The trains you can ride without leaving your desk

You've trawled through the pictures on Google Images, now ride the train from your miserable desk. Image: David Gubler

If you’re a full-on transport freak like me, there’s a problem. You want to go gallivanting around the world, riding all the trains, metros, and trams you can find, mixing TGV with Shinkansen, Deutsche Bahn with Amtrak, and so on.

But the harsh reality is that economic necessity means you have to do a job and get on with life most of the time, and not just sit on trains in a pensieve but ultimately aimless way.

Suffer no longer! Where once only a tiny minority would relish the opportunity of a 55-minute YouTube journey showing the entire journey on an obscure city’s metro line, the beamed-to-your-screen train experience is becoming more mainstream.

It’s early days yet, but here are just a few trains you can ride without leaving your desk. 

It's just like being there in person, honest. Image: Google Street View.

 

Switzerland's Rhätische Bahn

In 2012, Google Street View paired up with the Rhaetische Bahn, a local railway company separate from the country’s main SBB-CFF-FFS rail provider, to get one of the world’s most beautiful railway routes added to the Street View catalogue.

The 75.8-mile route of the Albula-Bernina railway line is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and just one of the stunning scenic routes that criss-cross the curious south-eastern part of Switzerland, where the accents are so lousy with thick Swiss German and Romansch notes that they can barely understand each other.

The Google team attached a specially adapted camera carriage to the front of a Rhaetische Bahn train, and off it trundled through the Swiss mountains. And now you can enjoy it over the cheeky Pret salad you bought as a Thursday-lunch desk treat. 

Mmmm, shiny. Image: Google Street View.

 

Japan's newest Shinkansen

Admittedly, as much of the pleasure for train buffs is the interior of a train as it is the route, the landscape, or the rolling stock itself. Who doesn’t love a tastefully decorated, well-laid out carriage, with plush but not over-exuberant seating and clear but not crude signposting and layout guidance?

As of last year, Google Street View (again) means you can step inside the Hokuriku Shinkansen, the newest addition to the Shinkansen “bullet train” network stretching the two and a half hours from Tokyo to Kanazawa, and explore the train’s three classes – Grand Class, Green Class, and Standard.

Spoiler – it’s a really really nice train. 

This looks more impressive when you watch the real video. Image: Expedia.

 

Norway's virtual reality train

The Flåm railway line in Western Norway passes through some of Scandinavia’s most beautiful scenery – soaring mountains, plunging valleys, crystalline lakes and dramatic rocky outcrops – and passes by Norway’s largest national park.

But Norway’s kind of expensive, right? Even if you can afford the social and financial cost of going abroad purely to ride on some good trains, the exorbitant cost of living and terrible exchange rate will hit you where it hurts the most, and in this day and age sometimes that’s just not worth it.

But thanks to a handy partnership with Expedia, the mountain line is available as a 360-degree video played at varying speeds to the soundtrack of Edvard Grieg’s Anitras Dance, or as a virtual reality experience.

I’m not entirely clear how that virtual reality experience works, but if you’re someone in the know with a VR-capable device, then this is totally something you can explore in your own free time, as long as the sensation of being virtually strapped to a train trundling through the mountains doesn’t freak you out. 

*Nerdiness intensifies*. Image: Google Street View.

 

Tiny train trips

And if all of that from-your-desk travelling feels a little strange and fabricated, you can dive right in and actually explore an entirely fake train-centred world.

Thanks to another Google Street View special, the extraordinarily detailed and intricate fantasy land of the Miniatur Wunderland – the world’s largest model railway, in Hamburg, Germany – is available from your computer screen. You can explore the ‘Swiss’ mountain valley where they’re working on a gargantuan new bridge, or pop into the Munich beer hall and hope that nobody tries to talk politics to you.

All in all, a world of fun available at the click of a mouse.

Don’t say we don’t treat you right. 

Jack May is a regular contributor to CityMetric and tweets as @JackO_May.

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The smartphone app placing virtual statues of women on the map

A virtual Edith Wharton in Central Park, New York City. Image: The Whole Story Project.

If you’re a woman, then in order for you to be immortalised in stone, bronze or whatever once you’ve shuffled off this mortal coil, you should either have royal blood or be willing to be sculpted naked. That is the rule of thumb.

A statue that actually celebrates a woman’s achievements is a rare sight. Writing in the New Statesman last year, equality campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez found that out of 925 statues in Britain, as listed by the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association, only 158 are of solo women. Of these, 46 are of royalty, including 29 of Queen Victoria. Fourteen depict the Virgin Mary.

There are signs of change, albeit slow. The suffragist Millicent Fawcett is set to be honoured with a statue in Parliament Square, where currently all 11 of the statues are of men. (They include Nelson Mandela and a nine-foot Gandhi.) The monument is to be unveiled next year to celebrate the centenary of British women receiving the right to vote.

Elsewhere, the late comedian Victoria Wood is being honoured with a statue that’ll be erected in Bury, Greater Manchester. In the Moss Side area of the city, a statue of Emmeline Pankhurst will be unveiled in 2019. Unlike the Fawcett one, neither of these is expected to receive public money, relying on crowdfunding and other sources instead.

So how many more statues of women, regardless of how they’re funded, would we need to build in order to reduce the gender gap? Well, according to Jonathan Jones, art critic at the Guardian, the magic number is: zero.

Jones’s argument, back in March, was that building statues doesn’t advance feminism, but simply traps us in the past. He wrote:

Statues don’t hold public memory. They politely bury it. These well-meaning images melt into the background scenery of our lives.

Whether this is empirically true is questionable, but it’s true that we tend not to erect them as often as we used to anyway. This is partly because there is less space available for such monuments – a noticeable disadvantage cities of the present have compared to those of the past. In order to reduce the imbalance, statues of men would probably have to be removed; many would no doubt be okay with that, but it would mean erasing history.

One partial answer to the problem is augmented reality. It can’t close the gender gap, but it could shine a spotlight on it.

To that end, an advertising agency in New York launched an app at the beginning of May. The Whole Story allows users to place virtual statues of women on a map; other uses can then view and find out more about the individuals depicted at their real-world locations, using their smartphone cameras.


Currently, users have to upload their own virtual statues using 3D-modelling software. But going forward, the project aims for an open collaboration between designers, developers and organisations, which it hopes will lead to more people getting involved.

Contributions submitted so far include a few dozen in New York, several in Washington and one of Jane Austen in Hyde Park. There are others in Italy and the Czech Republic.

Okay, it’s an app created by a marketing firm, but there are legitimate arguments for it. First, the agency’s chief creative office has herself said that it’s important to address the gender imbalance in a visual way in order to inspire current and future generations: you can’t be what you can’t see, as the saying going.

Second, if the physical presence of statues really is diminishing and they don’t hold public memory, as Jones argues, then smartphones could bridge the gap. We live our lives through our devices, capturing, snapping and storing moments, only to forget about them but then return to and share them at a later date. These memories may melt away, but they’ll always be there, backed up to the cloud even. If smartphones can be used to capture and share the message that a gender imbalance exists then that’s arguably a positive thing.  

Third, with the success of Pokemon Go, augmented reality has shown that it can encourage us to explore public spaces and heighten our appreciation for architectural landmarks. It can also prove useful as a tool for learning about historical monuments.

Of course no app will replace statues altogether. But at the very least it could highlight the fact that women’s achievements are more than just sitting on a throne or giving birth to the son of God.

Rich McEachran tweets as @richmceachran.

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