their trains were the best way to get there. 

Roman Mars [00:06:12] And probably the only way to get there for most people because it’s this remote location inside of rural Texas. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:06:17] Yeah. This remote spot about 15 miles north of Waco, where there was no town, no infrastructure, no anything, really. And so, they picked it in part because it was so remote and undeveloped. Plus, this particular spot formed a kind of natural amphitheater. 

Roman Mars [00:06:33] So they just laid people out in the middle of nowhere, Texas, like some kind of turn of the 20th century Fyre Fest? “Here’s your cheese sandwich and a mattress.” 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:06:43] Well, no, thankfully, they were somewhat better prepared on the hospitality front. They drilled wells, and they built a train station and laid down temporary tracks to bring in people. And they catered food, and they hired, like, a couple hundred cops to keep the peace. And all of this was done with the expectation that maybe, like, 25,000 people would show up, which is a lot. But in the end, an estimated 40,000 or so actually made it to the event. 

Roman Mars [00:07:06] Wow. Okay. So, I can totally see the appeal of this as a spectacle. But you know–I have to ask–was it actually safe? I mean, you know, situating an audience next to two crashing trains seems, you know, more than a little bit dangerous. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:07:21] Yeah. So, turns out the short answer is: No, it was not safe. They had engineers saying it was safe, at least as long as people stayed far enough back. But ultimately, it was very, very dangerous. 

Roman Mars [00:07:34] So I’m almost afraid to find out. But in the end, how did Crash at Crush actually go down? 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:07:40] It all started as planned. The trains were carefully brought together to meet in the middle to make kind of a photo op, right? And then they were backed up a couple of miles to their starting points. And then they were kicked into gear, and the operators hopped off. That part went fine. Everybody got off safely, and the trains got up to their target speeds, which was around 45 miles per hour. But at the point of impact, things literally went off the rails because both of the trains’ boilers exploded. And when they did, big chunks of metal and wood blasted up into the air and began raining down on the crowd. Three people were killed. And a photographer from Waco–who, incidentally, got some really great pictures–lost an eye. 

Roman Mars [00:08:38] Oh my God. I mean, I know times were different then and maybe safety standards were different then, but did people just not see this coming or didn’t care? 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:08:46] They really believed they’d taken safety precautions to make it work. Like, the train cars were all tightly chained together. Spectators were instructed to stand 500 feet or so away. In the end, no one expected those boilers to blow. 

Roman Mars [00:09:00] And with that huge of a crowd, I would imagine there was, like, a lot of panic as well. It wasn’t just people being killed by debris. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:09:07] Oh, yeah. There was a lot of chaos, at least at first. And people were running away, screaming, and doing everything you’d expect. But wildly enough, as the dust settled, they actually started running back towards the wreck to grab souvenirs and, like, take photos and things. 

Roman Mars [00:09:23] But what about the people who were injured or even killed by debris? What happened with them? 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:09:27] Well, eventually the railroad compensated them and their families with a combination of cash and–again, I’m not making this up–lifetime train tickets, which, I don’t know, just seems kind of tone deaf. 

Roman Mars [00:09:42] Yeah, I guess so. I know something horrible happened, but was it viewed at the time as a catastrophe? The man with the plan–Mr. Crush–did they hold him accountable for this horrific tragedy that maimed and killed people just for the sake of spectacle? 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:10:02] Well, the railroad company fired him basically on the spot, but then they turned around and rehired him a day later because the media coverage wasn’t actually that bad. A lot of it seemed pretty positive overall. And so, despite the tragic consequences of this event, The Crash at Crush turned out to be a pretty good marketing campaign after all. 

Roman Mars [00:10:24] Wow. I guess that’s what they say. There’s no such thing as bad press, huh? 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:10:28] Depressing in this case, but yeah, true. And sure enough, that wasn’t even the last event of its kind. For decades to come, crashing trains could be found at carnivals and state fairs across the country. And Crush itself was such a sensation that it even inspired the King of Ragtime, Scott Joplin, to write a song about it: The Great Crush Collision March. 

Roman Mars [00:11:00] Well, that is a jolly little tune–maybe a little bit more upbeat than I was expecting from something inspired by a crash. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:11:05] Yeah, and I’m not sure if it’s the way that it’s being played in this case or just how our modern ears hear it, but he did make these notes in the composition for other musicians who could play this specifically telling them how to replicate crashing train sounds with music. Today, the temporary town of Crush is long gone, but train nerds can still visit the site and read a nearby plaque, which is dedicated to The Crash at Crush. 

