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As trains regain their prestige, it's time for a trip through their chequered past

While air travel has become progressively less exclusive, rail is edging back towards the prestige it once had. But it has had a chequered historical and cultural past.

Trains are regaining their prestige. Photo: Flickr/Gareth Lovering

I never feel like I am really on holiday until I take a train. Like my preference for watching movies on the big screen rather than on TV, it is something I picked up in early childhood. Air travel came much later for me and trains were better than car travel due to the magical absence of travel sickness when went by rail. Buses were for transporting you to somewhere you didn’t want to be (usually school-related). For the young me, it didn’t really get any better than travelling by train, especially as it usually meant trips to Dublin, which, in comparison to rural Ireland, was a land of plenty.

Not that there was anything remotely glamorous about it – the antiquated 1960s Craven rolling stock that Irish Rail still operated until about ten years ago was far from the height of comfort. There were some people though who were impressed by the clunky, grimy carriages – towards the end of their use, my sister, sitting on the Sligo-Dublin train, overheard an English trainspotter excitedly phone his wife to tell her he was finally “on a Craven.” In most places I end up in on holidays I will invariably take a train of some sort, even if it’s only a metro or a suburban train.

Rail travel, like cinema, has never really met the demise that was long predicted for it. Written off in many parts of the world in the post-war period, it enjoyed a resurgence initially in France and Japan – two countries just about small enough to make high-speed rail travel preferable to internal flights. Three decades on from that, the rest of the developed world is catching up, even the UK, though its progress has been stalled by a largely unsuccessful privatisation, inefficient tendering processes, and a string of rail disasters.

The Eurostar has belatedly begun to approach the same level of speed on the British end as on the other side of the tunnel, though the UK need not be too ashamed at struggling to keep up with the French – the Lyra from Paris to Zurich also slows considerably from its top French speed of 320kmph when it crosses the border at Basel. Umberto Eco, writing about Wikileaks a few years back, saw this new prestige for rail travel as part of an eccentric technological trend:

I once had occasion to observe that technology now advances crabwise, i.e. backwards. A century after the wireless telegraph revolutionised communications, the Internet has re-established a telegraph that runs on (telephone) wires […] High-speed trains take us from Rome to Milan in three hours, but flying there, if you include transfers to and from the airports, takes three and a half hours. So it wouldn’t be extraordinary if politics and communications technologies were to revert to the horse-drawn carriage.

High-speed rail travel has become the symbol of infrastructural ambition worldwide, a mark of progress in national planning – it was one of the Obama administration’s grand projects (and stymied by Republicans, no doubt in part because of its europhile inspiration). While air travel has, in the West at least, become progressively less exclusive and less comfortable, rail is edging back towards the level of comfort it once enjoyed in its pre-automobile hey-day. It’s a far cry from just over a decade ago when playwright Neil LaBute wrote of his horror at having to slum it with the American masses.

That prestige, of course, also means it is out of the reach of many – the Eurostar is infinitely better than flying from Charles de Gaulle to any of London’s airports, but inflexible ticketing practices mean that users are forced to book well in advance to avoid premium prices and then trade online if the dates don’t suit.

Even the moving of London’s Eurostar terminal from Waterloo to St Pancras seemed to have been done with the needs of a wealthier passenger base in mind (the Paris end, by contrast, continues to debouch on the perennially grotty surrounds of Gare du Nord). Travelling by train across national borders within Europe is also to experience, or witness, racial profiling – I don’t think I have ever taken an international train without seeing a non-white passenger being humiliatingly forced to present credentials to border police in full view of fellow travellers. The Ken Loach-directed section of the portmanteau film Tickets has a ticketless Albanian refugee rescued by a young Celtic fan, who gives her his. It is only on the arrival at Rome’s Termini Station that the young fan and his friends are able to elude the authorities.

Tickets, Ken Loach


The closed circuit of the train has always made it popular with writers and filmmakers –– it is like a dynamic, moving version of the “locked room”. Anyone who has ever tried to fare-dodge, even on urban transport, will testify to this. Patricia Highsmith used it to great effect in her tale of murder and blackmail, Strangers on a Train, later adapted by one of the great capturers of trains, Alfred Hitchcock. James M Cain’s Double Indemnity also uses a train trip as its plot motor – the murder, dressed up as an accident, of a wealthy husband. Interestingly, the film versions of both books have their plots hinge on seemingly chance meetings with people on board a train. The attempt by Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) and Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) to mask the murder of Phyllis’ husband in Double Indemnity comes undone as claims adjuster Barton Keyes (Edward G Robinson) won’t believe someone could die falling from a slow-moving train.

