Growing up we used to read an old picture book that lived in my grandparent’s linen cupboard. A porcelain pig came down from his mantelpiece in the station master’s cottage and travelled on a train for the first time. The train travelled through some spooky woods where tall gnarled trees grew close to the tracks and then pirates took over the train and sent it down a literal ‘branch line’ in the forest, so that it ended up at the beach where the pirates looked for gold in the sand and the railway carriages frolicked in the waves (or at least this is how I remember the story). Ultimately Anthony, the pig, ends up back on his mantelpiece, with all the safety of home, but as a significantly well-travelled pig. This book still lives in my imagination, a far greater influence than the (to me) blander narratives of Thomas the Tank Engine. Partly it was the detailed illustrations in Anthony & Antimacassar that really brought the text to life.
This book gave me a romantic view of the world of the train – helping me to think fondly of terms and phrases such as ‘branch line’, ‘railway siding’, ‘signalman’ and ‘tickets please’. Recently I took a ride on a vintage tourist rail motor, run by enthusiasts. The ride was very bumpy, the seats worn and sagging and lumpy in strange places, and the windows rattled. Yet there was something soothing about hurtling through the trees, right in the midst of the forest, then through a narrow railway cutting and then sailing along high up on an embankment, looking down on an olive grove. In a train you’re right in your surroundings in a way you aren’t in a road vehicle.
For those who grew up with trains, they can be very evocative. On family holidays we used to wait while my father and train-mad brother visited a disused station, or talked to a station master at a small country station. From age eleven I rode the train to school half an hour each way. The old Sydney trains were called ‘Red Rattlers’ and often had their doors permanently open, the half-down windows rattling in their mountings as school uniformed children and their bags cluttered the doorways, their hair streaming behind them as the train breeze blew through the open doorways.
Trains can be used from travel from A to B, but they are also a time-machine, taking you back to trains and times past. They can be the start of an adventure, because who knows where you might end up if you venture down that branch line?