Dutch train station clocks

Dutch train station clocks have always baffled me. They are, I am sure, the strangest timepieces known to mankind.

They’re visually quite distinctive, in an Ur-clock kind of way. They have plain, backlit white faces inside a black box with rounded corners. The hands are thick, and the minute divisions are chunky. They make the time very readable even from large distances.

But their visual apperance isn’t the strange thing about them. It’s their behaviour. Click on the image below for a video clip (about 1.6MB) of one of these clocks in action. I haven’t doctored this clip in any way. Pay close attention to what happens when the second hand passes the minute mark.

A Dutch train station clock

Tick…tick…tick…PAUSE…PAUSE…PAUSE…tick…tick. The second hand pauses for about three second at the top of the minute. Why? It means that the second hand makes a full cycle in 57 seconds, rather than 60. Each beat of the second hand is only 0.95 seconds long. By design, these clocks can only ever show the right time once every minute. The rest of the time, they are GUARANTEED to be wrong.

Okay, so they’re only ever fractionally out, but…but… it’s just wrong. It’s the kind of thing that can drive a person just ever so slightly mad…in 0.05 second increments.

This behaviour must be by design; it’s too strange to be an accident, and the clocks would have been fixed long ago if it was. So there has to be a good explanation for it.

Could it be a subconscious nudge to make people hurry up for their trains, by making them think that it’s slightly later than it actually is? Is it a subtle technique to help people relax in a tense rush hour environment, by giving them a three-second breathing space at the top of every minute? Are there any readability benefits from having the second hand pause like this?

There must be a reason. Does anyone know what it is?

(Amusing speculations are also welcome.)

5 comments

  1. Yeah… weird isn’t it? My own, totally unfounded speculation is that these clocks are somehow synchronized every minute so they always run exactly on time. The second hand runs slightly faster, then pauses until it gets the go signal, at which moment it is _exactly_ 16:35.

  2. The Dutch train-spotting union demanded a 3 second no-time gap to allow the spotters time to shake their wrists around to relieve cramp. During the non-time trains obviously cannot arrive as the time does not exist to go onto a timetable, therefore the spotters do not have to worry about a train arriving and not having time to write down the number.

    Incidently, what happens when a spotter notes down all the trains in service? Is it like the Arthur C. Clarke short where the monks enumerate all the names of God and the stars start going out one by one, except in this case all the British trains start arriving on time or something equally scary?

  3. I noticed this odd delay on the clocks in Germany as well. If you have ever seen Run Lola Run, there is a scene where Mani is about to enter the grocery store while Lola runs to stop him. One of these clocks is laid over the scene, and has the usual “three second” delay while Mani looks up, waiting for the minute to start so he can enter the store at exactly noon. Priceless, and completely accurate :).

  4. I suspect there might be a good mechanical reason for the clock doing what it does. Probably along the lines of the effort required to move the minute hand requires three seconds of kinetic build-up before the required amount of energy is generated to shift it to the next minute. To compensate for the three second delay, the second hand has to complete its sweep in 57 seconds, as you said. So it’s probably an energy saving thing – after all, running loads of large clocks at each station must take a bit of oomph, and the Dutch are a pretty efficient lot. I noticed that the hour hand is at its proper position in relation to the minute hand, which means it must creep around by degrees instead of lurching from one time increment to the next. Maybe the hour hand moves a little bit as well when the minute hand does its lurch into the next minute. Who knows? I know one thing for certain, I’ve rambled for too long already and should really go and get some work done.

  5. Could be a tolerance to allow the Dutch rail network to say a certain percentage of trains ran on time.

    Perhaps British Rail should stop the second hand for 57 seconds, leaving 3 seconds to go round.

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