Category Archives: Trains

The sky above the Bashfull Bull on Noriega and 19th, San Francisco, USA. 2006

Those of you who come to this blog every now and again, will have probably noticed that I often have photographs of the sky. There is something about the sky, that just calls to me.  The pure blue of a clear day just draws my attention to it like a bedazzled moth to a flame.  I particularly like to see unobstructed sky, like what one would see on the prairies or high up on a mountain. Just to look up and around to see 360° of sky is for me pure bliss.

I think I like the sky because it makes me aware of the fact that I am on a planet surrounded by a thin atmosphere. I quite often find myself just watching the sky and the weather that it brings; wondering about the forces of nature and their complexities.

Because I love the sky, I am also automatically very antipollution and I think that we should do everything we can to keep our environment healthy.  The trouble is that street cars or trams as we call them here in Australia, require overhead wires that clutter up the view of the sky.  I have lived in and visited various cities around the world that have opted to have electrical transportation on the roads. While I can only applaud the rationale for such a decision, I absolutely hate the way how such systems with their overhead wiring make a city look.

The cable cars in San Francisco are a huge tourist attraction but the overhead wires detract from the charmingly scruffy beauty of that city.

The Bashful Bull

In Vancouver, the overhead trolley bus wires are like some giant piece of vandalism that destroys the view of the nearby mountains and gives the whole town and dingy grubby look. What should be a beautiful city is in fact quite ugly downtown.

Melbourne, which has had an incredible urban renewal facelift over the last 20 years is still blighted by overhead wires for the trams.  The city authorities in Melbourne have gone to great lengths to make it a more liveable city by investing heavily in public artworks for the street, and the creation of open spaces. One would think that people in Melbourne would want, nay, even demand, some unobstructed sky in their open spaces. But what do we see instead, on the south bank of the Yarra? More overhead wires as decoration to hang little lights from. I would love to give whoever made the decision to do such a thing a good shake, while asking them what was going through their tiny little minds to do such a thing.

I don’t like Toronto, so to my mind the overhead wires for the street cars only make a drab city even more unattractive. I once had a fairly serious bicycle accident when I was in Toronto as I was turning a corner. My bicycle wheel got caught in a streetcar track, and I was flung off the bike headfirst into at a retaining wall made up of jagged pieces of recycled concrete pavement.  All I can say is, thank goodness for my helmet, or I would have been much more seriously brain damaged than what I already am.

So as you can see from my rant above I’m not a fan of transportation systems that obscure the sky.

Subways are good.  

Yes, yes, yes, I know……..

they cost more.

Kinobe “Slip Into Something More Comfortable”

My wife and I had this piece of music by Kinobe, playing after our wedding ceremony as people entered the reception area to dine.

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We will be going to an ANCOLD (Australian National Committee on Large Dams) conference up in Surfers Paradise in Queensland next month. We figured since we’ll have to fly up there we may as well go right up to Cairns after the conference and do some diving on the Great Barrier reef, then fly directly back to Sydney. Both my wife and I enjoy train travel so we will go by sleeper up north from Brisbane. It’s a 32 hour trip but trains are a great way to travel because you can get up and walk around, visit the dinning car, socialise etc. It’s so much more civilised than cattle class on a plane.

As I was making my booking for the train and diving trip (2 days aboard a sailing boat), Kinobe’s Slip Into Something More Comfortablekept playing through my mind.

Train travel in Vietnam

When all things are considered Vietnam has a pretty good train system. 

Hue train staion

Sure, it’s nothing like Japan’s bullet train, but it’s much better than some steam-train trips I took in Thailand back in the early 1970s.

Travelling by train is my favourite mode of transportation for long distances, and it’s a pity that train travel has become so expensive here in Australia. The beauty of travelling by train is that one can get up and walk around.  Another thing that sets train travel apart is a sleeper carriages.  It really is a luxury on a long trip to be able to just stretch out and lie down to get some sleep.

