Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Why I Prefer Trains

When I was growing up in Oklahoma City there weren't a lot of passenger trains around.  We lived about half a mile from a railway line where it crossed a main road, so one of the sounds of my childhood is the wail of the train horn at night.  It was of course a big deal to wave to the train conductor and one of life's excitements was to be at the front of the queue of cars when the train first approached, in order to have the best vantage point for counting cars.  To this day when I see a freight train in the US, I'm in awe of how long the things are.

When I first visited Britain, a journey on a train was a major experience for me.  I remember taking a small tape recorder to capture sounds (a suggestion from Europe Through the Back Door, by Rick Steves):  the girl playing a flute in Cambridge, the chatter of an Italian family on the London underground, the bagpipes playing outside Waverly Station at Edinburgh, the rhythmic clatter of the train.  So what is so great about a train journey?

One can get up and go to the loo anytime they like; this requires no permission from a member of staff or from the driver.

There are generally as many toilets as there are train cars provided, not a measly three or four for a full double decker plane.

One can wander the length of the train if they wish.

No seatbelts required - or even provided. 

The chances of surviving a crash are considerably better.

No navigation required, no map reading, no disagreements about which route to take.

No immigration portals, as a rule, though we have been awakened at 3am with a bang on the door followed by a machine gun, between the Czech Republic and Slovakia.  We trust since joining the EU they have a more civilised understanding of how things work.

In many cases, a ticket may be purchased along the journey.

Full sized servings of junk food available in the catering car, along with hot and cold drinks, alcoholic beverages and often books and magazines.

The timing  of one's meals is largely one's own choice.

The staff pass infrequently, to check tickets or to gather rubbish, and otherwise leave folks alone.

The windows are enormous and one can see the world pass; no one orders one to shut them so
others can watch their telly or sleep.

No sausage socks required to prevent deep vein thrombosis.

There is often a 'quiet car' in which use of noise making gadgets, including mobile phones is prohibited (in my ideal world, use of mobile phones would go the way of smoking).

Roomier seats, often with footrest; no piggy-in-the-middle three-across seating arrangements; sometimes very interesting compartments as in Harry Potter films.

No junk mail (or little white bags) in the seat pockets; to date, no duty-free sales announcement, beg-a-thons  for your spare change or sales of Lottery tickets.

Newer trains provide electrical outlets and Wifi, not to mention nifty little hooks for a person's jacket.

Rarely any ashtrays in the arm of the chair to remind one that the vehicle is actually antique.   Or, if the train is elderly, the implications seem less dire, nothing much worse than a slower journey.

No baggage check and no waiting for unloading; it's DIY and one may choose from ground level at one end of the train car, over head and sometimes behind your seat.

Passengers are allowed whatever amounts of creams, liquids and gels they wish to carry for their beauty and refreshment; this includes picnic food  and drink to save on the cost of meals.

More flexibility in the use of tickets:  one can often just take the next train available going to one's destination (though one is not guaranteed a seat).

Very annoying passengers may simply be put off at the next station, causing no disruption to anyone else's time table.

No one worries if their electronic device will cause malfunctioning of critical control systems.

Some trains (ie Eurostar and Inter-City Express) are fast (sometimes faster than on a plane, what with all the security, not to mention cheaper); but I like slow trains just as well.

On sleeper trains, one may have a private compartment with two beds and a sink for less than the cost of a lung transplant.  As a rule these compartments are ingeniously designed to make full of limited space.

All this said, a twelve-hour train journey is a bit tedious.  Of course Bill booked this during the day so he could see all the sights out the window.  Jane said it would be boring, though the recent floods might be interesting.  We did remark on the irony of irrigation equipment in the midst of a flooded field, and there were patches where flood damage to the tracks caused the train to slow down or stop to let other trains pass, but on the whole the trip was fascinating.  I think Australian countryside is beautiful.  It reminded me much of eastern Oklahoma, with the wide open fields and bunches of trees, only the tree trunks were white instead of brown.

