Trains Archive

On the night train

In a fond and funny piece in The New Yorker, Anthony Lane, who took to the rails just before the global lockdown, celebrates the enduring romance of the sleeper:

Although it is unlikely, as you clatter through the night, that anything of note will befall you, the prospect that it could feels ever present, just out of sight beyond the next curve of the track. To remain awake to that possibility, even as we’re meant to be sleeping, is the privilege that beckons some of us back, year after year, to this awkward and beguiling locomotion.

Songs for rattling on the rails

“Música original patagónica” on La Trochita — the Old Patagonian Express — in Argentina. © MICHAEL KERR

The venue for next weekend’s BBC Six Music Festival in London is the Roundhouse in Camden Town, which, before it offered a stage to everyone from Pink Floyd to David Bowie, was an engine shed for the London & North Western Railway. That’s what prompted Guy Garvey to go for a train theme on his show for Six Radio yesterday, drawing on music from artists from Oscar Peterson (Night Train) to Vashti Bunyan (Train Song), by way of Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys (Ben Dewberry’s Final Run).

  Many of his selections were new to me, and they prompted me to dig out a playlist I compiled myself, including a few suggestions from colleagues, when I published my first anthology of train journeys, Last  Call for the Dining Car, in 2009. That playlist is no longer accessible online, so I’ve made a new one on Spotify, adding a few songs I’ve come across since or couldn’t access first time around.

  Railroad lines and trains in the United States figure often, though Crosby, Stills & Nash (Marrakesh Express), Little Feat (New Delhi Freight Train) and Rickie Lee Jones (Woody and Dutch on the Slow Train to Peking) do range a bit farther afield. Then there’s Robyn Hitchcock’s I Often Dream of Trains, which couldn’t be more British: “I dream of them constantly, heading for Paradise… or Basingstoke, or Reading.”

  Two songs on the playlist are from what you might call travelin’ albums. One of those albums is Shine A Light, for which Billy Bragg and Joe Henry recorded on the move — on trains, on platforms and in old station halls. Their version of Rock Island Line*, for example, was recorded in the Great Hall at Union Station in Chicago; Waiting for a Train comes from Room 414 in the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio. Jimmie Rodgers, “the Singing Brakeman”, who is most closely associated with the song, set up home at the Gunter in 1930. Six years later, Robert Johnson made his first recordings there — in Room 414. 

  The other album is from Laura Cantrell: Trains and Boats and Planes. A celebration of life on the road? Not entirely: Big Wheel spells out the demands of the peripatetic life; several songs, including the title track (by Burt Bacharach and Hal David), are about the pain of separation; on Train of Life she’s “tired of sittin’ on the side track watchin’ the main line run”.

*Bragg presented an excellent programme for BBC Four, Rock Island Line: The Song That Made Britain Rock. First screened in April last year, it’s now available again for a while on the BBC iPlayer.

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.