Inefficient but Fair – Empty Wagons over the Border

Inefficient but Fair – Empty Wagons over the Border

Sometimes, there is a tension between the values of fairness vs. efficiency. It seems like we hit into one of these on the ride into Mongolia. The 16 wagon train was almost empty. According to our wagon attendant, less than 30 passengers. This is supposedly typical for this season. The train is full in July, the rest of the year there are plenty of empty berths. The lowest occupancy was last year in December when they drove once the whole way from Beijing to UB with five passengers. More tourists do go the other way, but even in that direction it is quite empty in the train. Sometimes more personnel than passengers. This time, we were five passengers in our whole wagon.

Our wagon attendant explained that:  “The agreement between the governments mandated that they would always drive 15 sleeper wagons and one restaurant wagon, twice per week in the winter and three times in the summer. And since it is an international agreement – it is important to be fair and honor the agreement.”

Lifting the wagons to change the boogies.
Lifting the wagons to change the boogies.

We spent 4 hours to change boogies (wheelsets) on all 15 sleeping wagons at the border crossing between China and Mongolia. We could have used one or two wagons, and be finished in 30 minutes.

The reason for changing wheelsets is due to the rail gauge – the distance between the two rails. The railway connection between Ulaan Baatar was built in 1956, during a time when the Soviet Union had a strong presence in Mongolia. Therefore, the train tracks in Mongolia follow the Russian standard, which is wider than the Chinese standard.

It was impressive and weird to see the wagons lifted up and the boogies rolled away to be replaced with a slightly different width. This boogie dance went on for hours, in the middle of the night – and we were waiting for our passports to be back from the Chinese border police. It was indeed a relief when the adjustments were completed, the passports retrieved and we could glide away into the Mongolian night to cross the Gobi Desert.

DSC02996 DSC03002 DSC03003 DSC03005It is an amazing waste of time and energy to do this boogie-changing. Especially for all the wagons that are almost empty! I think that it would be much easier to move the passengers out of one train and onto another.

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