Strangers on a train


From Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train to Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited, Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express to Brad Anderson’s Transsiberian, there’s something about trains.

Secret agents; Belgian detectives; screaming babies; charming psychopaths; less charming stag nights; students – the life blood of trains. Love them or hate them they pulp through the pages of fiction and reality. A mundane commute has the capacity to either bore you into a drooling comatose victim, slumped across your unfortunate neighbours shoulder, or be the backdrop for great literature and even greater banter.

Backdrop is the operative word. They say that it’s not the destination; it’s the journey that counts. I take issue with that generalisation. There’s the constant – the final destination – whether it be the warming promise of going home for Christmas after 14 weeks of relentless formative assessments, or the thrill of the unknown and foreign. That constant is more or less independent of the journey itself. Then there is travelling– a process, not a final product. Trains, more than any other form of travel, allow you to tap the pulse of the nation.

Whether fictional or factual, with such a confluence of stories there is no surer way to find pull together a social tapestry than step onto a train. In that confined metal tube on rails, disparate characters, motives and histories, and a plethora of final destinations come together for anything between ten minutes and, if you’re really unlucky, ten hours. And it’s then that the human condition really comes to the fore.

The best journeys, for the conversation collectors and people watchers out there, are of the overcrowded, delayed variety. I’m talking sitting on the floor situations and anything over half an hour – anything under half an hour being neither long enough to qualify as either conversation starter or the more than welcome delay-repay form.

My baptism of fire into the British Rail system came in early in my first year. Naive, quite ill and tired, a six hour journey developed a four hour delay, as somebody stole some of the cable outside Newcastle. Awkward. Fortuitously, thanks to the joys of delay-repay, that wee oversight in track security financed the rest of my years’ travel. Finances aside, it was at that moment that I came to realise that the Tenessee William’s Stella Dubois had it right about the kindness of strangers.

Since then I like her have come to rely on it; two incidents come to mind. At Easter I got onto an overcrowded East Coast train. My neighbour, and apparent new best mate, promptly introduced himself, and in the flowing five hour conversation that followed, we bonded. Such as cliché. Prospective PHD student at Edinburgh, deeply sarcastic and fresh meat for my jokes, what wasn’t to love?

At the beginning of this semester I travelled down to London for an assessment day. In classic turn of events, the East Coast line was closed, and we were due to be diverted via Carlisle – yes, Carlisle. Chaos ensued as it then emerged that somewhere north of Carlisle a fuse had blown. Cue a five hour delay somewhere in the borders. A group of sixty-something year old women, on realising the situation, sat on their suitcase in the aisle, and whipped out some wine, offering the bottles and nibbles around the carriage. And the woman next to me not only charged my phone but volunteered to be my Teach First lesson’s guinea pig.

Like any good romantic comedy or great film, as the camera stops rolling and the train doors slam shut, the lives of strangers on a train inevitably diverge. Whilst I may be jaded about the prospect of getting anywhere on time, even my most cynical of attitudes can’t help but be chipped away by the soul at the heart of travel. Perhaps we owe those strangers a debt of thanks, whether for allowing us to vent our frustration or just charging our dying phones. Each journey has potential. We may never want to relive that train ride, or that awkward power cut conversation again, but it’s one hell of an anecdote and eye opener – the truth is, we’re not all that different.


Photo credit: Nefeli Piree Iliou


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