Trains and boats and planes

Hal David’s and Burt Bacharach’s 1960s song has been recorded by many performers including Dionne Warwick and Billy J Kramer:

Trains and boats and planes are passing by
They mean a trip to Paris or Rome
To someone else but not for me

I have never been much of a fan of boats – I get seasick too easily – and although I have flown quite a few miles in them, I don’t like planes much, either, with their inconvenient schedules and the hundreds of hours waiting in lounges for the things to get going.

Trains, on the other hand, are tremendous.

There are many spectacular rail journeys I have yet to enjoy – crossing Canada from East to West on the Canadian Rockies Discovery, joining the Orient Express in Bangkok and getting off in Singapore, exploring Central Australia aboard The Ghan – and many more. 

But I have enjoyed many train trips to Paris (although not to Rome) and many smaller and perhaps less luxurious train journeys all over the world: the Flåmsbana in Norway, the Indian Pacific in Australia, the Amtrak train from Albuquerque to Los Angeles, and the incredibly scenic rail journey winding up through the India’s Western Ghats from Kollam to Kattarakkara to Madurai. 

There was one journey – I cannot remember if it was in Cambodia or Lao – where we were waiting for our train when a small motorised platform chugged into the station.  People got off the “train”, pulled the platform and the engine from the wheels, relocate the entire contraption on another line, and then chugged off in the opposite direction.  I do not know why I don’t have photographs of this amazing Heath Robinson incident.

On-board pleasures

I like street food and I like the food railway vendors offer – from the incredibly strong maté tea poured for travellers heading for Corrientes in northern Argentina or the yummy thali (lentils, rice, vegetable curry, roti, yoghurt and pickles) served on trains in India, but I did not enjoy the soggy fried eggs served on the Bangkok – Chiang Mai sleeper on my very first visit years ago.

Enjoying fine dining on board a train, watching the passing scenery, enjoying a glass or two of wine and then toddling off to a comfortable bed for a good night’s sleep is perhaps the pinnacle of enjoyment for me.  I’m pretty easy to please … 

Coming back to your cabin and finding that the attendants have folded down your bed from its hiding hole in the wall, with fresh crisp linen ready to welcome your tired body, is one of life’s joys.

Sleeping compartment, Indian Pacific train Australia (*)

In Gran Class on Japan’s shinkansens stewards serve customers with lovely little bento boxes of food and keep the sparkling wine flowing.  On so many European trains the restaurant car is the social hub with people eating, chatting, enjoying a meal or a glass of wine knowing that sooner or later the train will deliver them to the heart of the city they are heading for, instead of being dropped at an airport forty or sixty kilometres from the CBD.

Pride of Africa Club Car

Aboard a train, passengers can choose to be sociable in the restaurant car or in the Club car, or to maintain their privacy in their cabin. 

Privacy is relative, of course.  On most of my journeys I have had a private cabin, but on one overnight journey from Chiang Mai to Bangkok I had a double cabin with another man in the other berth … and that cabin suddenly had a doorway opening into the next-door cabin where the rest of the man’s family was accommodated.  My “private” room suddenly seemed like a night in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar when the weekly gold specials were being promoted.

Watching the world go by

On a boat you see plenty of waves and perhaps a seagull or two.  In a plane you see lots of clouds and perhaps, if the sky is clear, the Google-map of terrain below you.  (A year or two ago I flew from Toronto to Montreal at sunset, with spectacular views of the waterways and Lake Ontario below me – quite magical!)  On a train there is a non-stop panorama of goodies – and not so goodies. 

I remember waking up on my train from Cairo to Aswan, opening my cabin curtains to see a farmer using an ancient shadoof to lift water from the river into his irrigation canals.  It was like a scene from the Bible – or from JH Breasted’s Ancient History tome that was the thing of nightmares to me as a Year 12 student.  But the night before I had also seen an armoured train full of prisoners – suspected terrorists – being driven off somewhere into the desert.

South Africa – township

In South Africa there are several excellent long-distance trains, but the scenery is quite varied – with vineyards and superb countryside – but also scenes of great poverty such as the many “townships” and the sad slums under railway bridges outside Cape Town and Johannesburg.

