I grew up on the sound of trains, which is probably why I like riding them so much. The rumble forward and the side to side roll of the carriages jostling along has always been comforting to me. Like a carriage of one hundred conversations I guess, that rumble always seemed like the train was talking in it’s own voice.
I take the train from Union Station in Los Angeles to San Diego and watch the Pacific swell and crest through the windows, that oceanic bridge between home and away. I also take the train from outside my apartment in New Zealand to downtown. I walk amongst hordes of office workers, school children and all manner of people on trains.
When you think of public transportation, it’s too easy to think just of the commute to work. But really, public transportation is any way of getting somewhere that you don’t get complete control of the journey or your fellow passengers.
I once took a train for four days across the Australian desert from east to west. That time I was lucky – my fellow travellers were a group of beautiful humans that I still pay attention to today. I took a train to the Lake District earlier this year and made conversations with a stranger but mostly on trains, I just pay attention and observe.
Trains used to be great observation stations of human culture and interaction. They are less about human interaction than they used to be. It used to be that you could see what books someone was reading or the newspaper and share a knowing glance, even a passing smile. Sometimes there was even chance to smile and maybe flirt a little, with the same people you see every day.
Now, you step onto the train to rows of bowed heads and headphones designed to drown out noise and flood the listener with some other distraction. Trains are quiet places now, because hardly anyone talks back.
I watched a heavily pregnant woman (yes, I was actually thinking through how I would help deliver a baby if it came before we left the train) stand in the stifling humid London heatwave while a carriage full of people ignored her. We’ve become so good at ignoring each other. I guess I used to think of public transportation as a shared journey, a shared experience. But now I think humanity is becoming far too good at being alone together.
We miss all the small chances for connection and human engagement throughout our day – we’ve forgotten the art of small talk because no one has time for it anymore. We just learn to be alone in the midst of being together, refusing to engage in shared experiences.
Public transportation makes me lonely, because I already spend too much time in my own thoughts. I sit on that train and rumble towards the next stop; watching the dozen or so people in my carriage with their heads bent. I wouldn’t recognise them on the street because I only see the top of their heads or maybe the toe of a shoe. And I watch people travelling together but entirely alone.