Trains Archive

The novel on rails

Tim Parks, in The New York Review of Books, sees a “deep affinity between a book and a means of transport”…

But if some novels feel like supersonic flights and others like leisurely tours, there’s no doubt in my mind that the means of transport closest to the experience of written narrative is the train. On the plane, you are merely trapped in your seat and too distant from the land to have much experience of it. Aboard a steamer, you’re isolated in the monotony of the ocean. On a bus, you’re very much part of the traffic, in thrall to circumstance.

But on the train, there you are just a few feet above ground, close to the world as it dashes by, yet protected and separate from it; freed from responsibility, but invited to pay attention. Isn’t this exactly the experience of reading a book?

A triumph on the trains

In this age of high-speed rail, some will tell you that the romance has gone out of long-distance train travel. They’re wrong, as Monisha Rajesh triumphantly demonstrates in Around the World in 80 Trains (Bloomsbury). You can read my review — which appeared in print in The Daily Telegraph on Saturday — here on Deskbound Traveller.

Therapy on the rails

Matthew Engel, in the Christmas edition of The New Statesman, writes on the joys of train travel abroad and the disappointments at home:

Ten years ago, when I was writing a book about Britain’s trains, I asked a therapist friend if there might be some psychosexual explanation for the male obsession with trains. She said it was too obvious to be worth discussing. But then again it is a peculiarly British male obsession. Everywhere else, people are capable of regarding railways as simply a means of transport. For me, rail travel seems to have a deeper purpose, cheaper than therapy.

Border-crossing bard

Every day, hundreds of people take the train between Belfast and Dublin, or vice versa, and never notice they have crossed a border. Where are they heading, and why, and how will their journeys and lives be affected if that border becomes  a land frontier between the United Kingdom and Europe? Those are questions addressed by the poet Leontia Flynn in Crossing the Border, a programme for Radio 4.

Accent on the journey

A tweet yesterday from the writer Melissa Harrison pointed me to a Radio 4 programme I missed when it was first aired last month. It’s A Journey Through English, a celebration of the diversity of dialects and accents you hear as you take the longest continuous train journey in Britain: more than 600 miles from Aberdeen to Penzance. I particularly liked the contribution from a Scot who said that she had spoken English since she was a child, when “you had one tongue for the hoose, another tongue for the street, and another tongue for the school or the kirk”. It was a programme that, in more ways than one, made Britain seem a bigger place. The guard, having reeled off the 43 stations the train would call at in between, sounded as though he needed a lie-down before the journey had properly begun.

Rhythm and rails

The latest issue of Harper’s has a piece by Kevin Baker, a contributing editor of the magazine, on “The lost glories of America’s railroads”. At the moment, only subscribers can read it in full, but every visitor to the Harper’s website can see, argue with and add to Baker’s selection of “the 23 best train songs ever written – maybe”.

A few more? See the list I compiled, with suggestions from colleagues, when I published my first of two anthologies of Telegraph writing on railway journeys. Sadly, for some reason the links to the sound files on Grooveshark no longer work. Maybe it’s time I put together a new one…

And don’t forget that great poetry anthology recently edited by Sean O’Brien and Don Paterson for Faber and simply titled Train Songs.