Somewhere along the line
I have to admit, I’m mildly addicted to the pay-TV show Railroad Australia, a doco-style series set mostly in the red-earth Outback, where blokes are blokes and the kangaroos keep getting in the way of extraordinary locomotives that seem to stretch to the horizon, or at least across the Pilbara.
Some of the men of iron (ore) are as weathered as the landscape and have a stony pragmatism about life and locomotives. “That’s Australia, mate,” they say when yet another track has buckled in 45C heat, holding up the trains from Newman while the Port Hedland container ships wait to be loaded as the clock ticks like a batty thing. The cinematography is fantastic and cameras are sometimes fixed under the trains, which fascinates me no end.
I was worried about this fixation until a taxi driver in Bath, England, told me he was concerned about the lateafternoon traffic and if there was enough time to drop me at the station and get home for his favourite telly show. “The missus won’t like it if I’m late for Railroad Australia,” he told me. “She’ll have the kettle steaming already.”
Also on the show are journeys on sightseeing trains, from Kuranda in Queensland to Melbourne’s Dandenong Ranges, and intrastate services in remote areas.
It reminds me of the joys of train travel: the voyeuristic windows into people’s lives along the tracks; the possibility for contemplation; chatty mingling with fellow passengers; and the always enjoyable excuse to reread Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar, although now perhaps de rigueur rail reading is The Girl on the Train.
Modern lovers of train travel are spoilt for choice. There is a spa carriage, for example, on the Royal Scotsman, operated by Belmond (formerly Orient-Express) on various itineraries from Edinburgh. So a massage on wheels no longer means a bumpy ride along poorly maintained tracks but the gently rocking ministrations of a therapist and the aromatic indulgence of botanical unguents such as lavender, peppermint and geranium.
Japan’s latest hotel on wheels is Train Suite Shikishima, a 10-car, 34-passenger affair with Michelinstarred chefs, butlers on call and, unbelievably, windowside cypress tubs in its top two suites and tatami-matted relaxation areas. Belmond has also launched Andean Explorer, a sleeper train in Peru, all fine alpaca wool blankets and gatherings by a piano.
All of which is a long way from my backpacker era in India, when my third-class train bedding was courtesy of compressed copies of The Times of India (the matrimonial advertising supplement in the weekend edition was as thick as a mattress) and entertainment meant flicking off the fleas.
I loved those long rail journeys across the subcontinent, the surprising emptiness of the landscape beyond the cities and illuminating encounters with travelling salesmen. Somewhere I still have a business card for Mr Narendra Ram, Rubber Outerwearings Specialist, who asked for my hand in marriage somewhere outside Jodhpur. Such things don’t happen on posh-pants trains and it seemed a bit of a shame, actually, to give him the boot.