Flåm Railway

Norway’s Flåm Railway is an engineering delight as it winds and twists and goes through hair-pin tunnels from Flåm at sea level up to Myrdal at 866 metres above sea level in only twenty kilometres or so.  Arriving at the starting point, however, involved a train ride from Bergen to Voss, a bus ride from there to Gudvangen through ever-deeper snow and ice, and a two-hour cruise through icy fjords, with seagulls looping overhead and porpoises gallooping after the ferry.

Night train to Otaru, Japan

The winter train from Japan’s Sapporo to Otaru carves its way through deep snow-covered fields with scarlet Torii gates suddenly popping up through the white winter landscape, and at night time, the train stops at several small stations en route where the image of dim lights, snow-covered tracks and pinpricks of red somehow reminded me of scenes from Doctor Zhivago.

People, too, are part of the fun of the varied “landscape” of rail travel.

Passengers waiting at Tel Aviv’s Ha’Hagana station
Old man, Taipei station
Man in a Hat – Tokyo Subway

I’ve yet to meet Hercule Poirot or Princess Dragomiroff on any train, but I have come across young men and women deeply engrossed in their novels or their manga comic books, drunks peeing out of windows, old men scratching their fleas on the steps of the railway waiting rooms, old women delousing each other’s hair on the platform at Ayutthaya, and I have endured countless hours of young Javanese kids belting out karaoke songs as I tried to sleep on the night train from Jakarta to Surabaya.

Man in an orange turban, Kishangarh
Manga Man
Schoolboy running by train in Ajmer, India

In India and Sri Lanka kids in their school-best clothes running or cycling along dusty roads by the train tracks have waved at me and smiled, and in Argentina kids have pelted stones against my carriage windows – fortunately covered with heavy mesh. 

On a train from Ouagadougou to Bobo Dioulasso in West Africa’s Burkina Faso I was the only white face in a sea of black faces and the vendors on every station platform clamoured for me to buy their refreshments.

Wherever we stopped hordes of kids and adults besieged us, trying to sell onions, bread – French-style baguettes as well as the bright yellow local variety – garlic, green peppers, peanuts, packets of small cakes, and the inevitable plastic bags of water or ginger beer.  Brochette sellers offered skewers of char-grilled chicken, mutton, beef or offal, as well as whole roast chickens.  As I was the only white person aboard the kids called out to me:

  • Hey! Blanc! Where you go?

I got a few smiles by calling back:

  • Allô! Et vous?  Ou allez-vous, Noirs?

People carried huge loads on their heads:  water jars, building materials, trays of fruit and household goods. I watched one child balance a tray of oranges as he bent down to pick up a box that had fallen off the top of a pile of empty cartons he was dragging, for some reason, along the dusty road.

Railway architecture

Bobo Dioulasso station, Burkina Faso

Burkina Faso had some striking examples of local architectural styles at its railway stations – more Lawrence of Arabia than Isambard Kingdom Brunel – but then there are places like Turkey’s Haydarpaşa station (below) in Istanbul where the European Oriental Express used to terminate – with or without Hercule Poirot and a slew of dead bodies.

Haydarpaşa station

In Thailand, the 1920s Hua Hin station (featured image, left)was opened primarily to allow King Rama VI to welcome his guests to the seaside town and location of one of the royal palaces he created. 

Busselton Pier and train

Dating back to 1864, long before Hua Hin became a popular destination for royal and non-royal Thais, is Western Australia’s Busselton Pier, site of one of the world’s shortest train journeys.  The pier is just under two kilometres long – but is the longest timber-piled jetty in the southern hemisphere.  A pretty little toy train shudders along the piers to ferry anglers and visitors from the terminal to the far end where they can toss a line into the sea.

Union Station, Los Angeles (*)

The USA is often criticised for many things but one thing it does do very well is railway stations.  I have visited Washington’s Union Station and New York’s Grand Central, and after leaving Albuquerque’s pretty Mission Revival style station I reached the rather grand Union Station (above) in Los Angeles.  Europe also designs and builds great railway stations.  Brunel’s original designs for London Paddington – the first “real cathedral of the railway age” (1) was a spectacle of glass and steel, and certain aspects of Milan’s central station (below) look like images from a Gotham City movie set.

Where’s Batman? Milano station

The perils of rail travel

Yes – I love travelling and exploring by train – but occasionally things don’t go quite the way you had planned.

