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Photo: Sara Weber
On the scarf that German citizen Claudia Weber knitted to record her train commute, gray represents within five minutes of the timetable, pink within half an hour; red means a severe delay. She sold the scarf on eBay to raise money for a German train charity.

I was a train commuter for many years, and although there were often delays, they weren’t usually as horrendous as those in the winter of 2015, when you could wait two hours on an outdoor platform for a train that was supposed to be close at hand.

Last year’s delays on a train route in Germany led to an enterprise I never would have thought of. It not only gave a commuter an outlet for her frustration, it ended up raising money for a good cause.

Palko Karasz has the story at the New York Times. “Claudia Weber is a seasoned commuter, and she loves to knit. Over the past year, as her train journey from a town in the Bavarian countryside to Munich was replaced with a bus service during track repairs, stretching to two hours or more from a scheduled 40 minutes, she had a novel way of working out her frustrations. …

“When she got home each evening, she simply added two rows of wool to a striped scarf she was knitting: gray for delays under five minutes, pink for up to 30 minutes and red for a delay of more than a half-hour or delays in both directions.

“The resulting four-foot ‘Bahn-Verspätungsschal,’ or ‘rail delay scarf,’ has become something of a social-media sensation. Put on eBay to raise money for a Germany charity that provides free assistance to people at train stations, it sold [in January] for 7,550 euros, or about $8,650, to an undisclosed buyer. …

“Ms. Weber, 55, an office clerk at a travel agency, said in a phone interview, … ‘I understand the problems they’re having. There’s more and more commuters every year, but on the other hand I spend a lot of time waiting.’

“Her daily journeys take her between Munich and her home in Moosburg, northeast of the city, along the Isar River. …

“The scarf resonated with a lot of commuters in Germany and around the world, who live with the frustration of daily delays. After Ms. Weber’s daughter Sara, a journalist in Munich, posted a picture of the scarf on Twitter, it soon drew 23,000 likes and nearly 400 comments, as well as interview requests from local and international news media. …

” ‘It has become somewhat of an urban myth that Germans are always on time and trains in Germany run on time, but it’s not always true,’ [Sara Weber] said, reflecting on why the post resonated with so many people. … Experts have been warning for years about aging infrastructure in Germany, and delays and cost overruns in giant projects have hurt the country’s reputation of efficiency. …

“For her part, Claudia Weber has taken the Munich-Moosburg train for 25 years and has no intention of stopping. She considered driving, she said, but calculated that it would save her neither time nor money.

“ ‘I know I was complaining, but I’m still grateful I have that service,’ she added.”

That’s exactly how I felt about my commuter train. It was invariably better than the alternatives.

More at the New York Times, here.

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Heading Home

Heading home today. Will go back after my sister gets her treatment plan.

Here you see me leaving the varied wonders of New York behind and traveling by train and boat. The only picture that needs explanation, I think, is the Penn Station sink fixture, the like of which I had never seen. The left end of the metal bar dispenses soap, the middle provides water, and the right end is a blow drier!

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The website “The Dodo: For the Love of Animals” recently posted about a man who built a little choo-choo train to give dogs rides.

Stephen Messenger writes, “Eugene Bostick may have officially retired about 15 years ago, but in some ways that was when his most impactful work began. Not long after, he embarked on a new career path of sorts — as a train conductor for rescued stray dogs. …

“Over the years, Bostick has taken in countless abandoned dogs. But more than just keeping them safe, he’s found an adorable way to keep them happy, too.

“While the rescued dogs have plenty of room to run and play on Bostick’s farm, the retiree thought it would nice to be able to take them on little trips to other places as well. That’s about the time he was inspired to build a canine-specific form of transportation just for them.

” ‘One day I was out and I seen this guy with a tractor who attached these carts to pull rocks. I thought, “Dang, that would do for a dog train,” ‘said Bostick. ‘I’m a pretty good welder, so I took these plastic barrels with holes cut in them, and put wheels under them and tied them together.’ And with that, the dog train was born. …

“The dog train has come to attract a fair share of attention among locals who occasionally stop to ask if they can take a few pictures. But for Bostick, it’s all about bringing a bit of joy to a handful of dogs who had been through so much before finding themselves as his cheerful passengers.”

Bostick tells Messenger, “Whenever they hear me hooking the tractor up to it, man, they get so excited, they all come running and jump in on their own. They’re ready to go.”

More.

Photo: Tiffany Johnson/Facebook

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The Red Line was telling people not to take the Red Line but to go North Station and walk. So I did.

Between Porter Square, Cambridge, and North Station, Boston, the young conductor sat down near me. I said, “How’s it been going for you?”

He said it’s OK, but he doesn’t like it when passengers start screaming at him like it’s all his fault. He said one day the train had to stop because snow was packed around a switch, and a passenger was angry with him. He got out in the snow, came back with snow up to his chest, and said, “I cleared the switch.”

He wishes passengers could take the same two-month class he took before he started. They would be amazed about all the rules and regulations. Our route passes through three track jurisdictions (I think he said three, maybe more.) At each one, the engineer has to ask permission to pass, and he has to write down the interaction in a book. Sometimes he asks the conductor to come help.

