Friday, April 21, 2006

Train 68: smoking break, Saratoga Springs

So... why exactly?

So now would be as good as time to any to clarify what I'm doing, and why I'm doing it.

I'm not a true 'railfan'. I have no idea what sort of locomotive is pulling this train (although I think it's blue and silver). I'm not bothered about noting the numbers of the carraiges I'm riding in. And I'm also doing this with a bit of blind trepidation. But then again, that's always how the best journeys are made.

I just love the idea of a journey. Ever since I first started to look closely at the world flashing by from the back seat of my mum and dad's little red VW Cabrio, I've enjoyed just looking. The purest form of entertainment for me is the view from a moving vehicle, traversing territory I've never seen before. And as the 'normal' pace of our commercialised society gets more and more rapid, we get to see these things even less. And when we do see them, we don't appreciate what we're looking at.

Our obsession with speed and convenience brings with it a high cost. A low cost flight from any of London's six airports will take you thousands of kilometres in a few hours. And while I enjoy looking at clouds as much as the next man, I'd rather be looking at the surface of our planet, up close so that I can see the back gardens, buildings, fields, forests and rivers of this crowded planet. I think Philip Larkin says it best, how we are all naturals, born to gaze out of moving windows:

They watched the landscape, sitting side by side
- An Odeon went past, a cooling tower, And
someone running up to bowl - and none
Thought of the others they would never meet
Or how their lives would all contain this hour.

from The Whitsun Weddings

So I'm going out for a good look at everything I can and nothing in particular. North American passenger trains are hardly the fastest modes of transport, but I'm going to see a rapid cross section of the United States of America and Canada. Both countries owe much of their development to the train. But when it comes to contemporary travel, a lack of investment and political vision in North America has left the passenger train unable to compete with the plane or automobile. Our society conditions people to work more to spend more to enjoy more (and enjoyment usually involves more consumption). Traveling by jet plane is now our god given right. Certain environmentalists love to bash those who drive thirsty sports utility vehicles, but they go silent when you threaten to take away their £40 Easyjet weekender flights to the sun (did you know that there is no tax on airline fuel anywhere in the world?).

The train is important, because it offers a realistic and existing solution to tomorrow's environmental and social problems. If we must travel, should do it in a way that treads lightly on the soil we pass over. And if we are to understand more about the world, we should at least take every chance to see it. In it's current form, and in the current political climate, Amtrak may not exist for much longer (although it has survived through some pretty rough times so far). Regardless of Amtrak's fate, I want to enjoy it while I can. Even if North America's passenger train network does survive another round of government budget cuts, and even if the trains continue to struggle along without priority over freight trains, I'm only going to be living in Canada for one year. The novelty of taking a train, and not a plane, to New York or Chicago will soon be gone for me.

So that's why I'm here. I'm off to see a little bit of this continent the way it should be seen: from a big comfortable seat, with an on board restaurant and no need for rest breaks.

Seen from a train: Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, QC

Train 68: towards the border

We're a little late running south through Saint Jean sur Richelieu. The train slows to a crawl once more because of track restrictions, but I have such a comfy connection at my first stop I'm not worried. French words on street and shop signs mark the last recognisable outposts of Quebec. The engine sounds its horn incessentantly as we crawl past backyards and small parks. This train hit a car in this town last year, and considering how close we pass to back gardens I can understand why we're moving slowly.

Behind me, two graduate students are talking about the languages of Japan and Korea and cultural differences. An elderly couple across the aisle from me are returning to Albany from a short break in Montreal. They've spread themselves across two rows of seats to try and rest. Maybe they went out on a bender on Sainte Catherine last night and need some kip... that's not unusual for Americans going home on this train, but these two are slightly older than the usual booze cruisers.

As the line straightens up past the military college in Saint Jean sur Richelieu, we pick up speed, and the sun falling onto my lap begins to warm me nicely. Beautiful blue skies are looking down on this Friday morning.


Train 68: departure

The silver train of four carraiges begins imperceptibly to move. I have missed the exact moment that this journey commences. Bugger.

The platforms are grey in unfinished concrete, more like a freight depot than a railway station. This is not a grand place to begin a journey that will carry me the equivilent of half way round the planet. I suppose I should be grateful that the platform is level with the train. That itself seems to be a rarity outside major cities in North America.

As we slide out of Central Station Gary, our Amtrak conductor collects our tickets. First impressions are good. He seems to be starting this trip in a better mood than many of my previous Amtrak conductors. The line curves out from Central Station, past sparkling cars in the sunny spring morning. Montreal will be hot today. As the line continues its turn towards the bridge over the St. Lawrence River, I look back and take a photograph of the skyline of clustered skyscrapers.

The same view will welcome me home in thirty days time...


Route: Montréal to Chicago

The night before the morning after...

I got home late tonight - I had the last of my twice weekly French classes was this evening (and I'm not at all disappointed with an overall grade of 'B-'). Was delayed being talked through the medieval process of filing my tax return. Many thanks to LN for helping me in that department. All my dreams of Canada as a modern, developed and progressive society were destroyed when I discovered the amount of paperwork (provincial and federal) that every citizen has to fill in. However, if it means a refund at the end of it all, I tolerate it for a bit.

The cats have been acting strange. They know something is up. I've not been doing too much overt packing, but they can sense that something is about to change. My routine has changed, and I've spent today going around the apartment and coming in and out ticking off things on my long list. How will they cope when I'm not here tomorrow night? Whose bed will they sleep on if mine doesn't have it's usual lumpy and snoring occupant? To be honest, it's not the cats I'm worried about - they will adjust, even if it does mean that they're going to pee all over the place in the mean time. I just don't know if I have completely comprehended the mammoth scale of what I am about to do. Tomorrow morning I will begin a journey whose length will be roughly equivilent to a half circumference of the earth.

Am I ready...?

We're about to find out.

Next update due from Chicago this weekend. Windy City, here I come...