Friday, July 28, 2006

Used train, anyone?

I have been on a lot of trains in my life. I've trained across the Australian desert from East to West (and am unlikely to repeat the experience). I have used trains in France as mobile Youth Hostels, thanks to having a train pass but little cash. I have been on a train that managed to get lost (going through Jackson, Illinois). I have been on a train which ran someone over, in Chile. My first real experience of India was to spend three days on a train, going from Mumbai to Calcutta. My most recent train adventure was to take the Maple Leaf from New York to Niagara (which, by the way, has the hottest immigration officers I have ever encountered).

But my very first experience of a train (except, perhaps at some time in my infancy I no longer recall) was the train now known as the Overlander, a train which runs daily between Auckland and Wellingron (and vice versa) on New Zealand's North Island. Until last year, it also ran as an overnight service, which, in previous iterations, had even run to having a sleeper car service and (I think) some form of motorail. For my very first stint of travelling and living by myself, occasioned by my choice to attend the NZ University furthest from my home, I took the train. I retain little of that particular journey, save for the unexplained stops in the midle of nowehere which seem to be attendant upon train travel.

Since then, however, I have made numerous trips on it. I repeated the journey from Auckland to Dunedin when my then employers, concerned that I might be having some sort of burn-out related breakdown, sent me on holiday. The train was most helpful when I lived in Palmerston North, within walking distance of the station. For three years, I had weekly classes in Wellington. While the Overlander was too early in the morning to get me there at a sensible time, it did make the northward journey at a suitable time. Plus, I had parents living in Raurimu: although there was no scheduled stop, this was where the train crews would be exchanged between north and south bound trains, so I could generally persuade them to let me off.

But over the past decades, our train service has been ravaged. It fell into the hands of private interests, who were notorious for not undertaking the necessary degree of maintenance and capital expenditure. Quick and dirty solutions were the norm: when a young fellow managed to fall off the outside vestibule used by smokers, the response was not to make these areas safe, but to ban passengers from them. In the 1980's, the most stupid decision possible concerning the network was made: to prevent the familiar clackety-clack of a train, the railway lines were all welded together to smooth passage over them. Unfortunately, a basic law of physics was overlooked: in the heat of summer, steel expands. With no spaces between each link in the network, the railway iron had no choice but to kink and twist: which causes adverse consequences for trains. So, over summer, trains have to run at ridiculously slow speeds. Passengers are put on busses for parts of their voyage. More than twelve hours are needed, at the best of times, to travel 800 kilometres.

Even in these days of escalating fuel prices, when trains are a logical way to maximise the number of people carried for a given amount of fuel, busses are cheaper. Taking the bus, with its compulsory stop every couple of hours, is still quicker then the train. Sometimes, they'll put on a decent video to watch. Even flying can be cheaper and is obviously faster.

And, under the current ownership (a freight company) the staff employed to deal with passengers seem to want to treat us as items of freight, who can be shouted at and shunted around at will. The very last time I rode the night time equivalent of the Overlander (my never again moment), I had a very simple request. I wanted to read while I had a cup of tea: the above seat light was disturbing my fellow passengers. There was an entire cafe car with no passengers, so drinking my tea there hardly seemed unreasonable. After all, that's where I bought my tea. And yet the train manager warned me that I could not have a light for long (he had to sleep) and, in fact, as soon as I had settled down with me tea, he switched off all lights. Yes, it was a minor thing, but it was so unnecessary and irritating.

If we'd had a proper investment in good tracks, so that trains can go at a decent pace, an investment in good trains, and an operator who understands passenger transport and tourism, New Zealand could have saved its trains, which provide a marvellous way of seeing the place. Instead, it has been announced that the Overlander will soon be no more. There is a certain irony that the only remaining long distance trains will then be in the relatively under-populated South Island, but I wonder how long they will last. Apparently they're both for sale.


Blogger Jessie said...

Aw :(

8:10 PM  
Blogger Stefanie said...

I love riding on trains. They are great for urban transport and for travel they are a pleasant and easy way to go. There is leg room and the sardine feeling of an airplane is not there. One also doesn't have to worry about falling out of the sky. But, trains take longer to get you where you want to go and in this hurry up world people prefer being a sardine. It's too bad. I'm sorry for your trains going away.

1:56 AM  

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