  • I wanted to go by train from New Delhi to Agra and managed to board the wrong train and headed in the opposite direction 
  • I travelled from Zagreb on the way to Budapest in 2014 but was turned back at the Croatian / Hungarian border because I did not have a valid visa.  With burly (and aren’t they always so?) border guards standing with hands on their Uzis or AK47s and glooming at me with their beady eyes (and aren’t they always so?) – I was eventually shunted onto a train going back to Zagreb to go through the process of applying for a scrap of paper that would allow me to enter Hungary and also spend a few days in the delightfully named town of Székesfehérvár 
Person on tracks
  • In the UK train delays are infamous in autumn because of “leaves on the rails”.  Surely someone could invent a blower or a scraper to remove dead leaves?  In Germany my train was delayed for an hour because of a fallen tree on the rails and in Japan I noticed that there was a delayed train because there was a body on the rails:  seppuku by train?
  • In 1970, my first year of teaching, a colleague and I travelled by the infamous Queensland rattler the Sunlander – fortunately discontinued in 2014.  In many ways the lovely old wooden carriages with their neatly framed sepia prints on the wall and the ceramic hand basins were a treat, but they were not much of a defence against Tropical Cyclone Ada that hit the Whitsunday coast killing fourteen people, and causing ten million dollars of damage just as we were trying to go to work
  • I realise, of course, that these are trivial incidents compared to those who have lost their lives in the many train accidents that have occurred world-wide.  Rail travel is, on the whole, a great way to go as the greatest cause of travelling death is the motorcycle, with 212 deaths per billion passenger miles, compared to 7 deaths in cars and just 0.6 deaths on trains. (2)

All aboard!

Aboard an ocean liner there is the final plaintiff screech of the horns as the ship is about to depart.  A train porter will call “All aboard!”, blow his whistle and the mighty leviathan will slowly puff and chugg away with its passengers looking for the next exciting leg of heir journey.  Or more prosaically and more likely an electronic voice will tell passengers that the doors are closing and to mind the gap.  Air travel for some starts off well but for most it is another story:

  • Good morning Mr Hall.  Would you like a glass of champagne?  … or:
  • Mum!  Tell Billy to stop kicking me!   Mum!  Madeline is tugging my hair!  Mum!!  What’s this paper bag for?

I have been very lucky to enjoy travelling on some of the world’s fastest trains in Japan and Europe and have gritted my teeth as the impressively slow train from Badulla to Kandy in Sri Lanka tottered along at something slower than an old man’s walking pace – but the journey was through superb scenery and this almost compensated for the lack of speed.  I have had great meals and great sleeps on trains, where the journey has almost always been better than the arrival.

Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho sums it up very nicely:

  • Many times the wrong train took me to the right place

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Notes

  1. See www.heritagecalling.com
  2. See www.cityam.com and other sources

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Text and photographs © Christopher Hall October 2021

Los Angeles station and Indian Pacific photographs (*) photo from Internet

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In my blogs I try to present a snapshot of the places I have discovered during a brief visit.   I am not trying to present a detailed picture of the whole city or the whole region or the whole country.

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If a man ascended into heaven and gazed upon the whole workings of the universe and the beauty of the stars, the marvellous sight would give him no joy if he had to keep it to himself. And yet, if only there had been someone to describe the spectacle to, it would have filled him with delight

  • Attributed to Marcus Tullius Cicero – On Friendship

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4 thoughts on “Trains and boats and planes

  1. You MUST travel on the Rocky Mountaineer. A wonderful trip with fabulous views in every direction. Still enjoying your hallomega offerings. Our David emigrated to Washington State in March. He married a young lady he met while on a school trip back in 1997 I think it was. Did you take him there?

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  2. Hello Mary – so glad the “hallomega” bits are still reaching you! I don’t think I was in Washington in 1997 but I was there in 1999 and 2001. None of my photos show David unfortunately (Sorry!) but I have one I think I got from Bill Toppin of the two Toppin boys and their friend – Winston Someone, I think. Did David come with us on that journey and go skiing etc?

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  3. Oh what a wonderful read Chris I too love train travel but have done no where near what wonderful trips you have had Hope you are well and staying safe in these crazy time Guess we are so fortunate having the freedom we do must catch up soon

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  4. Made me recall my longest train ride: Moscow to Perm, with a few hundred silver birch trees to watch out of the window and hot, sweet tea served in glasses.

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