Roman Mars [00:11:44] Always read the plaque. 

Conductor [00:11:55] Next stop, Rome, Italy. This station is still under construction, so watch your step as you exit. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:12:03] When you think of Rome, you probably think of famous ancient buildings in ruins, like the Colosseum, the Pantheon, the Roman Forum, things like that. 

Roman Mars [00:12:12] Right. Right. Of course. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:12:14] But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The whole city of Rome is a treasure trove of historical artifacts and architecture. And tourists only see some of that because so much of it is still buried below the surface. But all of these wonderful subterranean layers of history to be uncovered have really made it hard for urban planners, who are working to expand the city’s metro network. 

Roman Mars [00:12:38] I mean, it really does sound like a nightmare. Like, as they tunnel, they must run into artifacts all the time. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:12:42] Yeah, they do, especially near the surface. Once they get down to the depth where the lines actually run, tunneling horizontally tends to not be a big issue. But getting down there, building out the stations, ventilation, and all that other near surface infrastructure–that’s where they have real problems. 

Roman Mars [00:12:59] Yeah. So how do they get around it? Like, all those layers of history that are near the surface? 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:13:04] Often they can’t. And these excavations almost invariably become archeological digs. And in at least one case, the city abandoned a planned station entirely for preservation reasons. 

Roman Mars [00:13:16] Huh. And so, what happens then? Like, do you just dig somewhere else and try again? 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:13:20] Sometimes, yeah. And as a result, these, you know, otherwise seemingly straightforward infrastructure projects often turn into these decades-long endeavors. And they even employ specially certified construction workers who are trained to double as archeologists to make sure that when they encounter artifacts, everything gets handled properly. 

Gilberto Pagani [00:13:42] I found some gold rings. I found glasswork laminated in gold depicting a Roman God, some amphorae…

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:13:49] And sometimes they encounter truly incredible things. Not too long ago they found a whole building complex dating back to the second century, and it was filled with marble floors, ornamental mosaics, painted frescoes, the works. And most of it was surprisingly intact. 

Roman Mars [00:14:09] They should have just turned it into a train station. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:14:10] Oh, that would’ve been great. Yeah. 

Roman Mars [00:14:14] So I see that you have two competing forces. I’m fully in both camps. Like, I want these archeological digs preserved. I also want, you know, functional infrastructure and metro lines. It just sounds like a headache for everyone involved. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:14:26] Yeah, it really can be. But there’s a silver lining because a lot of these sites wouldn’t be excavated at all if it weren’t for the city’s push to expand public transit. So, in a way, historians do benefit from uncovering all kinds of stuff that might otherwise have just stayed buried indefinitely. And in some stations, ancient relics that they find during the construction of the stations are visible in these display cases, which makes them accessible to tourists and also just kind of a neat thing for everyday commuters. 

Roman Mars [00:14:56] Oh, that’s nice. I like that–that you could go to a train station somewhere and see a little museum of what was found in that site. That’s cool.  

Conductor [00:15:18] Attention, passengers. Food service has now begun in the dining car. 

Roman Mars [00:15:26] As a building type, diners are striking. Their long and thin with chrome accents and rounded corners. Inside their narrow spaces, there’s just enough room to walk through and sit down. In a built world of taller and deeper structures, made with stone and brick and steel and glass, diners are kind of strange. But if you understand where they come from, all their curious design features suddenly make a lot more sense. Diners are an evolution of dining cars–the ones found on trains. It’s not just their name and aesthetic that traces back to railways. Many diners were prefabricated as modular units and specifically designed to be taken by truck or train to their final destination, hence the long and narrow layout. Entrepreneur Jerry O’Mahony is widely credited with coming up with the diner as it is and building the first one in 1913. His creations evolved to have that now distinctive diner look–long, narrow, sleek, and curvy with flashy chrome accents. Many vintage prefab diners came complete with counters, stools, tile floors, even restrooms. And they were just transported to the destination, and they got hooked up to onsite utilities. In some cases, actual dining cars were also converted into freestanding diners. And in other cases, diners are simply made to look like classic prefabs for that nostalgic appeal–which, by the way, totally works on me. 

Conductor [00:16:58] Our next stop, Bangkok, Thailand. The train will be slowing down on approach to this station due to unusually high pedestrian activity. We appreciate your patience. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:17:11] One of the largest fish markets in Bangkok, Thailand, is effectively bisected by a train track. And so, vendors flank the rail line. And the name of the place translates to “umbrella pull down market.” 