In Vietnam there are basically four different classes of train travel. Hard seat and soft seat air-conditioned seating and for the sleepers there are, hard 6 berth air-conditioned and soft 4 berth air-conditioned.  For what is effectively very little difference in money, one would have to be mad or totally broke to go on a long journey in a hard seat without air-conditioning in Vietnam, when the four berth air-conditioned sleepers such a good deal.

Engogirl in a soft 4 berth sleeper

My wife and I travelled in the hard six berth air-conditioned and soft four berth air-conditioned sleepers and to tell you the truth there isn’t that much difference in the softness of the berths.  The big difference between the two different kinds of sleepers is the four berth sleepers give one lot more room, and you can actually sit up in your bunk. 

Cramped hard 6 berth sleeper

The hard six berth air-conditioned sleepers are really cramped, and the Vietnamese, as lovely as they are, don’t seem to have the same sense of personal space as westerners.  A Vietnamese person (or two) will think nothing of sitting on your bunk with you, without asking, which can be a real drag if there are six people in a very small space. Another issue with having so many people in one room is that during the night you have that many more people climbing up and down bunks during the evening to use the toilet so it can be quite a bit noisier. A word to the wise, book top bunks for a better nights sleep.

Because of the close proximity that one is to their fellow travellers, trains can be a very social experience. 

One of the very nice locals that we met

Both my wife and I enjoyed meeting the local Vietnamese people, who we found to be generally, very friendly.  On a few occasions, we met young educated people who were incredibly well informed about Australia.  It came as quite a shock to meet somebody from overseas, who actually understood Australian politics.  I wouldn’t have thought that it would have rated as interesting for a Vietnamese person.

Vietnamese trains also provide basic meals and bottled drinking water as part of the price. 

Dinner time

The food is fairly ordinary,

Fairly bland but not bad

but it wasn’t bad (especially when one considers how cheap the tickets were), and if you get tired of what is on offer for free there is other food for sale from vendors who travel up and down the train.

Mexico City Metro.

Mexico City has an excellent metro system.

Clean polished stone platforms

 It’s very cheap (possibly the cheapest in the world), clean, efficient and much safer than many other subway systems I’ve traveled on.

It's not too crowded and the people are friendly

With the exception of peak hour, the trains aren’t too crowded and they run very frequently. The trains are similar to the trains used in Montreal in Canada in that they have rubber wheels, which makes the ride much quieter and smoother than normal trains.

The trains have rubber wheels

Another way that the Mexico City Metro is similar to the Montreal Metro is that many of the subway stations have art displayed in them.

Most of the metro stations have art on display

I’ve read that pick pockets are problem on the metro but I think that if you avoid the rush hour and keep your wits about you, you won’t have any troubles. The metro also serves as a bit of a marketplace as vendors (quite often blind) travel up and down the carriages hawking their wares. I didn’t see anyone buy anything from the hawkers on the trains, the whole time I was in Mexico City. Some people have a hard time making a living.

How to nearly tear your foot off (part 2). Outback Queensland, Australia 1974

This is part two in a two part chapter from my all the dumb things series. If you would like to read part 1 first, click here.

In the morning the railway staff came to work and in a very civilised way, completely without malice, woke us trespassers and suggested we move along. Although the roads west were closed due to flooding, the raised railways weren’t. Since there was no accommodation to be had in Charleville I bought a train ticket to Mount Isa (a mining town in the far west of Queensland). The rolling stock that was running in outback Queensland at the time was old and decrepit.


 The carriages were known as “red rattlers” because of their colour and all the noise they made. It was very basic transport with only hard seating, no air conditioning, no sleepers or dining car. Although it had been raining for days, the weather was very hot and humid. The state of the tracks was so poor that we just crawled along barely faster in places than what a person could run. The landscape out in that part of the country is very flat with straw-coloured grass dappled with the odd shrub here and there, for as far at the eye can see in every direction. The big empty skies are inhabited with the occasional wedge tailed eagles wheeling around high up in the thermals. 