The conductor pointed out a light low down in the snow-covered track. Someone had dug it out. He told me that if the engineer can’t see a track light, he is obliged to treat it as malfunctioning and just stop.

I asked how long the conductor had worked for the system. He said he started New Year’s Eve. It’s been a real trial by ice. But he says he thinks it will get better and he actually likes it. I told him most passengers don’t blame the conductor for snow or aging train equipment.

The walk to work took longer than it should as the sidewalks were not equally clear. Charles Schwab did a lovely job with its sidewalk. Fidelity not so much. I’m thinking of switching my account.

Railroad track near my home.

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Photo: pradeepan.com
Train conductor

On the homebound train tonight, Meg an I were discussing a conductor’s stentorian way of announcing the stops. It always gives me a big smile, and I look around to see if anyone else is reacting, but — well, you know commuters.

Meg said the guy reminded her of the conductor in an old TV show for kids called Shining Time Station. He was played by the comedian George Carlin. Do you know the show? Meg’s kids are younger than Suzanne and John. I think our family missed it completely.

The conductor on our commuter train is younger than Carlin looks here. And he sounds like he’s auditioning for a major-market radio show back when you needed a “big voice” to get an on-air job. I always wonder if he is kidding around when he orates like that or serious. It probably helps to lift the tedium of going back and forth, back and forth all day long on the Fitchburg line.

Read about Shining Time Station on wikipedia, here. You can search on YouTube for episodes.

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Photo: dornob.com
Train car converted to church. Lots more such churches at dornob.

The artist who tweets @FortPointer clued me in to this Boston Magazine today, which asks what should happen to the old Mass Bay subway cars that are being taken out of service.

Steve Annear reports, “The MBTA is gearing up to sign a contract with a Chinese manufacturing company to procure hundreds of Red and Orange Line train cars so they can replace the current fleet of vehicles that have been traveling down the tracks for decades. …

“According to the T, the train cars—they’re replacing 152 Orange Line vehicles and up to 138 Red Line vehicles—will go up for sale, and the highest bidder can do whatever they want with them.

“Like most transit systems, the MBTA typically sells old cars for scrap to the highest bidder. ‘But we also like to preserve a bit of MBTA history by donating a retired car or two to the Sea Shore Trolley Museum in Maine,’ said T spokesman Joe Pesaturo. …

“ ‘Someone buy four of them and open an Orange Line Deli,’ one person suggested on Facebook.

“Another tossed a different idea into the ring: ‘I’d like to put one in my back [yard] for the ultimate ‘man cave.’

“These ideas might sound far-fetched, but stranger things have happened to retired train cars.” Good examples in the photos and also here.

Photo: io9.com
A
 Soo Line caboose, built in 1090, turned into a vacation home in 1976 in Pennsylvania.

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I love Amtrak, and I love writing, but I don’t think I am ever going to do an Amtrak Artist Residency, so I am passing along the info so you can apply. It sounds like fun. Just glimpsing the exposed backs of houses along the tracks with their hints of the private lives lived in them is inspiration for a ream of stories.

William Grimes writes for the NY Times blog ArtBeat, “The wheels have begun moving on Amtrak’s plan to offer writers a rolling residency aboard their trains. … Up to 24 writers, chosen from a pool of applicants, will be given a round-trip ticket on a long-distance train, including a private sleeper-car room with a bed, a desk, and electrical outlets. …

“The idea was born in December when the novelist Alexander Chee, in an interview with the magazine PEN America, casually mentioned his love for writing on trains, and added, jokingly, ‘I wish Amtrak had residencies for writers.’

“When Jessica Gross, a writer in New York, echoed the sentiment on Twitter, Amtrak arranged for her to do a trial residency on the Lake Shore Limited from New York to Chicago. She agreed.

“Her account of the trip, ‘Writing the Lake Shore Limited,’ published by The Paris Review in February, grabbed the attention of The Wire, The New Yorker and The Huffington Post. Soon after, Amtrak decided to turn the trial run into a full-fledged program.” More on when and how to apply.

Even before that series of events, there was the Whistlestop Arts Train, you know. I blogged about the rolling public art project by Doug Aitken last July, here.

Trains for dreaming. Holiday model train layout at Amtrak’s South Station, Boston.

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Some artists have had an idea that spins off the “whistlestop” train tours that politicians since Lincoln have taken to connect to voters.

Randy Kennedy writes at ArtsBeat in the NY Times, “Chartered train trips tend to conjure images of flag bunting, stump speeches and glad-handing politicians.

“But a cross-country whistle-stop tour now being planned as a kind of rolling public art project by the artist Doug Aitken might give train travel considerably more cultural cachet.

