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Sunday, 12 January 2014

Train Travel - So Changeable...

The idea behind this blog originated from posting on another website about experiences in train travel. Offer any child, a boy in particular, a choice of transport between the car, the train or the bus, to cross the country to visit the coast, or even to see Auntie or Granny, and I would not have to tell you which of the three the boy would choose.
As a child, I found train travel very exhilarating. This could be because my father was fanatical in owning and driving a car, as in those days - late 1950s into the sixties - owning a driving a car such as the Ford Popular was something emphasising a degree of success in life. I suppose the equivalent at present is owning and driving a Lamborghini, the top-of-the-range car no owner with a couple of brain cells would leave parked out on the street.

Ford Popular of the 1950s.

I recall my own pride for Dad to have such a car parked outside our front door, when there were plenty of other front doors looking out across a vacant space on the street. But after a while, the childhood novelty began to wear off, and as we made our way to the seaside during a typical Summer Sunday, constantly overtaken by other vehicles, we passed under and over railway lines, and occasionally see a train passing by. I suppose like other boys, there was something distinctly appealing about sitting in the train. Could this appeal be enhanced by the rhythmic clickety-click of the wheels rolling over the track joints? Who knows. I could I ever forget the two week primary school trip from London Paddington to the Welsh town of Llangollen by train, around 1962? The wooden interior panelling with a side corridor in every coach, made this journey such a memorable experience - particularly before the welding of the tracks coming into being in the 1970s, making the regular, non stop of the clickety-click such a rhythmic, music-like enhancement.

Although by mid-teens, even before leaving school, I began to make weekend leisure trips to Reading and to London on my own by train. Soon I found myself travelling to destinations further away, particularly to the coast, which was, I could say, the forerunner to backpacking. It was in 1973, while a lifeguard at the baths in Reading, that I began to take train journeys more seriously, which merged with international backpacking.

It is worth bringing back reminiscences here, as I am referring to a time when the Channel Tunnel did not exist, (it was opened by the Queen and French President Mitterrand in 1994, some twenty years later) - let alone the fast Eurostar trains passing under the sea, a journey my elder niece had taken several times already. But then, born in the early 1980s, she is one of a generation which, to my mind, missed out on the complicated awkwardness of international train travel which brings such dreamy memories! Instead, my niece's generation takes travel as a commodity - a weekend flight to Florence, Rome, or Venice does not hold a candle to the two-day train journey into Italy from London Victoria Station.

I recall the years 1973-1975, the peak time of my life for international train travel. I boarded the British Rail train at the International Departure platform, which was segregated from the rest of the terminus station by special barriers and hoarding. The train then rattled non-stop to Folkstone Harbour in Kent, a smaller port than its neighbouring harbour of Dover, as the former dealt with train passengers, while the latter specialised in car and heavy goods vehicle ferries. At Folkstone, it was a matter of crossing the platform onto the quay where a ferry awaited us to board for the two-hour crossing to Bolongue, another secondary French port to neighbouring Calais, which received and dispatched ferries to and from Dover.

On the ferry, I really felt that we were leaving the British shoreline. The boat was a proper steam ship as opposed to today's catamarans, with all the facilities for a proper cruise. I revelled as I stood near the stern as the ship set sail, and watched the English coastline slowly recede towards the horizon before turning in to one of the on-board restaurants for a cappuccino and a snack. There was something very nostalgic about the gentle swaying of the whole vessel as it glided over the waves, and leaving a trail of white foam at its wake. On one occasion, several seagulls would hover just behind the ship, but keeping up with it throughout the whole crossing, their cries adding to the atmosphere of being at sea and uplifting further the sense of adventure - an experience no airline flight or Eurostar train can match.

At Bolongue, the dark grey Ferrovia di Italia train was already waiting for the arriving ferry to empty its passengers on to it. Although as far from the Italian border as it could get, short of rolling on British soil, much of this train was bound for Rome, with a couple of coaches ending its journey at Paris du Nord terminus. Unlike the rattling British Rail train left behind at Folkstone, the ride on this one was a lot smoother, all the coaches had a side corridor, and the clickety-click had a different rhythm, giving a very foreign feel. It was pulled by a diesel locomotive until it arrived at Amiens, which was the northern terminus of the overhead cables, and there the train remained stationery for up to twenty minutes as they swapped locomotives. From Amiens, trackside gantries supplied power to the locomotive all the way to Rome.

With electrification, the train travelled faster as it made its way into Paris Gare du Nord terminus, where we waited for a considerable period of time while the train was fitted with a shuttle engine at the other end, and at last, our train crept slowly along what looked like a disused line, passing through ghost stations skirting the French capital, as well as enjoying splendid views across the city, dominated by the brilliant white stonework of the Basilica di Sacre Coeur, until we finally arrived at Paris Gare de Lyon terminus, where the train stood motionless for a better part of an hour.

The frustrating wait was made more bearable by easy conversation between us as passengers, a vivid contrast to the emotionless, tight-lipped silence which always characterised English trains. When a group of Italians boarded and filled our compartment, the ongoing chatter turned our coach into something resembling a party, and that was late into the night as well. It was this kind of experience which made this sort of travel so memorial, the long waiting compensated by a sense that I was really in a foreign country, something totally absent when flying some 35,000 feet above ground.

