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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Where did London’s parakeets come from?

Parakeets in the skies above Wormwood Scrubs, west London. Image: Getty.

Visitors to London’s many green spaces would have to be stubbornly looking at their feet to not see one of the UK’s most exotic birds.  Dubbed “posh pigeons” by unimaginative Londoners, these brilliant green parakeets stand out among the fauna of Northern Europe’s mostly grey cities.

‘Parakeets’ is actually an umbrella term referring to the multiple species, which can now be found in London, Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris and various German cities. By far the most common is the Indian ring-necked parakeet, easily recognisable by the stylish red ring around their neck, a matching red beak and, of course, the loud squawking.

In the last 50 years these migrants from South Asia have arrived and thrived, settling into their own ecological niche. In the UK, London is a particular stronghold, but although they may have originally settled in the leafy streets of Twickenham, the birds can now be found in cities as far north as Glasgow.

The story of how they ended up in London is a matter of some discussion and plenty of myth. One often reported theory is that the capitals’ current population are the descendants of birds that escaped from Shepperton Studios during filming of The African Queen, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Others would tell you that they escaped from Syon Park in the early 1970s, when a piece of debris from a passing plane damaged the aviary and allowed them to escape. This chimes with their original concentration in South West London.
My favourite story by far is that they were released by Jimi Hendrix on Carnaby Street in the late 60s. Bored of London’s grey skyline, he set the little fellas free to liven up the place.

However they got here, from 1970 onwards their numbers boomed. In 1992, 700 birds were recorded in London Bird Report. By 1998, 2,845 were seen in the London Area, and by 2006 the ring-neck parakeet was 15th most sighted bird in London.


Darwin would be proud at how well they adapted to the new environment. Toughened up by the hard Himalayan climate, they handle the cold northern European winters better than most locals. Global warming is often brought up in discussions of the parakeets, but it is certainly only part of the story.
It helps, too, that the birds have a 35 year lifespan and few local predators, enabling them to breed freely.

As with any new species, the debate has raged about whether they are harmful to the ecosystem. Strangely reminiscent of the debate over human migrants, often the birds have often been accused of stealing the homes of the natives. The parakeets do nest in tree cavities also used by jackdaws, owls and woodpeckers – but there is little evidence that native species are being muscled out. 

The also provide a food source for Britain's embattled birds of prey. Owls and peregrine falcons have been know to eat them. Charlie and Tom, two city dwelling falcons monitored by Nathalie Mahieu, often bring back parakeets as food.
Of more concern is the new arrivals’ effect on plants and trees. By 2009 their numbers in the UK had grown so much that they were added to the “general licence” of species, which can be killed without individual permission if they are causing damage.

And Parrotnet, am EU funded research project studying the development of parakeet populations across Europe, has warned of the risk they pose to agriculture. In their native India, the parakeets are known to cause widespread damage to crops. As agriculture develops in the UK in line with warmer climates, crops such as maize, grapes and sunflower will become more popular. In India the birds have been documented as reducing maize crops by 81 per cent.

So the parakeets remain divisive. Environmentalist Tony Juniper has disparagingly described them as “the grey squirrel of the skies”. By contrast, the University of York biologist Chris D. Thomas has argued that the parakeets should be left free to move and breed. He sees those wary of the parakeet boom of “irrational persecution” of the bird.

For good or ill the parakeets are here to stay. As so often with migrants of all kinds, there has been some unease about the impact they have had – but the birds, popular amongst Londoners, certainly add colour to the city. Thriving in the urban environment thousands of miles from their natural habitat, they are a metropolitan bird for Europe’s metropolitan cities. 

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