Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Break of Gauge

I'm a train dork. I have been since I was little kid, and I still think they're super cool. For me, one of the fringe benefits to travelling in the former communist bloc is that train travel is still a relatively popular and affordable means of transport. In certain countries, like Poland, trains are still the primary means of intercity transport, more so than driving your car or taking a bus. And even in countries with outdated infrastructures and 'transitional' economies, you can still find heavily used train lines. They're slow, but they are generally comfortable and very affordable, often cheaper than buses. Certain city links, like Moscow to St. Petersburg, are almost solely the domain of trains. Pretty much every major city east of the Berlin Wall still has regular train links to Moscow, sometimes more than once a day. But taking a train from say, Berlin to Moscow (it runs 4 times a week, by the way) presents a special problem...

'Gauge' refers to the distance between the two rails on a train track. When railroads were first being constructed there were no standards in place, so every time somebody went to build a rail line, they chose whatever gauge they wanted. There were railways with gauges as large as 7 feet, and some with gauges as low as 2. Obviously this presented problems, especially in places like the United States where competing private companies were constructing the railroads to whatever gauge they felt like. Over time, however, many of the problems were ironed out, and 1435mm (about 4 and a half feet) came to be considered 'standard gauge'. Currently about 60% of the world's train tracks are standard gauge.

But some countries never got around to switching and probably never will. These include the former Soviet countries, Mongolia, Ireland, Japan, much of Africa, and even Spain and Portugal. In the case of the former Soviet Union, the rails are 1520mm (about 5 feet) apart. Thus taking a train from the former Soviet Union to somewhere else in Europe (where the rails are 1425mm apart) presents a special problem. This problem is called, "Break of Gauge."

So what can you do? The old fashioned solution is to make everyone get off one train and get on another. And if you're very high tech, your trains can be built with special variable axles that adjust to the change in gauge (this is what happens at the Spanish/French border). But no matter what the approach, break of gauge is certainly a pain in the ass. During WW2 the Nazi invasion of Russia was significantly slowed because the Russian railways were not compatible with German trains.

In the current era, when travel between the former Soviet Union and the rest of Europe is routine, what do we do?

I've got pictures. But since these pictures are technically illegal, they aren't very good. Even though it was night for many of the pictures, I couldn't use a flash. Since the change of gauge process takes place while the train is going through customs, there are border guards everywhere. I had to be slick, and I had to hold very still. I was also snapping photos through dirty windows. Many of these photos have issues, especially with blurriness. But you can still tell what's going on, and since I can't find good photos of this process on the Internet, I've decided to post mine. If anyone knows where some better photos are, please tell me! Then again, you all have lives, unlike me. The highlight of my day is reiterating Wikipedia articles on rail gauge. But I digress...

So what happens when you change gauge? It's quite a long process. First the trains of the cars are separated, and then the trains are lifted with the passengers still inside. The old wheel holdings ('bogey' is the train dork term) are rolled out and the new ones are rolled in place. Then the trains are lowered onto the new bogeys, recoupled, and sent off. It takes around an hour to do an entire passenger train.

For the record, these pictures are from the Ukraine/Slovakia border on the Bratislava-L'viv train, and from the Romania/Moldova border on the Chisinau-Bucharest train. In both cases the trains were operated by the former Soviet country (Ukraine and Moldova).

The next car over from me, freshly decoupled and a few feet down the tracks:

Then the bogeys must be loosened so they can be changed. A bogey includes the 2 or 3 pairs of wheels, shocks, axles, brakes, and the frame and support structure for all those elements. So we have to get the bogey off the car. Some surly dude comes into my compartment, pulls up the carpet, and finds this:

Popping it open:

Those pieces of metal with the loops up top are a few feet long. Surly dude comes in with a special tool and takes them all out. They are used to hold the bogey in place. Then some dudes crawl beneath the train and loosen the bogey. Then the real fun begins...

The yellow thing in the foreground is a giant jack.

What does the giant jack do?

You don't really feel much while your car is being elevated, except for when the jack first starts to push the train up, and then again at the end when the trains are fully lowered and touch the track. The jacks move slowly. You can't tell that you're moving up and down unless you pay close attention, or watch the jack from your window.

Once you're suspended in the air, the old bogeys have to be removed, and a new set of bogeys has to come in. That means the tracks have to be built for both wide and standard gauges. Take a look:

So where do the new bogeys come from?

Alongside the train that's having its bogeys changed are side tracks full of bogeys.

A crane is used to move the bogeys around:

The crane isn't used to move the bogeys one at a time from the side track to under the train. That would take far too long. Instead, the crane is used to prepare long lines of bogeys on the side tracks. They know quite far in advance how many trains are passing through and how many cars each train has, so they are ready with the correct number of new bogeys when the train arrives.

While the train cars are in the air on their jacks, the old bogeys are all pushed out. Then using motor pulled steel cable running along the tracks, a whole prearranged line of bogeys is moved from the side track to the main track. Then the line of new bogeys is run under the elevated train cars, and are manually spaced into the correct spots before the train cars are lowered again. However, I couldn't get good pictures of this part of the processes because the customs officers were in my car at the time. But here's a new bogey awaiting the lowering of the train:

And if you look closely at the track here, you can see the steel cable that is used to move the bogeys:

The trains are lowered, the braces are replaced, and you're ready to cross the border and wait another 2 hours while an EU country searches your ex-commie train for smuggled drugs and copies of the Marx-Engels reader.

And as a special bonus, here's some plastic flowers:

It's not a Soviet train without plastic flowers.

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At 3:36 AM, Blogger Tim and Polly said...

I once took the night train from Bucharest to Chisinau and experienced this happening as well, although I only managed to get one photo of the process. I was made to understand that this was some sort of Ultra-level military secret by the border guards, who didn't even want me watching the process. Ah, an interesting trip...

At 4:44 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

M. Wesley: I crossed the same border in 2007, but couldn't take any pictures. If you see this message, please reply to jori at riseup dot net ... I'd like to get the pictures in better resolution. Thanks, Joanne.


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