Thursday, April 15, 2010

Planes, Train, but no Automobiles

German trains are not always on time; that is a myth. Granted, a German train might only be late by five minutes, as compared with a five hour delay on Amtrak, but clockwork timeliness is not always acheived. That award would go to the Swiss.

Still, the train system is a marvel. Bold yellow placards display the daily arrivals at each station, and locals start to peer down the tracks with just a hint of angst in their stolid expressions when a train does not appear precisely when expected. Waiting by the tracks, I practice my own look of nonchalance, hoping to seem nothing more than the average daily commuter.

Inside, however, I am not always so suave. Despite the thoroughness of the German rail system, I have already managed, since my arrival Tuesday evening, to make more than one blunder. First: choosing the wrong train at the Frankfurt Airport station. What can I say, the train I was supposed to take followed almost the same route as the one I mistakenly boarded while neglecting to check the number posted clearly on the side of each car. I point the blame squarely on having just completed around 13 ours of flight time, not including my layover in Heathrow. It was to be expected that I wouldn't be quite with the program, right? Fortunately, being familiar with the region (and, more importantly, being familiar with how to read the transportation system maps clearly posted in the local trains featuring clearly labeled routes in clearly defined lines, not to mention the clearly visible digital updates and occassionally clear verbal announcements prior to each station) I realized my mistake as soon as the train headed back across the Main River. I waited to disembark until the appropriate station where the two train lines converged again, then caught the train I should have taken in the first place heading in the opposite direction.

But then there was yesterday. Without having first checked the schedules online, I headed to Mainz Hauptbahnhof, certain I would find a direct connection leaving for Baden Baden sometime soon. As a matter of fact there was one leaving... right this minute! I turned and ran to the stairs, only to see said train pull out of the station a mere two seconds before my feet landed on the platform. This train was definitely on time. But no problem: I only had 50 minutes to wait before another one. To pass the time, I headed out to take a few photos with the sun almost shining through he whiteness overhead. I was back at the station with time to spare.

Just how much time I had to spare wasn't immediately discernable, but I began to feel suspicious when, with only five minutes left before the scheduled arrival, the sign on platform four still remained blank, rather than listing the oncoming train information. I hopped nimbly up the stairs to the main hall to check the supersized arrivals board, only to find that my train wasn't even mentioned. Huh?

Too proud to ask for help when I figured I still had few minutes to remaining and could spare myself the embarassment, I scrutinized the yellow departures sign back down by the tracks. It was then that I noticed the tiny asterisk below the train number. Whatever this meant, it couldn't be good. There, below the full listing of stops the train would make once leaving Mainz, small italics noted: 29, 30 Dez. This train, apparantly, only ran on December 29th and 30th. How convenient. Every other day of the year, I realized when I scrolled further down the listing searching for my next option, it left Mainz one hour later. I had another 60 minutes to wait.

Still, the train showed up on time, and I had a wonderful afternoon in Baden Baden, with time to addmire the wonderfully efficient German city bus system, where each stop has a name, all routes are cleaerly outlined at every stop, automatic machines issue tickets and provide change, and LCD screens even illustrate where the bus is headed once you are on board. Seattle, you have a long, long way to go.

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