Showing posts with label trains. Show all posts
Showing posts with label trains. Show all posts

10 June 2023

Trains of Thought: Train Trip Fails and Foibles

It's June, and your author is out and about traveling. Not by train this year, though trains are my favorite way to get around. In the vacation spirit, I present a few of my train rides that went gloriously wrong and transcended to life experiences.

The Germans Are Coming. And In Song? (2004)

The Flying Scotsman is the famed express service between Edinburgh and London's King's Cross station. The line dates back well over a century in various livery and under prior names. 

In 2004, the route was a round trip, a four-hour dash with a pause for breath in Newcastle, and we took it. Four quick hours and we would be in rainy Edinburgh. We waited in some sort of King's Cross lounge while Great Northern Rail attended to our luggage and wine needs. 

We were gods.

As we boarded, the Flying Scotsman hissed and rumbled in the mysterious way that great trains do. Also boarding, and comprising ninety percent of the passengers, was a horde of German college students loaded with beer and ready to sing their hearts out at Germany-Scotland football match. A straight-up menchenmassen, and already the kids were in strong voice. 

Four hours. It's an eternity when set to foreign chants. 

Chunneling Your Demons (2009)

I've taken the Chunnel a few times, but the first descent is the doozy. Since 1994, the Chunnel has connected the Continent and England via a tunnel carved into the Strait of Dover seabed. You're not underwater. You're underneath seventy-five meters of rock that is underwater. For 38 kilometers of track. Oh, lots of trains and cars are down there with you, which at least means you won't get crushed alone.

You might think a bit before spending extended time under rock that's underwater. I did. Death capsules in the deep dark, I have pause. We left on Belgian Rail out of St. Pancras, and by the time we neared Dover, I was really admiring the landscapes and thinking we ought to skip Brussels and focus on white cliff watching. Two things drove me on. One, pommes frites. There is no food in the world quite like what Belgium crafts. Two, the train was clear of London and had opened the throttle to 225 kilometers per hour. I was chunneling.

Here is the thing, though. One minute I was staring at fields and towns, and the next we eased into a tunnel. It was just a tunnel, with tunnel pipes and tunnel lights. It stayed all tunnel things for a while, and suddenly there was much France outside. I wouldn't call the Chunnel boring or anticlimactic. More like clarifying.

This Guy Could Be a Character (2011)

Here's a trip with short story tendrils. I'd only just tried fiction and was in a true explorer's space. Train travel is perfect for writers. It doesn't swamp you with wait time. There is no TSA line or stowing a laptop for takeoff. From boarding to hearing your stop is next, it's just you and a patterned upholstered seat and hopefully no international soccer matches nearby. A writer can write.

This particular trip was a sweep across Provence. In Aix-en-Provence, we toured the local museum that inspired my first sale to Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. In Arles, the famed Mistral wind buffeted me Van Gogh-style into a magic realism story. Before those were polished and submitted, there was what I wrote on those trains, a comic lark about overcrowded bateaux mouche in Paris. I needed a key descriptive feature for a principal character, something to make him pop. Across the aisle was a guy with a Matterhorn nose, large and peaked and textured. That story became my first piece I held in print. And I owe it to hours on rattletrap regional trains. 

The Heavens Have Spoken (2014)

Another great thing about train travel is the time management. Timed correctly and fates permitting, the window from finding the platform (not to be underestimated) to taking that patterned upholstered seat is barely a blip. Even us nervous travelers allow minutes instead of an hour.

Operative words: fates permitting. 

The surname branch of my people goes back to French Lorraine, in and around Metz. In 2014, we were in the neighborhood, Strasbourg, close enough to pay our historical respects. Now looking at a map, Strasbourg to Metz is doable even in a country the size of Texas. Two hours by timetable, and two hours did get us there. 

We should've checked a weather map instead. 

Metz boasts a soaring cathedral and dragon symbols everywhere, and after a lovely day taking that in--sure, we had the usual occasional showers--we headed back for the station. A nightcap in Strasbourg would crown the family mission accomplished. The showers picked up. And picked up. So did the wind. Finally, the heavens unleashed punishment someone apparently had coming. We had monsoons, we had gale force action, and we had zero timetable for any next train in or out of this Mother Nature beatdown.

