Scientists Solve Switzerland's Biggest Problem: Upset Stomachs on Tilting Trains

By Veronique Greenwood | August 5, 2011 3:25 pm

If you’re turning green, it’s not the scenery’s fault.

As you may or may not know, Switzerland, land of chocolate, cheese, and cuckoo clocks, is also the land of trains. More than 1,800 miles of track crisscross the quaint alpine utopia, carrying 347 million passengers per year and maintaining the punctuality of a Stepford wife. That’s some serious trainage.

Some of those trains, unfortunately, are making people trainsick. And the Schweizerische Bundesbahnen, the Swiss train authorities, just wouldn’t stand for that. They asked some scientists to get to the bottom of it.

The problem trains are a class of vehicles that tilt by 8 degrees as they go around curves, preserving their speed by compensating for centripetal force. Something about those tilts was putting passengers off-kilter, so a team of Swiss and American neurologists attached accelerometers and gyroscopes to a test train and to the heads of passengers, whom, one hopes, were compensated for consenting to their unusual headgear.

A tilting train in action.

Usually, the tilt starts with the first train car that hits the curve, then propagates through the later cars. It’s also rather slow, so passengers’ heads get tipped to the side sometime after the tilt is initiated. If the train sensed the tilt coming and tilted all the cars quickly, the team thought, the tipping of passengers’ heads would be synchronized with the train’s movement, avoiding the inner ear confusion that leads to motion sickness.

Sure enough, when they equipped the train with a GPS system that let it recognize its location and execute a swift tilt just before going around the curve, the be-gyroscoped passengers reported no motion sickness. And the Swiss train authorities, thank you very much, will be investing in this GPS technology for their next generation of rolling stock. Less vomit, more cheese, everyone’s happy.

Meanwhile, in the United States, trains continue to arrive four hours late, stall for hours at a time, and catch on fire. The cheek!

Image sources: Wikimedia Commons and Cohen et al.

  • Cathy

    That’s when we have trains at all. Still waiting for the long promised light rail line from Athens to Atlanta.

  • Georg

    “”land of chocolate, cheese, and cuckoo clocks””

    I dream of the day, when one or hopfully some americans will
    know that no clock bigger than a pocket watch ever came from

    Cuckoo clocks (and a lot of other wall clocks) come from Germany!

    I recommend You write this 10 times. Or better a 100 times!

  • bad Jim

    A famous line from The Third Man:

    … in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.

  • James Seubert

    The reason that trains in the US run late is that private industry owns the tracks
    and give freight trains(i.e., lumber and pigs) priority over passengers (i.e., people).
    So much for privatizing.


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