ON MY FEW TRIPS through Western Europe and New England I have discovered something about myself that would never perhaps have surfaced in my native Australia – I love to travel by train. One would expect to be deathly bored, cooped up with nowhere to go for hours on end, with only the distraction of an undulating stroll to the café car and its promise of a packet of crisps and bland, expensive coffee.
But instead, there is something wonderfully serene and charming about this method of transport, despite the paired-down utility of today’s trains in comparison with their more romantic nineteenth- and early twentieth-century ancestors.
Perhaps it is the rhythmic, lolling sense of motion that belies the speed at which you are hurtling through the countryside, or perhaps the gentle, rolling clack, strangely muffled so that you feel somehow as if you were under water. You cannot underestimate the power of this sound to elicit memory – if once you’ve taken a long train journey, each time you board your local suburban service you will be transported, if momentarily, back to the unbounded fields of Spain, the dark, deep snows of Berlin, or the bare, cold trees of French chateau country.
I have become particularly fond of the East coast’s Northeast Regional, which, several times a day, makes the long journey between Boston and Washington DC, but which I have taken only so far as New York. If you can secure yourself a window seat and settle in with a thoughtful playlist or a good book, you have the makings of a rare and absolute pleasure – an excuse for solitude and the time to embrace it.
My companion for my last journey, the lamentably short trip through the Massachusetts countryside from Boston to Providence, was George Orwell, in a collection of essays on everything from junk shops, murder, and Boys’ Own weeklies published as part of Penguin’s Great Ideas series. Orwell’s world of pure Englishness, while perhaps not entirely appropriate for a tour of America’s crux, proved to be perfectly fitting. This world of middle class murder mysteries, public school tales, and the delights that were to be found in the wartime bric-a-brac shop, were completely congruous with the at once antiquated and entirely modern railway. The only trouble was how quickly Providence Station was upon us.