“For many hours, I used to stand by the window of the K3 coach, trying to catch glimpses of village life as the train snaked its way across the Gobi Desert and the steppes. The steppes, populated mainly by horses and camels, were huge rolling grasslands sometimes dotted by one or two white felt yurts or gers, a symbol of nomadic lifestyle still predominant in Mongolia today. After a total of 26,000 kilometres of changing landscapes crossing China, Mongolia, Siberia, the Baltic and the Balkan states, I was convinced that the most comfortable way of travelling long distances is by train……this, despite having to spend six straight days in a cubicle 1.5 meters wide, squeezing between oversized luggage bags, tight bunk beds and often, caught in the cross-fire of contentious travel mates…..” (adapted from my first book “A Train To Catch”, 2016, Husna Kassim)
Train travel, as Paul Theroux would have it, is:
“…a far cry from the anxious seats of doom aeroplanes inspire, or the nauseating gas-sickness of the long-distance bus, or the paralysis that afflicts the car passenger…”
(The Great Railway Bazaar)
Travelling on a train around Europe is far more complicated than crossing the Siberian. Even though crossing borders of most European countries was simplified by the Schengen Agreement allowing a passport-free movement, getting from one place to another can be a headache if you are unfamiliar with the local ways or don’t speak the local language. Carefully-laid plans get derailed. Our first class Eurail tickets got downgraded due to ineffective communication at the chaotic ticket office at Lyon train station.
Despite everything, the train is still the most delightful and generally pleasant way of travelling around Europe. We took the train about seventy percent of the time. With air travel, the checking-in at airports (especially now with the phobia of Islamist terrorism), are long and gruelling. The bus is probably the second most convenient travel option for journeys which take three hours or less because it is almost hassle-free. You get to see miles and miles of rolling hills with rows of olive and rapeseed trees carefully tended. The downside is the limited leg-room and the long hours.
High speed trains travel through Europe covering large distances quickly. As these trains offer more comfort & service than regional trains, they are more in demand and reservation is necessary to ensure seat availability. Both raileurope-asean.com and eurail.com, recommended making seat reservations as far back as three months before travel but a traveller has to be vigilant about fine print, in case things don’t go as planned.
Renfe-SNCF en cooperation is one of the international high-speed trains that connects Spain and France. It allows you to travel quickly and comfortably between cities like Madrid and Barcelona in Spain to cities like Paris, Marseille, Lyon in France at speeds as high as 240 to 255 kilometres per hour. Some trains have facilities to charge-up your mobile phones which comes in useful. Depending on the train, a wifi-facility can also be available. Some train stations provide lockers for your luggage. I paid €5 for the storage facility for 5 kg bags.
But that afternoon, there seemed to be a lot more happening than lugging bags and boarding the trains. Ten minutes after leaving the Valence train station, 100 kilometers from Lyon, I heard a thud as if the coach hit a wood stump across the track. The train stopped immediately to investigate. After what seemed like eternity, I heard the sound of a police patrol siren some distance away and I knew there was an accident on the track. Immediately afterwards, an announcement in French came on the air. The passenger seated in front of me (a “couple”) kindly interpreted that there was an accident. As we sat waiting, I was apprehensive. If the accident did not clear in time, we would all miss our train connections. An hour later, we were informed that it was a suicide.
It was another two hours before the train moved again. It seemed that suicides on the train track was not uncommon. In 2012, 12 people committed suicides on French railways between Saturdays and Mondays (according to amp.france4.com). In France there are 11,000 suicides each year according to suicidesinfrance.tumblr.com. Figures from Organisation for Economic Cooperation & Development or OECD, indicated that France has one of the highest suicide rates in Western Europe.
In France it seemed suicides tend to be public in nature than anywhere else, as if symbolic, making a statement or delivering a message to the society at large. It made me wonder what the push was to complete the “final act”. Throwing oneself in the path of a train travelling over 300 km per hour, takes a lot of ultimate desperation, hopelessness and despair for that final step into the realm of darkness, a ghastly escape from reality…….