The Possibility of the Train

At the station the destinations rattle around on the departures board until they settle, a list of times and places and platforms that tells hundreds of stories. On line one, the commuter heading home to the suburbs after another day in the city. Had she imagined the hours she would spend on that line, back and forth, back and forth, day after day? On line two a link to the next city, for a football match or to visit and old school friend, waiting at the station. On line three a train that will cross borders, cross continents. That will leave from the bowels of this station with some passengers who will only alight in a couple of days time. It is these that grab the traveller who grew up on an island, at a time and in a place where an international train involved a ferry. WIEN. PRAHA. WARSZAWA. MOSKVA. MINSK.

The same thing happens at home when we flick through the latest copy of the European Rail Timetable and its mix of places, times and symbols. Through service (1st and 2nd class). Couchette car. Snacks and drinks available. Sundays, Saturdays and Bank Holidays. Reservation compulsory. Shipping service. Sleeping car. Frontier station.

The possibility of the train.

Even when we are catching that suburban commuter line to just beyond the city limits, or the regional train to the coast, there is an excitement to be found. It is the freedom of movement, through the carriages to the dining car (if such a thing still exists). It is in the conversations with strangers (when they look up from their mobile phone). It is in the lives observed, over the railway embankment and across the back gardens. She is doing the dishes as the train goes by. He is smoking a fag on the balcony. The football is heading straight for the window. Did it hit or did it miss? We’ll never know. Low bridge. Story frozen.

Familiar journeys take us through landscapes we can see ourselves in. A walk through the woods in the winter that passed beneath this line. A streetcorner where we waited to meet friends before the cinema. A town where we spent a weekend, years ago. New journeys have us staring out of the window, whether it is a flat featureless landscape or the industrial outskirts of a city, the first glimpse of the mountains or the spires of an old town emerging as the train follows the bend of a river. The best thing about the train is that the adventure starts the moment you reach the station. The journey is part of the experience. Even if we are getting off only two stops down the line.

One morning we caught the train to Prague. PRAHA. Even after all these years, a train to another country is something to marvel at. The carriages were Hungarian (as were the waiters in the dining car and the bottles of beer they brought to our table). We sat in a compartment with a young couple, also heading to the Czech capital. Their first weekend away? He was nervous, solicitous. It took her until Dresden to get the annoyance of something her mother had done out of her system. After Dresden we were all looking out of the window as we followed the river. As the train passed through Swiss Saxony and across the border, the Elbe flowing swiftly beside us, we imagined future trips where we would get off before now. To walk in those hills. More possibilities of the train.

I remembered this journey from years ago. Sharing a six pack with a friendly German guy before I could speak his language. It didn’t matter, as his English was good. He was from Hamburg and was on his way to Budapest. The whole way. They still checked your passports then, with suspicious glances under peaked hats at aged faces. The passport stayed in the bag this time, and it was hard to spot the border. On the opposite bank we could see the old checkpoints but for a short while the river was the border and we could not tell at which moment we crossed. There? There? Look, the road signs have changed. The number plates too.

The first glimpse of Prague was spectacular, of the babies crawling up the television tower and the castle emerging above the red roofs of the city centre. I had seen it before, many times. The last time I came we travelled by car, arriving with a stressful drive of missed turnings and one-way streets driven the wrong way, and the rest of the visit was not much better. I had loved Prague, and in those few days, overwhelmed by the crowds and the noise, I lost my feelings for the city. For ten years I did not return. And now, on the train, I felt the excitement of arrival once more. The journey was part of the trip and would prove to be a fine omen. I had my Prague back and it all began in that Hungarian railways compartment. The possibility of the train indeed.

Words: Paul Scraton, Photos: Katrin Schönig

We love trains so much we had a feature devoted to the Night Train in Elsewhere No.02. If you haven’t read it, you can get your hands on a copy via our online shop, where you can also buy sets or subscribe to the journal. Elsewhere Online Shop.

For trip planning and adventures of the imagination, you get your hands on the European Rail Timetable here.