I love travelling, especially by train. My daily commute to work is via train. Still, I’d hardly consider that “travel” more like the regular bane of my existence.
When I was a girl I used to catch the train with my family from Adelaide to Melbourne. “The Overland”, it was called. We only travelled on it one-way for some reason. The journey was long, or it seemed to be for a nine-year-old anyway. Cramped coach seats covered in an itchy material accompanied by a gloriously pungent musty adore. The novelty of a rail journey was soon lost on my child-self, who, at this point, had been on a plane many times. The train felt boring and old-fashioned. It continued along for a time that seemed never-ending, each hour lasting longer than its predecessor. Getting off there was nothing particularly magical about the trip that compelled me to beg for a return to the medium.
Plane vs Train
Nowadays, it goes almost without saying that my primary form of long-distance travel has been via air like most I’d imagine. Quick, direct and with minimal fuss. There’s nothing romantic about a plane journey in today’s world, though. The fast-paced lifestyles we live no longer make taking to the skies the rare opportunity it once was and is now as routine as a ride on a bus that just happens to have wings. Charmless.
This brings me to today. On a plane ironically flying from New York to Las Vegas wishing that I wasn’t. It’s not that the plane ride is unpleasant; sure, it’s been a little bumpy. It’s full of people who seem to think “carry-on” means you can bring a small closet; it was that compared to my travel a couple of weeks ago; it feels… soulless.
I caught a train…
Two weeks ago, I did something different, something I thought I’d never do again, and no doubt something you’ve figured out yourself by now, I caught a train. The Coast Starlight would be my vessel. From Los Angeles to Seattle, it spent most of its journey kissing the Pacific Ocean whilst also venturing inland to admire sights such as the peaks of the Cascade Range and the forests of Washington and Oregon state.
Visual furnishings aside, the view from my carriage window was far from the definitive reasonings behind the romanticism of the journey. In fact, even before the train began to move, I had already enjoyed one of the many advantages a train ride entailed. I got on. No queuing by row number to queue again, no endless looping through security points as a newly found piece of metal forces another go on the metal-detector-merry-go-round. The entire boarding process nothing more than a walk through a station, printed ticket in hand, and just stepping on. What a beautifully simple pleasure.
Once on board, it was not unlike being in a Wes Anderson film. My cabin was a small room designed to hold two people of a highly acquainted nature, you’d hope. However, decadence had allowed me the fortune of securing the room to myself and the peacefulness of solitude between announcements and meals. Two deep blue reclining seats facing one another a mere foot apart with a single overhead bunk the immediate eye-catching features of my new little world.
Sectioned off and left with the world rushing past in an almighty blur you were only reminded of your place with the announcement of meals to come followed by the gentle tap, tap, tap on your compartment door as bookings made for them.
While dining, though, the authentic charm of travel by rail had its candle relit for me. Dining was communal. Four to a table were required to be filled to service the full trainload making the journey. The idea didn’t thrill me at first, but it had won me over after the second meal. Each dining experience was a chance to engage with another set of the train’s characters.
Two elderly ladies travelling on their way to catch a cruise to Alaska, one a now-retired child psychologist, the board chairmen for a foundation she’d started in her working years. Many years ago, the other her former assistant went on to become the CEO of one of America’s largest food manufacturers. An environmental engineer refused to travel by plane, not for fear of flying but instead in protest of the irresponsibly regulated carbon emissions flying produced. The irony then of eating my next meal with a man responsible for producing precision machined aircraft parts in Mexico whose only reason for using the train was to break the monotony of his weekly flight between factory and home. A doting father, his daughter following his footsteps into real estate yet forced to deal with the reality she’d spent the past ten years living with her mother across the other side of the country. And many more.
Those Stories on the Train…
It could, at times, feel as though your own story was on repeat slightly, and you became very good at knowing which parts would be of most interest to newcomers. Next meal, new faces, re-introduce your life, repeat. But the repetition was very minimal, the conversation in each case very quickly forging its own path into different and exciting areas. These people very quickly became your travel companions. The train is turning into a small town of sorts, each carriage a different store with its workers and patrons. As the journey went on and you saw familiar faces making you smile as you returned their wave or tipped your head in acknowledgement of one another. New friends made if only for what would be the next day.
What was ultimately a minimal experience on a much grander vacation was one that clearly left an impression. Although, of course, my perspective very possibly warped because I was on holiday not concerned with the possibility of delay or the length of time to get to the final destination, then neither were any of my other companions.
Will I be taking another train journey?
Most definitely. Am I about to book the next five years of holidays on a train? Probably not. It was a great experience, perhaps partly because it was so unexpected to be so, and at just on two days, the novelty didn’t have time to wear off. I’m interested to see if the experience would be the same on a further extended trip or if perhaps the Lord of the Flies effect may come into play spending time in close quarters with such a myriad of personalities. An experiment and journey to look forward to.