08 May 2010

I Love Trains

I love trains. At the Oak Park stop on the CTA’s Green Line, my tense, concave shoulders, sheltering my chest from the winter’s wind, have surrendered and fallen as a westbound BNSF freight train rushed by behind my back and an eastbound CTA train trudged up in front of me. I love intracity public transportation systems like the Chicago Transit Authority and Washington’s Metrorail as well as international passenger service like Thalys. At around 6:45 every weekday morning, my it’s-way-too-early scowl relaxes into a low-key, that’s-nice grin as the northwest-bound Metra commuter train from the Loop and the southeast-bound Metra train from the suburbs glide pass each other and stop at the Irving Park station while, across the six southbound lanes of the Kennedy Expressway, the southeast-bound CTA train clatters in front of me at the Irving Park stop on the Blue Line.

The longest train ride I have taken was from London, England to Vienna, Austria. Since this was before the Channel Tunnel opened, British Rail took me to Folkestone, a ferry bounced me across the English Channel, and a French train took me across continental Europe. While I was in the same couchette in the same wagon for the entire journey from Calais, other wagons were hooked up to and uncoupled from the train as it stopped in different cities in different countries along the route. I remember the train pulled into Vienna only 15 minutes behind the scheduled arrival time.

I think the fastest train I have been on went from Toijala, Finland to Helsinki at 140 kilometers an hour, or 90 miles an hour – or was it 240 kilometers an hour, which is 150 miles an hour? A long, long time ago, I took a TGV from Paris to Avignon. I don’t know how fast it went, but I think it went faster than 90 miles an hour. It had much more ground to cover and fewer stops to make. I know the VR train to Helsinki went 140 (or was it 240?) km/h because I watched the nifty digital indicator in the wagon rise as we left a station and fall as we approached the next one. (It was more than a year ago.) The crazy thing about both of these high speed train experiences was that I never felt, sitting in my seat, like I was going really, really fast.

The most storied trains I have ridden on are the Flying Scotsman, from London’s King Cross station to Edinburgh’s Waverley station, and the City of New Orleans, albeit just from Champaign’s Illinois Terminal to Chicago’s Union Station and vice versa. One time, to get back to Champaign from Chicago, I had to book a roomette, which was more like a “clos-ette.” Supper was included in the price, though, and it is the only time I have sat down to a meal in an Amtrak dining car. The most famous train I have seen is the rusting, steam locomotive (below) that appears in the 2008 Estonian film Detsembrikuumus (December Heat). Scenes in and outside the Tallinn train station in the movie were actually shot in Tapa.

Trains are a part of flying, there beyond the moving sidewalks to whisk you away to the heart of the city in disparate articulations of comfort and class. The CTA’s Orange Line waits across the street from Midway Airport while the Blue Line idles underneath O’Hare. Metrolink originates from Lambert Field in St. Louis. BART stops at the San Francisco International Airport and the METRO stops at Ronald Regan Airport in Washington, D.C. The Tube’s Piccadilly line brings Heathrow passengers to the hustle and bustle of London’s Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square. Thalys service north to Amsterdam or south to Brussels, is just underneath Schiphol Airport.

In the early 2000s, after I had returned from the Peace Corps, I met three Estonian friends in London. They had to land at Gatwick, and I had to land at Heathrow. Well, my flight from O’Hare had alleged air conditioning problems, so we had to land at LaGuardia, escorted down the runway by an unexpectedly long line of emergency vehicles, and deplane and wait and wait and wait for another aircraft. I still made it to Heathrow before my Estonian friends, but I wanted to get to Gatwick before they landed, as we had planned. I took the Piccadilly line to Green Park and then the Victoria line to Victoria and got a Gatwick Express train to the airport. I think we all got to the Arrivals Hall at the same time. By the way, we took a bus from Gatwick back to Victoria, which was less expensive than the train but an ungodly long trip in London traffic.

Living in Estonia gave me a fantastic opportunity to ride a lot of trains (because that’s what people in Europe do). When I was first in Estonia, from 1998 to 2000, I took the train from Tapa to Valga, got off the train, walked down the platform through passport control and into Valka, Latvia, literally, continuing on down the platform to board the train to Riga. The restrooms in the Riga train station were notorious: two opposing shoeprints on either side of a hole for males to stand over and females to squat over. When I returned to Estonia in 2006, there was daily service to Valga only. In December 2007, when Schengen went into effect for the Baltics, you could walk freely between Valga and Valka, but there was no Latvian train service to Riga. In 2008, I believe, train service from Valka to Riga resumed, but I bet you still have to pee in a hole at Riga’s train station.

As a Peace Corps volunteer, I also took an overnight train from Tapa (being the famous junction of Estonia’s southern and eastern routes) to Narva to St. Petersburg, Russia.
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