Romance of travelling by train

The best parts of travelling long distances by train are watching the landscape fly by and the sense of escape

Living in a global, well-connected city like Singapore gives you the opportunity to experience many of modern life's pleasures.

Except long-distance train travel, of course.

The country is barely 50km from end-to-end and anyone who has taken it knows there is no romance to be found at all in the hour-long stop-start journey from Jurong to Pasir Ris.

That's why I'm hoping that the new high-speed rail project that connects Singapore and Kuala Lumpur will indeed take off.

I keep thinking that in 2020, I would be waiting on a platform somewhere in Singapore on a Saturday morning for a sleek white train to arrive.

I would have only a small bag with me and a takeaway breakfast of Ya Kun or McDonalds, ready to go somewhere, anywhere... away from the stifling confines of this city and this life.

I would not even be 50 yet and still well able to write exciting new life chapters filled with drama and intrigue.

Flying does not quite give you the desired perspective of physical distance, of being a long way from home.

You wait at an airport for a couple of hours before getting into a confined space where there is mostly nothing to be seen outside the tiny windows. To me, an airplane is more like a teleporter - you disappear for a while and magically reappear on foreign ground.

From the window of a long-distance train, however, things are very different.

Vestiges of the city slowly strip away, starting with the tall glass skyscrapers of the business district, then shorter malls and residential complexes.

Eventually, the messy clutter of rail lines at major terminal stations neatens itself as they run alongside the two-storey houses of suburbia.

It may go pitch black as the train enters a tunnel or two, before you emerge into a bright green yonder.

To me, this sense of escape is the best part of train travel and just the sort of soul-cleansing ritual that inhabitants of this tiny island clearly need.

As the train settles into a steady speed, you look out at the simple open landscape of trees and hills and think of all the layers upon layers of artificiality we heap on ourselves.

You wonder who lives in that lone house sandwiched between two carefully cultivated crop fields, with just the one small road leading to and from it.

You are struck by how the randomness of life has put you here in this train, and them out there. What is that life like and would I be happier living it?

You look at the suited Japanese salaryman beside you, unwrapping his lunch. Where is he going - Nagoya, Kyoto or Osaka?

Does he travel this route everyday or is he making a secret trip to see a secret someone?

Each answer spawns a different theory about this quiet and stoic man eating his yakiniku next to you.

What about that schoolgirl in uniform travelling from Taipei to Taichung on a weekday morning?

I once saw a movie in which the young troubled protagonist skipped school to take a train to the next big city.

She spent the day there aimlessly wandering the arcades and malls and looking at the people passing by, before taking the train back at night.

Despite being born and raised in Singapore, I have been fortunate enough throughout my life to have taken many long train rides, though I don't cherish them equally.

Some have been purely functional, such as the journeys to outlet malls in Gotemba and Karuizawa in Japan, or the British town of Bicester.

Having studied for three years as an undergraduate in Britain, I also travelled across Europe by train a lot with friends.

I don't remember much of these journeys. They were also a means to an end, lost in the youthful excitement of simply wanting to chalk up destination after destination on our ambitious itineraries.

Occasionally, however, the train becomes the attraction and an end in itself.

I have been on two of these journeys.

One was a short trip I took on the historic Eastern & Orient Express that runs from Singapore to Bangkok.

The train stopped barely beyond the Johor checkpoint for us and stood still as we had dinner.

In two hours, it had turned back towards Singapore, but it was enough to make me feel like I was Hercule Poirot in an Agatha Christie murder mystery.

The other was an epic two-week trip I took with two friends on the iconic Trans-Mongolian Railway.

It started in St Petersburg and stopped in Moscow and Irkutsk near Lake Baikal, before going through Mongolia to Beijing.

This was 1991 and Russia had not quite opened up yet to the outside world. The sleepers were small and uncomfortable and there was no air-conditioning.

Being poor students, we survived mostly on hard "black bread" and sardines - not that there was much else to buy at the local grocery shops.

At the end of each day, we were exhausted by travel and our faces and hair would be covered in soot.

Looking back, it was one of the toughest journeys of my life and it tested the limits of our friendship.

But the surreal sight of skyscrapers rising up unceremoniously in the desert as we approached Ulan Bator station in Mongolia, gleaming in the early morning sun, was something that I would never forget.

Still, whatever the reason and whether or not it was memorable, I have found that all long-distance train journeys end in the same pleasurable way.

A long period of contemplation and introspection ends as the train slows down towards the destination.

The quiet carriage starts to stir into life as people gather their things and wait at the doors to disembark.

You get off the train and look up and down the platform, knowing that the taxi or the subway to that new beginning is now within reach, and just outside of those station doors.