The inertia of trains


In the past couple of months I have been crisscrossing the world by jet plane,  touching down in North America,  Europe and North Asia.

This morning, my wife, barely awake, mumbled “passing ships” as I got up at another 5:30 AM to go Amsterdam with a stop in Paris for a couple of meetings.
From Geneva going to Paris is as fast by train as it is by plane. Mainly because you don’t have to worry security and boarding as you do at airports. You just show up a few minutes before departure.  In Paris the train takes you to Gare de Lyon which is conveniently in the city center instead of at an airport that is miles outside the city.

I’ll admit it here and now: I love travel.  But I love travel no more than when done by train. Stress free, spacious and down to earth. The slow rocking of the cars, the rhythmic passing of the electricity poles, trees and villages will always put me in total peace of mind. That’s if I don’t nod off.

On long journeys,  I find that I get to know the strangers that I boarded the train with. A friendly nod to start with turns into neighborly respect as the hours pass. There is an unspoken code of care that we can leave our luggage and coat by our seat when we need to go to the bathroom.  Our new friends will stare strangers away, should they get near our stuff. And if the journey is long enough,  you get to talk and hear the wonderful story of their lives. Real lives are always much interesting than the ones we imagine.

France has a truly great train system with modern high speed trains that puts the entire country at the doorstep of Paris.

A couple of years ago, I visited Sri Lanka.  We had plenty of time and decided to cross the country by train. Sri Lanka,  like its noisy neighbor India has an awesome train history. It has retained a train system from the grand days. Wrought iron stations and diesel engines that look like they used to run on steam once. The stations teem with people going on big journeys. This is where trains equate life and future.

But they don’t go fast. After we left Colombo, we started a slow climb into the lush hills that precede the tea plantations.  The average speed must be around 30 km per hour.  For much of the very shaky journey,  the train track is also the highway for the locals.  People walk the tracks to the next village. Dogs lie on the warm sleepers until they cock an ear as they hear a train approach. They will yawn and stagger to their feet before ambling away. They stand by the side as the train chugs past before returning to their spot.

These trains are sloooow.  These trains are awesome!

The train to Paris is now running at close to 300 km/hour. Ten times the speed of the train in Sri Lanka.  But if these trains could wink at each other,  they would. Like an old man watching his grandson flip a skateboard.

Trains, please give me trains. Life is short enough as it is!

This train has a breakfast service. Just like the plane I was in last week on the way back from Taiwan. Except that this breakfast has fresh croissants and the train hostess is visibly proud of her job and no trace of jet lag.

Trains are now what the grandiose days of jet travel were in the sixties.



4 thoughts on “The inertia of trains

  1. I can relate a lot!! But I didn’t dare to say that loud when I was still working with colleagues who absolutely had to use the car for both stop-and-go traffic in the city (when public transport would have been better for several reasons) and for long-distance travel (or the company insisted on that as paying for train tickets is not economical if you have a company car. At a certain break-even distance the plane will trump the car). There is nothing worse than travelling several 100km by car but some people seem to love it.
    My maybe most awesome business trip was to a client in Austria’s only valley that can be accessed only via Germany, in cold any snowy December. Not interested in driving for 10 hours on Alpine roads I took the train. It took much longer, but I enjoyed it for the same reasons you described so discerningly. Trains are very Zen!

  2. Fully agree. I caught the train from Delhi to Jaisalmer, and it was a wonder-full journey. Sleeper, laying back watching the Thar Desert tick by. Shared the space with a young Indian army Captain who was returning after a year up in Kashmir. Interesting stories.

  3. Oh yeah, I adore travelling by train! I wish I could do it more often. My most memorable trip was round the USA of all places. Two week pass from East to West and back again. Stunning and kind of weird.

  4. At 15 a friend and I semi ran away from home, catching a train from Kamloops to Jasper Alberta. Hardly an epic journey yet one that will forever remain a fond memory. Never had time for rail travel on my trips to Europe (aside from drooling at the possibilities passing through magnificent stations in Paris) On our next trip to Cuba we plan to take the train from Havana to Santiago De Cuba – a 500 mile journey, provide your own coffee mug and toilet paper, be advised the train will almost certainly break down along the way. 🙂

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