I am not one of those people who rush to level crossings just to watch trains go by. Nor would I describe myself as a train nerd, no, I can’t claim that level of love for trains – but I have to admit that most mornings when the V-line (country) train pulls loudly into my station, a tiny thrill goes through me.
Let’s face it, diesel trains aim to thrill. They love a dramatic entrance; their very presence, as they stand humming in front of you, is tinged with drama. In this sense they are superior to their rather insipid cousins, the metro trains that utilise electricity and are, by comparison, relatively discreet about their arrival at your platform. Stopping at a station is not exciting for those guys; they stop every 3-4 minutes on average and probably up to 30 times on some Melbourne lines.
The arrival of a Diesel train, by comparison, is an Event. Not only do diesel trains announce their arrival at the platform with sound levels that require all conversation on that platform to temporarily stop, they stand and hum while passengers board, as though they are awfully impatient to take off again and only being held up from doing so by the annoyance of having to let people get on. Motion is everything, they seem to say, and if you are not on board in 60 seconds that will be your loss. Hurry up!
Once on board, the service protocols on country trains make the trip more of an experience than travelling in a city train is, and I’m often reminded of being a tourist travelling by train across foreign countries. Trains are not trains, they are a service. “Welcome aboard the 6.58 service to Geelong.” There are on-board announcements at each stop, advising travellers to ….look around and make sure you take all your personal items with you. Please make sure there is a platform below you before you step off the train. Lara our next stop.
For a moment, I feel like I’m travelling through Italy or France.
The sense that I’m travelling somewhere, on holiday, is sometimes exaggerated by the fluctuations in the weather that occur on a 55 minute train trip between Melbourne and Geelong. It’s possible to leave my destination in bright sunshine, travel through low lying mist as we pass the You Yangs mountain range, and arrive in pelting rain. Or vice-versa.
I enjoy train travel, because it’s a chance to ponder the clash between the permanence of the land, and the transience of human presence within it. Travelling on a fast-moving train, I whizz through landscapes that have existed, in some form, for a few millenia. I see the end products made by humans: our cities, towns, roads, and bridges, and I reflect on the changes that have taken place, even within my own lifetime – which is, of course, only a microscopic speck on the timeline in which that landscape has existed.
When I was a child, we rarely ever caught a train, and if we did, it was a major cause for excitement, partly because train travel meant travelling to the city, but mostly it was just the excitement of the train travel itself.
In those days, country trains had separate compartments, like small waiting rooms, each about 3 metres wide, with a bench seat running down each side of the little room. You walked down a little corridor, peering through the windows into each compartment, trying to find a compartment with as few people as possible in it, and when you found one, or gave up on that objective, you opened the door, entered, put your bags up on the rack and took a spot on one of the bench seats. Once the doors of the compartment closed, you were all cosily tucked into a small space the size of a walk-in wardrobe for the duration of the trip, and you would sit for the two hour journey, facing someone else on the opposite bench, and trying not to meet one another’s gaze for more than the brief moment that was socially acceptable.
As a teenager, it was the end goal of the train trip that provided my sense of anticipation, because train travel meant escaping my small town for the thrill of the city.
Still, even then, I would stare out the window at the endless paddocks flying past, and feel a sense of affinity with the land outside the train. It was as if I knew it well, as if those paddocks and gum trees were the land I had come from. It is, and yet it isn’t: I didn’t grow up right out in the countryside, but I did, and do, live in this country. My father lived on a farm as a boy, and in the hazy memories of my own childhood, it seems to me that we spent many weekends walking through acres of bush, or through paddocks of dry yellow grass and fallen-down trunks of old grey gum trees. We drove past land that looked like this every week, visiting my cousins on their farm, which also looked like this. On longer drives to see my grandmother in Melbourne, the dry, brown paddocks between our home and the city seemed to stretch on endlessly. So, yes, those landscapes were familiar.
In Australia, and outside urban hubs, you can’t travel from point A to point B without passing through wide expanses of land where all you can see is paddocks on either side of you. In some parts of the country, paddocks become desert. Australia’s landscape is far from exotic – although on second thought, I guess what’s exotic depends what you are used to. The First English painters who tried to depict the Australian landscape grappled with the difference in the light, and the unfamiliar shapes and colors of the native trees, and somehow made the Australian landscape look softer and more lush than it really is.
View of Geelong, Eugene Von Guerard, 1856 (public domain)
When I look out the window of the train now, at the yellow paddocks that stretch on as far as the the horizon, scattered with the dark green specks of eucalyptus trees, and underlined by the blue of distant mountains, I still often think about the age of the countryside that I’m travelling through. I try to imagine how the same patch of land looked 100 years ago, or 200 years ago. Was it covered in thick, dense forest back then? Would I have seen an Indigenous tribe settled near that dam? Maybe a river ran where there is now a dried up creek bed. Perhaps, as in the painting above, I might have spotted settlers, travelling through in a covered wagon, looking for a place to put down their roots.
One thing I’ve come to understand more clearly in the last few years, is that the physical world is not as stable as we like to think, and that in fact everything – including the natural landscape as well as man made structures – is in a constant state of flux. We notice the roadwork and the construction altering our city landscapes, but many other changes to our physical environment are minute, and so gradual, that they are not noticeable. The physical world, or even the landscape in which I’m travelling, is not the same as it was five years ago, or one year ago or even yesterday. This state of constant change will continue throughout my life and long after I’m gone from this earth.
All of this goes through my mind, sometimes, when I look out the window of the train in the morning, on my trip to work. I’m miles away from the inner suburbs of Melbourne where I live, and it’s a commute that not many Melbourne dwellers would voluntarily choose to do – travel out of the major urban centre to Geelong for work – but sometimes, that travel actually feels less like an annoyance, and more like an opportunity. It gives me a different perspective on the city where I live, reminding me that it’s not the whole world, that just outside of Melbourne are all these boundless plains.
*when I’m able to think of one, I like to use a title or lyric of a song for the name of a post. In this case, Perpetuum Mobile is a piece of music by the Penguin Cafe Orchestra, which does very aptly capture a sense of forward, ongoing motion.
Photo above: Country Living Sunrise, by Gary Light, licensed under a Creative Commons licence.