On trains

May 4, 2014 § Leave a comment

I’ve been travelling by train for work – to the far north of Scotland, back to London, to Lausanne in Switzerland and back again, to Glasgow, and back.

In the last month, trains have given me some of my longest uninterrupted stretches of work, some of my best opportunities to people-watch, my longest conversations with strangers, and my closest proximity to them while asleep.

Lots of people who write about trains, and those who love them, say they promote thought. For me, this is connected to the physical way that scenery seems to move past as you sit on a train: it is a bit like the way I think.  My thinking is often visual, and if I’m contemplating, for example, ‘life’, or ‘the past’, it is sometimes composed of images running by, often linear, sometimes very fast, sometimes slow, sometimes repeating. I suppose this is the opposite of lateral thinking (oh dear).

London to Edinburgh

I must upgrade to first class, for complex purposes. It is hard. They do not want to let me. They do not take Amex. It’s late, nearly midnight, and Euston station is squalid and sad. I want to leave; we do. My dress hangs close to me like a sentinel.

In the morning, though, I open the blind to find a bright, calm world outside. We’re in Carstairs, waiting, and there is gold in the rifts between the clouds.

Edinburgh to Inverness

Past the airport. At the edge, near the railway track, is an old abandoned plane. Broken planes are a rare sight, and it’s disconcerting. One of its wing-tips touches the grass, as though tired of flight. We pass over a long, high bridge before Kircaldy, and can look over the edge into gardens, and a walled churchyard. The gravestones are laid out like chess pieces during a game.

The landscape: watery, industrial.

There is a young Goth/skater couple opposite. Each eats a green apple. They look happy. Now both are listening to music that spills, in whispery clashes, from their headphones. It’s very fast, with plenty of shouting and drumming. The girl is drinking a big black can of Extreme Energy. I try hard to imagine what’s going on in their brains.

Picture from moving train, failing to capture movement.

Picture from moving train, failing to capture movement.

Sometimes the landscape looks black-and-white, sometimes bleak. Two horses run across a field.

The woman opposite me is listening to something that makes her laugh audibly; she tries to cover her mouth with a scarf. Next to me, a woman orders a coffee every time the trolley comes by. She is reading a book called The Hills Is Lonely.

And on

Changing trains at Inverness, towards Thurso. A man called John is opposite me, reading a novel in French. He’s been visiting his son in the west of Scotland, and often travels this line. Once he knows I’m a journalist, he tells me the back-story to everything that we see or pass near.

We reach Georgemas Junction, go on, return to it, like déjà vu, continue in a slightly different direction. It’s the only time I’ve been to a station twice in the same train journey.

Sometimes, the line hugs the beach, and the sand and grass are both pale gold, like the clouds this morning, so many miles down the track.

London to Lausanne

The Eurostar is delayed, and my connection in Paris jeopardised. Though I make it easily – across Paris on the RER, a double-decker underground; I had forgotten how shocking the poverty in Paris can be, and how it seems to concentrate on the Metro – I can’t shake the feeling of worry. The train from Paris to Lausanne is packed; it must be a popular route. At some point, the house-roofs change, and we are in Switzerland. Lausanne is a boring city on a pink lake; or maybe it’s just my mood. The magnolia trees are flowering, so profusely it’s almost too much – like being offered ice cream cones by a thousand eager hands.

Lausanne lake

Lausanne to London

Again, I’m worried about missing the train, and, rushing, make it from my room to my seat in less than ten minutes. With planes the agony is more long-drawn-out. You know it’s still on the ground, but will they let you through? How many queues and X-ray machines are left to navigate? But with trains, the station clock is still the only arbiter. If you can jump aboard with 30 seconds to spare, you’ll make it home for dinner.

To Glasgow, and back.

I spend two out of three nights away on the train. Both times, the whole cabin is mine, and now I know the drill. Request tea, which will be brought in the morning, along with a biscuit like a reward. The train will lurch in the night; the rails will scream. Keep yourself asleep by an effort of will. There will be aspects of discomfort, and aspects of luxury. Embrace them.

In the morning, you may emerge from your hot, close cabin to find the windows open and the morning rushing through. Outside is London. It is spring, and the trees near the line, even the weeds, look joyful. You have been carried all night like a child driven back from a holiday, and you are home.


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