Friday, 5 December 2008

T = Trains

I grew up on a farm on the edge of the Pacific Ocean. To the east my nearest neighbours were in Chile. To the south west, the nearest town was 8 miles (I still work in miles when it comes to distances from the farm) away, and then beyond that were hills, and then snowy mountains. To the north and south, the nearest cities were about 3 hours drive away. The nearest airport was about 30 miles away. And besides, in those days air travel seemed as remote from my life as travel to the moon.

But every day, several times a day, we felt connected to the rest of the world when the trains went by. The tracks were about half a mile from our house, and we had a view up to the railway line. As we got older, we would cycle or walk or run up to the tracks, and wave to the driver. When we were learning to drive we used the rise to the train tracks for practicing hill starts, and later one of our neighbours blabbed to our mother that I had crossed a little too close to an oncoming train. There were regular freight trains and the daily passenger train. The passenger train which used to pass by when I was a teenager is now the Eastern Orient Express, running from Bangkok to Singapore. That’s a trip I would love to do one day.

To this day though, I have never been on a New Zealand passenger train. My first train trips were in Thailand as a student. Overnight third class train, hard wooden benches, lots of people, and the occasional chicken shared the carriage with us. At stations we would purchase food from vendors on the platforms, exchanging change for satay or sticky rice through the windows. We splashed out on second class travel when we went to Chiang Mai, and enjoyed the luxury of a sleeper. Waking up and looking out onto the northern Thailand countryside, steaming and misty as the day began, was magical to me, and was the beginning of my love for train travel.

Since then I have been to Chiang Mai several times since on the train, most notably with my parents. It was their first train trip too, I think. After I had retired for the night, I heard murmuring voices from my parents’ bunks across the aisle, and looked through the curtains. This is what I saw. They were sitting on the lower bunk, looking into the night behind the curtain (better to see without reflections of course), fascinated by being able to see the lives of the Thais who lived near the train tracks, cooking and eating outside. It is one of my favourite shots of my parents, perhaps because it reminds me of the wonder of travel, and gives me joy they were able to experience it.

Most recently I’ve experienced my fastest ever train trips. The first was on the TGV from Geneva to Paris, where a family sat near me and the petit garcon Jacques, about 5 years old, woke me by crying to his mother “maman, maman! Madam. elle dort!” They were going to Paris just for the day it seemed - speed has its advantages - and all were excited about the trip. The boy was most excited about seeing La Tour Eiffel, but papa was reading Rolling Stone magazine and looking forward to “mange sushi.” As we entered the outskirts of Paris, Jacques caught sight of a large power pylon, and leapt up shouting excitedly “La Tour Eiffel! La Tour Eiffel!” until a second then a third pylon came into view and he sat down disappointed and not a little embarrassed.

A few days later I travelled on the Eurostar from Paris to London, through the Chunnel. I would never fly between these two cities now. In the time it would take to get to the airport and wait to board a flight, you travel from the centre of one city to the centre of the other. Brilliant.

My most luxurious train trip was Quebec City overnight to Moncton, New Brunswick. We had booked a sleeper, and were welcomed onto the train by an attendant, shown to our cabin with the beds already made up with crisp white linen and big thick duvets. Bliss. But again, waking is the real pleasure, eating breakfast in the dining car, and seeing the countryside whizz by.

My most harrowing train experience was in India. An Indian colleague of mine was supposed to travel with me from New Delhi to Chandigarh, a few hours north, for a business meeting. But he was unable to come, and so the company in India had arranged for another gentleman to accompany me. But Indian bureaucracy stopped that. The ticket had been purchased for one person, and could not be transferred. ID must be shown, and names, gender and ages were printed on the tickets. Unfortunately my new companion was about 30 years older than my original traveller, and they would not allow him on the train. Despite our arguing and pleading, the guard remained implacable, immovable. So I boarded myself, off into the unknown. I heard later that on leaving the station, my new companion, at 72 years old, was struck by a vehicle, breaking a leg. I always think of him with guilt!

Train travel is so much more relaxing than a bus or a plane. There is more space, and it is easier to get up and walk around. I like sitting facing backwards, seeing the countryside gradually spread out before fading in the distance.

The Budapest to Vienna train took us through a frozen landscape which fascinated us. Even at the towns where we stopped, life seemed frozen, silent, deserted. The Philadelphia to New York train gave us our first sight of the city's skyscrapers from a distance, the best way to see them. On the train from Madrid, we knew we were close to Seville as we passed orange grove after orange grove. The trains in England wend their way through rolling green hills, with hedgerows and familiar looking trees, and past villages where there is always a church spire.

There are still lots of train journeys I would like to do. There is a luxury train in southern Africa which sounds wonderful, and the Orient Express of course. We might venture to Alice Springs via train one day, through the Australian Outback. If I have the stamina in the future I would be interested in the Trans-Siberian, and the trip in Canada through the Rockies to Banff and Lake Louise has been on our “list of things to do” since about 1989. I haven’t even begun to think about the possibilities in South America, or train travel in China yet, but will get there. India ... well ... I might try it again ...

As for New Zealand, we don't have a lot of passenger trains. However there is at least one trip I must do, the TranzAlpine, from the east to west coast of the South Island, through the Southern Alps. It is said to be spectacular. There's no excuse for not doing it.


  1. You've been on a lot of train journeys. I've been on a few train trips -- most notably in the UK and Europe for our honeymoon -- we had a EurailPass and it was a cheap way to spend some nights all cozied up in our compartment.

    Love that photo of your parents.

  2. This was a pleasure to read, and that is a wonderful photo of your parents. I love trains too, and riding the Orient Express is one of my dreams. My worst train trip was in China: 24 hours on a train originating in Shanghai that we boarded 4 days into its journey. People were launching themselves through the windows to board even before the train had stopped. We weren't going to get on it since it looked like there wasn't even any standing room, but the conductor shoved us into the sea of bodies. There was no room to sit, it was like being stuck on a subway during rush hour in a large city, someone had locked themselves in the bathroom since it was the only place they could sit (or squat, presumably), and there was laundry strung everywhere. There was no possibility of cutting short the misery and getting off at the next station either, since at the time a lot of China was still off limits to travellers.

  3. Each of these paragraphs seems its own short film—wonderful stories. Helen's as well.

    I love trains but have never been on one overnight...

  4. Thank you for that wonderful post!

    I too am a train lover - but I feed my passion in Canada! When are you coming over to ride the Canadian between Toronto and Vancouver?


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