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he ‘Grand Train Station’ in the world’s smallest state, with the entire Vatican’s national railway network in view

After All: From my collection of techno oddities you never knew existed

Image credit: Alamy

To quench the pandemic-inspired hunger for travels, our columnist invites readers to visit some of the world’s quirkiest places, made special by technology.

Not being able to travel for nearly a year due to the persisting Covid-19 pandemic is starting to – slowly but surely – affect my sanity (excessive use of the split infinitive is one of the first symptoms, or so I hear).  

That is why I was thrilled to be approached recently by a Berlin-based international publisher with an offer to compile an atlas of the world’s oddest places. As a former ‘QI’ elf (yes, I worked on that popular TV programme as a writer/researcher some years ago), I can confess to being an avid collector of geopolitical, technological and other oddities, so the publisher did his own research well.

In Mafia speak, it was indeed an offer I could not refuse.

Currently in the midst of going through my copious notes and archives, I am still not sure what to include. So to somewhat quench (another split infinitive – I did warn you!) the pandemic-whipped hunger for travel, allow me to introduce just three of the potential 100 entries made odd by technology/ies.   

The Vatican Train Station

The world’s smallest national railway network, the Vatican Railway, is a short stretch of track that connects the state’s only station with one just outside the Vatican walls in Rome. It was once used to transport Popes – dead and alive – but in recent years it has, thanks to the papal plane, been relegated to freight runs, bringing goods from Italy into the Vatican.

The Vatican Railway system is the shortest in the world: line length, 0.68km; track length, 1.19km. It has two tracks, but only one station and one platform. Passengers traverse a mere 624m on their voyage from the Vatican station to Roma-San Pietro.

The Vatican Railway operates just one passenger train per week, on Saturday mornings, and an occasional freight train.

The Papal State’s ‘grand train station’ was constructed between 1929 and 1933 and decorated with the expectation that it would be used by Popes and VIPs. Three popes have indeed used the Vatican Railway, four if you count the fact that Pope John XXIII had the relics of Pope Pius X transported to Venice via train from the Vatican.

The ‘incumbent’ Pope Francis himself has not yet taken a train from the Vatican Station. However, in 2014, he welcomed 500 children who travelled by train to the Vatican from Naples as part of a care programme for socially deprived children.

For comparison, the world’s longest railway network, with an operating route over 250,000km long, is in the USA. The second longest, at 100,000km, is in China, while the third longest, in Russia, measures 85,000km.

Coober Pedy

The South Australian town of Coober Pedy is the world’s only town situated entirely underground. Aptly enough, ‘Coober Pedy’ is an Aboriginal expression thought to translate as “white man in a hole”.

Millions of years ago, the whole Australian continent was submerged by the ocean. When it receded, minerals from the seabed filled cracks in the earth and created colourful opals. Coober Pedy is part of the Great Artesian Basin, renowned as the opal-mining capital of the world.  What began in 1916 with the arrival of the first adventure-seeking miners, soon evolved into the world’s largest opal-​mining operation.

Coober Pedy residents began turning discarded opal mines into permanent dugouts to escape the oppressive heat. That is why, despite being home to around 2,500 residents, the town has an eerie, almost otherworldly feel to it.

Entire bookshops, churches and bars are installed in the town’s carved underground walls and, after years of living in these ‘dugouts’, the folks who call them home have no plans of leaving.

The underground dwellings have all the traditional amenities – internet access, electricity, and water. The only difference between ‘normal’ homes and those in Coober Pedy is that the latter never see daylight.

A word of warning based on personal experience: visitors need to watch their step – especially at night – to avoid falling through the ground or bumping into mining equipment and abandoned vehicles scattered around the town! 

Fordlandia

In 1927, Henry Ford, the automobile manufacturer and then the richest man in the world, bought a 3,900-square-mile patch of the forest in the Brazilian Amazon. His intention was to grow rubber for tyres, but the project rapidly evolved into a more ambitious Utopian bid. Ford temporarily succeeded in constructing an American-style town, which he wanted inhabited by Brazilians hewing to what he considered American values. Workers were accommodated in good-quality clapboard bungalows, some of which are still there now. Streetlamps illuminated concrete sidewalks lined with warehouses and dance halls.

In his efforts to build a new American Utopia, Ford forbade consumption of alcohol on the site while promoting gardening, square dancing and readings of poetry. Special sanitation squads patrolled the outpost, killing stray dogs, draining puddles of water where malaria-transmitting mosquitoes could multiply, and checking employees for venereal diseases.

Alas, Fordlandia, as the settlement was called, despite the best intentions of its founder, soon became the site of an environmental and social disaster. Although many fine buildings were constructed, in the plantations, the trees were planted too closely and therefore suffered from all sorts of diseases. No rubber was produced.

The site – which, significantly and unlike this writer, Ford himself never visited – was returned to Brazil in 1945.

Fordlandia these days is not quite a ghost town, but home to nearly 2,000 descendants of Ford’s plantation workers, now mostly employed in farming. Some of them live in the crumbling, yet surprisingly sturdy, structures built nearly a century ago.                          

Have you visited any places (towns, areas, countries) made odd or special by technology? Let us know at engtechmag@theiet.org with 'After All' in the subject line.

‘The Bumper Book of Vitali’s Travels – Thirty Years of Globe-Trotting’ by Vitali Vitaliev is published by Thrust Books.

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