The Romanticism of Train Travel
I’ve never really been much for trains. Even as a young boy I wasn’t the sort who gravitated towards model train sets. Spaceships and cars were my thing. Trains were, well, kinda boring. They ran on tracks, and just did what they were made for: chugging along in pre-determined paths. That’s not really me.
Of course, just my luck, that the first major apps I ever wrote in my software engineering career were all for trains. After building a freight logistics system for Australia’s National Railways, I spent two years riding trains around America installing sensors to track freight movements in real-time, way before the Internet of Things was even a thing. But, I still never fell in love with trains.
The more I travel, the more I realize that the journey is just as important as the destination. Today’s modern travel is designed to shorten the journey as much as possible. Airplanes fly so high and so fast that they literally leave you dizzy from the shock to your body. The cabins are pressurized and time flashes by so fast we had to invent a word simply to describe it: jet lag.
Trains on the other hand, move fast, yet allow the traveler to watch the scenery and days unfold. Sights still flash by, but the rattle of the carriage, the schink-schink of the metal wheels along the tracks, and visceral sensation of rushing wind when you pass between carriages on a long distance train, makes you part of the journey. You are forced to communicate with fellow passengers, and look forward to the stops where you can stretch your legs and, even just for a brief moment, indulge in the local culture.
Then the whistle blows, a siren song beckoning you back aboard; back towards a new destination. I board with renewed excitement. The carriages shunt forward. The lights flicker back to life. Speed increases. The journey continues. I return to my cabin, or shuffle along to the dining car where you pay double or triple for mediocre food. On long distance trains, you are not paying for the food, you’re paying for the view.
Train travel may not be as romantic as the golden ages of steam engines where men wore suits and women sheltered themselves from the sun with lace trimmed parasols. Engines no longer bellow steam and smoke like an angry dragon tamed to travel the tracks of lands unknown. Yet there is still something romantic about train travel. There is a smoldering ember of adventure, of far flung places yearning to be explored.
Finally, I am beginning to understand the appeal of trains. It’s not the train. Perhaps it was once upon a time when steam was as revolutionary and prone to breakdowns as driverless cars are now to the streets of San Francisco. Train travel lets you experience travel the way it used to be. Just for a brief moment, the train leaves the tracks and transports you back in time; back to when the journey was as much an adventure as the destination. Now that is something I can fall in love with.