“Mr. Aitken, who works in Los Angeles and whose pieces in video and film often explore speed and people in transit, has organized a three-week journey from New York to San Francisco, with 10 stops in between, called ‘Station to Station: a Nomadic Happening,’ which will include not only shows by visual artists but also music, poetry and food. …

“ ‘This really came out of a kind of restlessness, the feeling that art forms are too often segregated, music played in the same clubs and art shown in the same galleries and museums,’ Mr. Aitken said in an interview. ‘I felt like we needed to experiment with a new model.’ ’

The trip will go from September 8 to September 28. Read more to see if it will stop in your town.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
President and Mrs. Roosevelt on a whistlestop tour.

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Rodin’s the Thinker, Wikipedia Commons

Went to Augusta, Maine, yesterday for a conference, where I took a bunch of pictures but not a single good one. Even when a conference is interesting, as this one was, it’s very hard to make it look interesting, although in one shot a panelist looked as absorbed as Rodin’s The Thinker.

I need a camera that shows thought processes — or a cartoonist who can draw light bulbs over people’s heads.

So here are few photos of a stretch-my-legs stop instead. Wells was about halfway to the Augusta, and I was curious about it as I always heard that a founder of Wells (Edmund L. Littlefield) was an ancestor. I couldn’t stay long, but the spiffy little train station made me want to take the Downeaster from Boston someday. Maybe spend a weekend in Portland and check out its art museum. …

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A concept called Rapid Bus Transit is getting increased attention, I hear, even though so far in the United States, having a designated lane doesn’t seem to make much difference. When I take Boston’s Silver Line to go to the SoWa art galleries, it acts like an ordinary bus — stuck in traffic and arriving in clumps. (In NY City, in the old days, we used to say, Why are buses like bananas? Answer: Because they are green and yellow and come in bunches.)

I do like taking the Silver Line to the airport, though.

Will Doig at Salon.com writes: “When it comes to improving mass transit, there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit on the humble city bus. The vital connective tissue of multi-modal transit systems, the bus could be an efficient — nay, elegant — solution to cities’ mobility woes if only we made it so. …

“Making people like the bus when not liking the bus is practically an American pastime essentially means making the bus act and feel more like a train. Trains show up roughly when they’re supposed to. Buses take forever, then arrive two at a time. Trains boast better design, speed, shelters, schedules and easier-to-follow routes. When people say they don’t like the bus but they do like the train, what they really mean is they like those perks the train offers. But there’s no reason bus systems can’t simply incorporate most of them. That’s the goal of bus rapid transit.” Doig has more at Salon.

Photograph: Duncan Allen at world.nycsubway.org

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Those of us who go to work on the commuter rail or on the subway (the T) have a love-hate relationship with our public transportation system. Probably more love than hate since we forgive everything, always reminding ourselves how much more we would hate sitting in road traffic listening to the same news headlines repeated multiple times. We just make sure to carry a book and snacks in case of train breakdowns.

Take tonight. When I got down to the platform, the numbers of commuters seemed ominous. Even more ominous was the recorded message that kept telling us our train was “arriving” even though we know it never says “arriving” more than once for any train.

My boss said, “Don’t you have the option of taking the commuter rail from North Station?” Good point. I set off on foot, caught a number 4 bus, and landed at North Station in reasonable time, but for a later train.

The country badly needs good mass transit, and I think focusing on cars, gas, and roads is misguided. We riders get mad at the T and often complain about how it spends its money, but man, it sure is old and beat up! It’s held together with string — and the efforts of people who work all night on repairs to try to get the system functioning by 5:30 a.m. every day.

Now the T has made a 45-minute documentary on its night-time moles. If you don’t have time for the whole documentary, here’s a taste.

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Heard this interview today on the great environmental radio show Living on Earth. Tom Montgomery Fate talks about  trying to “live deliberately” like H.D.  Thoreau and connecting to nature and memories of his father in the woodland cabin he often escapes to. His book is  Cabin Fever: A Suburban Father’s Search for the Wild.

In the elementary school Suzanne attended, all second-graders learn about Thoreau, and as a parent volounteer, I went with her class to the cabin site at Walden Pond. The children had a quiz sheet with questions like, “What sounds would Thoreau have heard in his cabin?” The teacher asks,  “An airplane?” (All the kids say, “No-o-o!”) When the Living on Earth interviewer asked the author about his own retreat being near a noisy highway and a short walk to a pub, I was surprised that he didn’t point out that a Boston-Fitchburg train ran right along the edge of Walden Pond in Thoreau’s day, and that the famous naturalist had an easy walk back home to Concord for a Sunday dinner with his mother. Fate did explain that the Walden mystique was all about a mindset and keeping a balance between what’s important and the often numbing dailiness of modern life.

Asakiyume comments: Living deliberately. Something that’s very important to me about that concept is the notion that you can do it anywhere, in any circumstances. I’ll grant that some circumstances make it really hard: if you’re in a job you hate, or a relationship you hate–basically, if there’s some part of your life that’s putting a huge negative drain on you–I think it’s very hard. But I do think that living deliberately can be done in a suburb, in the country, in a city… not just in the wilderness. I think Thoreau wanted to mark, in actual space, his separation from mundane daily life, and I understand that. But I think it’s the mindset, not the location, that’s important.  

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