Riding the Rails: Celebrating Trains and Subway Commuter Life

My other half Rebekah and I recently returned from Japan, and we’re in that rapture phase where you wish the things you loved overseas were also available in America. I already miss the 24-hour action of Japanese cities, their automated restaurants, the street-side vending machines — and public transportation.

In Japan, trains run on time. When the Shinkansen says it departs at 2:43, it departs at 2:43. It travels at 200 miles an hour, so good luck catching it. If a train is late, it’s likely because the world has ended. If the world hasn’t ended and it’s still late, the train company will print a note for passengers to give their employers, confirming the train was in fact behind schedule, because no one’s going to believe that’s why you were late for work.

In America, schedules are less reliable. “Waiting […] can be a delicate business,” writes Bill Hayes in his Virginia Quarterly Review New York series, “Subway Lifer.” “Patience can turn to impatience in a flash and prompt a stance I’ve come to call the lean-and-look. This involves standing on the yellow strip at the edge of the platform, one foot firmly planted, the other extended back, and leaning out far enough (but not too far) to see if a subway is coming. […] One after the other, people would come forward and do it, myself included, as if collectively we could coax a train out of the tunnel.”

A rich body of rail literature exists, including subways and locomotive trains. Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar is a cornerstone of the travel genre. New Yorker writer Ian Frazier contributed with his epic Travels in Siberia. The New York subway earned its own anthology, The Subway Chronicles, which includes Patrick Flynn’s account of how much he read during his long commute, and Boris Fishman’s comparison of the architecture and history of New York’s and Moscow’s systems. On trains, strangers who share short intense exchanges can leave lasting impressions.

Train time is essential time, and rail travel isn’t strictly pragmatic. For many, the commute is their only time to read, think, and zone out.  While people ride the rails to get somewhere, some savor the journey as much as arriving at their destination. “In contemplation, as in travel, we construct ourselves,” writes train enthusiast Margarita Gokin Silver. “With everyday minutiae gone at least temporarily, and with scenery providing the backdrop so essential to introspection, we find the time to reflect.”

Train routes also map our unconscious. In 2003, author Jonathan Lethem wrote about the abandoned “ghost platform” at Brooklyn’s Hoyt-Schermerhorn station. “When you’re a child,” he writes, “everything local is famous. On that principle, Hoyt-Schermerhorn was the most famous subway station in the world.” This station played such a large role in Lethem’s youth that when he found part of it derelict, he became obsessed with it.

Despite the waiting (and rats, and heat), subways are a source of populist pride and identity. Many Americans think public transit is for people with too many DUIs or too little money to afford cars, but as Jacquelin Cangro writes in The Subway Chronicles, the “New York Subway is a microcosm of world culture. The train is the great equalizer. When the doors close, all of us — black or white, Sephardic or Catholic, Chinese or Indian — are going together, and no one will arrive any faster or in better style.”

New York’s isn’t the only one, of course. Chicago has the L, Boston the T. In the early 1900s, Hollywood had a subway, though few people know this now. During the Second World War, the London Underground served as a bomb shelter. Now it offers a powerful way for visitors to get to know the city. Laurie Penny puts it beautifully: “down in this strange otherworld, with its own rules, its own weather system, the warm winds blowing out of its tunnels, the garish avalanche of rotating ads, it’s here that the lifeblood of the city beats closest to the skin.”

Maybe I’m oversimplifying. Rail travel and urban transport are clearly different things: one is long-distance, the other designed for commuters traveling within a single city. To me, these overlap enough to fall within the same broad category. This lack of differentiation is especially true in Japan, where commuters may need to take a local train for part of their journey and finish on a longer-distance train run by the JR national railway. Either way, you’re getting somewhere without your own car, and with the help of someone else’s infrastructure.

Subways are shared spaces, but not necessarily safe spaces. In Haruki Murakami’s book, Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche, the novelist writes about the Aum Shinrikyo cult’s 1995 attack on the Tokyo subway system, which killed 12 people and injured a thousand others. Murakami’s interviews with victims and their relatives are revealing and organized by the subway line each person was riding during the attack. You might question whether a nation is unified enough to have a national psyche, or if one event can illuminate it, but it’s hard to deny that if a subway attack happened once, it could happen again. Reading Murakami’s book, you wonder what you’d do if tragedy struck during your rush-hour commute.

Despite occasional accidents or attacks, though, rail passengers are more likely to see the lights go out or to enjoy a nice beer than to get hurt. Either way, you’re in good company. As Hayes says, “I cannot take a subway without marveling at the lottery logic that brings together a random sampling of humanity for one minute or two, testing us for kindness and compatibility.” Mostly, it’s kindness.

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