Poetry and Motion

It's good to take the train every now and then. It lets you get a taste of something special, something that you don't find much any more. Modern air travel sucks the soul out of the journey. It takes the process of getting from Point A to Point B and boils it down to the barest essentials. You drive to the airport, sit down on a plane, read a book, watch a movie, get a little work done, get off the plane, and leave at another airport. The airports even look the same. They've all got the same vendors, the same stores, the same seats, the same overpriced conveniences, and the same indifferent people providing the same indifferent services. If the airline pulled a fast one on you and substituted a simulator for the real plane, you might not figure out that you've been had until you're on the way to the airport.

Rail is different. When you get on a train, you get to experience a part of the journey that air travel leaves out: the stuff in the middle. The little towns, the small cities, the countryside and the people aren't seven miles below. They're fifty feet away, and they slide by slowly enough to let you catch the flavor of things you pass. You can see the personality of the countryside from the ground in a way that you just can't when you look down from the sky.

I miss that sometimes. I miss the poetry that goes with rail travel, too. Today, the train that I was on left from Penn Station in New York. This isn't the old Pennsylvania Station, this is a hole in the ground under a sports stadium, with dirty floors, low ceilings, and no personality. When I was a lot younger, and the trip on the train was the highlight of the whole vacation, Amtrak still used Grand Central Terminal in New York. The glory days of the station were long past. It was dingy and grimy and smelled of a generation's worth of diesel fumes, but there were still hints of magic there.

The ceiling of the terminal hadn't been cleaned in decades, but you could just make out the gold stars and outlines of the constellations up there. The entrances to the platforms were still through the old gates, and with trains lined up at every platform there was a sense of purpose and business to the station. Even the train announcements had more personality.

They had to, of course, because trains don't skip everything in between the two main points. Trains go to lots of places. The train to Buffalo isn't just the train to Buffalo, it's the train to everywhere in between New York City and Buffalo. Announcing a train departure properly can't help but have more personality than an airport speaker's monotone statement that 1st class passengers are now welcome to step onto flight somethingoranother going to whothehellreallycares. But there was one guy at Grand Central when I was growing up who could really do it right. I can still remember:

"Now boarding at Gate Number twenty-three, Platform A, Train Number 63, The Lake Shore Limited 2:30 departure for Buffalo. Making station stops at Crrrrrrr-Oton HarmonPoughkeepsieRhinecliff HudsonAllll-Bany Rensselaer. Schnectady. AmsterdamUticaRomeSyracuseRochesterBufffffff-Alo Depew! Continuting on to Erie. Cleveland. Chicago. Connect at Chicago for Allllllllll points west and south. Now departing Gate Number Twenty-Three Alllllll-A-bo-oard!"

It had rhythm and poetry. It was a performance in the spoken word. And I miss that magic.

More like this

My quick little jaunt up to Buffalo ended up being not so quick. The plan was to fly up on Friday, do my thing on Saturday, then fly back on Sunday. Quick and painless! Sadly, a snowstorm in Buffalo coupled with an even bigger storm in Washington DC left me stranded for an extra day in Buffalo.…
I agree with Atrios--while high-speed trains would be technologically groovy, trains that actually got somewhere quickly would be a major, albeit unsexy, improvement (italics mine): As for inter-city rail, I certainly support it too on the grounds that driving long distances and flying really suck…
When I visited Shanghai a few years ago, one of my favorite moments was riding the maglev train from the airport to a Metro station on the outskirts of the city. As I recall, its speed got up to around 250 mph - a counter in each car displayed the speed, and the numbers changed in a blur as the…
tags: Grand Central Station, 42nd Street, Fast Track and Speedwheels, subway art, NYC through my eye, photography, NYC Fast Track and Speedwheels, 1990. Mixed-media sculptures in the passageway between the S and 4, 5, 6 lines in NYC's Grand Central Subway station, right side. Artist: Daniel…

Thanks for this evocative post.

When I was about seven, my parents took me to New York. I don't know for sure that it was Grand Central we went through, but I stood awed under the vaulted ceiling and gazed at the thousands upon thousands of people shuttling back and forth. And always in my ears was that magical poetry ... though it sounded like gobbledygook to me:

"Platform nyyyyen, leving for reeversack, haversober, langbord, ..."

It was my first visit to a North American train terminal, and I still remember fragments of that experience. I still love rail travel. I can't wait until we get a maglev bullet train from Vancouver, BC, to Halifax.

Of course there's no-one around today with as much vision as Sir John A. Macdonald. We'd much rather put up with the misery that companies and government are busy making air travel into.

Why do I hear "City of New Orleans" in the background?

At least in Los Angeles, Union Station is still in pretty good shape - got to keep it up for the movie shoots - and with the new subway and metrorail it is getting a bit more upscale traffic.

If they could just get the Coast Starlight to not be 12 hours late...

They've cleaned the ceiling of Grand Central Station now--it's a beautiful pale turquoise with stars and constellations. And the conductors still have that same cadence when they announce stations. The trains all line up purposefully and people still run to catch them and sometimes bump into the poor soul who pauses to stare at the ceiling.

If you really like train travel I highly recommend taking the old route of the Orient Express across Europe. You can get on in Paris but you have to change in Vienna for Budapest and then in Budapest for Istanbul (and the Budapest station is really something to see--built circa 1900. And probably hasn't been cleaned since.) The trip takes about 2.5 days. Western Europe changes into Eastern Europe changes into Asia....

By Ms. Krieger (not verified) on 24 Aug 2007 #permalink

In the late 1960's, I used to work for the New York Central/Penn Central RRs as a "Trainee". At that level we had to travel a lot and take the train - no air travel.
I recall, in the dead cold of winter, waiting for a train from Buffalo back to New York City. The station was big and appeared mamouth as it was absolutely empty save for a statue of a buffalo. But the bar was open, and I drank away several hours waiting for the train to come through. Just me and the bartender. The intermediate stations between New York City and Chicago/St. Louis had arrival/departure times in the middle of the night or early morning. The service was poor to awful in those years and drink was the only way to tolerate it. I remember the train from Grand Central to St. Louis was scheduled for 29 hours.

But you're right those conductors each had his own style of calling out the station - a long time before automatic recorded announcments.

I love trains as well, but I'd argue that there is a poetry to air travel as well. There's this one moment right when you're either taking off or leaving where it feels like your stomach's being slightly pulled downwards inside of you, if you're paying attention, that I've never been on a simulator that could replicate, and I've never been able to think of as anything other than gravity either letting you slip through its fingers or snatching you back as you get too close to the ground. And maybe it's just that I have panic attacks which I get less often if I'm sitting next to the window and thus probably spend more time on planes looking out the window than anyone else over the age of about 4, but watching everything move underneath is a lot less physical than train travel, but also amazing, watching things go from city to water to fields to whatever, in whatever given direction. And there's something amazing about approaching a city from the air after night, when all you see are the lights starting below you and eventually resolving into somewhere people live, and then maybe getting close enough to actually see taillights before you hit the ground.

And an airplane provides one thing which I can't think of anything else in the world which provides, which is that it's the closest you will ever get as a person to being somewhere that is literally nowhere. There is no purpose to an airplane except taking you from one place to another, you're literally miles away from everything else occupied by humans. It's just the journey, not the destination. Nowhere, literally.

...I had no idea I had this much incoherent sap in me about air travel.