Riding the Rails

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 19 May 2016

The problem with travelling is that you begin to compare things.

For example, the way things are done at home as compared to the way things are done in the other place(s).

Of course, with most of us, home things are considered superior to foreign things as we know and understand, for the most part, things from home more than foreign things.

Take, for example, trains.

With rare exception, every nation on the planet has a railroad, regardless of whether they need them or use them.

Fourteen African countries don´t.

Some nations have many railway companies, depending upon the nation´s size, system of government and wealth.

So you can find nations like Zaire, Ghana and Togo with railroads mostly abandoned because of neglect or war.

Israel has the world´s smallest subway system.

China has the most railroads…

Vatican City, the least.

Now I am no trainspotter nor a Paul Theroux, but I do confess to having a certain feeling of attachment to travelling by train.

Trains are more comfortable than buses, feel less scarier than airplanes, less stressful and more environmentally friendly than automobiles, tickets are cheaper than horses, less dangerous than bicycles, and faster than walking.

Of course, critics of train travel argue that trains are usually more expensive than buses, slower than airplanes, less flexible than automobiles, less fun than horses or bicycles, and less rewarding visually and emotionally than walking.

For me, a lover of history, trains are fascinating.

The oldest, man-hauled railways date back to the 6th century BC, with Periander, one of the Seven Sages of Greece, credited with its invention.

It was a 6 km / 3.7 mi. wagonway which transported boats across the Corinth isthmus.

Grooves in limestone were its tracks, its wagons were pushed by slaves.

The Diolkos wagonway operated for over 600 years.

The earliest known record of a railway in Europe is a stained glass window in the cathedral of Freiburg im Breisgau, circa 1350.

By 1550, narrow gauge railways with wooden rails were commonplace in mines in Europe.

The world´s oldest working railway, built in 1758, is the Middleton Railway in Leeds.

In 1804, using high-pressure steam, Richard Trevithick demonstrated the first locomotive hauled train at Merthyr Tydfil in South Wales.

The Stockton and Darlington Railway in northeast England, built in 1825, was the world´s first public steam railway, followed five years later by the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, the first intercity train.

In North America, railroads were built on a far larger scale than those in Europe, in terms of both vast distances to be covered and the weight of the trains themselves and cargo carried.

For Canadians, it is a commonly-held belief that had there been no railroad there would be no Canada in the form that we know today.

Railroads and trains have come a long way since the days of steam, with the advent of electrification, dieselization and containerization, so that they have become essential to the infrastructure of nations, the facilitation of international trade and part of the lifestyle and culture of the planet´s peoples.

It is now possible, should one actually want to, to travel by train at speeds of 574 km/h (357 mph) in France and Japan, or to travel for many days on long-haul journeys such as the Trans-Siberian Express or traverse huge nations like Canada, the US or Australia at one´s leisure.

I have had the distinct privilege of teaching a software engineer executive responsible for the extensive train networks for Switzerland, Austria and Malaysia, which has only fuelled my love and respect for train travel even more.

Though I am no fan of the heavy-handedness of many of the practices I have experienced as a frequent traveller on Swiss National Railways, I still enjoy travelling by train when reaching my destinations quickly is paramount over the experience of a slower journey.

And the train has also woven itself into the fabric of my travel experience…

I have many distinct memories of trains…

America, the 80s and 90s:

I am in my 20s, footloose and fancy free, hitching rides around America and across Canada.

I would hitch my way from Montreal to St. John´s, Newfoundland and back, from Maine to Florida to California to Washington State, from Whitehorse in the Yukon to Inuvik in the Northwest Territories to Fairbanks, Alaska.

In Connecticut, a driver brings me to New Haven, generously giving me his copy of Paul Theroux´s The Old Patagonian Express and thus seeding within me a love of trains and train travel literature that continues to inspire.

Only twice in my hitching travels would I ride the rails, but not in the conventional way as paying passenger…

In Alabama and Arizona, drivers left me on the side of the road near rail lines.

Both times I spot trains at rest with open boxcars.

I ride the rails, “like a hobo from a broken home”, but unlike tales of the Great Depression, or scenes from the movie Water for Elephants, I rode these boxcars alone.

On the Maine – New Brunswick border heading home.

Night has fallen so I seek shelter.

A long abandoned string of boxcars suggests shelter but they are all sealed.

A vigilant paranoid young man bearing arms and itchy trigger finger threatens to shoot me despite my pleading with him that my only desire is temporary shelter until daybreak.

I cross into Canada despite the late hour and the local police arrange a room at a local inn for the night.

Milano, 1998:

It is a mere 24 hours before my open-jawed one year ticket to/from Paris back to Canada expires, but I am in Milan, broke.

I try to sleep on a bench in the main train station, but sleep does not come.

I have convinced the station police to write me a letter to present to the TGV conductors foregoing a ticket to be paid only upon a return to Canada.

Suddenly I am transported back in time as a steam locomotive and classic railway wagons are met by actors dressed in Victorian age attire.

I am witness to a movie being filmed.

It is a magical last night to end a year abroad.

Malaysia, 2000:

A mini-vacation from working in South Korea has found me flying to Kuala Lumpar, then taking the train to Kluang.

It was, and remains, easy to traverse Malaysia from north to south, from Thailand to Singapore, but travel from the Strait of Malaca coast to the South China Sea coast, west to east, cannot be done by train.

I speak no Malaysian but manage to convince a local to taxi me to Mersing to meet the next morning´s boat to Pulau Tioman (Tioman Island) where I would spend a delightful time swimming and hiking and enjoying an idle idyll far from work and all that I knew.

And though I would mourn the loss of a sweater my girlfriend (later my wife) had given me –  left behind on the train waking to find myself already arrived where I needed to disembark – that train and that curious combination of fear and excitement I felt finding myself suddenly adrift in an unknown place, not knowing how I would leave it…that feeling still lingers in my memory.

Waldstatt, Appenzell, Switzerland, 30 March 2016:

Years have passed and I am older.

Though the years would find me as a paying passenger on trains in various lands, I have traded adventure for security and stability and rarely regret this choice.

But within the wanderlust lingers.

I worked the early shift at Starbucks in St. Gallen and, unwilling to return home to an empty apartment just then, rode a postbus to Hundwil then walked for a while to Waldstatt.

I find myself at the train station and I see a map of the entire Appenzell Railway network.

There are so many places on the map I have yet to discover and night remains distant.

Time to ride the rails again…

Appenzeller Nostalgie-Express






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