by Griff Rhys Jones from The Telegraph, January 10, 2019
Sorry if you are reading this on an over-packed, late commuter train with failed heating, but, for me, trains are still an unbeatable romantic kick. It starts at the station. I remember leaving the art'otel in Amsterdam on a southbound Eurostar heading for Antwerp.
It wasn’t just the mist rising off the canals and the elegant frosty concourse filled with cheese and flowers, it was the seamless travel. No teeth-grinding queues and shuffling barriers. No boarding pass inspections three times in 10 minutes. No duty frees with silly winding paths and perfume stench. I turned up my collar, strode to my platform, greeted my massive and powerful conveyance and got on it. I felt like Jason Bourne. Ludlum wrote those adventures at a time when trains were still the only way to cover continents, full of spies and old ladies solving murders.
But the track still sings its song. From 12ft up, you are lord of the landscape. Even in the deserts of South Africa, where the scenery is just a tad “samey” for several days on end, the view from the window of the train has the slight, varying, hypnotic quality of a good fire in the grate. Is there any better way of poking your nose into the character of the population than via their back gardens: their swings, their rows of cabbages, their dilapidated fences, frosted windows and loft extensions? You don’t judder your way through the worst of a city as you do in a car.
In Britain, of course, we do not talk on trains. Good. We exist, though, on any train, in concert with other passengers, not jammed on top of them.
It’s why thriller writers needed the rails. Graham Greene, seeking commercial success, which he found with Stamboul Train, got aboard and played with the inevitable confrontational gamesmanship of the dinner table.
There are still sleeper trains. You will have properly travelled to Vienna if you arrive at nine in the morning after a night journey from Cologne with views along the glittering Rhine. The Mombasa overnight train slinks away from the deserted museum piece of Nairobi central station. Only a few adventurers, backpackers and deadbeats share the cracked and fading sleeper cars. The food was terrible but, like most African trains, the conversation was memorable.
In Algeria on the way to Constantine, I was told I was riding the “Train of Death”. It was a favourite “stop-and-assassinate-all-wearing-jeans” line for the rebels in the ongoing civil war. “Don’t worry,” my fixer told me, “it hasn’t happened for at least nine months.”
Take a train in Switzerland, and it will arrive to the second but if your reserved seat is occupied by some smug lout, don’t expect the guard to help you out with much more than a shrug. Crossing the Hardanger plateau between Bergen and Oslo I was astounded by the number of people who were leaping on and off in the white-out of a blizzard.
I admit I only ever feel the need to write poetry on a train, especially when gazing out over acid green Lincolnshire marshes. I love to use Google Maps and discover the world just a few minutes’ walk from the blob moving across the diagrammatic world. I even love standing alone on a platform in midwinter in the middle of the night after a gig, waiting for that light-filled, warm, garish chunk of reality to hiss in and carry me home. I love the silly little stations along the south-coast lines beyond Portsmouth. I like the ordinariness of a commuter train in north Sydney.
And three weeks ago, I discovered that there is no better place to master the tunes of a new musical than in your own cabin on a four-day long train journey. Though the other passengers may not agree. Like boats, trains supply a limbo with the illusion of purpose. It’s an addictive altered state.
Read more of Griff Rhys Jones’s travel writing at telegraph.co.uk/tt-griff