Railway Station Romance

Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t think you can beat the romance of rail travel. Even in these days of sleek, shiny Eurostars, TGVs and ICEs, the great terminal stations have an atmosphere all their own. You will certainly see more distant and exotic places listed on an airport departure screen, but those places are too clinical and the process of passing through them far too unpleasant to have even the smallest romance.

Though I visited it only once, in 1991, my favourite such station is Paris’ Gare d’Austerlitz. Thanks to the RER, it has few (if any) local trains, so all you see are long distance services. I had gone there to catch the overnight train to La Tour de Carol on the Spanish border. I arrived with about three hours to spare, and after eating in the cafe (why is French bread so tasty?), I watched the world go by. After a period of quiet, people would start to arrive and wait on the concourse. A train would come in and empty its load, some met with hugs as others headed for taxis or metro, then the place would quieten again. Soon the process would reverse for a departing train and then it was back to quiet, and so on. I’d never seen a large city station like this and it captivated me.

My train was a long one, with portions for Luchon and Lourdes with the coaches for La Tour right at the front. Nearby were two trains heading into Spain: one for Madrid, the other for Barcelona. I had yet to visit Spain, and both names took on an exotic air as I watched each train glide slowly away. Beyond that, a blue and yellow postal train heading I didn’t know where. As darkness fell, I was reluctant to leave this fascinating place, with its deceptive quiet, all in the middle of a great city. A place I’ve never forgotten and that I often think of. Gare d’Austerlitz encapsulated the romance of train travel for me.

And now, constrained by my current circumstances to travel only from my chair into and around my head, I think back to those hours in Paris. Look down the departure board, and board a train for some distant, warmer place.

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