Web applications and geopolitics

I was recently fiddling with the German Federal Railways’ on-line European timetables, when I noticed something very strange. They have the best cross-European timetable, no doubt about it, but some odd things happen if you’re heading too far east. For example, when I asked it for a route from Paris to Tallinn, everything went a little bit weird..

To kick off, it suggested Nachtzug number 237 to Hamburg, which seemed fair enough. And, I was informed, I could take a limited number of bicycles with me on prior reservation. Things went wrong, though, at the next step. In Hamburg, there was a connection on EuroCity 31 to Copenhagen. You can see where this is going, can’t you – due north, essentially. There, I was to catch an X-2000 Swedish high-speed train to Stockholm and transfer to the docks by bus, before hopping a Silja Line ship to Turku in Finland. Presumably rested after the overnight crossing, I’d catch fast train no. R130 to Pasila/Böle, to meet a night train, D 31 (for some historical reason all the long-distance trains are numbered as German D-Züge) to St. Petersburg.

Arriving in the northern capital at 1.40 am, I’d cross it to the Vitebski station and spend three hours on the platform waiting for the express 649-KH to Tallinn. Riiight. In all, some 63 hours. The only alternative differed in that I’d have to change in Brussels as well.

Somehow, the great clockwork was set up to try and avoid leaving EU territory – it’s the only explanation I could come up with. If, after all, I forced it to route via Minsk it produced a far better result, down to 33 hours and four trains – and no ships! But left to its own devices, though, it did go to Russia. I am fascinated by this application pathology – it’s quite routine for timetable servers to produce absurdly complicated routes in order to save a few minutes somewhere, and in fact it’s an important problem in Internet engineering that the system’s basic rules can easily create inefficiently large numbers of hops unless something is done to enforce a less specific route.

Or is there some sort of assumption that nobody wants to go via Belarus baked into the code?

9 thoughts on “Web applications and geopolitics

  1. Im with you on that one, as an Australian citizen I have to be content with the overland trip via poland if I want to head north via land. although some kind of option would be handy for EU citizens however.

    To change the subject slightly, kudos to Georgia for letting me have a visa on the border however! Nice one!


  2. Avoiding Belarusian border guards and visa charges is of course a good and sensible thing to be doing—as I recall the Lonely Planet guides to neighbouring countries make very prominent and specific warnings to that effect—but quite apart from time concerns I can’t see why the Russians would be any better. I recommend trying plugging a few cities in Poland into the “via” field (SuwaÅ‚ki near the border with Lithuania is a good one when all else fails, IIRC) to better avoid the more, well, Soviet bits of the FSU.

  3. The really odd thing is that this weirdness only arose for Tallinn – Riga, for example, generated sensible routes via either Minsk or Poland.

  4. Well, the Tallinn vs. Riga weirdness is not the result of a software bug – there are simply no through trains between the two cities. In fact, there are no passenger trains crossing the Estonia/Latvia border at all! Odd but true, and mostly due to botched privatization efforts of the 1990s.

    No idea about the Belarus bug though.

  5. I still have my lovely Belarus visa, which I had to pay for on the train–25 American dollars. Thankfully, I had a passport-sized picture or they probably would have hauled me off. The Border Police in Belarus, in my case, felt entitled to assess per their discretion on the spot VAT fees for new products or wrapped gifts. Deutsche Bahn conspiracy it still might be, but maybe they’re just ‘good looking out’ for their customers.

  6. It’s been more than a decade since I made that little run, but it doesn’t sound like the game has changed at all. I had gotten my transit visa in Vienna (or maybe Warsaw), but our friends in the border patrol didn’t believe that I wouldn’t be coming back through lovely Belarus.

    Fortunately for me, though rather less so for him, I was sharing the cabin with a Cuban. Because he spoke Russian, it was more productive for the border patrol to harass him. I stuck to my alleged monolingual nature and got off easy.

    It wasn’t until I got to London that the border people got really snippy.

  7. @Christian: But when I asked for a route to Riga, without giving any other geographical fields, it routed me via Minsk without problems.

  8. A cherished memory is taking the overnight train from Tallin to Vilnius in 1995. A wonderful trundle through the forests. One of the best bits was buying the ticket in Tallin with the help of an Estonian phrase-book and realising that the grin on the faces of others queuing around me wasn’t because of my atrocious pronounciation but because the ticket clerk was so clearly unhappy at having to use that language and not insist on speaking Russian…

    Sad that the route is now erased..

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