The long wait at Gare de Lyon was rewarded by the fastest leg of the entire journey - the Paris-Dijon route, the stretch of line which became the setting for the first ever TGV service some eight years later; the world's fastest train before the Japanese caught up with their Bullet trains. It was past nightfall by the time our train pulled out of Gare de Lyon, and the fast speed in the dark was so exhilerating. But it was later in the night, after we pulled out of Chambery Station that the winding line through the Alps slowed the train down considerably, as we all tried unsuccessfully to get some sleep.

We arrived at Modane just before daybreak, and this station served a town at the mouth of the Mont Cenis tunnel, a border pass under the Alps several miles long. At Modane the train remained motionless for again, a better part of an hour, as passport and ticket checks were carried out on board. When the train at last started to move, it shunted into this long tunnel under thousands of tons of solid rock to emerge at the other end in Italy at dawn, and the train pulled in at Bardonecchia station, the first in Italy and with a characteristic so different to the French stations we stopped at.

It is this style of station which reminded me at the time of international travel - the Mont Cenis Pass providing access to two different nations, each with its own Sovereignty, its own Government, its own flag, its own language and its own currency. Before the introduction of the Euro, the French currency was the Franc, the Italian, the Lira, a monetary unit so small, that all prices were in thousands of lire. It was hard to believe that the Lira was divided into a hundred cents, which by 1973 became non-existent.

Eventually the train pulled into Torino Porta Nuova (New Gate) terminus, but unlike with the two in Paris, the call was very short, and in comparatively next to no time the train pulled out in the opposite direction. As before I was facing backwards, now I was facing forwards, and after a long stop at Geneva, the line hugged the Ligurian coast all the way to Rome. One of the most beautiful stops was Rapallo, a resort where the mountains plunged into the sea, and I saw beach lifeguards patrolling the stretch of beach so far below the tracks. Then between the port of La Spezia and the beach resort of Viareggio, there was the magnificent coastline of the Cinque Terre, five small villages straddling precariously on the mountainous cliffs, with only one of these villages, Monterosso, boasting a station where our train shot through at speed before plunging into a tunnel.

The train pulled into Roma Termini, a station of magnificent design with polished granite flooring, by late afternoon, completing a journey of more than 24 hours from London Victoria. When I consider the distance travelled in that time, about a thousand miles (1,620 km.) which is roughly the same as from New York City to St. Louis in Missouri - then compare this with the long haul flight taken in 1997 from London Heathrow to Singapore which was done in half the time, despite the distance being six times longer - I have wondered whether a lot of magic had gone out of modern travel. These days, the aeroplane is unavoidable, any international train travel now involves the Eurostar passing non-stop under the sea and one can arrive in Paris within a couple of hours from London St. Pancras, and the cross-Channel ferry, which had put the nostalgia into travel, is omitted altogether.

As our way of travel had changed dramatically over the decades, I can be sure that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever. He will never change. Living in him will be as always, challenging in this life as it has always been, yet his love endures forever. His love is eternal, it will never change.


  1. Hi Frank,
    you are right, I too think the magic has been taken out of travel. We used to go to eastern European countries on the coach, and see some beautiful sights. Even going by road was fascinating. I remember coming down a road beside a beautiful jade green river in the Austrian Tyrol during the snow melt, it was lovely. We love trains too, especially steam trains, and have been on some very nice journeys. The heart of Wales line is nice too and, as pensioners, the Carmarthenshire council allows us to travel free on our bus pass for certain months in the year. A long time ago we docked in Messina and visited Taormina in Sicilly, (I think I have spelt that right). It was beautiful. There were orange trees growing in the street. Yes, the world may change but Jesus stays the same.

  2. Dear Frank,
    Thanks for the great post! I've had some memorable train journeys, including one shared with an evangelist who gave me a clear presentation of the Gospel (although I was not saved until decades later!).

    At age 6, my grandmother, mother and I traveled by train for several days from Pennsylvania to Texas, and broke down somewhere in the Midwest, in the middle of nowhere for a few hours in the dead of winter in an unheated train station.

    And, before we were saved, my husband and I performed in a US dance exhibition in Russia, and we traveled by train overnight from Moscow to St. Petersburg. It was reminiscent of the Orient Express in its mystery and bad behavior -- train attendants peddling black market champagne and caviar hidden in their coats; one of the (inebriated) US women dancers hitting her head when the train lurched to a halt, and one of the US men dancers, primed with vodka, challenging the US Russian dancers to a head-butting contest. Upon arrival, the US men donned Russian military hats & goose-stepped down the platform!

    Praise be to God for saving whosoever is willing, regardless of their past, and for being steadfast, faithful and unchanging!

    God bless,

  3. Sadly, the faster our transportation, the less aware we become of what God has done. From the high speed trains one sees very little of the creation and from an airplane, one sees very little of what is below. It is not surprising that few people have any real Idea of what God is like since they have such a superficial understanding of what he has made.