By other roads

It’s easy, sometimes, to forget that train travel is still a thriving and often prevalent means of transportation. In our part of the world, the railways are used primarily for cargo, and passenger trains are sparsely scattered and infrequently used, even around sufficiently populated urban conurbations. (Competition with air and roads, increased regulations, and other conditions in the 20th century made it economically unsupportable in the US.) In places with a sufficiently consistently high population density, however, rail travel is sustainable. Not only is the infrastructure present, or merely useable, but it is often the most practical method of transportation, often the standard.

Traveling by rail, especially over long distances, affords things that other means of transport do not. Unlike driving, one does not have to be engaged in operating the vehicle; anything one does will have little impact on how quickly (or whether) the destination is reached. You’ll be sitting here for four hours regardless, hours in which you might as well catch up on work or enjoy a novel, hours in which to sleep or converse or do nothing at all.

Or, perhaps, one could look out the window.

From onboard, the train doesn’t so much cut through things as it glides past them, disparate, unaffected. Cities in grimy detail, concrete barriers covered in several layers of street art, painted facades gilded by the late afternoon sun. Cities glistening in green-blue glass and brushed metallics, modern structures like an architectural photo spread. There are ordinary towns marked by the corner-shop and dog-walkers, suburban rows that are neat and identical and silent. The countryside rises and falls. Sometimes it’s gently rolling fields, alternately saturated oddslot blocks of verdant emerald and dark tilled earth, little yellow houses scattered on the landscape. Sometimes the land begins to rise, and then there are muddy rivers, perhaps, exposed rocky outcroppings, slopes carpeted in forest. An industrial park appears for a moment, then disappears again, concealed by trees.

There are people, too, people tired and harried and impatient. (They get on the train, or off— it doesn’t matter.) They populate the platforms, waiting, hurrying, tarrying, interested, disinterested. The train coasts in, a ship to port, coming to this specific place with its specific people, its specific identity, then departs again, leaving them all behind. Things do not stop out there in the world. Things happen. People work, live, exist. But on the train, they are not states of being to which you are rooted. You are transitory, in geography and in a way even in time. It’s as if you’ve been dropped into street view; things are proceeding, lives are progressing. They are important once you are there, but you are not. You’re merely passing through; not a visitor even, but a viewer.

Terrie Chen

Writes, photographs. (Images that do not belong to T Chen should be linked to their respective sources. Please leave a note if you would like one of your images to be removed.)

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