Taking the Train to Russia? Take Time for a Change.

One of the interesting things about rail travel and railroading in general is that almost all the technology is many decades old. And, since I, too, am many decades old, that means I can actually understand how most of it works. Everything else—jet planes or smart phones or even my toaster with its multiple settings—all of that is beyond me. 
 
But railroad technology? That stuff I get. I get it because it’s simple. But when you think about it, that’s its genius, isn’t it?
 
Consider, for instance, the width (or gauge) of railroad track, meaning the distance between the two rails. Standard gauge is 4 feet 8.5 inches—that’s what we use here in North America—but there are a lot of places around the world where the gauge is different. In Russia, for example, they use “broad gauge”, which is just 1/8-inch shy of five feet.
 
It’s a common belief that the Russians adopted a wider gauge because they thought it would frustrate any potential invaders who wouldn’t be able to load men and equipment on their standard gauge trains and haul everything straight on into Moscow. That may or may not be true, but it is a fact that the gauge changes at the border and someone had to figure out how to deal with the problem.
 
The first and most obvious solution was simply to remove all the passengers or freight from one train and load everything back aboard another train—one that ran on the wider gauge. And for a while, the trans-shipment of people and goods was how everyone dealt with the issue.
 
But of course it didn’t take long for someone to figure out a better, faster way … and four years ago I got to see it all in operation when I took an overnight train from Berlin to Moscow. It all happened very early in the morning, but it was fun to watch.

This is the upper level of the incredible Berlin Hauptbahnhof, or main railway station. And here comes my overnight train to Moscow.

At the Russian border, the train is broken into two four-car sections, run into a large shed, and spotted so that each rail car is precisely positioned between four hydraulic jacks, one at each corner. The wheel assemblies (we call them “trucks”; they’re called “bogies” in Europe) are detached, then the jacks lift each rail car a couple of feet in the air.

Next, the standard gauge bogies are pulled out from under the raised railcars and the broad gauge bogies are rolled into position. The rail cars are lowered, the new bogies are secured and we’re off for Moscow. The entire process took 90 minutes and some of the passengers slept through the whole process.
 
See? That’s what I mean about railroad operations. Anyone can understand most of it. Even me.