In Random, Transport, Travel on February 11, 2012 at 4:47 pm

I happened to be travelling with some French friends on a train not so long ago. Once into the train and settled, it evoked a sigh from my friend seated next to me. “I love train journeys”, she said.

Now, normally, I would have responded in an enthusiastic affirmative, however, I knew that my friend was speaking of trains in France and I was more than just a little bewildered. It’s true that since 1981 when the first TGV line opened in France ( TGV= Train à grande vitesse, known to be the fastest running train in conventional service, often reaching 320km/h) between Paris and Lyon, fast trains have captured the imagination of Europe and other European countries soon followed suit. TGV lines have become a popular way of transport, especially between cities far apart, often beyond country borders and as someone mentioned at the time, “saved the French railways”. Without doubt, there would have been more people taking flights instead of trains but for TGVs. They are ecological and they give you exactly what they promised: Efficiency. But even for the existing “slow trains”, the mantra seems to be just that: efficiency. The railway transport company prides itself in getting you to your destination at the promised time. Not to say that there are never any delays, but for someone used to Indian trains, half an hour is hardly a “delay”.

However, in spite of being well aware of all the positive points of the French railways, I can hardly say I love train journeys in France. The idea of a train journey here is to reach the destination, not to enjoy the ride which means that when you get on the train, unlike in India, there is no noise and no people chattering animatedly away, no chai-wala and no jhaal-muri. Instead, there is a profound silence that reigns, with everyone either reading, sleeping, listening to music or working on their laptop. It’s really not unlike the metros in Paris. Sometimes when there is a technical problem and the metro stops in the tunnel for a few minutes, you can hear nothing but silence. It can be the most eerie experience to be surrounded by people in absolute silence in a dark tunnel in the undergrounds of Paris.

train windowFor sometime initially I would plant myself near the window every time I got on a train to enjoy the view, something I have always loved doing since I was a kid. Unfortunately, I soon realised that train lines in France were constructed far away from any kind of habitation, especially if they were fast trains. That is one reason TGVs, much as we might need them are not the future in India anytime soon. These trains need space, they need the surrounding areas to be clear to reach its highest speed without causing damage to those nearby.

Unfortunately for the passenger it means a very boring view with open fields all the time with clumps of trees for variety but for the length of the journey you will not see a single soul. I had not realised that when travelling in India, a lot of the view was actually composed of people themselves and watching what different people were up to, waving at school children, watching the farmer in his field were all part of the looking-out-of-the-window experience.

Farms as seen from the train. Somewhere between Delhi and Chandigarh, India.

It must however be a cultural thing. Recently, we were in Spain and we took the trains there. The Spanish seem to have a different idea of travelling. So their economy collapsed with having introduced so many new TGVs at the same time but that does not stop them from trying to make you feel like the ride in itself is important with a steward and stewardess hovering around, distributing hot towels to refresh yourself, some chocolates to appease your hunger and then distributing ear-phones to everyone! It was then that I realised there was a TV in the cabin. It reminded me of buses in India where the minute you get on the bus, they start some awful movie with lots of action and lots of noise so you can forget about sleeping even if it is a night-bus. So thank god for ear-phones in Spanish trains which at least does not disturb those who are not interested. But I still appreciate the distraction provided. I slept for a while and then I watched “Cars 2” in Spanish and understood everything anyway and the journey seemed much shorter than it was.

So ultimately what becomes agonising in trains in France is that there is absolutely nothing to do, apart from reading a book (I used to forget packing my books when taking the trains initially, it was so not part of my idea of taking a train), listening to music, working on your laptop and sleeping. There is no distraction of any kind neither in the view outside, nor in the passengers inside. So you can imagine how taken aback I was when I heard my friend sighing blissfully of how much she loved train journeys. My bewildered-ness must have shown on my face because she explained, “It’s so calm and peaceful! It’s like my time to myself.”



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