Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote a blog post about an adventure with delayed trains getting from Uppsala to Stockholm. As I said then, I am a train fanboy, preferring trains to most alternatives for most travel. Trains do have one big disadvantage though: when something goes wrong, you are unusually powerless and stuck. That happened to me last Friday. I spent some five ours in a dark train in a dark winter evening in the middle of the forest south of Laxå. Here is the story of that journey, and an observation about the impact of technology on our lives.
It was on a Friday the 13th, by the way. Not that I believe in that bad luck happens more on certain days, this certainly was an unlucky Friday (and very early Saturday).
I had been down to the area around Jönköping for a family event over the day on Friday. For the return trip, I believed that I had found the perfect train: one train from Habo to Skövde, and then a direct fast X2000 train back home to Uppsala. No need to change trains in Stockholm, as you almost always have to do otherwise. The X2000 train left Skövde at 17.45, perfectly on schedule, but after some twenty minutes, it stopped. The map belows shows the approximate location.
The first message from the train staff was the expected one: “sorry, something is wrong and we will try restarting the train” (yes, I have been through quite a few train reboots, it happens every so often, and usually it does solve the problem). That failed, however, and then power started to fail. I had my laptop plugged into the 220V outlet (which are present at every seat on X2000 trains today, as one of the great advantages of trains compared to all other forms of transport is that they are excellent places to get work done), and saw that the laptop switched to battery power. It was becoming clear that something was more wrong…
Next, we learned that the reason that the lights still were on was that the train had backup batteries in all cars. Our car was the first to go dark, as it housed the Bistro and therefore likely used far more power than the other ones. This turned into an early problem with provisions: the teller machine did not get powered as the car switched to backup power, and thus they told us they could not sell anything. A frustrated member of the train staff also complained about the many laptops plugged in, that they would be draining the batteries of the train faster and asked people to unplug them. There were certainly unusually many laptop around.
At this point, after some thirty minutes, it was clear that this was going to be a long wait. It turned out that our train had managed to tear down the overhead electrical lines, and thus we had no power and no chance of moving out by our own means. To make things worse, the torn lines had blocked off both tracks, so no other trains could pass either. The normal solution to a train stoppage of this kind is to drive another train up to side of the stopped train and move the passengers over, but that would not be possible here. Also, there was a huge backlog of trains building up on the tracks on both sides of us.
Soon, power went out for the entire train. It got to be truly black, pitch black. Outside was a frosty forest, apart from the lights from a small house that was facing the track (as you can tell from the map, we were actually pretty close to the large E20 road, and in an area which was partially populated). I wonder what the people in that house thought of what they were seeing happening, or not happening.
In the darkness, there was the occasional flashlight from the staff as they moved through the train informing people about the state of the situation. But it was never really truly dark, as the car was lit by the spooky light from laptops, iPods, and mobile phones. In a really dark room like this, a mobile phone is quite a beacon! It was a very direct illustration to just how pervasive devices with screens have become in recent years. Even a decade ago, there would have been much fewer mobile phones and even fewer laptops.
Technology soon started being activated for communications… everybody called home to tell what was happening and that we were late. I opened up Google Maps on my mobile phone to get an idea for where we were, and the result is the map location used previously in this blog post (obviously, a GPS would have been even better, but I think it would have had a hard time getting a position fix ). It was comforting to know we were in some kind of proximity of human settlements, as that is not necessarily always the case in sparsely-populated Sweden. I also found good use for the little Flashlight application on my SonyEricsson G900 phone. Until now, I thought this was just a gimmick, but it was actually quite handy to use the light intended for the camera as a flashlight. Nice and bright, and more efficient than just using the screen backlight.
