It’s been a very long time since I travelled anywhere by train. Well, that’s not entirely true, my daily commute to work is via train but I’d hardly consider that “travel” more like the regular bane of my existence.

Back when I was around eight or nine I remember catching the train with my family from Adelaide to Melbourne once. “The Overland” it was called. We only travelled on it one-way for some reason, not that that’s important, just strange.

The journey was long, or it seemed to be for a nine year old anyway. Cramped coach seats covered in an itchy material accompanied by a gloriously pungent musty adore. The novelty of a rail journey was soon lost on my child-self who, at this point, had been on a plane many times. The train felt boring and antiquated. It continued along for a time that seemed never-ending, each hour lasting longer than its predecessor.

Getting off there was nothing particularly magical about the trip that compelled me to beg for a return to the medium. Or rather, if there was, it was in the beginning and I must have forgotten it in the infinitesimal slew of hours that followed. Tired and grumpy through lack of sleep, my brother, sister and I can’t have been a pleasant set of children to wrangle at that point I would imagine.

It goes almost without saying that since then my primary form of long-distance travel has, like most I’d imagine, been via air. Quick, direct and with minimal fuss – excluding the grizzles and grumbles associated with actually getting onto a plane that is – those hulking metal flying contraptions are by far the most efficient means of getting from A to B.

There’s nothing romantic about a plane journey in today’s world though. We all take them, they’re a regular part of life as a working adult. And that’s fine. The fast-paced lifestyles we live no longer make taking to the skies in your Sunday best the rare opportunity it once was and is now as routine as a ride on a bus that just happens to have wings. Charmless.

Which brings me to today. On a plane ironically flying from New York to Las Vegas wishing that I wasn’t. It’s not that the plane ride is unpleasant, sure it’s been a little bumpy and it’s full of people whom seems to think “carry-on” means you can bring a small closet, it’s that in comparison to my travel a couple of weeks ago it feels… soulless.

Two weeks ago I did something different, something I thought I’d never do again and no doubt something you’ve figured out yourself by now, I caught a train.

The Coast Starlight would be my vessel. It’s service from Los Angeles to Seattle spent the majority of its journey kissing the Pacific Ocean whilst also venturing inland to admire sights such as the peaks of the Cascade Range and the forests of Washington and Oregon state.

Visual furnishings aside the view from my carriage window was far from the definitive reasonings behind the romanticisms of the journey. In fact even before the train began to move I had already enjoyed one of the many advantages a train ride entailed. I got on. No queuing by row number to then queue again, no endless looping through security points as a newly found piece of metal forces another go on the metal-detector-merry-go-round. The entire boarding process nothing more than a walk through a station, printed ticket in hand, and just stepping on. What a beautifully simple pleasure.

Once on board it was not unlike being in a Wes Anderson film. I was ushered to my room by the car’s attendant “Ramon”. A well-groomed, crisply uniformed Columbian man in his mid 40’s he’d been working the trains for nearly twenty years. He took an exceptional amount of pride in his work, something you sensed had only grown with each year of service like a ranking stripe on the shoulders of a uniformed soldier.

My cabin was a small room designed to hold two people of a highly acquainted nature you’d hope. Decadence had allowed me the fortune of securing the room to myself and the peacefulness of solitude between announcements and meals. Two deep blue reclining seats facing one another a mere foot apart with an overhead single bunk the immediate eye catching features of my new little world. Motifs of yesteryear’s luxuries adorned the finer details, a beige coloured control panel featuring call button, lighting controls & directional air conditioning nozzles, a fold-down rubber cladded foot rest and push button controls to allow manual seat adjustment to name a few.

Sectioned off and left with the world rushing past in an almighty blur you were only reminded of your place with the announcement of meals to come followed by the gentle tap, tap, tap on your compartment door as bookings made for them.

“Will you be dining in the Parlour Car or the Restaurant Car this evening Sir?” they would ask. “We have openings starting at 5:00 then 5:30, 6:00…” The seemingly absurd starting times revealing themselves at a later date to cater for their majority of fare going passengers’ demographic.

It was whilst dining though that the true charm of travel by rail had its candle relit for me. Dining was communal. Four to a table they were required to be filled in order to service the full trainload making the journey. The idea didn’t thrill me at first but after the second meal it had won me over.

Each dining experience was a chance to engage with another set of the train’s characters. Two elderly ladies travelling on their way to catch a cruise to Alaska, one a now retired child psychologist, the board chairmen for a foundation she’d started in her working years. The other her former assistant many years ago who went on to become the CEO of one of America’s largest food manufacturers. An environmental engineer who refused to travel by plane, not for fear of flying but instead in protest of the irresponsibly regulated carbon emissions flying produced. The irony then of a eating my next meal with a man who was responsible for the production of precision machined aircraft parts in Mexico who’s only reason for using the train was to break the monotony of his weekly flight between factory and home. A doting father, his daughter following his footsteps into real estate yet forced to deal with the reality she’d spent the past ten years living with her mother across the other side of the country. And many more.

It could, at times, feel as though your own story was on repeat slightly and you became very good at knowing which parts would be of most interest to newcomers. Next meal, new faces, re-introduce your life, repeat. But the repetition was very minimal, the conversation in each case very quickly forging its own path into different and interesting areas.

These people very quickly became your travel companions. The train turning into a small town of sorts, each carriage a different store with its workers and patrons. As the journey went on and you saw familiar faces making you smile as you returned their wave or tipped your head in acknowledgement of one another. New friends made if only for what would be the next day.

What was ultimately a very small experience on a much grander vacation it was one that clearly left an impression. My perspective of course very possibly warped due to the fact I was on a holiday not concerned with the possibility of delay or the length of time to get to the final destination but then neither were any of my other companions.

Will I be taking another train journey. Most definitely. Am I about to book the next five years of holidays on a train. Probably not. It was a great experience probably in part because it was so unexpected to be so and at just on two days the novelty didn’t have time to wear off. I’m interested to see if the experience would be the same on an further extended trip or if perhaps the Lord of the Flies effect may come into play spending time in close quarters with such a myriad of personalities.

An experiment and journey to look forward to.

 

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