Thursday, 25 September 2014

Travelling by train

Every weekday I travel by train. I have travelled the same line up and down, Monday through Friday, for the past 10 years. I must now be an expert in train travel.

I am an expert, but there is still more I can learn. After 10 years the danger is that you stop seeing. After 10 years you think you’ve seen everything there is to be seen.

There is always something new to be seen. A white flash of bunny-tail, the growth or fall of a tree, a new crane on the horizon, a building burning, the way the sun’s rays fall on the golf course this morning.

The people are the same people, but different. Each morning a different configuration; each evening, a different conversation.

I am an expert. I know just where to stand on the platform so that when the train stops the door is nearby. I board in an unhurried way. There will be seats, there is always a seat somewhere even if it’s on the floor. I let people board the train before me. I let people exit easily. After 10 years, there is no hurry.

I know the trains and their configuration. I know from the front of the train whether the door will be at the end of the carriage or the middle, or spread evenly at regular spaces. I know which seats will be free. I know where to sit so the persistent drip doesn’t drip on me. I know how to avoid the wobbly seat.

I like to travel on a new route, an unfamiliar branch. I like the surprise of it, the sense of taking a journey, safely, into the unknown. Arriving at a new station and learning its secrets. The basic configuration is always the same: there are platforms, there are trains, there is a ticket gate and people in neat uniforms to check the tickets and provide customer support, there is a ticket office, there are boards announcing arrivals and departures. They are the same, but different. Each has its own character.

I love the old trains, the rickety decrepit trains with windows that open (and don’t always close), an engine that rumbles and clatters. Old trains are characterful.

The new trains are slick and aerodynamic. They are all about efficiency. They are slick, but inside there is little space for people. Inside a new train, people are a nuisance.

Riding a steam engine is like riding a horse. It is personal and animal. It breathes, its flanks heave, it roars. Driving a steam engine is like breaking a horse. You must treat it tenderly and determinedly. I drove a steam engine once. It was exhilarating.

I love travelling by train. Each journey is a gift of sensory experience. There is always something to see, the vista is always changing even on a familiar journey. The trains are warm or cold, the glass of the windows either clear or hazy with condensation. The seats are comfortable, or not. You may sit or stand. Every day there are different conversations, a different yet familiar set of people. People come and go. There are birds and trees and unexpected clumps of flowers. If you’re lucky the occasional glimpse of fox or deer.

A train journey is a gift of time. You can learn, you can read. On a train, you can meditate. You can relax. On a train you’re free to dream. 

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