My father worked for a railroad from his teens until his seventies. One of the perks of working for a railroad in those days was that family members rode the train for free. My sister made great use of the pass when was in her teens and in college. When I was little I used my pass to ride the train back and forth from Norfolk to Roanoke, Virginia, to visit my father. By the time I hit my teens and would have loved to ride the train a bit further, the family passes had been eliminated along with much of the passenger rail service.
Riding the train used to be a classy way to travel. The trains were comfortable. Proud porters kept everything spic and span. Even in the waning days of the N&W’s Powhatan Express train, dining cars still used real silver and meals were prepared by experienced cooks.
I don’t have the chance to ride trains much any more. They’re great North of Washington, D.C. and in a few other corridors. For the kind of cross-country traveling I do for work, though, it’s nearly impossible to make trains fit my scheduling and budget needs.
When I do get to ride a good train, though, I relish the opportunity. If I rode it regularly, maybe the Amtrak Acela between Washington and Boston would become routine. But since I don’t, the chance to ride a clean, fast and modern train is a treat.
The trains in Europe range from the completely worn out to the most sleekly modern. The rail system in Britain used to be a model of timeliness. But privatization of the British rail system has resulted in chopped up service schedules, poorly maintained rolling stock and compelled people who used to not need cars to become regular motorway users.
In 2002, my wife and I had a chance to ride the Eurostar train between London and Paris. At the time, it was the newest thing on rails in that part of the world, novel for offering the first-ever continuous rail connection between London and Paris via the Channel Tunnel under the English Channel.
It’s a terrific train ride. The cars are narrower than Americans are accustomed to, and in the hot and muggy summer months the train operators don’t quite embrace Americans’ concept of 72F air conditioning. Still, the service is prompt and the staff professional.
The only problem was that the French beat the English to the punch when it came to preparing their respective rail lines to accommodate the Eurostar. We barely inched our way from London down through Kent to the coast. The English countryside is pretty, to be sure. But you don’t ride the Eurostar to see the countryside. It’s for going fast.
And that’s what happened once we hit the tunnel opening at the coast. By the time we came out the other end in France, we were flying! The Eurostar can go as fast as 186 mph. That’s slower than Japan’s bullet trains or even the French TGVs. But as someone accustomed to pokey American rail speed, I have to tell you it was some kind of fast.
How fast, you say? Fast enough that it really was hard for my eyes to focus on anything but the scenery on the farthest horizon. Fast enough that the camera captured only blurs. (But I actually like them.)
Fast Train, 2002
The irony of the trip is that after zipping through the French countryside at a speed that makes your head spin you pull into Paris’ Gare du Nord. It’s an elegant train barn, to be sure. But after the high tech ride, stepping out into Nineteen Century Paris is a big of a shock.
But it probably wasn’t as much of a shock as the scene I performed a few days later when we returned to the Gare du Nord to take the train back to London. I’d forgotten to pull our passports out of the little money pouch that was belted around my waist underneath my pants. Having nowhere else to change, I had to duck behind a travel poster and reach down into the crotch of my pants to retrieve the pouch and passports while my wife tried to shield me from view with a raincoat. . No doubt the suave French passersby in their stylish suits and scarves thought we were just a couple of sex-crazed Americans.
Gare du Nord, 2002