Train-spotting in Denmark

Struggling on the Mukilteo run, zooming along outside Copenhagen. And not missing the bus.

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Sounder at King Street Station in Seattle. (Sound Transit)

Struggling on the Mukilteo run, zooming along outside Copenhagen. And not missing the bus.

Last month, the traffic engineers made headlines in Puget Sound, detailing that the actual cost of a bus passenger is 70 percent less than the actual cost of a train passenger. Headlines in Everett proudly noted the trains of Sound Transit are a financial luxury, in an austere time. Engineers, like carvers, love collecting stuff for later use.

But the buses from Snohomish Community Transit have already cut so far back into schedule and route that no one wants to ride the #417 from Mukilteo — what once took 48 minutes now meanders into Lynnwood and  takes 78 minutes. At Christmas there were three buses you could catch after 5:30 at night; now there are none, none at all. The schedule has always wrestled with a ghostly Boeing DNA — no one starts work later than 7:30 and no one works later than 4:30 and no one works at all on weekends. There is no Community Transit on weekends.

So there is a marked passenger turn to the Sound Transit commuter rail route from Everett to Seattle. The most fervent busers now stand at the Mukilteo platform waiting for the morning train. There are only four trains, on the half hour, starting at 6 am and a similar schedule at night, the last train leaving King Street at 5:30. The Mukilteo Station has only a name — no roof, no walls, a stationmaster who greets everyone but has no contact with the train. The train, running on once-public tracks, now runs on private land, tracks that Buffett bought. He knew the train was coming back, and now Sound Transit has to pay him for every run.

There are no trains for the non-commuting public, no trains for the tourist, no trains to get into Seattle, no trains on the weekend. The trains are for a narrow slot of the workforce. The north route is half full; the south route, down to Tacoma, is packed full. If Edmonds, Mukilteo, or Everett is your need, and if you fit the lean schedule, then you take the train. It is faster, it travels the water's edge, you can sleep, read, Google, Kindle, or dribble. You can talk, the wifi is idiotic but phones work, and the seasons are always on full.

For some reason, the new trains are a box of bolts and hinges but still, there is little wear and tear to riding them. The buses — that is wear and tear, even without the traffic. Deliver two humans to King Street and  the one from the train outlives, outlasts, outbreathes, and outhumors the buser. If you can read, then, in a sense, you can live.

The train is of course more expensive. You sold the tracks and the equipment and the freight yards. Comparing the cost to busing is only partial sense and little true sense. In the same county, you could save money just playing the students a video and skipping the teacher altogether. Cheaper. The Kingdome was cheaper in part because you could not go pee at halftime; they had saved that much on the bathrooms.

But I have a train story. A couple years ago, in October, we headed to the Louisiana Museum, one of the great art museums of the world, about 25 kilometers north of Copenhagen. When you buy your ticket at the Central Station for Humlebaek, they ask if you are going to the museum and, if so, they will sell you the admission ticket at half price once combined with the train fare.

It is a lovely route, about the distance from Seattle to Mukilteo, up and along the coast of the Baltic, parallelling the Strandvejen, and passing through the Royal Danish Forest, We spent a fine afternoon at the museum, where there was a brilliant exhibit on the designer Poul Kjaerholm.

But at 5, we had to leave, for we were meeting Matilda Plojet, a Swedish book designer, at the Jacobsen restaurant, which is half way back to Copenhagen. It was also my friend Rick Sundberg's birthday. We had books to plan and toasts to propose. The Jacobsen restaurant is a tribute to the famed architect Arne Jacobsen, the Danish designer who had been secreted out of Copenhagen days before the Germans  invaded.

The restaurant uses only Jacobsen-designed chairs, table, silverware, bathroom fixture, cutlery, fireplace,lights, napkins, candles, rugs, shades, dishes, pans, glasses. It is located in Klampenborg, where Jacobsen designed several housing projects, down to their beaches and lifeguard stations. There are other fine restaurants in Klampenborg — we just never get further than this one.

The Danish Rail system is complicated enough to intimidate even students, but we crossed under the tracks and were lucky enough to have a Copenhagen-bound train arrive moments later. These are massive and very high speed trains — practically silent, very comfortable, and always busy. We were quite pleased with ourselves. It had been a fine day at the Louisiana and now we would arrive at the Jacobsen with enough time for even a stroll in the small town.

We had not noticed that the train was in any particular hurry until the signs of Klampenborg blew by at high speed. Bill Stout, the famous San Francisco publisher and bookseller, noted, I think we missed our stop. We were hurtling but then just as fast, the train stopped. We piled out, ducked again under the tracks but now to the other side, where there was a crowd waiting for the northbound, since it was the end of the work day. No harm done, it seemed, we would still make the restaurant in time for there was the train.

As we started to board, a man with a white cane and seeing-eye dog spoke up. He had overheard our banter and said, no not this train, it is also an express, yours to Klampenborg is three minutes after this one. As Bill noted, it seemed right that he was our better guide.

Moments later, the next train arrived, and we got off ten miles north at Klampenborg and crossed a bridge onto the main road to the restaurant, just as Matilda was being seated. Three hours later, after many fine course and plans for books to publish, our waiter brought the bill and noted that the train to Copenhagen would arrive in eight minutes, or there was another a half hour after.

We all walked across the bridge, hopped the train and were in Copenhagen from the Baltic beach in 15 minutes. Matilda stayed on; she was going through to Stockholm and work in the morning.

Now that is a train system. And it has nothing to do with buses.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Peter Miller

Peter Miller is owner of Peter Miller Books, a store in Seattle specializing in architecture and design books. You can reach him in care of