We have completed maintenance on DiscoverMagazine.com and action may be required on your account. Learn More

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

By Veronique Greenwood
Aug 6, 2011 12:25 AMNov 20, 2019 1:39 AM


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

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.

1 free article left
Want More? Get unlimited access for as low as $1.99/month

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

1 free articleSubscribe
Discover Magazine Logo
Want more?

Keep reading for as low as $1.99!


Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

To The Magazine

Save up to 40% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2024 Kalmbach Media Co.