Roman Mars [00:17:25] Well, you’re going to have to explain that name to me because that doesn’t make any sense. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:17:28] Right. It’s a very strange name, but it refers to this very specific feature–or arguably bug–that fundamentally shapes how this market works. Those vendors I mentioned–they’re not just on either side of the tracks, like, set back a ways. They set up their goods right against the rails. And so, shoppers have to actually walk between the rails–where the trains go. The market itself is over 100 years old. And when it was first put there in, like, 1905, there was no railroad track. That came later. But even once it was cut in half by a railroad track, people just kept coming to get their fish, to get their produce. And here’s a clip of how it actually unfolds in practice. When a train approaches, alarms sound so that people know to get out of the way, and vendors quickly pull back their wares and lift up their awnings to make sure that they don’t get hit by the train–hence the “umbrella pull down” moniker.

Roman Mars [00:18:30] Wow. You weren’t kidding. Those trains are almost brushed right against the awnings, even after they’ve been retracted. I mean, this is something that seems, you know, kind of awesome. This is a creative way to maximize space in a crowded urban setting, but it also seems incredibly dangerous. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:18:45] Yeah. And to some extent it is really dangerous. But apparently accidents are relatively few and far between–and most of the time they just involve a train hitting someone’s wares that got left too close to the tracks or a table that didn’t get pulled back far enough or fast enough. Some vendors, though, have these particularly clever solutions, like wheeled carts that are set into little tracks that they’ve created in the pavement, so they can just slide them back and forth away from the rails as needed. And if you watched that moment of transition when the train is coming, it is, for the most part, a pretty well choreographed dance. 

Roman Mars [00:19:23] I mean, still, I don’t know if I would cut it that close personally. But it is clear from these videos that the vendors know what to do and when to do it. Plus, it looks like the train’s going pretty slow and it honks a lot. Still, it’s just wild that they wait until the very last seconds to get their finish and then just kind of step out of the way. You must really want that fish. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:19:42] Yes. Yes. Supposedly the fish is really excellent. So maybe that makes the risk worth it. 

Roman Mars [00:19:49] I don’t doubt it. 

Conductor [00:20:02] Attention, passengers. This train will be bypassing the upcoming stop as service to this location has been permanently discontinued. 

Roman Mars [00:20:12] I have another short and sweet story for all you train fans. It’s about a remote line in Hokkaido, the northernmost island in Japan. There was one rural train stop that was almost entirely unused. By the early 2010s, it was down to just one single regular passenger. She was a teenager–a sophomore in high school–who wrote it twice a day, to and from class. The regional rail authorities were planning to shut the line down until her parents intervened. “Surely,” they asked, “the stop could stay open just until their daughter graduated.” They got their wish. The stop did close permanently, but only after she took one final ride to her high school graduation ceremony. 

Conductor [00:21:15] Next stop, the Schleswig-Holstein region of Germany. Please note that for Island Access, passengers will need to switch trains in order to reach their destination. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:21:26] I lived in Germany as a teenager, and I’ve been back a number of times since then. So, between that and the country’s epic railway network, it’s probably no surprise that I have a ton of train stories about Deutschland. In fact, one of my favorite train lines in the entire country is this little stretch of track that connects the mainland with a tiny island called Nordstrandischmoor, which is located off the coast in the North Sea. 

Roman Mars [00:21:51] And how tiny of an island are we talking about here? 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:21:53] It’s less than a square mile. But because its low-lying areas flood regularly, it can only really support about a few dozen residents. And locals refer to this situation as “Land Unter” or “Land Under. 

Roman Mars [00:22:06] Well, I got that one, but I appreciate you translating it.

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:22:11] Right, I threw you a softball there. Anyway, to cope with this situation, folks live in homes on these four artificial mounds. And these mounds are built up so that they stay above the waterline. And one narrow gauge rail is the only transit to and from the island. 

Roman Mars [00:22:26] And so I gather that a narrow-gauge rail is a little bit smaller than regular train tracks. But can you elaborate on that? 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:22:33] Right, so basically a standard train line has rails that are set around five feet apart. Narrow gauge lines generally range from just two to three feet apart. So naturally they’re cheaper and easier to make. 

