trains


In a long and important piece on the Stakhanovite movement, Stalin has this to say about the speed of trains. Keep in mind that the movement was part of the extraordinary and rapid transformation achieved through industrialisation and collectivisation:

We shall have in the first place, to persuade these conservative elements in industry, persuade them in a patient and comradely manner, of the progressive nature of the Stakhanov movement, and of the necessity of readjusting themselves to the Stakhanov way. And if persuasion does not help, more vigorous measures will have to be adopted. Take, for instance, the People’s Commissariat of Railways. In the central apparatus of that Commissariat, there was, until recently, a group of professors, engineers, and other experts – among them Communists – who assured everybody that a commercial speed of 13 or 14 kilometres per hour was a limit that could not be exceeded without contradicting “the science of railway operation.” This was a fairly authoritative group, who preached their views in verbal and printed form, issued instructions to the various departments of the People’s Commissariat of Railways, and, in general, were the “dictators of opinion” in the traffic departments. We, who are not experts in this sphere, basing ourselves on the suggestions of a number of practical workers on the railway, on our part assured these authoritative professors that 13 or 14 kilometres could not be the limit, and that if matters were organised in a certain way, this limit could be extended. In reply, this group, instead of heeding the voice of experience and practice, and revising their attitude to the matter, launched into a fight against the progressive elements on the railways and still further intensified the propaganda of their conservative views. Of course, we had to give these esteemed individuals a light tap on the jaw and very politely remove them from the central apparatus of the People’s Commissariat of Railways. (Applause.) And what is the result? We now have a commercial speed of 18 and 19 kilometres per hour. (Applause.)

Works, vol. 14, pp. 107-8.

Forget the propaganda about the Shinkansen (‘new trunk line’) trains in Japan. Images and stories would have you believe they are sleek, aerodynamic things that race about this tiny country at high speeds. Not true, for they actually look like this:

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Obviously, they travel at very high speeds, occasionally hitting 40 kilometres per hour.

2,500 km over two and a half days – from Newcastle to Cairns in the tropical north and all the way in a regular train seat. One of the best rail journeys in a long time. A few highlights, from the journey and around Cairns itself (Kuranda to be exact). It was on the old Sunlander, which is being ‘retired’ at the end of the year, after more than 60 years of service.???????????????????????????????

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In Kuranda and hereabouts, it was difficult to decide on the best of the many highlights:

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I am more keen than ever to get to North Korea in the next year, especially after reading Robert Myles’s account of his travels there. The question is what I should do, for there are many options.

I may want to cycle through different parts:

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Or go hiking and camping:

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Or take a glorious rail journey:

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All part of my project on Embalming Our Leaders …

We’ve just completed three days by train across the strangest country in the world, the USA. The Southwest Chief runs from Los Angeles to Chicago, and then the Capitol Limited runs onto Washington (and a local train takes you to Baltimore). Three days in all, through deserts, prairies, forests and mountains. On a train such as this, you get the best, worst, and weirdest of the USA. Amtrak is a great network, and thankfully more people hereabouts have begun to realise that. It’s cheap, efficient and pretty comprehensive. When Americans set their mind to something, they can do a bloody good job. The problem is that they rarely put their minds to anything worthwhile.

But the most intriguing part would have to be the dining car. Here is the USA in all its daily glory. Community seating is the rule in the dining car, where the food is included in the very reasonably priced tickets. Over three days we met and talked with 80-something newlyweds with dodgy legs, New Mexico artists, a couple of giggling grandmothers, a disconcertingly in-bred couple who growled about ‘them environmentalists’ and said an elaborate prayer before eating, disciples of Obama with a love of hiking and speaking so loudly our ears were ringing, and – the highlight of the journey – a charming man who told us in detail of Abraham Lincoln’s beginnings as a lawyer when he won a huge case for the new railways. He finished his discourse by peering out of the window and observing simply, ‘I’m looking for bigfoots. They live in these parts’. He was serious.

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Quirky signs with unwitting senses – part of the pleasure of travel in distant places.

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This is the name of a well endowed cafe at Leipzig railway station. Not to be outdone, the ship from Riga to Stockholm sports a somewhat different culinary experience:

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But my favourite is this one, on the old train from Minsk to Riga:

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It took me a moment to realise that there is no red line through the lit cigarette, for in the vestibule at the end of each carriage you can indeed smoke. How civilised!

The Chinese may have the most efficient and comprehensive rail network in the world, the Scandinavians may have the most expensive trains, but those soviet-era Russian trains leave everyone well behind when it comes to comfort. They comprise one of the less noticed legacies of the USSR. I’ve travelled a few by now: Moscow to Beijing, Sofia to Kiev to Simferopol, St Petersburg to Helsinki, St Petersburg to Moscow, Moscow to Minsk, Minsk to Riga …

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For instance, even second class on the Red Arrow, from St. Petersburg to Moscow beats any first class train in Western Europe:

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The regular day train from Moscow to Minsk is one of those extremely solid and reliable affairs:

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They provide a whole berth, with pillows and blankets, should you feel like an afternoon snooze:

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As for the overnight from Minsk to Riga, well …

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Apart from the plush comfort of the sleeper compartment, they also boast those magnificent stainless steel toilets that simply open onto the track. No toilet is more pleasurable:

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Replace these trains? Not for a long time yet, since they are continually repainted and refurbished. After all, if you’ve built something solid and to last, why replace it?

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Try sitting on the hard, uncomfortable seats of a train in Western Europe after travelling on these and you’ll see what I mean.

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