On trains

Sweet & Lowdown is a Woody Allen movie from the late 90s that stars Sean Penn as the arrogant, narcissistic, and mercurial but talented Emmet Ray.

Self-touted as the “second greatest guitar player in the world … after this gypsy in France,” Emmet plays jazz in a post-Gatsby, early-Depression era where fame and fortune were always just around the corner but forever out of reach. Though immensely gifted, Emmet has various eccentricities that cause people to cast him a wary eye. Ever the dapper dresser, he is an impulse buyer in constant need of a budget and a kleptomaniac to boot. He carries an overly large concealed firearm in his inside jacket pocket, which he takes out at inappropriate times (such as inside a moving vehicle) and giddily asks his stunned companions if they’d like to go down to the local dump to shoot some rats. This is a love story, if you can believe it.

Emmet is an unreliable employee, disappearing the nights of gigs to bet at pool or engage in other vices, such as burning multiple $100 bills on a dare. He is an unsuccessful pimp (with business cards!). Once, he got so high he woke up alone in a cabin in Stroudsberg, Pennsylvania. He cries when he listens to his peer and idol, Django Reinhardt (the greatest guitar player in the world). He faints every time he sees him in person. He often goes down to the railroad tracks to watch the trains pass by, presumably after shooting a few rats at the dump.

Many, if not all of the above qualities might cause one to raise an eyebrow, but I, for one, never found it too profoundly strange to want to go watch trains. I’ve had a long fascination with them. I find their history interesting, their utility, the machinery itself (eat your heart out, Steampunk), the sounds they make, the culture, and what they represent. I sure have written about trains often enough on this blog already, yet here we are again.

The earliest memory I have of trains is of their absence. I grew up across the street from a corn field. After the September harvest, all that remained were the razed stalks, which cleared a path to the woods. There, beyond the trees and creeks and up past a small elevation that required getting your hands dirty to climb, were the planks and rails of abandoned tracks. Normally, I’d go back there with a companion in tow. We used our grade schooler’s imagination to envision gang hideouts or hobo’s camps. We’d walk along the long iron planks like gymnasts on the balance beam, racing against one another to see who could go furthest before one or the other fell off. How long had it been since they had been used? I tried to envision my small village as the coal mining town it supposedly once was. The trains rumbling to a stop to pick up their tons of cargo and then moving on down the line. Today, the tracks have been removed in favor of bike trails.

I went to college at the University of Northern Illinois in DeKalb, about an hour’s drive west of Chicago. The southern border of the city was demarcated by an east/west track. Trains were a frequent occurrence in that town, to my secret delight. Late at night I could hear from my dorm room – maybe half a mile away – the train’s graceful heave and pull, that rhythmic ta-tum sound they make as it made its way on down the line. Then, my first real experience riding mass transit came aboard Chicago’s ‘L’.

Growing up watching movies like The Blues Brothers and seeing those silver gray trains rumbling along a section of elevated track near Wrigley Field was a thing of dreams. Later, I remember standing outside on a Red Line platform at Belmont, cracking jokes with two theater friends from those university days, reciting not just quotes, but entire scenes from the little known cult classic, My Blue Heaven. We were on our way to the Art Institute there on the Loop, the bustling heart of the city made special by the ‘L’ lines that carve out its very existence. There is something mesmerizing, even cinematic watching an ‘L’ train creep among skyscrapers on the elevated tracks.

Chicago L

After I graduated from college, I made several treks up from St. Louis to The Windy City on the Amtrak line. These long distance commuter trains made the trip in approximately the same time it takes to go by car (around 5 hours, depending on speed and traffic). Whereas the drive northwards is rather dull, filled with flatland, concrete, cornfields, and folksy homemade billboards from farmers spaced out along the interstate sharing Guns Saves Lives rhetoric, the train to Chicago takes a more scenic route, passing through copses of trees, slowing through quaint villages and farms, then racing along the vista of the prairie. Then, there is the approach to Chicago. There are increasingly frequent stops the closer one gets to the city: Dwight, Pontiac, Joliet, Summit. After Summit, the train cuts east towards Lake Michigan and aims north for the final stretch; and suddenly, boom, there’s the skyline drawing you in like a fish on a line. The Willis (though I still call it Sears) Tower looms, a jet black monolith pointing towards the stars, and all the iron and wood tracks begin to converge, perhaps a dozen or more, passing through the industrial rust and wear of the South Side until heading underground to reach the terminus at Union Station.