You don't think clearly in mid-Biblical plague. I was thinking it was just water. I was thinking that even major wind can't lift trains. Let's get home for a schnapps. Nature wasn't thinking that. The longer we disagreed, the more people bunched around waiting for trains that were somewhere blocked by trees or any of obvious issues severe weather means for trains. An end of days feel hung in the air.

When we did drop into bed, no one was pouring nightcaps. Too early. I learned my lesson about random travel elements until...

Can't Get There from Here (2018)

...French rail workers went on strike. A swathe of Southern France was still on the bucket list, and 2018 was the year to taste that wine and slap those mosquitos and ride those white horses. In particular, the castle town of Carcassonne (you might've played the board game) was a setting for one of those early batch short stories. I'd walked the streets only by Google Earth. It was time to use shoe leather. 

We were in Bordeaux, and we had legitimately purchased and conservatively planned for rail tickets for Carcassonne. Texas distances, acts of God. The French rail people assured us that, given their mess of a strike-altered schedule, there were no trains to Carcassonne. Not happening. Simply impossible.

Americans think the French are rude. Wrong. The French are open and generous if you work on their terms. This means that your problems are yours. We know the dynamic, and sure enough, we had fresh options. The French Rail guy could get us to Arles. Our hotel reservations were for Carcassonne, but now destiny shone on Arles. We changed hotel reservations while the train bundled east into the southern mountains and stark Proven├žal light. 

A Texas-sized time lapse later, the conductor announced that the next stop was Carcassonne. And it was. We stopped there. The doors opened, a big castle loomed amid the mountainscape, and people got off to check it out. We blinked and clutched our luggage. And stayed put. 

No, the French aren't rude. Their assurances, however, might not be literal. 

Pulling Into the Station

It's back to vacation mode. Trains are great ways to see the world and to write about what you're seeing. You're still grounded and experiencing the world as the train pulls you forward. 

There's a river of life metaphor in there somewhere, but why work that hard? Just relax, check the weather forecast, factor in labor conditions, get centered about any long dark spells underground, and enjoy the ride. Maybe the dining car has good wine, or maybe you can borrow a beer from some German kid.

17 January 2018

Train songs, Train story

Shirt courtesy of Joann Lopresti Scanlon
I am thrilled to bits to have the cover story in the January/February issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.  I also have a piece up on Trace Evidence, the AHMM  blog site, about the Orphan Train movement, which is the fact  behind my fiction. Today I want to discuss how I found out about it.

It goes back to the 1970s, when my future wife and I attended our first-ever folk  festival.  This was in Middletown, New Jersey and it had more than  a dozen performers, none of whom we had ever heard of.  (Honestly, I think the only folksingers we could have named back then were Dylan, Baez, Seeger, and Guthrie - Arlo, not Woody).

At one point Marlene Levine, the MC, said, "We had this man  here a few years ago and we think we've recovered enough to have him back.  Here he is, a legend in  his own mind, U. Utah Phillips, the Golden Voice of the Great Southwest!"

Out came an old man (ha, younger than I am now) with a gray ponytail under a cowboy hat.  When he left the stage twenty minutes later my wife and I were committed lifelong folkies.

Utah Phillips was a singer-songwriter, raconteur  and performer. He shared a body with Bruce Phillips, who was a veteran, a pacifist, an anarchist, a Wobblie, and a railroad nut.

One day, a decade after I first heard him, Phillips was touring in the midwest.  He came back to his hotel and saw a sign that read ORPHAN TRAIN REUNION.  Considering what I told you about him, you should realize that Bruce could no more walk past that sign than he could have flapped his arms and flown past it.

Of course he went in and asked "What's an Orphan Train and why a Reunion?"  The answer led him to writing one of his best songs.  I can't find a recording on Youtube of Utah performing it but there are several good covers and here is one.  (Hi, Jim Portillo!)

That song introduced me to the Orphan Train.  It led me to read a couple of books on the subject and that inspired me to write a song of my own.  Mine is based on the true story of the Woodruffe family of Trenton, Missouri.  I rearranged some of the facts but the main events really happened to Phyllis Weir, later Phyllis Woodruffe.

