On the train, your time is yours to spend: The joy of travelling by rail
Humourist Dominic Utton rose to internet fame blogging about the rail delays he experienced. Here, he explains why he still loves train travel
There’s something magical about trains. Children know it instinctively: it’s why anyone who’s ever been parent to a toddler soon works out there are few easier ways to spend an hour with the little ’uns than on a platform, watching the engines come and go, pointing at the drivers, waving to the passengers. But even as an adult – even as a commuting adult who’s had more than his fair share of unexpectedly long journeys home – I maintain there’s something magical about trains.
There’s the history, of course, the romance of the Flying Scotsman, the genius of Isambard Kingdom Brunel. But there’s something else, too – something universal. Whether you’re shooting through Japan on a bullet train, soaring past Lake Superior on the Trans-Canadian Railway, or simply heading up to Birmingham or Liverpool from the capital on the London Northwestern Railway, 21st-century train travel is a special experience.
Perhaps paradoxically (given you may be travelling at anything up to 110mph), time seems to slow down on a train. When you’re in your seat, cocooned in your carriage, you’re somehow sealed off from the world even as it rushes by your window. Those few hours become wholly your own: in an increasingly fast-paced, frantic, frenetic world, where social media feeds scroll quicker than you can keep up with and the pressure to be “always on” seems relentless, the chance to simply switch off and take a little time for yourself has never been so blessed.
On the train, your time is yours to spend. If you want to lose those few hours checking Twitter and Facebook, then fine. If you’ve got work to do, then at least you can get on with it free of distraction. And if you can grab yourself a nap, go for it.
Then there’s the beauty of free wifi. A two-hour journey to the north-west is ample time to catch up on a new episode from your current favourite box set, podcast, or, thanks to services such as Loop, indulge in some of the free entertainment provided by London Northwestern Railway itself – from natural history documentaries to extreme sports from Red Bull TV or digital magazines such as Cosmo, Total Film and Time Out London.
Or if, like me, you’re something of a traditionalist at heart, you could even read a book. After I started commuting by train every day, I also started visiting the library an awful lot more … and thanks to now getting through novels at the pace of roughly one a week, I’ve discovered a wealth of new writers I’d never have known about otherwise.
And if you’re really old-school, travelling any kind of distance by train – more than any other mode of transport – gives you an unparalleled chance to soak up the natural beauty of the countryside. To sit by the window on a train arrowing across England is to have a grandstand view of some of the loveliest sights in nature.
From the allotments following the tracks out of town, through the farms and fields marking the changing of the seasons by their colours and crops, to the wide, wild open spaces of our national parks, the landscape as seen from a train is a constantly changing, endlessly fascinating, living work of art. And, for most of us at least, it’s only when we have a couple of hours to kill on a train journey that we ever really get the opportunity to appreciate it.
And of course, if you’re the Instagramming type, you can’t really go wrong just holding your phone up to the window (#greenandpleasantland).
There is a magic to train travel. And a journey by rail gives us something going by road never can: namely, a chance for a bit of peace and quiet. To settle into a seat by yourself, with all England sliding past your window, a book or box set in front of you, and someone else worrying about getting you to where you’re supposed to be going, is to arrive at the other end refreshed, relaxed, and – dare I say it – maybe even better for having taken the journey itself.