There’s something to be said for the relative ease and stress free nature of this mode of transport. The Amtrak service usually has a dedicated lounge cabin where one can order drinks and cocktails. Super long distance trips have a sleeping cabin, although I’ve never experienced those personally, either in Europe or America. The seats are usually comfortable, clean, and spacious, with descending footrests. There is considerably more leg space on trains than on planes, at least if you travel in coach. If I have my tickets, luggage, music, and a good book, then I’m ready to go.

When I commuted between St. Louis and Chicago for three weekends during June 2007, I was struck by the casual camaraderie amongst the passengers. It seemed each time I sat next to an interesting character; once, a middle-aged woman who resembled Kelly McGillis from Top Gun fame. She did cockpit control testing for Boeing and was traveling north to see her sisters. My final weekend, returning home exhausted, I sat next to an African American man who dressed like Spike Lee if he didn’t know if he was going on the red carpet or to a Knicks game. His smile revealed multiple gold teeth. He had been up in the city visiting his daughter, who was a lawyer and worked for a firm in the Loop. I seem to recall him saying she lived near LaSalle Street, right near the Chicago River. We chatted probably half the way back and I’ve forgotten almost our entire conversation, but I remember his enthusiasm and pride, which said more about him than any sort of style or fashion ever could.

In 1825, the inventor John Stevens built a test track at his summer estate in Hoboken, New Jersey and ran a locomotive on it for the first time. By the 1860s, railroads had eclipsed canals as the primary mode of transport across America. One hundred years after Stevens, there were approximately 300,000 miles of rail laid from coast to coast, built on the backs of Irish, German, and Chinese immigrants. Ridership reached its apex during the Second World War, only to begin its steady decline immediately thereafter in relation to the meteoric rise of the automobile. Today, it’s that which defines America. The highway replaced the railroad as America’s backbone. Life revolves around one’s car and the freeway. Eddie Valiant would be aghast.

In Europe, the rail still goes strong. The tracks are the webbing which ties this old continent of many countries and tongues together.

In France, in particular, the TGV (which stands for Train à Grand Vitesse, or high speed train) is a source of national pride. Their network service is extensive and routinely operates at the fastest speeds in the world (320 km/h – 200mph). I live in the city of Angers, France, located around 300 kilometers southwest of Paris and while it takes almost three hours to travel there by car, a trek on the TGV is a breezy hour-and-a-half. With such speed, it’s not uncommon for people to commute rather long distances to work (such as Angers, Tours, and Le Mans) far beyond the usual suburban commuter lines like Metra in Chicago or RER in Paris, arriving hourly throughout the day.

Paris metro

On a local level, the Parisian Métropolitain is a living legend. The generic term ‘metro’ wouldn’t exist without it. And with some 133 miles of track spread through the city (with more on the way), its 16 lines intersect and integrate the city. I must admit I haven’t done the requisite research to make particularly bold claims, much less accurate ones, but it seems that one can tell a lot about a city by the underlying structure of its railways and metros. Paris, known for its arrondissements arranged like the spiral of a snail’s shell, has metro lines that zig and zag and crisscross through the length of the city.

The stations themselves, designed with an eclectic progression of styles over the years, have an organic, art nouveau feel to them. The white tile façade and the occasional rubber wheeled train go by give one the sense of stepping back in time.

In comparison, Berlin’s U-Bahn works in tandem with the S-Bahn to form the spine of mass transit there. The metro map is as dense and convoluted as Paris’s, but there is a kind of poetic symmetry to it, which reminds me of integrated circuits. There are multiple routes that encircle the central hub of the city, vaguely reminiscent of Chicago’s Loop.