But after writing that song I still wanted to say more about the Orphan Train.  So being the kind of writer I am I asked: Is there a way to write a crime story about this phenomenon?  The result is "Train Tracks."  I hope you like it.

08 April 2014

Training Writers

Now as the train bears west,
Its rhythm rocks the earth,
And from my Pullman berth
I stare into the night
While others take their rest.
Bridges of iron lace,
A suddenness of trees,
A lap of mountain mist
All cross my line of sight,
Then a bleak wasted place,
And a lake below my knees.
Full on my neck I feel
The straining at a curve;
My muscles move with steel,
I wake in every nerve.
I watch a beacon swing
From dark to blazing bright;
We thunder through ravines
And gullies washed with light.
Beyond the mountain pass
Mist deepens on the pane;
We rush into a train
That rattles double glass.
Wheels shake the roadbed stone,
The pistons jerk and shove,
I stay up half the night
To see the land I love. 
                 Night Journey 
                 Theodore Roethke 
       On a Thursday morning in early October Ellery Queen was grappling with more fundamental concerns. The cross-country flight west to Los Angeles had been bumpy, particularly over the Rockies, and he had been bone-weary when the cab deposited him . . . . [H]is sleep had been fitful, and by morning he had still found himself more than a little disoriented in time, thick of tongue, and feeling every bit of his seventy years. Mr. Queen lamented the loss of the leisurely cross-country Pullman trips of yore and grumbled, not for the first time, how flying so unforgivably takes the travel out of travel. 

                  The Mad Hatter’s Riddle 
                   Dale C. Andrews 

      What is it about a train that lends itself to narrative fiction and, particularly, to mysteries? The question is open to some debate, but to my mind there are several aspects to train travel that can be irresistible to those of us who tell stories.  First, a passenger on a train is both a part of the world, and yet apart from it, traveling in a defined slice of life that is removed from everything else.  Second, time passes relatively slowly on a train -- there are opportunities to move about, to have contact with others over drinks or in a dining car, where seating is luck of the draw and we never know who may be across from us at the table. Jimmy Buffett said something about sailing that is equally true of riding the rails -- “fast enough to get there, slow enough to see: moderation seems to be the key.” Unlike airplane travel, where the terrain passes by miles below us, on a train we witness every mile, yet we are apart from each of those miles, encapsulated in a microcosm world. There is an undeniable romance to this.  Third, the train contains its characters, almost like a locked room. The cast is all there, rolling on the rails and quarantined from the every-day world, which can only be observed as it glides by. 

On board the fabled Orient Express
       Little wonder that train travel has provided a recurring locale for narrative writing. Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express is a prime example of a mystery built and dependent upon the structure of train travel. And it only seemed right that Ian Fleming used the constrained setting of a train as the locale for much of the narrative in From Russia, With Love, the fifth James Bond novel. Fleming drew much of his description of that particular train
-- the same Orient Express that captivated Christie -- from his own wartime journeys on the fabled train.

       The same lure of the rails lies at the heart of Hitchcock’s 1938 classic The Lady Vanishes, which was, in turn, based on the 1936 novel The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White.  And Hitchock returned to the rails with North by Northwest.  More recently Sara Gruen’s best seller Water for Elephants relies as much on the train as it does on the circus for its setting, and the 2008 movie Transsiberian is not only a mystery and thriller, but a grand homage to the Trans Siberian Express. 

       So there are lots of stories that take place on a train. But what about fiction that is written on a train? 

       In an interesting little plot twist, Amtrak has taken an initial proactive step toward fostering an even more symbiotic relationship between narrative writing and train travel. Recently the company unveiled its new (and admittedly fledgling) “Residency for Writers.” The program envisions offering selected writers round-trip accommodations on various Amtrak long distance routes as inspirations for writing. In the words of Amtrak “[e]ach writer's round-trip journey will include accommodations on board a sleeper car equipped with a bed, a desk and outlets. We hope this experience will inspire creativity and most importantly fuel your sense of adventure.” 

