Perpetuum Mobile

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.

 

country-living-sunrise-by-gary-light

 

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_1856_painting

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.

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9 Comments

  1. weebluebirdie

     /  November 27, 2016

    I envy your daily train journey. I have a very fine bus commute, but it would be so much better by train. There’s something about the speed and only having a glimpse which adds something to the excitement of the journey. When I used to go home; home as in the place I grew up, it was a treat to take the train. I always made a point of sitting on the right hand side, to savour to the few miles the track went by the coast – just in case I might see a seal. There is a Robert Louis Stevenson about trains, (From a Railway Carriage?) I loved it so much as a child, at which time I had never been on a train. The poem in my book – A Child’s Garden of Verses – had beautiful illustrations which made me yearn to be part of the world in the pages.

    Good choice of PCO – one of my favourites on the ipod when I want to feel relaxed. Lately I’ve tried running to Horns of the Bull – with mixed results!

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    • That piece of music has an almost magical effect, it’s so kind of uplifting. But I don’t know Horns of the Bull, what’s that? (If it’s by the same band I do have 2 of their albums but the only pieces I know the names of are Perpetuum Mobile and Piece for Telephone & Rubber Band).

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      • weebluebirdie

         /  November 28, 2016

        It’s on Signs of Life – and sounds just like a bull charging about 🙂

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      • Oh yes, I’m pretty sure I’ve got that Signs of Life CD, isn’t that the one with Perpetuum Mobile on it?….. I listened to that album a lot in 1992 (I remember which share-house I was in & thus can date the year exactly) but have not listened to it very much since then. I don’t know where it is now…somewhere amongst all the other CDs….I just realised I have Perpetuum Mobile on my iPhone but it’s been put into itunes from another album of theirs called Concert 2 or something, maybe belonging to my partner. I must find this music that sounds like a bull charging about, mostly because that turn of phrase amuses me. Over here we’d probably say, “a bull going mad” or something. Charging about just sounds too genteel, like the bull is a hyped- up, yet polite, heavyweight boxer.

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  2. As a kid, every year we visited my Gran in Scotland which included a train journey from Newton Abbot in Devon to Stirling in Scotland, I guess around 500 miles, mostly overnight. It was a great adventure!

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  3. In the UK too, the word ‘train’ has largely been replaced in railway-speke by the jargon term ‘service’. ‘This is the 9:15 service to Crewe,’ says the announcement. ‘Oh no, it isn’t,’ says the pedantic voice in my head, ‘It’s the 9:15 train‘. But of course, there is no point in becoming all Canute about it: the language continually mutates, whether we will or no, and perfectly good, meaningful, words are edged out by dull corporate euphemisms. (In the same way, all the ‘passengers’ have died and been replaced by ‘customers’.)

    Another railway pet hate of mine concerns where the train actually halts. This is now referred to as a ‘station-stop’: ‘Birmingham Parkway is your next station-stop.’ Why? There is never any reference to a station we don’t stop at as a ‘station-non-stop’, so why do we have to say ‘station-stop’ and not merely ‘station’? Is it assumed that passengers – I mean customers – are now so stupid that they don’t know that a station is where the train stops?

    As for the trains themselves, nothing has yet appeared on the planet that beats the drama of the steam locomotive. The smoke and steam, the blackened faces of the driver and stoker, the skull-splitting shriek of the steam whistle, added a power and majesty to the scene that no other loco, no matter how big, can match. The wheel-spinning and dragon-like huffing and puffing of the departing steam loco puts the almost apologetic trundling of electric and diesel engines to shame. Also, modern rails are are so smooth that you no longer feel the joins and the romantic rhythmic tookety-ta, tookety-ta of the old days has gone for ever. You’re lucky now to feel the occasional rattle as the train crosses the points.

    I too remember the compartment trains and I also remember the local trains that had compartments but no corridor. You really were shut into your small space on those. Heaven help you if you found yourself sharing with an annoying or abusive fellow passenger as there was no escape until you arrived at the next station. No hope of the friendly drinks trolley, either, and also no hope of easement should you need the toilet…

    Even on this relatively small island you pass through bands of different weather on one of the longer journeys. At one moment that countryside is laid out like a toy farm under golden sunshine and the next, you plunge into a city whose roofs are wet with rain under a grey sky or perhaps an all-pervading mist adds a sleepy nuance to the scene beyond the glass.

    I always feel slightly disappointed as the train reaches the final ‘station-stop’, the one at which I must disembark. During the journey I settle down into a state of watchful sloth, my attention absorbed by the countryside rolling across the window and, sometimes less felicitously, by the antics of my fellow passengers, such as those who think that the Quiet Carriage is a special place set aside for them to make loud phone calls in. The train becomes my world and its logic, my reality. Arriving at my destination and realizing that I must get up, grab my bag and walk out onto terra firma hits like a shock to the system. I stand on the platform and watch the train depart – without me – leaving in its stead a strange emptiness of bare rails. We have arrived at a new place and time and the process of constructing my new reality begins…

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    • I enjoyed your comment immensely, it’s as interesting and descriptive as your posts. I particularly enjoyed your use of words, so maybe you were providing an antidote in this comment to the dull, corporate language of the railway corporations!

      Station-stops?? This is definitely ridiculous. As you pointed out, surely to be consistent they should also refer to “Station-non-stops”. Maybe that is yet to come. I would be interested to know whether there are any stops that are not Stations, to make this “Station-stop” distinction necessary? Perhaps the next step they are working towards is “Leap-off stops” where you just take pot luck and go for it.

      As for steam trains, your description is great. I particularly enjoyed “dragon-like huffing and puffing”, and “the skull-splitting shriek of the steam whistle” – I almost felt like my ears were ringing after reading that line! Sadly for me, I can’t recall whether I’ve ever seen a proper full sized steam engine in action close up, so I will have to make do with the diesel and second rate drama, but I greatly enjoyed your description of the humming of the diesel or electric in comparison to the steam engine as “apologetic trundling” – sounding, appropriately, like something Thomas the Tank Engine might do after having a grumpy morning.

      It was interesting to me, to hear of the differing weather in your “little” part of the world. Of course, weather travels too, so we know that weather conditions cover a physical area and like any physical area, these weather “events” have distinct boundaries, outside of which, a different weather condition exists. Still, we simple humans love to obsess about the weather, and variations in climate within a small, or even large, area is often enough for us to stop and express wonder. Here in Australia, we’ll watch the weather on TV and never cease to comment, as if in disbelief, when we see reports that while it’s raining and 13 degrees in Hobart, Tasmania, it’s 35 degrees in Darwin – yet those places are over 4000 kilometres apart, so it’s not really surprising that their weather might vary greatly!

      Lovely ending – the notion of having to rejoin the world after an indulgent hour of day-dreaming is very apt. I had a sentence in that post that I took out (I think) that said, simply “I like being in transit”. If we can avoid pulling out our mobile phone, or our newspaper or book, travel on a train allows us to do something that we don’t do very often any more in any other situation – be nowhere and do nothing more than observe the world around us, reflect, and dream.

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  4. Incidentally, your title, ‘Perpetuum Mobile’, makes me think, more than anything, of the businessman seated across the aisle from me who spends the whole journey talking loudly on his mobile phone to a seemingly endless list of the colleagues and clients…

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