Roman Mars [00:22:45] Well, this is kind of a little bit of an aside, but, like, if they’re cheaper and easier to make, why don’t you just make all rails narrower? 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:22:52] I mean, it seems logical, right? But the problem is that narrow gauge lines are less stable and not really suited to modern fast trains, especially. So there used to actually be a lot of these in Germany, but most of them shut down or upgraded decades ago. 

Roman Mars [00:23:07] But not this one because it serves such a small population, I guess. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:23:10] Yeah. Yeah, exactly. So, a fun fact to give you a sense of the scale of this place–they reportedly have the smallest school in Germany with just three students. So there really aren’t that many people coming and going. And there is not a lot of demand for standard sized train engines and train cars. 

Roman Mars [00:23:27] Oh, so not only are the tracks smaller, the trains themselves are, like, miniature. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:23:33] Oh, yes. And they often look a lot different. Here’s the most normal looking one that I’ve actually seen them use. 

Roman Mars [00:23:41] Oh, that thing’s adorable. There’s this little train engine. It’s pulling a little, open top… They kind of like cargo cars. Are they hauling dirt or something? I don’t know. But it’s all so small and cute. It’s, like, red and green. It’s kind of looks like, you know, the train going around Santa’s workshop

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:24:00] Exactly. And that’s just the more standard looking one. Over the decades, they’ve used a bunch of different designs–ones that were wind powered, like with sails, and open-air ones, where you just sit at a little bench and chug along. And then there’s this one that is probably my favorite. 

Roman Mars [00:24:19] Oh, wow. Okay, so this is just, like, a bike with a bike seat, pedals, and everything on rails instead of wheels. Does that mean that everyone has a kind of rail vehicle like this that they can get, you know, to and fro when it comes to going to the mainland in order to get supplies and stuff? 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:24:34] Yeah, every household on the island has their own little train for exactly that reason. But there are a few other options for getting back and forth. When the tide is high, boats can dock. And when it’s low, people can actually just walk right across the mudflats if they’re careful about it. But at any time, because of the way the rail is raised up on this artificial ridge, they can just get back and forth by train. 

Roman Mars [00:25:00] I mean, I’m still just kind of surprised that people can make do in places like this that flood all the time. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:25:05] Yeah, it is tricky, but they make it work. Like, islands in the North Sea mostly subsist on a combination of agriculture and tourism. And the residents of Nordstrandischmoor, for example, raise sheep, among other things. And here’s a clip from a guy who walked across when the water was low and interviewed a resident. And part of what I love about their exchange is that both of them have these very distinctive regional dialects. And the interviewer launches right in with this very northern German greeting–“moin moin.” And one of the things he just mentioned is how he works both as a farmer–but also has a side job of working on coastal protection because in places like this, sea level rise is taking its toll. 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. But some families have lived here for generations, so they’re really keen on sorting something out so that they can stay on their ancestral land, right? 

Roman Mars [00:26:17] Yeah. I mean, it does sound tough. I mean, it also sounds kind of amazing what they’ve been able to do living out on this island. And they get to own a train, you know?

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:26:29] Right? Who doesn’t want to own their own train? Now, before we leave the North Sea, I do want to switch tracks for just one more minute because there’s this one particularly famous island a bit farther north. And it’s also connected to the mainland by train. But that’s not actually what I’m going to talk about. I first learned about this place in the early ’90s when I was a student in Germany from my first German cassette tape, which was written by a punk band, Die Ärzte. And this particular song, Westerland, is about a fancy resort on this bigger, posher, and frankly, much more well-known North Sea island. So basically, it’s a parody of these boujee resort-goers. He’s singing about how he’s stuck in Berlin. And so, he’s sitting on a hand towel by a lake, just wishing and imagining he could be back on Westerland instead, sitting along a nice sandy beach on the Nordsea. 

Conductor [00:28:29] After the break, our final stop today will be the island nation of Japan. Please pay attention to the rail workers pointing and calling as you exit the train. 

Roman Mars [00:28:44] If you like getting the best of everything, then check out T-Mobile. T-Mobile’s 5G coverage is bigger than AT&T and Verizon’s combined. So, it’s no wonder they have the most National 5G Network Awards ever. Not only does T-Mobile have a great network, but their plans are packed full of incredible extras. Customers can get a value of over $225 in benefits every single month on their MAX family plans. Benefits like travel perks and your favorite streaming services all included, which is very, very nice. Who says you can’t have it all? With T-Mobile, you don’t have to choose between a great network or great value. Find out more at That’s seewhy. Qualifying service and capable device required. $225 is based on the retail value of available monthly benefits with MAX.