       The genesis of the Amtrak Residency Program was described as follows in the on-line magazine The Wire
After New York City-based writer Jessica Gross took the first "test-run" residency, traveling from NYC to Chicago and back, Amtrak confirmed that it is indeed planning to turn the writers' residencies into an established, long-term program, sending writers on trains throughout its network of routes.
       Jessica Gross described her trip, and the allure of writing on a train, during the course of her interview in The Wire
All told, it sounds like a truly exquisite experience. Gross later detailed her trip in The Paris Review: "I’m only here for the journey. Soon after I get to Chicago, I’ll board a train and come right back to New York: thirty-nine hours in transit—forty-four, with delays. And I’m here to write."
What, exactly, is the appeal of writing on a train? In a phone interview with The Wire, Gross described the train ride as a "unique environment for creative thought," one that "takes you out of normal life." She won't find much disagreement. Now more writers (The Wire's staff included) are clamoring for their own Amtrak residency.
“I’ve seen a billion tweets from other writers saying ‘I want one of these’,” Gross said, probably being a tad hyperbolic, but it's true that once Amtrak actually does start offering writers' residencies regularly, they're going to be very popular. Julia Quinn, social media director for Amtrak, tells The Wire that there has been "overwhelming demand" from people interested in the program – part of the reason the company is intent on turning this into a regular operation.
Observation car on Amtrak's California Zephyr
       Unfortunately not all of the press generated by the program has been as glowing as the story from The Wire. The Washington Post on March 13 served up a grousing review of the project that basically argues that Amtrak is publicly funded, already expensive, and shouldn't be giving away anything for free -- even to writers. The author of the piece, Post writer Dan Zak, attacks the modest Amtrak Writers’ Residency not by criticizing the program itself, but by attacking Amtrak for offering it.
Amtrak’s 400-plus-mile routes [Zak snivels] posted an operating deficit of $614 million in 2012, while its shorter routes (like those between the District and New York) had only a $47 million surplus, according to a 2013 Brookings Institution report. And yet ridership more than doubled between 1997 and 2012. Amtrak, birthed by a government bailout of the country’s privately operated rail network, is a publicly funded for profit entity.
Math,” Zak ponderously concludes, is “the antidote to romance.” 


       An aside here (as I struggle through ten deep breaths):  For the last five years I have taught a graduate course at the University of Denver on the development and regulation of transportation in the United States. I could (and do) go on and on about the bum deal that Amtrak has received over the years. But that course, not SleuthSayers, is the better venue for such a monologue. Suffice it to say that every passenger service everywhere in the world is, to some extent, government subsidized. The U.S. government built highways for cars and trucks. The government built airports for airlines and gave them air traffic control. The government built ports for ships. And every country that has taken the next step in train transportation, and invested in high speed rail, has done so with a commitment of governmental funds.  The amount the federal government currently spends to subsidize Amtrak operations is a drop in a bucket.  The amount pales when compared to the outlay in government funds expended to support other modes of transportation.  I could go on, believe me. But the simple answer to the cabined “do the math” squawks of Mr. Zak (who you can just about bet has never read Theodore Roethke and certainly is no fan) is simply that math has nothing to do with it. Certainly it is not an "antidote" for romance.  (And by the way -- who in their right mind wants an antidote for romance?)

       Amtrak's ridership has set new records in something like 8 of the last 10 years.  Many Amtrak runs, including long distance runs, operate near or at 100% capacity; that is, the only reason more riders (and more revenue) is not secured is because of the limited number of cars available to Amtrak (a fact that does derive from Mr. Zak's mathematical penchant).  It seems to me the answer to a viable national rail network is the same as the whispered promise in the baseball epic Field of Dreams: If you build it, they will come.  

       For a host of obvious reasons Amtrak’s Writers’ Residency program is likely not for math majors of Mr. Zak’s ilk, who focus on cost to the exclusion of value; expense to the exclusion of investment. But in any event (and again) Amtrak's Writer Residency program is not about math. Rather, the program is for the romantic.

       If you are more poet than mathematician, well, take a look. Applications can easily be submitted to Amtrak on-line
Applications will be accepted on a rolling basis and reviewed by a panel. Up to 24 writers will be selected for the program starting March 17, 2014 through March 31, 2015. A passion for writing and an aspiration to travel with Amtrak for inspiration are the sole criteria for selection. Both emerging and established writers will be considered.
Residencies will be anywhere from 2-5 days, with exceptions for special projects.
All aboard?