There are two conflicting images of train travel. The first is of a train journey as romance, an unhurried and meandering trip through exotic lands—a luxurious ride eastward on the Orient Express, the slow epic of the steppes from a Trans-Siberian window, the freedom of rooftop riders in India. The other is of the daily commute: monotonous, stressful and soul-destroying. Think of the crush of the Tokyo Subway, the delays and inefficiencies of British Rail, the suburban professional's long, tired ride to retirement.
My daily ride to work is a combination of the two, having little of the romance of the earlier and all of the inconveniences of the later. My office is located in the commuter belt between London and one of its many airports, and the train I catch operates primarily as an express service for air passengers heading to and from the city. Nothing makes you feel like you are always travelling, while never going anywhere, quite like a daily commute shared with returning holidaymakers and excited visitors. Navigating their wheelie-luggage and watching them struggle with the door switch, I am torn between the annoyance of an aggrieved local (Push the button next to the door! They have buttons in Barcelona, don't they?) and deep jealousy (I wish I was in Barcelona.). I guess I should be thankful. The food vendors have it worse. They spend their days pushing carts the length of a train that is itself bouncing between two terminals. That is travel without romance, work as a commute. And they probably have to take the train home after their shift.
In the forty minutes the trip affords, I tend to read the paper, listen to my ipod and, when an issue is approaching, work on Cha. Or I just sit and watch the scenery go by. At moments like these when I find myself staring blankly at the fields and housing complexes, I wonder if I should put my commute to more productive use—maybe learn to knit or study for a realtor's licence or something. For those set on self-improvement, the train has obvious advantages over other forms of travel. Unlike driving, your attention is free; unlike the bus, you have space, maybe even a table. Come to think of it...time, open attention, a table...these conditions are perfect for one activity in particular: writing. Perhaps I could write a train novel, a successor to Strangers on a Train or Murder on the Orient Express. I could follow the lead of others who have written on the rails—Langston Hughes, who penned "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" on a ride from Mexico or those Japanese school girls who thumb out entire cell phone novels on the subway. I could find stories in the seats, inspiration in the scenery, rhythm in the swaying of the carriage. I wouldn't even mind the delays—they would give me time to finish difficult passages. Let my train be a train of thoughts; thoughts I would follow along entire networks of imagination, changing at junctions, making connections, before terminating in the great commuter novel.
A romance. At least in my case. I think, for the time being, I will settle for the occasional working commute, remind myself that even if I am not writing the great train novel, much of this journal has been the product of time spent travelling to and from work. I have managed to type out a few editorials on my daily journey, found rhythm in the rails and inspiration out the window. I found inspiration out the window—a good reminder that not every moment should be spent in productive activity or electronic distraction. Through the glass, I have seen much which is beautiful and dramatic: flooding tracks, snow covered fields, hunting foxes. There is romance in our commutes, if we just take time to look.
Cha Number 10 with services to stations in Asia and beyond has now boarded. Enjoy the trip.
Jeff Zroback / Co-editor
25 February, 2010
Read Tammy Ho's train poem "Inside the Train" here.