The topographical limits of trains on film are such that jumping off a moving train has become almost a cinematic cliché – often the only way you’re going to get off when pursued. The irony in Double Indemnity is that such a staple of cinematic narrative poorly executed blows the whole cover.

Double Indemnity, Billy Wilder

 

Strangers on a Train, Alfred Hitchcock
 

Trains are not that often used as an, ahem, vehicle for social commentary, which is surprising, given the very literal class divisions that have always existed in rail travel. Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s latest film Snowpiercer attempts it, with a state-of-the-art train carrying the only survivors of global warming as it hurtles perpetually forward on a massive international circuit through a second Ice Age. The occupants of the train have been stratified and segregated, with the underclasses banished to squalor in the tail of the train while the rich live in luxury towards the front. A long-brewing revolution fomented by the underclass leader Gilliam (John Hurt) eventually catches fire, led by Curtis Everett (Chris Evans), a young man who was born on board the titular train. He and his cohorts’ progress towards the front is blocked by Mason (Tilda Swinton in a bizarrely irritating cross between Margaret Thatcher and Thora Hird) and Franco the Elder (the brilliantly sinister Romanian actor Vlad Ivanov).

Adapted from an obscure French comic book of the 1980s, Snowpiercer doesn’t exactly hit the heights it intends to – for all the ingeniousness of the concept, the baroque splendour of the production design and the excellence of the action sequences, it is all a bit too thin and crude to really pass muster as class analysis (last year’s Elysium looks positively Brechtian by comparison). Its denouement, which may pack a bigger punch on the page, is also a terrible anti-climax, not to mention the fact that Evans doesn’t have the presence to carry the film.

Snowpiercer, Bong Joon-ho
 

Bong’s film does however have the virtue of reminding us that trains were the first ever rationalisation of mass transit on dry land. As Tony Judt noted in a late essay, they were both a response to the demands of the Industrial Revolution and a motor of it. They helped accelerate the growth of urban metropolises in the 19th and 20th centuries, some of which declined almost as soon as rail itself did (Buffalo, Detroit and other industrial cities of the American mid-west).

 This rationalisation had its sinister side too, something that Snowpiercer also acknowledges, and few people exploited that as much as Adolf Eichmann. Trains became synonymous with death camps and the Holocaust (and the national rail companies of many European countries, such as Deutsche Reichsbahn and France’s SNCF were fully complicit with it). There were many logistical “headaches” involved in Eichmann’s implementation of the Final Solution but rail transport was one of the more efficient tools, if only because Jews and other deportees were crammed into cattle wagons in such unspeakable conditions. Nonetheless, the Nazis still encouraged their victims to pack suitcases as a cynical ploy to suggest that they were simply being relocated – a suggestion that the prestige of rail travel itself may have been a smokescreen for the atrocities to come.

Shoah, Claude Lanzmann
 

Claude Lanzmann’s two films about the Holocaust, his monumental Shoah (1985) and last year’s Last of the Unjust, focus on the railways, one of which had the most sinister terminus in the history of the railways, inside the gates of Auschwitz-Birkenau. He interviews Nazi bureaucrats who, even thirty years on, speak in a horrendously dispassionate way about the human cargo they transported. Lanzmann also locates one of the Poles, now an old man, who drove the trains on the final leg of their journeys to the death camps, and has him re-enact it with a steam engine from the period. It is one of the most devastating sequences in the film, through which the grim echoes of history resonate.

Trains had made regular mass-population movements possible for the first time in history, obliterating geographical distances that had reigned supreme for millennia. It was the Nazis (and Stalin too) who tapped their potential to empty cities and neighbourhoods of entire populations. It is this historical memory that made one particular detail of last week’s Malaysia Airlines crash in Eastern Ukraine even more shocking than others – that the bodies of the victims were unceremoniously thrown onto a refrigerated train after militia men refused to allow investigators to access the crash site and seal it off. With rail travel enlisted to clear the scene you couldn’t help thinking of an appalling historical precedent in the same part of the world.

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