FIFTY YEARS AGO, MASSIVE CUTS TO BRITAIN’S RAILWAY NETWORK saw the disappearance of stations, branch lines and 9,000 miles of right of way as cars and motorways were declared to be the way to travel in the future. Goodbye dirty, smoky trains, hello brave new world of shiny motor cars and miles of tarmac.
Trains and railways have a romantic pulse which perhaps beats with a more feeble rhythm today in the light of the realities of travelling by rail. But the emotional resonance of train travel lingers, its impact still exerting a powerful tug on our sensibilities and imagination.
The hiss of the steam engine pulling out of the station. The glow of the coal fire used to stoke the engines, and faces and fingers grimy with the soot which drifted everywhere. Small boys being led up the platform to thank the driver. Dining cars. Overnight sleepers. Pullman carriages, gleaming with marquetry and brass fittings, the dining tables stiff with white linen and heavy with silverware.
Hobos riding freight trains, sneaking into empty box-cars at night. Gladys Knight leaving on the midnight train to Georgia. The low whining of the midnight train telling Hank Williams he’s so lonesome he could cry. The long black mystery train taking away the girl Elvis loves.
Train journeys are full of possibilities. Who knows, you might meet a spy who wants you to help him escape from the police, as in The Thirty-nine Steps. Or all the other passengers on board may in a conspiracy to kill you, as in Murder on the Orient Express. You might meet a stranger on the train who draws you into a conspiracy to commit the perfect murder, as in Alfred Hitchcock’s film of Patricia Highsmith’s novel. As Paul Simon sang, everybody loves the sound of a train in the distance, the rattle of the wheels and the sound of the whistle that speak of the possibility of change, of movement, of escape from somewhere and to somewhere.
Edna St Vincent Millay was an American poet who died in 1950. She was a political activist and a campaigner for personal freedom and sexual and social autonomy, notorious or celebrated for her many love affairs. Her poem Travel is shot through with the tug of the unknown, the excitement of movement, romantic yearnings and the dreams of leaving.
The railroad track is miles away,
And the day is loud with voices speaking,
Yet there isn’t a train goes by all day
But I hear its whistle shrieking.
All night there isn’t a train goes by,
Though the night is still for sleep and dreaming,
But I see its cinders red on the sky,
And hear its engine steaming.
My heart is warm with friends I make,
And better friends I’ll not be knowing;
Yet there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take,
No matter where its going.