I love trains. When I first moved to Macomb, more than a few people warned me about the “noisy trains” that woke them up at ungodly hours, and cautioned me about planning for delays because of active railway crossings. All I thought was, BONUS! I have a life-long infatuation with trains; I overlook their faults, I forgive them their tardiness, I believe in them. When disgruntled freight train drivers hoot the horn incessantly at 4:00 AM, if I hear it at all, it is like a strange lullaby to me. And like all love stories, sometimes they drive me mad, but it is always a story with a happy ending.
The other day, as I was driving somewhat crisply across town, a little late for an appointment, I saw the crossing gates coming down. It was a trying moment for me, but like I always do, I put my car in park, relaxed, and had myself a few Zen moments. Like old tunes that provoke nostalgia, the sound of trains takes me back to my childhood in India. Every summer, as soon as school ended, my family would board a train from the city of Chennai (Madras in those days) on the southeast coast of India to the city of Kochi (Cochin) on the southwest coast of India. This was always the high point of my summer. From boarding the train in the sweltering heat of sea-level Madras, with all the grime, noise and smells of a big city, we would travel through the night to wake up the next morning in a magical landscape of coconut trees and paddy fields. Those train rides were magical carpet rides whisking us away, and I have always associated trains with transformations—both spatial, and personal. Later in life the themes of travel and transformation moved me to study Geography as an academic discipline.
Indian Railways, the government-owned corporation which operates the country’s national railway system, generated over 1, 157 billion passenger-kms according to its 2019-2020 Yearbook. For comparison, in the same period, the USA generated just over 32 million passenger-kms. Indian Railways is the second-largest railway company in the world in terms of passenger kilometers and has been hailed as the “great unifier” of a country that is diverse in its culture, cuisine, customs and languages. Yet, it is not the grandness of its statistics, but rather the sense of elation and enchantment that I felt during those early train rides that keeps me enamored of trains. Train journeys were never just about getting from one place to another but, rather, they were about the experience of the ride, the thrill of meeting people from different backgrounds, and hearing their experiences, sharing their food, and, for a time, just sharing a space.
Train trips I have taken in America, by contrast, have been pretty sterile. People tend not to make eye contact, or even just gaze outside at the passing landscape. The train journey, it seems, is transactional—strictly a way to get from one place to another, with as little hassle as possible. So when President Biden, long known for his love of Amtrak, remarked after the successful signing of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill (INVEST in America Act),
“I’d look out as it would go through a suburban neighborhood. I’d look in those— all those lights were on in the windows, … and I’d look and I’d wonder, “What are they talking about?” … “What are they talking about sitting at that table?”
It seemed to me that he, at least, understood the pull of the train, the opportunities trains give us to imagine ourselves in other places, in other lives. The Act increases funding for Amtrak, to allow it to expand its service to “meet the intercity passenger rail needs of the United States,” and also to give equal priority to urban and rural area service. This is exciting news, and I look forward to more train rides and travels.
My wish for us all is that wherever our journeys take us this year, that we enjoy the rides, take in the experiences and keep moving.
Sunita George is an Associate Professor of Geography at Western Illinois University.
The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the University or Tri States Public Radio. Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.