Take the train

It’s a funny time to write this really, considering that I just missed my express train by one minute. The connecting service I catch back into Flinder Street got held up waiting for a platform, so it wasn’t really my fault, but I suppose that’s the way the universe works. I’m a pretty heavy public transport user, considering I take the train to work and back each day and use it most weekends to go to gigs, sporting events or other nights out. I travel on a month-by-month ticket, now called myki pass here in Melbourne. This means I can use the whole network as much as I want; I feel like the whole city is mine. Public transport in Melbourne gets a pretty bad rap and I can understand that, but I’d like to make the case for using public transport more, not just in Melbourne but wherever you go.

I live about an hour away from Melbourne, on the Mornington Peninsula. The public transport coverage is awful. Nowadays the only public option is buses, and the bus routes around my area are infrequent, indirect and slow. It’s scary to think, but it used to be even worse than it is now. The addition of a few extra routes in gorwth areas over the past few years took the situation from something approaching catastrophic to something just terrible. As a result, I feel like we have a culture that is built up around driving and owning cars that some more suburban areas might not have developed. For all of the advantages of cars, and there are many, there are a series of different side effects that I think are pretty undesirable.

Most teenagers come of age during their final year of high school. Think about that for a second: in a twelve month period these people are expected to go from child to adult, learner to solo driver, and non-drinker to drinker. Where I’m from, people arranged to have their license tests on their birthday becuase really there was no other viable way to get around, especially at night. Talk about heaping responsibility, stress, and power in the hands of people who are barely equipped to handle it. Owning a car is expensive and the second hand cars most teenagers drive are far less safe and efficient than the ones their siblings and parents drive. Add in the temptations of alcohol and the appeal of flashy, fast driving, it’s a difficult combination at the best of times. This might sound dramatic but I have no doubt people die on the roads because of this pressure.

The train is the way the people get around. It’s a communal experience, even if it doesn’t always feel like it is. Sometimes you get awkward situations, sure. I take the Frankston line so you don’t have to tell me about that. But I can count the amount of times I have felt genuinely unsafe in my ten years of train travel on one hand. A cities’ train network are its veins and arteries, keeping the organism alive, keeping it flowing. You can tell a lot about a city from the rail network. Some of the most beautiful buildings I I have seen are train stations - we like to cover our biggest stations in some of our finest architecture. They are parts of our history, parts of our story, part of us.

Trains can be unreliable, but in the same way cars break down and lanes can get closed. Trains can get held up, but peak traffic is probably worse. In a car you get some privacy, but take a set of headphones or a book onto a carriage and you’re generally right to go.

When you get somewhere, you stand up and get off. No driving around looking for a car park, no shelling out exorbitant fees if you do find one. There’s less uncertainty; you feel lighter and more unencumbered. You can do a lot more in the time you are on the train than you can (safely) do in the car: I listen to music and podcasts, watch TV shows, read articles and even write blog posts. Some 90% of the words I’ve written recently for this site have been tapped out onto the glass screen of my iPad on the way to or from work. I couldn’t do most of those things in the car. It’s effectively dead time, and sometimes it can be stressful as well.

If the train gets caught up, there’s nothing you can really do. For some people that might be torturous, but I think the best approach is to let things go in times like that. Twenty minutes here or there is not going to change much about your life. If you’re wife is in labour, feel free to grab the keys, but I would otherwise try to avoid feeling like you have to need to control situations like that.

I like to take public transport when I’m in a new place. Maybe it’s because I’m cheap or maybe because I’m an ordinary driver, but few things let you get the feel of a place as well as jumping on a bus or a train. You get to see the local people close up, both the salt-of-the-earth types and the suits heading up to their fancy offices. You can strike up conversations and see new things. It also gives you the chance to really get a grip with where things are in relation to one another and how you’re going to get between these different destinations. When I was in California, I had some brilliant conversations with fellow commuters that brightened up my journey and gave me wonderful insights into the American people. Just catching the New York City subway was like a religious experience for me. It was rundown, noisy and brilliant. Just this month I took to train from Newcastle to Sydney on a whim to watch a soccer match I barely knew was taking place until that morning. It was a five-hour return trip that cost all of twelve dollars. On the way we saw lakes, towns, forests, cliffs and stadiums. It was terrific.

Some people don’t like public transport, and I can understand the reasons why. In my experience I think that the positives outweigh the negatives, though. You certainly can learn a lot from sharing space with strangers. Taking the train leaves you mobile, frees you up to do other things and exposes you to things you might not have seen, heard or felt.