As I’ve written before, everything about the metro system has a modern, updated feel to it. The trains are school bus yellow and arrive in synchronized harmony down to the very second. A co-worker of mine recently visited there, however, and was overwhelmed by the sheer complexity of their system. Although there are fewer lines than in Paris, it gave him the impression of daunting immensity, and he said he preferred the Parisian metro. I imagine that’s because he’s French and it’s always easier to navigate when you know the language being spoken and written.

Although my first metro experience came on board the Chicago ‘L’, I feel like I earned my stripes riding the Prague Metro and tram system. I went there initially knowing almost no Czech, but in short order had the phrase, “Ukončete, prosím, výstup a nástup, dveře se zavírají,” drilled forever into my head. Originally intended to be a sort of sub-surface tramway, around 1967 plans quickly changed to become a true underground metro system due to erstwhile Soviet influence. Many of the trains from that time period are still intact, having been refurbished to stay in service. Each station has a unique coloring scheme and pattern; however, to my mind, the most memorable is the metallic sheen at several stops along the Green Line, which resembles aluminum bubble wrap.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Czech Velvet Revolution, it’s worth noting that a major aspect of German reunification was reestablishing the U-Bahn links between East and West Berlin. The Czechs, having endured Russian names for places, street signs, and at least one metro station (that I know of) for more than twenty years, reasserted their identity by changing the name of Yellow Line station Moskevská (Moscow) to the more befitting name of Anděl (Angel).

Prague’s tram network is fairly extensive, not to mention incredibly scenic. It supplements the faster service the metro provides, offering twenty-one lines (in addition to nine night routes) to the metro’s paltry three. I imagine without the trams, the Prague metro would be hopelessly overrun. Consider this (all figures courtesy of Google & Wikipedia):

– population: 3.52 million
– # of metro lines: U-Bahn, 10; S-Bahn, 15
– daily ridership: U-Bahn, 1,360,000; S-Bahn 1,060,000

– population: 2.70 million
– # of metro lines: 8
– daily ridership: 788,415

– population: 2.23 million
– # of metro lines: 16
– daily ridership: 4,500,000

– population: 1.26 million
– # of metro lines: 3
– daily ridership: 1,453,405

On a per capita basis, Prague’s metro is the most used in the world. Only three lines! Plus, by dividing the annual ridership of the tram (≈ 313 million) into a daily average, you arrive at around an additional 857,000 people who take what, to my mind, is the most picturesque railway in the world. As a teacher, every day I subsumed myself daily into the bustle of citywide commuters, foregoing the isolation and traffic headaches of the automobile, in favor this shared, communal experience. Especially fun were the trips aboard the night train. They came infrequently and were usually jam packed with people, often drunk, as is natural. Sometimes, there would be a football or hockey match that night, and the mood on board would be a thing of bliss and the tram would almost rock, clamorous with songs and chants and cheers.

I used to have a young student who lived beyond Malá Strana (Little Quarter) on the other side of river from where I lived. So every Thursday afternoon I’d hop on the Green Line to Malostranská, exit the station, and board the number 22 tram heading towards Bílá Hora (White Mountain, where a famous battle during the Thirty Years’ War took place). The ride took about 15 minutes, traveling uphill a fair amount of the way. There was a certain point on the journey where no matter what I was doing – reading, listening to music, or dozing for a micro-nap before my hour long lesson – I would stop at peer out the window.

The tram climbs, looping its way along ancient rock walls and then cuts left, parallel to where the river is far down below. There, rising high above the tree line, are the twin black spires and the main tower of the St. Vitus Cathedral, resting inside the walls of Prague Castle. I sit there breathless for a moment, taking in the scene moving past, as if in slow motion. The tram then comes to a stop near a statue of Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler, the astronomers. The doors open – some people get on, others off – then they close. I stay seated, patient, waiting, watching. A moment passes and then the tram resumes its musical hum, on its way to the next destination.


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