Friday 28 March 2014

Why Are Trains So Sexy?

Aboard an InterCity train from Łódź to Warsaw, Poland.

A few years ago, a politician here in Victoria was bemoaning the public's desire for increased rail transport, compared to its disdain for buses.

"We have to find a way to make buses sexy," he said.

The dining carriage of the Indian Pacific, Australia.
Not long after that, the government built major new rail and bus terminals on Spencer Street in the city centre.

The railway station, named Southern Cross, was a light-filled glass and steel modern-day cathedral with a billowing curved ceiling. It won various design awards.

The bus terminal, right next door, was a dark, gloomy concrete box beneath a shopping mall. As far as I know, it hasn't won any awards. When arriving there on the airport bus, you can't wait to get out on the street.

The contrasting buildings speak to an underlying truth - that bus travel is relegated to second-best in most people's minds. Train travel is generally preferred to bus and to air travel too, where it's a practical alternative. But why is it so?

Dining aboard Le Massif in Quebec, Canada.
For a start, I think there are practical reasons to prefer trains over buses.

Generally speaking, trains have more leg room, allow more easy movement along the vehicle while travelling, travel more steadily, and nearly always have toilet facilities (albeit of varying standards of cleanliness).

But I think there are some solid psychological reasons as well. Compared to air travel, rail offers more interesting human-scale views, which can be seen by everyone on board.

And compared to buses, train travel feels part of, but separate to, the world seen through the windows.

Because trains run on their own dedicated track, they're not caught up in the mundane frustrating road delays that afflict car drivers and bus passengers alike.

View of the the Rocky Mountains, Canada, with the front of
The Canadian visible from the back of the train.

More significantly, a train feels subtly removed from the world outside, immersed in it but soon to flick on to new scenery; a travelling, self-contained town on wheels.

It's perfectly attuned to a traveller's state of mind when starting on a journey: detached from everyday worries, forging a path into the future. And paying attention as you go.

Rainforest views on the West Coast Wilderness Railway, Tasmania.

What are your favourite rail travel memories? Does a particular route stand out? Have your say in the comments below.

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