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A post about how much I love trains.

Saturday, June 22, 2013 by Marianne Elliott

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There are so many things I could be writing about. About Afghanistan, mostly, and how terrifying, and depressing, it is to contemplate these ‘peace talks’ between the Afghan government and the Taliban and what they might mean for women. If you want to know more about that, you might like to listen to this radio story I did on the subject.

But I’ve just spent three weeks on the road, and – most specifically – 19 hours on a train and I want to write about that.

I love trains. If the option to travel by train exists, I’ll take it. Even if it means taking five times as long to get to where I’m going, and even when it will cost me more than it would to fly.

Why?

Because trains move through the landscape.

Unlike planes, in a train you can see when you leave the prairies and begin to climb the mountains, or slide from farmland towards industry. By the time you arrive wherever you are going, you have a sense of how you got there.

Trains also often travel different routes to the highways, giving you a peek into parts of a country or city that you can’t get any other way. I love that traveling by train often let’s me glimpse into the backside of streets and buildings.

People like to pretend they don’t want to look into other people’s backyards, just like they’re ashamed to admit how much they want to read other people’s emails (even the NSA, apparently).

But I’m not ashamed to admit it. I like looking into other people’s sections. You get a different insight into a neighbourhood from the backyards of its houses.

View from a train window of backyards

Because trains move at a pace that the human body can keep up with.

When I board a flight in Auckland, knowing that in 13 hours I’ll be in San Francisco, I can’t actually make sense of the distance I’m about to cover. Nor can my body. Planes move too fast for humans. This is why jetlag happens. That may not be an actual scientific fact, but it’s my theory and I think I’ve traveled enough to claim a certain unscientific-but-credible expertise on the subject.

When I boarded the Capitol Limited train in Chicago, on the other hand, I knew I was 19 hours away from Washington DC and that gave me a picture of how far I had to travel, on a scale I could actually understand.

We then began moving towards Washington DC at a pace that seemed just a little faster than a speed I might conceivably reach if I were riding a very fast horse. In other words, we traveled at a speed that the human body could move at in nature. This seems somehow significant to me.

View from a train window of rural landscape

Because there is something nostalgic about traveling by train.

Train travel harks back to a time before I was even born, a time I know of through novels and films. A time when the only way to get from London to Rome was by train and when travel across the US took days rather than hours.

When I was getting ready for my Chicago to DC train journey, I wanted to wear a nipped at the waist 1940’s suit with a jaunty hat. I didn’t. Comfort won out over nostalgic glamour. But when the carriage attendant came by to check on me in my private sleeper compartment, in his uniform and hat, I wished I had gone with my first instinct.

In any case, whether or not I looked like a heroine from a World War II era movie, or – even better – a Edith Wharton novel, I felt like one. And that also feels somehow significant to me.

Because trains are better suited to writing than planes or buses.

As a general rule, I don’t get motion sick on trains. Which means I can write. I’m writing this on a train. I have my laptop open on the little fold out table, my feet up on the chair opposite (don’t worry, I took off my shoes) and a view of the sun setting over trees out the window to my left. There is no wifi on this train, no built-in entertainment system, and because I booked a private sleeper ‘roomette’ there’s no-one sitting next to me who wants to chat.

I have nothing better to do than write. Which is generally what it takes to get me to write.

I finished the second draft of Zen Under Fire on several 12 hour train journeys up and down the North Island of New Zealand. I chose to travel by train each time I needed to visit my family because I knew I would get more writing done on the train than I would at home.

Laptop open in a train carriage. Writing happening.

Because trains are kinder to the planet.

This is actually more important than it’s placement in this list of reasons might suggest, but I didn’t want it to seem like I was hectoring the flyers reading this post, or bragging about my ‘eco-cred’ for riding the train. Especially since I’ll have racked up more than my fair share of frequent flyer miles by the end of this summer.

But it’s a fact: trains use a lot less energy to move people from A to B.

Assuming you don’t have the option of a solar-powered bus or a sailboat, trains are the planet-friendly way to travel. So if you love to travel as much as I do, trains are guilt-free travel treat. A bit like fair-trade chocolate, another favorite of mine.

Because train travel is less stressful (and you can take a thermos of tea)

You don’t have to go through TSA security checks, surrender your bottle of water (or wine) or show up an hour early. You generally don’t have to worry about traffic, because train stations are much closer to downtown. So – for example – I could leave my hotel in Chicago and be at the train station in 15 minutes, in plenty of time for a train that was due to leave 30 minutes later.

Remember the good old days, when you could make yourself a thermos of tea to take on the plane? Well, those days are still here for train travelers. Liquids over 100ml are good-to-go on trains. Go crazy! Bring your own green juice, if that’s your thing, or homemade soup, if you are my grandmother.

Place setting at a train dining table, with wine and linen napkin

Because you get to see Amish people.

This last reason may not apply everywhere. Actually, it may only apply in Chicago for all I know. But I saw three separate Amish families getting on the train with me. They were the first Amish families I’ve ever seen in real life. I even chatted with one of the women about her very cute baby, and she chatted back and laughed at my lame baby joke. For reasons that have a lot to do with the impact the Harrison Ford film Witness had on me in 1985, this was very exciting.

Maybe you can meet and chat with Amish people at O’Hare airport, but I get the feeling it’s less likely. So that’s another check on the ‘pro-train’ side of the balance sheet.

And if the Amish folk didn’t seal the deal for you, then I don’t know what will.

Oh, and if you pay the extra for a sleeper compartment (or convince the generous people who invited you to speak at their festival to do so) then you get to:

  • Take a shower onboard a moving train.
  • Make yourself a dinner reservation at the time of your choosing.
  • See how some clever designer resolved the challenge of making two adult-sized beds out of two seats and what looks like an over-sized baby-changing tray.
  • Pretend for a night that you are living in one of those teeny, tiny capsule apartments that apparently exist in Tokyo.*

There you have it: trains, much cooler than you realize.

You heard it hear first.**

Love,

signature_marianneS1-small

*This is especially fun when you are on the road for five months, living out of only a carry-on bag. I’m not a minimalist (I love books too much for that) but I play one sometimes on the internet. I do wear minimalist running shoes, sometimes known as barefoot running shoes, a name that makes no sense to me. How can shoes be barefoot? Barefoot means ‘without shoes’, people. Let’s be clear about that.

**Or maybe not first, for all I know trains are already the cool new thing and I’m arriving late at this party. If that’s the case then I’d like to make it known that I have been a train lover since 1989, when I took the TGV (Train a Grande Vitesse, or Very Fast Train) from Paris to Marseille. Let it be known that I was hip to trains before trains were hip.

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