Train Journeys: a lesson in letting off steam with Alicia Baines
It is an objective truth that the best kind of deep thinking takes place on a train. Not the Green Park to Waterloo tube-type-train, but a proper long-haul, slow burner of a journey. A number of people are deterred by the prospect of sitting in the same place for a long time. These people regularly bore us train-lovers with idle arguments claiming that flying is better. I shall never be convinced that travelling by plane provides either a better change of scenery (do you understand the purpose of windows) nor that Duty Free makes the whole ordeal worthwhile (although it may feel like it, airport money and Monopoly money are sadly not of the same value).
However, putting practical matters aside, I truly believe trains can act like incubators for the brain. They are the perfect setting for a proper think. There is something exciting and romantic about setting up camp in a window seat and accepting that the next few hours are simply a means of travelling from A to B. These journeys are a limbo; a no-man's land; a no longer 'here' but a not quite yet 'there'. Pressing deadlines and commitments melt away with the blur of landscapes outside the window.
Even the ever-present screen in your pocket can't keep up on a train. As your phone dips languidly in and out of service, there is no option but to temporarily go off grid. Notifications are put on pause and any insight into the lives of people sitting further than a metre away is made impossible. Our relentlessly reliable mobile phones are brought to a halt; reducing them to little more than sexy, light-weight bars of aluminium that we can hold in our hands. Perhaps when I am no longer a student this will become a nuisance. For now, it only adds to the other-worldly feeling of being between two places at once and thus not really being anywhere at all.
I understand that what I am heralding as the best thing about long train journeys is precisely what some people find terrifying. For the reluctant type, 15 minutes of free Wi-Fi or a trip to a pretty grotty loo provide meagre escape from a potentially intense mental voyage. I would agree that the 4 hour 20 minute train journey from London Kings Cross to Edinburgh Waverley should come with a serious health and safety warning: failure to remember a charger and/or headphones carries a serious risk of existential crisis and/or a full-blown mental breakdown long before reaching York. However, with the right mentality and the correct environment, spending 1/5 of your day firmly located in Carriage B, Seat 44 can be the perfect chance for a mental declutter.
At a station or on a train, small triumphs become big successes. Securing an empty table feels like stumbling upon the Holy Grail; getting away without a railcard makes you feel a little like Frank Abagnale Jr. from 'Catch Me If You Can'; being given a free hot drink from Pret feels better than getting a good mark in an essay (I'm proud to say this has actually happened to me once. My recipe for success was intense over-familiarity mixed with overbearing politeness- 10/10 would recommend). What is more, stranger train friends can provide moments of wonderful camaraderie. Whilst earphones ward off any verbal communication, I relish the chance to share a shrug of the shoulders with my neighbour when someone is speaking too loudly; to accept guarding someone's belongings with a little too much gusto or to back off with a surrendering smile the moment my elbow meets another on top of a 'shared' arm rest. In some rare cases, these moments of amity have been rewarded with a Rowntree's fruit pastille at Newcastle or a Mentos mint near Berwick. However, it's not my stranger train friends that keep me on track(s).
With the right playlist, correct company, and a beautiful backdrop, I truly believe a long-haul train journey can prep you for anything. Hurtling through this space of the in-between is the perfect chance to think about what you've left behind and what might be approaching ahead. And whilst flying-lovers will continue to fly and train-haters will continue to hate, when you see me on the platform at Kings Cross Station ready to board a train to Edinburgh, you know exactly what I’ll be gearing myself up for (so I ask you kindly, please please don't sit next to me).
- Alicia Baines