July 21, 2016

Horse 2137 - Ten Things I Like: No.1 - I Like Trains


With the exception of The Producers by Mel Brooks, there has never been a more happy and delightful piece of culture about the Nazis than Rogers and Hammerstein's The Sound Of Music. The song My Favourite Things, takes place during a storm in which some of the smaller children of the Von Trapp family are scared. Sure it's a lovely song but clearly Rogers and or Hammerstein, which ever was responsible for penning the lyrics, was only concerned about the meter of the music because no sane individual would eat "schnitzel and noodles" together - it's dangerous, don't do it, stay safe.

As someone who has the musical ability of a distressed sheep who is stuck waist deep in a muddy bog and who bleats horribly, I thought I'd run through my own list of Ten Favourite Things. Admittedly, this sounds suspiciously like an episode of the Oprah Winfrey Show but unlike Ms Winfrey, I'm not going to give away cakes, computer tablets or motor cars.

No.1 - I Like Trains

Even as a small child, going on a car ride was fun, going on a bus ride was amusing and going on a plane ride was one of those exceptionally rare things which almost never happened; going on a train ride, even if it was only a short distance, was, is and I suspect always will be, its own kind of specialness. In the grand argument of  planes, trains and automobiles, trains wins every single time.

It all begins at the beginning (a very good place to start) when you arrive at the railway station. If not last century then certainly the one before, railway stations either became the sign that a place had achieved notability or the railway station itself would spawn a place. Before the widespread ownership of the motor car, railways were the only way that the masses travelled anywhere.
It didn't matter if the railway station in question was some towering cathedral or if it was just some raised platform in the middle of nowhere with a signpost on, railway stations are a place of permanency in a world and many people's lives; both of which are subject to change. Especially for larger railway stations which apart from the town hall might be the only building in town with a clock tower, they are the keepers and clergy to god of industry and their bells cry out a call to the cruel doctrine of time watching. Unlike a church, even though railway stations might be a vast shared public space, they don't really foster any sense of community. A cathedral or church building is a place where people come together, a railway station is a place which is solely devoted to going away from.

It is this sense of going that I like. Going on, on and ever on; pausing momentarily before once again going on, on and ever on. Unlike being in a car which almost always seems like some sort of competition in which you have to defend your own space, or an aeroplane in which the world slowly turns underneath you and in the case of international travel across oceans is just a peek into an inky void, travelling on a train allows the scenery to parade in front of you. Even the daily motion of forth and back, as though you were a saw blade moving across a piece of wood in the same groove, presents the world as a moving picture which is bordered by the edge of the window like a picture frame.
As a commuter, because you do pass by the same scenery every single day, you begin to notice even small changes. There are obvious things like upgrades to railway stations in Sydney at the moment but little things like the change of billboards becomes noticeable. I've even noticed when graffiti tags have been painted over - like when "Soup" disappeared and "Fazz" appeared all the way from Stanmore to Redfern.
As the world goes by the window, there is a real sense of travelling without moving. On a commuter train where you don't see the drivers, it's easy to forget that they're there at all. On a train which is travelling far greater distances, you can settle in for the journey in exactly the same way that you can't when travelling on an aeroplane. I've only been on a train with a private berth once and that was like having your own office for the evening; right down to the frosted glass light fixtures.

I also like that strange sense that a train is a shared space but one in which people more or less cease to be. I've probably seen three distinct changes in technology in my lifetime, when everybody all read the newspaper, to when everybody had walkmans, to now when everybody has smart phones and tablets. There is an active effort by practically everybody on board to mentally escape the space that they find themselves in and if they can't do that, then to fall asleep and try to physically do so as well.
This all sounds incredibly antisocial but I think that something different is going on. The term antisocial usually implies an impolite intrusion into the space of other people but on a train, there is an almost universal retreat to avoid other people's space. The weird thing about having a place full of people who are all either listening to their devices, or trying to sleep is that it means that although a train carriage might have as many as one hundred and twenty people on board, it will still be quieter than a room with two six year old children in it. This means that a train can be a place to work, to think, to write and to sleep.
Of course, overnight sleeper carriages with private berths are specifically designed so that the travellers can go to sleep but they come with a different sort of sociability. They come with the same sort of politeness that you get in a hostel, where people form acquaintances for a short period of time and might not see each other ever again.

I can't finish this ramble without mentioning the train itself. The days of steam locomotives had already passed long into antiquity before I was born and so I'm going to discount them entirely but I still think that there's an aesthetic beauty about railway trains.
The London Underground was the first to realise that tying the corporate design language together made for something which was greater than the sum of its components and it took deliberate steps to make things look like they were part of the Underground. Beck's map which shows all of the lines and stations as a schematic diagram has been copied the world over and I think that it qualifies as a piece of art in its own right. Sydney Trains has suffered due to changes in corporate design language as governments come and go but the silver trains that we have in Sydney, still evoke a feeling of modernity, in contrast to some stations which are fifty, sixty and ninety years old. I even feel a tinge of sadness that the Northern Line on the Sydney Trains map has been forcibly changed to red because internal management has thrown it's lot in with the Western Line.
I like the fact that Museum and St James stations have been restored to dignity and I like that roundels have been out put back in Town Hall station. I like the stark futurism of stations like Quakers Hill which in no way whatsoever attempts to blend in with the local surroundings. I like the details on the bottom of awnings at places like Strathfield and Summer Hill and I like the desperate calm of MacDonaldtown, as virtually every train whizzes by at speeds of triple digits.

In a list of ten favourite things, trains were always going to be on it. I suspect that of the hundreds of thousands of people who take a commuter train to work and home every day in this city, that I must be one of an exceptionally rare breed who actually likes the journey because I like trains.

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