Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Life in the Rail World

While the polar blast delays any significant progress on the house build, here’s an insight into the other kind of metal box I spend my life in.

Many years ago Rose and I backpacked around Europe and found ourselves on an overnight train approaching Paris. We were fast asleep in our seats when the carriage suddenly began filling with what must have been commuters on their way to jobs in the capital, at what felt like middle of the night. In fact, it was probably nearer 6am, but I was still horrified. Imagine having to get up that early just to catch a train to work!

All these years later, I no longer need to imagine. Having moved to the Wairarapa eight years ago, long early morning train trips to work are now a natural part of life. But I’ve come to realise that the pre-dawn vigil at a rural railway station is actually the most normal part of this lifestyle - compared to the world you enter once you get on board.
On entering the train you are immediately faced with an important choice – seat selection. Don’t allow yourself to rush this important decision, because you’ll have over an hour to regret a bad choice. Someone with an iPod so loud that you can hear it as soon as you enter the carriage, or snoring with their mouths open is clearly best avoided. Many people are particular about which direction they face. I try to sit on the east-facing side, preferably in a window seat (increasingly difficult to find). Wellington’s beautiful harbour, glimpses of Lake Wairarapa and sunrises are all sights to nourish the soul and are best appreciated from that side of the train.

Don’t expect a single seat or to have two to yourself – an increase in commuting numbers means you’ll only be disappointed. If you are a thin person get that middle arm down quickly, regardless of whether you claim it for your own use or not (there must be a whole area of psychology devoted to jockeying for possession of the centre arm). Larger people will quite sensibly gravitate towards a large seating area, and unless you lower that barrier you may find yourself vainly struggling against a relentless encroachment into your personal space for the rest of the journey.
Once safely seated you face another choice – how to spend your time. This can be as long as an hour and a half for some brave travellers and far longer if the train breaks down. Whatever you do, never board the train without something to read. It’s like diving without checking your oxygen first – don’t do it.
I’ve found that train time divides itself into three options – non-activity, personal activity and interactive activity.

Non-activity is, of course, sleeping. Factors including an early start, a long hard day and the motion of the train can make this option literally irresistible. Dozing while sitting upright is a skill which seems to come naturally to most commuters, although the perils are many. The ‘saliva trickle’ can strike at any time, catapulting you from deep sleep to a major and prolonged coughing fit in an instant. The ‘unconscious head roll’ can condemn you to a stiff neck for the rest of the day – or the humiliation of falling asleep on a stranger’s shoulder. Some people actually choose inflatable travel pillows to combat this, although I’d personally rather end up with in a neck brace than wear one of those. It would have saved me some embarrassment on one occasion, however, when my head rolled forward and hit the window hard enough to wake me up and cause everyone else to turn and look at the source of the sudden loud noise.

Personal activity often involves electronic devices to engage the eyes and ears. All pretty self-explanatory, but something to bear in mind is that some of these can often accidentally involve other passengers. In New Zealand our concept of personal space seems larger than in other parts of the world – by a factor of ten in some cases. Being crammed into a metal box with a crowd of strange people can occasionally bring out the worst in us. One hot, sticky afternoon I witnessed ‘train rage’. A frantically key-tapping man accidentally brushed his elbow against the woman next to him once too often and she exploded. A loud and lengthy tirade accusing him of ‘unwanted physical contact, with details of what her husband was going to do to this poor man, rang through the carriage. To his credit, he calmly stayed where he was – moving would have seemed like an admission of guilt. But it’s debatable whether he genuinely had to get off at the next stop, or not.
Activities involving earphones can all too easily be accidentally shared with reluctant fellow-commuters. Headphones, although approaching travel pillows in sartorial elegance, seem to be making a comeback – and this is a good thing due to their superior sound dampening qualities. Fortunately Tranzmetro have finally recognised the problem of ‘earphone fallout’, putting up posters in carriages advising MP3-heads to ‘keep it to themselves’.
Portable DVD players are wonderful for passing the time – but be aware that you are watching in the most public place imaginable. The absence of sound only seems to draw more passengers’ eyes to your screen – so be very selective – most of the carriage could be watching with you.

And finally, interactive activity is the choice of those who enjoy spending their trip surrounded by people. For them, the art of conversation flourishes, even at 6am. Greetings ranging from excited squeals of recognition to customary nods and shuffling over mark the beginnings of chats which will span two provinces. Certain groups possibly see and talk to each other more than their own partners and families – for them the daily trip seems as cosy and familiar as a drink with friends at their local.
Unfortunately, we commute in the days of casual long-distance communication, and enduring someone else’s loud cellphone conversation without the option of moving out of earshot is an unhappy side effect. I’ve had to sit through everything from details of someone’s sex life to the 24 key points of another’s board meeting, and often wondered if anyone has yet invented a way to make mobile phones explode by remote control. An overreaction of course, but long distance commuting can do that to you.

The train can be a microcosm where you see both the best and worst of humanity in a compressed area of space and time. Acts of breathtaking arrogance and lack of consideration can be matched by unexpected courtesy, the delight of meeting up with an old friend, or the simple pleasure of watching the early morning sun glistening on Wellington harbour. At times when I’m jammed in a metal tube with a random cross-section of society, hurtling along with little but the view to consol me, I think commuting might also have a higher purpose. If NASA ever wanted to design a programme to train prospective colonists to other planets, simulating the lengthy periods of time in a cramped artificial environment, eking out an existence cheek by jowl with fellow travellers far from home – they could save billions and just buy monthly train passes like the rest of us.
(This article first appeared in the Dominion Post, 5/12/09)

A typically flattering photograph taken to illustrate a story on commuter discontent.

1 comment:

  1. Portable DVD to be watched by others? Time to break out the Doctor Who! ;)