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Planes, trains and…a chicken bus?

24 May 2018

For some people, our love of trains and rail journeys in general is a bizarre eccentricity, (these detractors obviously haven't enjoyed the thrill of steam train soot in their face or the entertaining efficiency of catching a train in Japan) but there are plenty of places in the world where a plain old rail journey is the pinnacle of mundanity. So join us for a whistle-stop, global tour of what we believe are some of the most outlandish ways humans have concocted to get from A to B.

Chicken bus - Central America
Who says the daily commute needs to be boring? Whilst travelling through countries such as Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama you are bound to spot, though most likely you'll hear them before you see them, one of Central America's legendary chicken buses. A party on wheels, chicken buses are impossible to miss thanks to their zany and colourful décor, as well as the fact they'll often be pumping out pop tunes at top volume from an on-board boom box, no matter the hour. A trip on one of these repurposed American school buses is incredibly cheap, probably because they earned the name of 'chicken bus' by copping up passengers, packing them in as tightly as caged hens.

Ice angel - Wisconsin, USA
The state of Wisconsin experiences bitterly cold winters, and nowhere more so than remote Madeline Island, which floats 12 miles off shore of Lake Superior - the largest of North America's Great Lakes. Madeline is the only inhabited island in the Apostle archipelago, and while there is a bog-standard, boring ferry waiting to ship visitors and island residents to and from the mainland during the summer, in the winter, as ice starts creeping outward from the shoreline, something a little more robust is required. Step up the ice angel, which is literally the saviour of locals, keeping them well-stocked with supplies during the long winter months. Forging its way through a two-mile ice highway, it resembles some sort of weird snow plough/tank hybrid, but don't let its appearance put you off - the ice angel is a lifesaver, most recently rescuing a group of anglers after the ice flow they were fishing from suddenly broke away.

Monte toboggan - Madeira
The island of Madeira is renowned for its craggy, almost tropical landscapes. Beautiful to look at perhaps, but for residents living in the elevated village of Monte, endless hikes to and from Funchal, the island's capital, were starting to take their toll. It was time for a solution, and in the century before automobiles, relief came in the form of a wicker toboggan. Things haven't changed much since 1850 and you can still hitch a ride on this picnic basket style sleigh when you visit Madeira. Controlled by two drivers, the three-seater sleds race down the slopes on wooden runners, with only the thick rubber soles and expertise of specially trained charioteers keeping passengers on track. Mostly catering to tourists these days, it's certainly a lot of fun whizzing through the narrow, historic streets at speed, covering the two-kilometre distance from top to bottom in just ten minutes aboard what could possibly be classed as one of the world's earliest urban 'rollercoasters'.

Maglev train - Shanghai, China
This is the first of two entries that bear the dubious titles of 'train' and you'll find the Maglev (which takes its name from mashing together the words magnetic and levitate), in the futuristic city of Shanghai. This particular line, which connects Shanghai Pudong International Airport and Longyang Road Station, boasts the fastest commercial high-speed electric train in the world. Pushing the speedometer up to an electrifying 311 miles per hour, the science behind it sounds so inconceivable it's actually a little bit terrifying. To try and put it simply, the maglev is a 'floating' train that uses the principle of magnetic repulsion to propel it along. Magnetised coils, called a guideway, run the length of the route, and these repel the magnets attached to the trains undercarriage, thus allowing the train to actually levitate. The polarity surging along the track is constantly monitored and adjusted, meaning a magnetic field in front of the train pulls it along, while a differing magnetic field from behind the train pushes it forward. This technique almost completely wipes out the effects of friction, allowing the carriages to float along on a pillow of air.

Bamboo train, Cambodia
From state-of-the-art to something a little more rudimentary; we all remember those kid's cartoons where two baddies would use a handcar, a railroad car powered by passengers who must pump a handle up and down to gain momentum. Well in Cambodia, a version of these are still very much a part of life, though these days they are motorised. Locally known as norry or nori, they have affectionately been christened by travellers as bamboo trains and can run at speeds of almost 50 miles per hour. Despite a lack of breaks or any formal driving apparatus, they run a surprisingly frequent timetable in some areas, and the cost to travel on one is extremely low. Being made of bamboo they are also incredibly light, and if two trains meet whilst going in opposite directions, etiquette dictates that the one with fewer passengers will have to give way with everyone needing to disembark before the driver can lift the main, flat-bed structure of the train straight off the wheels.