21 March 2004

The human side of railways

Much as I am finding MS Train Simulator fascinating, and as realistic as its virtual world appears to be, it is missing something rather crucial: people! Although I myself am the supposed driver of the locomotive, the passenger cars are empty, and the automobiles buzzing by on adjacent roadways are curiously bereft of drivers. This virtual world is, in short, an eerily lifeless world, perhaps rather like that left by the detonation of a neutron bomb: it kills people but leaves buildings standing. This is not to say Train Simulator is not enjoyable; it is indeed. It is hard to equal the vivid sensation of moving from one point to another at high speeds.

Yet many railfans focus rather excessively on equipment. Much as the readers of Playboy or Penthouse (sorry, guys, no links!) focus narrowly on the physical characteristics of the undressed females on their pages, those collecting books and magazines about trains tend to neglect the human side of the railways. Even those working for the railways developed an entire industrial subculture that became the stuff of legends and folk songs. (Think of "Casey Jones" or "I've Been Working on the Railroad.") The early history of post-confederation Canada itself was to no small extent the story of the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway.

For those old enough to remember, there was a palpable excitement in the air at a big-city railway terminal such as New York's Grand Central Station or Pennsylvania Station. The Chicago of my childhood had its Union Station, Northwestern Station, LaSalle Street Station, Dearborn Station, Grand Central Station and Central Station, all within a few city blocks of each other, with railways fanning out in all directions linking America's second city to the rest of the country and beyond. As children, two or three times a year my siblings and I would accompany my mother (and sometimes my father) to the LaSalle Street Station, famously overshadowed by the Chicago Board of Trade Building, where we would board a New York Central diesel-electric streamliner to Ann Arbor, Michigan, to visit my grandmother and other relatives. Everyone hurrying through these downtown terminal stations would have a story to tell: travelling to California on holiday, going to visit friends or relatives, picking up a loved one after a business trip, and so on. During the Second World War the railways were especially busy, with soldiers being transported to various and sundry places for purposes of national defence. How many couples would have kissed goodbye in those palatial and cavernous buildings, not knowing whether they would ever see each other again? These are poignant moments that I have come to attach to the last golden age of the railways, which extended into my own childhood, but not much beyond.

Grand Central Station, New York
Grand Central Station, New York

Airports are simply not the same. Air travel takes one to his or her destination fairly quickly. One hardly has time actually to settle into an airline trip, unless one is flying overseas. But part of the excitement of long distance rail travel comes from the sense of anticipation of a long journey, and hours ahead to fill with reading, eating in the dining car, enjoying a drink or two in the club car, taking in the scenery, and possibly retiring to sleeping quarters in a Pullman car. A transcontinental train was like a hotel or resort on wheels, where one could get a haircut or a three-course meal, enjoy conversation with newly-found friends, or even, like Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest, find romance.

There is, of course, no way a computer simulation could possibly replicate such an experience. So I'll enjoy it for what it is, despite its limitations, and be content to remember the real thing.

No comments:


Blog Archive

About Me

My photo
can be contacted at: dtkoyzis@gmail.com