Overall, the mood in the train was good as hours were added to hours and it got darker and darker as more laptops ran out of power. It had a certain apocalyptic sense to it, but nothing like the sinking of the Titanic… The main problems were two: the toilets were out of use after a while, as they could not flush without power. And people were getting hungry (I was lucky enough to have an eaten a too-large meal late in the afternoon). The staff on the train handled the situation pretty well, telling us to use the toilets until they were full, and after a few hours they started to distribute the food and snacks that they had in the Bistro to the people on the train (estimated some 300 people). Every once in a while they would open the doors to let in some fresh air, while not letting the cars get freezing cold (actually, it was a nice even temperature in the train, decent insulation plus a few hundred people does work to keep things warm even with no active heating going on).
I am not a big fan of all the big talk about how the Internet empowers people an revolutionizes society, but this situation actually became an interesting illustration in just that. 3G-based mobile Internet has taken off big time in Sweden in recent years. Thus, some people took the chance to join the Facebook group “Vi som sitter fast på tåget” (I did not). I checked our position, as mentioned, and also surfed onto the traffic status updates of Banverket. That made me better informed than the train crew, who had issues with getting through on their mobile phones. That way, I figured out what had happened, and that the estimate for fixing the overhead lines was to 22.00.
When 22.00 rolled around, trains started to pass by us, as the other trains which were not broken but had stopped because of the torn lines were passed on on a single track. It was almost spooky to have the complete silence and darkness of our stranded train interrupted by a short burst of noise and lights as a train screamed by. It took more than an hour after this before a diesel engine could come and tow us into Laxå. Patience was beginning to wear thin at that point, even though the staff did do their best to keep people informed and fed. It took way too long to get the diesel engine hooked to our train and all the breaks and doors locked into travel mode.
As it turned from evening into night, I tried to get a bit of rest, and it felt almost serene to be in a pitch-black train, leaning back in the seat, and hearing the murmur of people around me joking and trying to make the best of the situation. It is rare to experience such complete darkness in a city today, and I think it is a pity that you rarely get real darkness… it has a special quality. Still, I could imagine many worse places to be stranded. At least here it was a nice big comfortable seat with no immediate danger of freezing or cooking.
That it took five hours to repair the lines and get our train towed is pretty poor, I think. I don’t know why, but my guess is that it is a combination of splitting the care for the tracks from the traffic companies and a general hunt for profits and economic efficiency removing buffers and spare capacity. I am sure that fifty years ago, there would have been a spare train in place after a few hours at most. Also, we are almost too safety-conscious today. In 1950, who would have worried that much about electrical lines? Jump out and look for them would have been the reply, I think.
Once we got to Laxå it was midnight, and we were all crowded onto another X2000 train that had been standing there for two hours. There weren’t seats for everyone, but that was quite OK as we were finally moving, after six hours any kind of progress felt good. From here, something seems to have started to work in the contingency planning rooms at SJ, and at each station buses met up to get people home. Certainly six to eight hours late, but still getting home.
I was not that simple for me and the other people bound for Uppsala, Gävle, and further north. When we got to Stockholm at 02.00 at night, we were told that the north-bound night train was waiting for us. The only problem was how to get to it, as the station was closed. I had no idea you could close Stockholm central station this hard, but the staff had to hustle around along with the security guards to open up a winding path from track 17 to track 10 where the train was waiting for us. It took ten minutes to find someone who could open up the last door, and this was starting to get vocal complaints from the hundred or so people affected… And I pity the passengers booked on that train from the start, who had to spend three additional hours in Stockholm before leaving in order to wait for us.
So finally, I got home at 03.30 at night, pretty exactly seven hours late. It was a tiring adventure.
Note that for comparison, I did try to work out what happens with other modes of travel. So far, I have been bumped once from an intercontinental flight, delaying getting home by a full day. However, when such things happens you are at an airport, and you given a hotel room to stay in. The bodily comfort is thus not in danger.
I have been spared car breakdowns in the middle of a trip, but I would not like to sit in a snow drift in a cold car in the middle of the winter… a train is probably better than that. Once, we did stop overnight in a cheap hotel when it was snowing too much to continue. It was not the most exquisite hotel experience in my life, and the only food available was a McDonalds, but still better than a dark train.