The incomparable glory of traveling in trains

Earlier this year, the great British columnist Peter Hitchens wrote a lovely essay for First Things titled “Why I Love Trains.” He mused that the restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic have triggered reflections on his commute between Oxford and London. “Even now, in bare modern trains systematically stripped of character and romance, there can be a glorious seclusion in a long-distance train that does not stop too much,” he observed. He went on:

The soft and distant landscape rolls by, and at any time I can look up and see a familiar hill, church, or stretch of woodland. I can name much of what I see, and have walked over a great deal of it, purposely seeking to know the land better. If I am traveling from the North of England to London, I always try to change at York, to the hourly nonstop train to the capital. The feeling of peace and irresponsibility that spreads through me as the train heaves itself out of the station is a special joy. For two hours nobody can bother me. For two hours I will not be disturbed. For two hours I will be enclosed in a warm and comfortable space, again passing through familiar towns and fields along the route so wonderfully described by Philip Larkin in “The Whitsun Weddings,” until the brakes tighten and I am in prosaic London. And it seems to me that everyone else on that train will be similarly calmed and soothed.

Of course, the accursed cell phone and the even more accursed smartphone have penetrated the seclusion. And alas, there are no more dining cars, a delight now almost completely abolished by spiteful managements, and available mainly on ridiculous super-luxury trains such as the pastiche Orient Express. Yet no restaurant meal I have ever had, including the pressed duck at the old Tour D’Argent in Paris (before it became a museum where you could eat the exhibits), has surpassed the breakfasts, lunches, teas, and dinners I have eaten in trains.

Hitchens is precisely right. The first time I ever took the train as a method of travel (with the exception of the Vancouver Skytrain, which doesn’t count) was on my post-grad Europe trip in the summer of 2006. We took the tunnel under the English Channel to visit London, Windsor Castle, and Bath; whipped through Belgium on our way to Normandy; and discovered that in the Netherlands, taking the train was as normal as driving a car back in Canada. I loved it immediately: Passing canals and windmills; fending off nosy passengers; alternating between reading and glancing up to watch the landscape drop away.

Of course, the story of Canada is inextricably tied to that of railways. It was the Canadian Pacific Railway which tied the East to the West and made a country possible. Railway builder Donald Mann was eventually knighted for his services to the Dominion. He died in 1934, but the Albertan columnist Ted Byfield—now in his nineties—told me that he saw the great man once when he was very young and Mann was very old on a streetcar in Toronto. His grandmother pointed the white-haired man out for young Ted, the railway man who had become a legend in his own time. Once, apparently, Mann was challenged to a duel by a Russian count while on a business trip to China. The count withdrew his challenge when Mann informed him that his choice of weapon would be the broad-axe, which he claimed was Canada’s national weapon.

Railways were essential travel for arriving immigrants, too. When my grandparents arrived in Halifax from the Netherlands in 1953, they promptly boarded the train to Montreal, and from there set out across the world’s second largest country to the orchards of Osoyoos a few hours outside the Fraser Valley. They had almost no money, and a kind train conductor helped them buy some groceries—something he apparently did for many fresh immigrants. They met him again decades later in Alberta, and had their photo taken with him in front of Lethbridge’s enormous Canadian Pacific steam locomotive No. 3651, a beautiful black engine that bears no resemblance to the sleek bullet trains of today. This locomotive, from the golden age of rail, exudes an air of sheer power.

Ever since my first trip to Europe, I’ve loved to take the train—although on one memorable occasion I was dissuaded. After wandering around Belgrade and topping off a tour with home-made apricot brandy with our Serbian guide in a pub packed with Tito paraphernalia, a couple of friends and I had planned to take the train from Belgrade to Budapest. It was very cheap and we could have a compartment to ourselves. This plan was aborted when we checked the online reviews, nearly all of which assured us with certainty that we would be robbed on this train. One got the impression from the reviews that there would be a polite knock followed by an announcement that it was time for our scheduled stabbing and would we please have our wallets conveniently available. It didn’t seem likely we’d get much sleep.

We took the bus.

I did take a night train once, though, from Cairo to Luxor. It was in the middle of July, and the Ramses Train Station was hot and sticky. The Watania Sleeper Train left at 7:45 PM and arrived in Luxor at 6:15 AM, during which time you could either sleep in a narrow bunk as the train cars rocked back and forth or retire to the entertainment car, which offered traditional Egyptian belly-dancing shows (which we declined.) We were sweating profusely in shorts and t-shirts and went hunting for a place to get a drink. The tuxedoed maître d appeared to be just fine as he splashed Johnny Walker Black (a perennial favourite of Middle Eastern dictators) into glasses shifting about on the polished bar. Outside the windows, miles of desert sand fell away into inky blackness. It was hypnotic if you stared at it for too long, the sand and the clacking of the rails and the motion of the train. That was before the Arab Spring, and Hosni Mubarak ruled Egypt. He’s gone now (as is his successor), but despite the chaos and the coups, you can still take the Watania Sleeper Train from Ramses Station to Luxor and be wandering the Valley of the Kings by midmorning.

In Russia I discovered that you have to be careful taking the train when you don’t speak the language. The train we took from St. Petersburg to Moscow was as comfortable as the EuroStar, but my friend and I made the mistake of waiting to book our train from Sergiyev Posad back to Moscow after a day of exploring ancient cathedrals until we were at the station. We inadvertently selected what turned out to be the cheapest option, which was both hours longer and almost spitefully uncomfortable. Whenever the locomotive screechily slowed into another station, the cars rattled back and forth on their couplers violently enough to eject you from your seat. Which wouldn’t be terrible—the seats were wooden—if the car floors were not littered with trash. A few sinister-looking fellows lit up cigarettes, and nobody stopped them. I read Pushkin and watched the dilapidated houses and thousands of black, mast-like, leafless trees thrusting through the white drifts skyward slip past. You can’t get that on a plane.

If you travel, try to take the train. Keep your smartphone in your pocket and watch people at the stations as the train doors open like mouths and vomit people out onto the platforms with their briefcases and hats and umbrellas and then swallow up the next crowd, straining to get on. Try to get a window seat, and watch for the things you’ll never see from the street: The abandoned, rusting railway yards; the clothing-festooned back balconies of old tenement housing complexes; the graffiti in the tunnels; the back alleys that seem dimly lit and oddly inviting in the middle of the day. Watch for the children who are watching for the trains to whip past; the old folks who have seen so many thousands of them pound past that they don’t even notice; the ponds filled with waterfowl.

If you do, you’ll find yourself loving trains, too.

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