In a couple of stations (I should specify train station; in Australia, what we would call a cattle ranch is called a station), the delays were such that we were invited to step off onto the platform and stretch our legs.  The station buildings were lovely Victorian styled.  A lot of people lit up a cigarette, though later in the journey we were warned that there was a $300 fine for smoking on the train or in the train station (but perhaps it was different in Victoria than in New South Wales).  Apparently someone actually tried to smoke in one of the toilets, causing the air con system to shut down for a short while.  I'm so glad not to have that addiction anymore (not since 1980).  The place names were also quite fun:  Moss Vale, Goulburn, Yass Junction, Harden, Cootamundra, Junee, Wagga Wagga, The Rock, Henty, Culcairn, Wangaretta, Benalla.

Announcements about food were a close second to those about arrivals and destinations:  breakfast, morning tea (scones with jam and cream), lunch (including hot lunches one could order in advance, to give time for heating), afternoon tea (see morning), and hot dinners (as above) were all on offer.  Not a lettuce leaf or a tomato slice to be found, but pleasant enough food and it filled the time as well as bellies.  Prices seemed comparable with food on British trains, about the only prices we observed that didn't seem inflated.

When I look at a map of Australia I cannot believe it takes a whole 12 hours to get from Sydney to Melbourne, then again I hadn't realised it was a whole 612 miles.

Of course, one needs to mentally flip Australia upside down, to remember that the warmer part is North.  Very confusing, that.

I sat across the aisle from an older Gary Cooper look-a-like, reading his Bible; it was truly an amazing sight when he stood up (and up and up) and put on his long coat and his wide brimmed hat.  I listened to the chatter of Australian voices.  I looked over the shoulder of a woman doing a word search puzzled titled 'Workers Rights', loaned my tiny retractable tape measure from Louisiana (from Great Aunt Peggy to Aunt Rita to me) to a woman who was knitting and forgot hers.  I sewed patchwork squares the entire journey, flashing my weapons of mass destruction with great pleasure.

And...eventually...we arrived.


Anna at the Doll House said...

Hello Shelley

I think train travel is much under-rated, especially considering how comfortable modern trains are. We travelled between Edinburgh and Durham last year and decided it was the best way to see beautiful Northumberland. My only regret was that there was no dining car: I had hoped to sit at a starched white tablecloth and enjoy roast lamb and a glass of wine - but perhaps the dining car is a thing of the past.


Anonymous said...

I am such a convert to trains, I'm so weary of flights to London, the train seems so much more civilised and less stressful.

Beryl said...

Lovely post. My husband, (after over 35 years together), has finally stopped kidding me about counting the cars on those really long trains. And the sound of the train whistle on a quiet night at my Grandparents. And getting the guy on the caboose to wave back. These are great memories. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

This sounds like a delightful trip. I have taken a couple of cross country train trips on Amtrak (NYC to KC) and from western Montana to Chicago to KC. These trips are long enough to have seen small dramas develop along the way. I've been curious to know how well the wifi works on modern trains.

Anonymous said...

Your post reminded me fondly of my first and only visit to Europe, during which we used the train extensively - particularly in Switzerland. This was a beautiful way to travel, and surprisingly peaceful.

Shelley said...

Anna - Some trains do still have dining cars, but I think they are likely to be associated with first class travel, not something I know much about. Then there are the trolleys that go past and offer coffee and sandwiches, nothing much to get excited about, but better than starving.

Tabitha - Flying is quite stressful, not to mention all the messing about to get on and get off...

Beryl - Aren't some childhood memories just the best ever?

Terri - Boy, those are long haul journeys! I don't have any experience of using wifi on NHS organisation wasn't quite that advanced back then.

Journal - Yes, European trains are fantastic - and far cheaper and faster than in the UK. Bill says there are positive aspects to all the bombing Europe suffered in WWII - more space to build a new infrastructure. Ironic somehow...