Roman Mars [00:29:53] I’m back with Kurt Kohlstedt, talking about trains. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:29:55] Oh, yes. And it would be, of course, criminal to do an episode about trains and not mention Japan with its really rich history of being super innovative when it comes to railways. For example, they have seismometers that signal trains to stop when an earthquake is starting. And as a result, they have basically no train accidents related to earthquakes anymore. 

Roman Mars [00:30:17] I mean, in a country famous for earthquakes, that seems like a vital development. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:30:20] Oh, yeah. Definitely. And Japan also just launched a bus/train hybrid that has wheels for both roads and rails and converts in just 15 seconds. 

Roman Mars [00:30:30] Wow. Oh, I love it. Like, all the best of public transit rolled into one. Sweet. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:30:34] It’s great. But the main innovation I want to talk about briefly is this system called “point and call,” which is not really about how trains themselves are designed, but about how railway employees keep them running. And here’s a clip showing how this works in practice. 

Roman Mars [00:30:57] Okay. So, there are these loud announcements, which, of course, I cannot understand. But what really jumped out at me is how much the rail employees are kind of gesticulating. Like, it’s very dramatic. I take it this is the point of the point and call system. But what’s the actual point of what they’re pointing at? 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:31:15] Right. So, in short, the point and call method is meant to improve safety on railings. Japan did extensive behavioral research to come up with this system. Through testing, they concluded that if their workers associate 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 related to that thing–it can reduce workplace errors dramatically. 

Roman Mars [00:31:39] So the workers stationed alongside the train point and call out that it’s all clear, like no one’s caught in a door. And then the conductor points forward before starting. That’s a sort of, like, whole theatrical system of making this operation safer? 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:31:55] Yeah, exactly. And it’s not just directions. They also point out buttons, gauges, signs, and other stuff. And each of these actions is designed to help everybody who’s working on the rail system be more alert and stay on task. 

Roman Mars [00:32:09] I mean, if this works so well, is it found anywhere else besides Japan. Have other countries adopted this system? 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:32:14] You know, it really hasn’t taken off in other countries as much as I would have thought given how successful it has been in Japan. And it’s not totally clear why, but there are places that do use parts of the point and call approach.

Roman Mars [00:32:29] Do they just point, or do they just call? What do they do? 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:32:32] Well, for example, in New York City, Metro Transit Authority conductors have to point at a sign before leaving a station. But they don’t have to, like, shout an announcement along with that. 

Roman Mars [00:32:42] Hmm. I mean, is it because they feel self-conscious or something about the shouting part? It strikes me as odd. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:32:47] Yeah, I think maybe that’s it. And maybe that’s why they just stick to pointing. But in any case, there’s this pretty goofy video online of a bunch of people who decided to make some MTA agents smile by putting up signs in front of the sign that they’re supposed to point at with phrases like “Point here, if you’re dead sexy.” And of course, operators have no choice. They have to point.

Roman Mars [00:33:12] That’s some pretty wholesome infrastructure fun. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:33:16] Right? Especially for New Yorkers–I feel like that’s really nice. 

Roman Mars [00:33:19] Oh, I like it. Well, cool. I’ll look for the pointing the next time I’m on a train. That’s pretty cool. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:33:28] Yeah. 

Roman Mars [00:33:35] 99% Invisible was produced this week by Kurt Kohlstedt and Martín Gonzalez. Chris Berube was our affable conductor. Music by our director of sound, Swan Real, with additional music by Scott Joplin and Die Ärzte. Delaney Hall is the executive producer. The rest of the team includes Vivian Le, Emmett FitzGerald, Jayson De Leon, Christopher Johnson, Lasha Madan, Joe Rosenberg, Sofia Klatzker, and me, Roman Mars. We are part of the Stitcher and SiriusXM podcast family, now headquartered six blocks north in the Pandora Building… in beautiful… uptown… Oakland, California. You can find the show and join discussions about the show on Facebook. You can tweet me @romanmars and the show @99piorg. We’re on Instagram and Reddit, too. You can find links to other Stitcher shows I love as well as every past episode of 99PI at 

Conductor [00:34:43] Greetings, passengers traveling between Sirius XM and Stitcher. Those are our stops for today. But look forward to seeing you on another 99% Invisible train soon. 



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”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

All Categories

Minimize Maximize