Liminal Trains


Photograph by Stephen Bugno

From Words Without Borders:

In America, the idea of traveling by train is something of a touchstone. Mention it to some people and their eyes light up; an instant bond is formed and stories of memorable journeys tumble out. To others, train travel is impractical: slower than a plane, more expensive than a bus and lacking the independence and sense of freedom that comes with driving a car. Amtrak itself, admittedly, is a somewhat schizophrenic institution: some routes woefully underfunded and plagued by delays of almost surreal magnitude, others designed for leisure-class vista-seekers, many of them European.

In Europe, however, train travel occupies a very different cultural space. There it is one of many modes of living that elsewhere have long since grown antiquated—like listening to the radio, Sunday shop closures, folk costumes such as dirndls and lederhosen—which in Europe have been carried on and remain vital parts of everyday life. Though cheaper options like buses and rideshares have grown in popularity in the last decade or so, for many Europeans, train travel is still the default—without, somehow, quite losing its romantic aura. Where it should have become banal, it can still elicit excitement and mutual recognition; nearly every time I’ve expressed what I assumed to be an outsider’s love of train travel to Europeans, I’ve been met with smiles and Me toos —sometimes even the vague suggestion that riding trains is necessary for emotional health. Which, of course, I believe wholeheartedly.

The prevalence, ease, and efficiency of train travel in Europe, matched with the continent’s small size relative to our own, has a profound effect on culture. When distances are shorter and no advance booking is required (not to mention no security lines), one can wake up feeling restless in Berlin and arrive in Paris or Copenhagen in time for dinner—having read an entire novel, gazed at some scenery, and snacked on coffee and cake on the way. The spontaneity and comfort is thrilling, but it can also cause travel to be somewhat circumscribed by distance: why fly to another continent when a train will carry you to the Baltic Sea or Prague or Zürich in a few hours? Trains also shape more than pleasure trips: whereas in the States people typically commute between suburbs and cities, it’s not unusual for Europeans to commute by train between two different cities or from a large city to a smaller city as a result of spousal compromise or simple preference.

It is therefore not surprising that much European literature shows the influence of train travel.

“Found on the Tracks: European Writing on Train Travel”, Anne Posten, Words Without Borders