From our living room window , we have a close-up view of New Brunswick station and the railway line to Newark and New York. This is the track for NJ Transit commuter trains as well as the Amtrak service that runs from New York to Washington D.C and points south. These are the commuter trains that I took to the City for 33 years . In my time, I enjoyed the ride , saying hello to the regulars and catching up on the sports news of the day. However , when I look at the commuters now, antlike on the New Brunswick platform, my predominant feeling is one of relief.I am happy that I don’t have to do it any longer.
I am surprised at the number of trains, both commuter and long distance ; there are many more than I expected. Together, there must be one every ten minutes or so , throughout the day; or at least it feels like that. Still , it pales into comparison with what I saw in Japan twelve – thirteen years ago. From the window of our Osaka hotel room , I could see at least six different lines crisscrossing the landscape and , during rush hour , it felt like the frequency was one every three minutes on each of the lines.
Commuter trains, however ubiquitous, are not glamorous. They are like plodding plow horses while the long distance trains are like thoroughbreds. From my vantage point , they look like the Lionel trains of my childhood as they blow past New Brunswick station and disappear around the bend on their way to New York. With the windows closed, there is very little noise from their passing and , even when the windows are open , it is muted. The trains themselves are sleek and gleaming and I can’t help thinking how different the old time steam locomotives were.
The era of steam is long gone now but those who lived through it have a deep affection for those trains. I remember a German friend who had come here on vacation and made it a point to visit a railroad museum and take a nostalgic ride on a steam train. The nostalgia felt by the visitors to the museum was palpable and I felt it too. Our short ride reminded me of the steam trains of my youth…the smoke and cinders that blew in through the open window and the deep, mournful WHOO-WHOO emitted by the locomotive from time to time. It was dirty. It was smelly. It was noisy . It was wonderful.
Even more thrilling for a young boy was to wander down the platform to where the locomotive stood , wreathed in clouds of smoke. Its huge wheels and crankshafts were exposed to view, and the locomotive exuded a sense of raw, barely harnessed power as it stood seemingly champing at the bit , eager to be on its own way. No wonder those steam trains had masculine names. One of the most famous of them was The Flying Scotsman in England, which even today runs between London and Edinburgh.
When steam was phased out ,the steam locomotives were replaced by diesel powered locomotives which were cleaner , quieter and more efficient but also stubby and unlovely. In some cases , where the lines were electrified, the new electric locomotives were better looking : smaller and streamlined ,their moving parts mostly hidden from view. Unsurprisingly , they had feminine names. The premier train between Bombay and Poona ( modern Mumbai and Pune) was the much loved Deccan Queen. As time has elapsed , these electricity driven trains have become ever sleeker and streamlined and their names have become gender neutral . Witness the Acela.
Watching the Acela accelerate around a bend is sheer pleasure but I wonder about today’s kids and what they feel about trains. Most of them , away from the big cities , will only ever see freight trains. Will they ever know anything of what a young boy felt when he heard the long drawn out whistle of a train as it receded into the night ?