Train Dichotomies

April 30th, 2009 § 2 comments

“I’m sitting in the railway station, got a ticket for my destination…”

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Other than an old steamer crossing the Atlantic, trains, being much older than the road, might be the most romantic form of travel, and one that remains completely overlooked in this country, romantically and practically. European trains, with stations older than our historic buildings, live up to their myth, and each kind—overnight sleepers, cheap locals chugging through the Spanish desert, efficient bullets whipping between Berlin and Munich, excessively expensive rides through the Channel—exudes a certain stereotype of travel, each appeals to a certain class of passenger. I cling to the notion that traveling poor is the best way to see the underside of travel, as wealth is too warm and insulating. A French flight attendant, walking me through a snoring first class on a flight to Paris, laughingly told me, “it’s a different world up here!” When he brought a first class meal with silver wear and dessert, I had to admit it was. Trains, like buses, are more affordable (or ought to be), and therefore attract a different kind of traveler; most people do not pick the slowest way to their destination because they harbor romantic ideas about trains and passing scenery, but because of price.

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My six hour ride to Richmond last weekend was like a slowly unfolding ideal, it was everything a train ride or travel experience ought to be. It was a lovely, warm, sunny day in the East, and I boarded my train with a bag full of reading material, lunch, and other distractions. Enjoying my window seat I watched the cities roll slowly by, recognizing most as places I had stopped in longer than it takes to pick up or drop off passengers—Newark, Trenton, someplace in an uninspired looking Delaware, Philly, Baltimore, D.C. There is something tangible about watching the landscape pass by, and something satisfying in watching it shift and change as it passes. Trains have an idle comfort to them, rocking back and forth gently in their tracks, they almost beg you to take cat naps between stations. They require none of your effort, unlike driving, and they need no navigational help.

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My ride back to Gotham reminded me of the worst trains I experienced in Europe, such as the one that broke down in Portugal, or perhaps the sleeper with the broken bathrooms. Waiting for a train at the Staples Mill Station feels a little like waiting helplessly in the middle of nowhere, it’s almost unreal that a train bound for the metropolis will stop. Sitting on a cement wall, waiting for a late train and watching a sweltering southern day disappear, I chatted (listened to) with an eager conductor. Stepping into the train, when it finally did arrive, was like walking into a stuffy subway car packed full of people. The car was filled to the brim with children undoubtedly pumped full of sugar and disobedience, one of whom insisted on kicking me while waving with a malicious smile. She later told me about her pink bunny while I silently thanked the higher powers that had caused her to live in D.C. After the children departed, the loud and cantankerous, headed for Jersey, replaced them. The food car had been pillaged of goods long ago in the trip, making it a hungry ride to back. Night diminishes the landscape, divorcing you from the passing countryside, and with no view there is little left to do but read or sleep. Impatient to arrive, it is then that the seats become uncomfortable, and the screeching of the tracks unbearable. The train becomes not a comfortable rocking chair, but a bouncing, dirty container of stale smells. Trains, like all forms of travel, can be ideal, romantic, and educating in their way, but they can also be simply what they are; a way to get from one place to another.

§ 2 Responses to Train Dichotomies"

  • charm city refugé says:

    it was wilmington delaware and they hate being called philly.
    you’re lucky it is on the east coast where trains are reasonably reliable. i remember the broadway limited being a mere 12 hours late on an 18 trip. the lake shore limited that didn’t bother the with d.c. half of the train and made everyone take a shuttle to philadelphia where it still left six hours behind schedule. your ride is typical though trains are best when you board where the train is being made up any place else and you are doomed to stale air and empty café waggons.

    the best thing about the run – the quiet waggons.

  • a guzman says:

    Oh I remembered the name but didn’t like the look of the place, seemed rather suburban. My memories of doing the Richmond to NYC drive do not make Delaware look any better either.

    True, my mom took a train up to Oregon a while back and got stuck somewhere. The worst is having to get off the train and onto a bus…

    Getting on at the beginning of the line made a huge difference, the train coming back from Richmond had began in Miami, it was pretty filthy by the time it rolled through RVA.

    An interesting part of the ride was actually after DC, where the train changed from electric to diesel. It ran much slower through Virginia, and went right down the main street of the towns.

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