Just Saying

On train journeys, you can discover the rhythm of life

Such travels give you a chance to slow down, lose yourself, catch the world in a fresh light

Press Like button. SMS emoticon to friend. Inspect Trump tweets. Check bank balance. Buy groceries online. Total time: Four minutes. Time saved by not having a conversation, not meeting a human, not writing a letter, not going anywhere: Incalculable.

But what do we do with this saved time? Perhaps we should spend it. Perhaps we should step off our hectic planets and see life as more than a swiped page. Linger a little. Contemplate a while. Watch the world. Even waste time.

Perhaps we should consider a train journey. After all, Harry Potter was conceived on one.

In February, I returned from seeing my daughter in Australia, and the usual magic of flight occurred: lunch in Perth, a drink in the air, dinner in Singapore. It was wondrous and yet unsatisfying. I had returned to my working world too briskly, my holiday consigned to some shelf in the memory, the only evidence of where I'd been some poorly framed photos on my phone.

But I needed time for my holiday to percolate, hours to wonder about my daughter, what she has become, who she is now, what we had spoken of, her enchanting smile, her quiet fears, the bossy way she gives orders. I wanted time just to miss my child. Perhaps I just needed a train and a life less hurried. Time slowed down, but not too much. Not like my colleague who embarked on a two-day train journey in India and actually arrived six days later.

In Singapore, a small nation of no real train rides, I would urge wandering young people to try them on their travels and not merely for meditative value. If it is comfort you wish, then on trains you can avoid lines, bypass searches, carry your scissors, dump those compression socks, forfeit that take-off prayer and not be smilingly handed a diabolical overweight penalty.


Planes look down on a land, but trains introduce you to it, sometimes revealing rare nuances of the landscape or offering glimpses of those who people it. For young travellers, trains might allow them to forsake the trappings of the modern world and revel in a new-found solitude. PHOTO: TSAR'S GOLD TRAIN

Michelle Sng, Singapore's accomplished high jumper, spent over a year travelling in 2011-12, a lovely wandering that included more than 15 train journeys across Vietnam, Thailand, Sri Lanka, India, the Netherlands, China, Russia and Mongolia. "There's something romantic about it," she said quietly.

Trains, as she found, are observational posts, for we sometimes sit face to face and not side by side as in planes. In a head-down, see-phone world, we are forced to look at and acknowledge each other. Sng, travelling second-class with no air-conditioning in India, found herself being offered food by strangers, an ancient courtesy that has survived modern suspicion. You do not always have to talk; sometimes you open a book and hide in it or lean on windows and get beautifully lost.

In planes you are imprisoned, in trains set free. You can stretch your legs and stroll to a dining car and order a drink and think of murder (on the Orient Express) and heroes with glinting blue eyes standing on train roofs, as Peter O'Toole did in Lawrence Of Arabia.

Unlike Queen Victoria - as Michael Williams wrote in The Trains Now Departed - you might not be able to demand that the train stop at selected stations when you wish to eat, but you can alight at dimly lit stations with haunted reputations if you have the nerve. Best, of course, to keep an eye on your things - else, like Hadley Richardson, you might leave your husband's manuscripts and carbon copies unattended and find them gone. His name was Ernest Hemingway.

There is a sea of sounds to be found - the whoosh of another passing express, the modern hum of the bullet train, the clickety-clack music of older carriages, or the horn of a diesel train, which fades into the night and is almost as melancholic as the past. Almost. As Eric Lomax, a prisoner of war who was captured by the Japanese during the fall of Singapore, wrote in The Railway Man: "We have never created any sound so evocative of separation as the whistle of a steam locomotive, that high note of inhuman relief as vaporised water is blown off and meets the cold air."

In planes you are imprisoned, in trains set free. You can stretch your legs and stroll to a dining car and order a drink and think of murder (on the Orient Express) and heroes with glinting blue eyes standing on train roofs, as Peter O'Toole did in Lawrence Of Arabia.

I spent more than a thousand hours of my boyhood on trains, all of them an education, lurching down corridors like a mid-morning drunk and standing in doorways till the soot turned into eyeliner. My school was a 36-hour train ride from Kolkata, and my college a 30-hour, uncomfortable, dirty, crowded, fascinating journey. Youth anyway can negotiate any difficulty.

Planes are efficient, but young travellers must know that, much like malls, they are stripped of personality and culture. Trains - and platforms - still retain some individuality, although perhaps many of the worlds encapsulated in Paul Theroux's 1975 book, The Great Railway Bazaar, have passed:

"The trains in any country contain the essential paraphernalia of the culture: Thai trains have the shower jar with the glazed dragon on its side, Ceylonese ones the car reserved for Buddhist monks, Indian ones a vegetarian kitchen and six classes, Iranian ones prayer mats, Malaysian ones a noodle stall, Vietnamese ones bulletproof glass on the locomotive, and on every carriage of a Russian train there is a samovar."

I was last on a train a few years ago, from Paddington to Exeter, but spent days of my past chugging from London to Hove, Leicester, Bristol, Taunton, Birmingham, Nottingham, Dover, and even once from Boulogne to Paris. My highlight was a skinhead on a platform whom I must have been staring at because he abruptly appeared before me in the carriage to ask through his spittle: "Eh, what you looking at, then?" I retreated into silent cowardice. He moved on. So did the train.

In time, I realised that trains are a series of rapid, ever-changing presentations of a place and people. Planes look down on a land, but trains introduce you to it. Trains acquaint you with the landscape and the colours; trains show you grotty suburbs and quiet fields, a single waving boy and a stoic, staring farmer.

Sng would often sleep on top bunks and when she came down, she said, "the landscape would have invariably changed". When trains crossed borders - invisible and irrelevant from the air - she could eventually distinguish between countries.

But trains have always been windows into nations, and when Mahatma Gandhi returned from South Africa in 1915, it was through the railways that he rediscovered India. As I learnt from eminent historian Ramachandra Guha, who is currently writing his second and concluding volume on the Indian leader, Gandhi then published a pamphlet on the problems of train travellers. Among his suggestions: Avoid excessive luggage.

I will still take planes for I am a slave to convenience, but I dream of trains. One day, I hope to ride across the Canadian Rockies in the company of solitude and a friend, watching my train bend around hills like a caterpillar taking a corner. Planes don't stop but trains do - in the old days idling by a field for no apparent reason, now of course only at stations. Then they wheeze, or lumber, or glide, and start again. Much like the rhythm of life itself.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 19, 2017, with the headline 'On train journeys, you can discover the rhythm of life'. Print Edition | Subscribe