Remember that proverbial squirrel spinning its heart out inside the black box of anything that is mysteriously mobile? If Erwin Schrödinger was right, before looking under the lid, there’s an equal chance the mysterious power source is something else entirely.
There was a time during what seemed like a career as a professional traveler when I could sleepwalk my way through certain airports. But train stations, with their “keep off the tracks” layout and not-so-obvious routings, have set me on edge from my very first “Tous à bord!” Standing on the quai in Chambesy, Switzerland, a one-by-two-inch punch of brown recycled cardboard in my hand, expected to figure out, in three languages I couldn’t read, which train was mine, I basically closed my eyes and, crossing my fingers, jumped jump the first one that stopped. Forty years later, especially when calling for a connection, I’m still at sea on a train.
Almost as awkward as wandering onto the wrong airplane in the days before scannable boarding passes—
“Mr. Knell, so nice to see you again, but aren’t you going to Boston today? This plane is headed to New York.”
—was the morning I thought I had boarded the express from Zurich to Winterthur only to find myself its sole passenger when it stopped dead one station short of mine. I had been listening to an audiobook—were my eyes closed? I had yet to pick up a syllable of German, so seeing was believing in those days—and by the time I pressed pause, my car had been shunted onto an out-of-service side track. Note to future travelers on Swiss Rail: if your train is not parked inside a station, don’t even think of stepping out of it even if the emergency door release is operable.
When my friend Kenneth Ritley worked for Swiss Rail, he oversaw the software that worked out the shared revenues of over 100 federated transportation systems that colluded to get you from Point A to Point Z, three countries away. According to Ken, the fare-splitting algorithm was a briar patch in a haystack. That’s because, concealed from the common traveler’s consciousness, is the fact that unlike airlines, which routinely federate local, regional, and national carriers to fly frictionless across an infrastructure shared only by birds, federated train systems ride along tracks they almost never own. On a rail journey from, say, Geneva to my favorite vista of the Alps in Wengen, I might change trains three times but easily travel on tracks owned by a dozen different interests. Ken’s software figured out how much of my (now) 2-inch-square ticket fare was paid to which bank, train operator, and rail owner.
If the Swiss system is an entangled crisscross of iron and language, its larger transportation network is even more impressive. Beyond its trademarked trains, over the years, the Swiss have scrambled a federation of feeder trams and buses so widespread one need only walk five minutes in any direction anywhere in the country to hitch some kind of ride. I never asked Ken about it, but since some rail passes entitle the traveler to hop on and off connector trams and buses, each time I rode, I imagined my fare being split into a million centimes.
But with all its implicate complexity—in an industry gone paperless, if you can still find a printed timetable, you’d never need firewood—the ability to deliver me to a spot of my choosing at the promised moment is a hard-earned source of Swiss pride. After five years of riding them, saying that Swiss trains always run on time is not only a universal law; some days it can almost be said that your watch can be set by clocking the departure of the 11:32 express to Bern. I may have stepped by mistake onto the 11:34 to Basel, a courteous attendant promptly informing me of my error—NOT—but the 11:34 will get me to Bern on time, every time, whenever I hop on the wrong train.
The word train is one I use when teaching my grandsons Winston and Theodore about homonyms, words whose spelling is identical but whose similarities end there.
Consider, in addition to the trains I’ve mentioned so far, the following homonymous litany from the OED:
- Train: An elongated back of a robe or skirt, or a separate long piece of material attached at the back of formal dress, which trails behind on the ground (think royal weddings)
- Train: The tail of a comet (think Haley)
- Train: The tail feathers of a bird (think Dr. Seuss)
- Train: A line or trail on a surface (think gunpowder)
- Train: A thing that drags or moves something else (think everyone in your orbit that gets you going)
And that’s not even half of the first definition. Get a load of the second definition of Train:
Train: The set of wheels and pinions in a clock or watch which turns the hands.
Wait. A train’s comings and goings are governed by … a train?
Train: Denoting material things in a series with regard to their parts: a group or sequence of people, animals, vehicles, or other inanimate things.
You see where this is going.
Train: A number of people following, accompanying, or attending on a person, usually one of high rank or importance; a body of attendants, retainers, or followers; a retinue, suite.
(See how I’m training this meme.)
Ken’s dizzying algorithm is a metaphor for the entourage of human and technical systems that constantly operate just below the surface of our lives to deliver just the right surface tension. Without our asking or a second thought, the train that undergirds our success allows us to perform precisely, as planned, nearly all the time. Guided by hidden hands, we hit our spots with precision and predictability so reliably Swiss trains and clocks, even the trains of clocks, could mark time to them.
Were we more conscious of the depth and breadth of our entourages—print out the list and light a bonfire—we would also come to know our integral place within theirs. How will Ken ever manage to divvy up the credit?
When’s your train? (And who’s on it?)
This post is from a series of “Declarations on Being and Becoming,” originally written as part of a LinkedIn Newsletter called Say the Change. You can access the entire series here.