 It was all so mind numbingly boring. The people I met on the train didn’t have much of interest to say. They were uncomplicated people mainly traveling to work on farms or in mines and let’s face it I stank. I did meet one character though; he was a 14-year-old school drop out who was on his way to a cattle station (ranch) to work as a jackaroo (cowboy). When I told him that I thought he was too young to drop out of school, he said that he wanted to be a jackaroo and that his parents didn’t mind. Then I asked him if he was worried about going through life with so little education (I was little better, but at the time I was too stupid to realise it). He retorted, “if think you’re so smart, spell Ornithorhynchus”. To which I admitted that I couldn’t and then he proceeded to spell it. He then then said, “there ya go, I’m smarter that you!”  He did have a point, but I wasn’t to be deterred so I asked him what Ornithorhynchus meant. He said he didn’t know but he could spell it and I couldn’t, so that was that! I later looked up the word Ornithorhynchus in a dictionary to find that it is half the Latin name for platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus).

The train had been crawling along for hours and all of a sudden there was a big jolt and crunching sound. One of the carriages had derailed a bogey. The bogey had just come off the rails but the carriage hadn’t toppled over, it’s a good thing that we weren’t traveling at a higher speed. So we sat in the heat for about five hours until another maintenance train with a crane turned up on a parallel track. Many people had gotten off the train and were standing around outside either watching or offering to help. They got the carriage back on the track by hooking the nearest under side of the derailed carriage with the crane and lifting it a little as the locomotive with derailed carriage pulled forward so the bogey would drop into place. It was easy to see that the railway staff were old hands at remounting derailed trains. It was an amazing thing to watch. In all, I’d say the derailment took about ten hours to sort out before we could continue and by then it was nighttime.

I spent another uncomfortable night trying to sleep in my seat with the addition of being hungry, thirsty and racidly filthy. After the derailment the train traveled even slower than before. People were jumping off the train then walking beside it for while and then climbing back on again out of shear boredom. It was so hot, that in the hope of catching a breeze, I sat myself down in one of the exit doors with my feet dangling out of the side of the train. I passed the time looking across at the horizon, up at the sky and occasionally extending my arm to brush my hand through the long grass that sometimes grew by the side of the tracks. This went on for hour after hypnotizing hour until; all of a sudden I felt that someone had belted a home run on my foot with a baseball bat. My attention was immediately snapped downward to my assaulted foot to be traumatized by what I could see. Gazing at the horizon had not been a very effective survival strategy as I’d neglected to notice the low “steel plate girder” bridge we were crossing. It was one of those bridges that is based on the “I beam” but it has extra vertical stiffeners reinforcing the sides.

steel plate girder bridge
This is not the actual train I was on but this picture illustrates
what a “steel plate girder” bridge looks like.  

 The top of the “I beam” was level with the floor of the carriage I was sitting on and the gap between it and the train had an average of about 18cm (about 7”). I say average because the gap fluctuated due to the combination of casual engineering and carriage movement. I was convinced that my leg was going to be snipped off like a piece of play dough. There wasn’t enough of a gap to pull my leg free and as we passed the vertical stiffeners, my foot was hit for home run after home run. During my agonizing pummeling of thump, thump, thump, thump, thump, thump, I watched in sickening horror as the gap between the train and bridge opened and nearly closed numerous times, threatening to separate me from my beloved and very useful legs, again and again. By the time the train passed over the bridge I’d been so thoroughly hammered by the gauntlet of steel stiffeners that I was sure that all that was left of my feet would be bloodied stumps. I had automatically pulled my legs up into the carriage as soon as I was free of the bridge and much to my relief my feet were still there.

It was a good thing that I’d been wearing thick lace up ankle high boots at the time. I was sure all the bones were broken in the foot that was on the leading edge of the battering. I undid my laces as fast as I could and had a look at my feet.  They were heavily bruised but there weren’t any broken bones and with the panic out of the way I had pause to notice the excruciating pain I was in. I was in so much pain that it was the first time in days that I didn’t notice how bad I smelled. I quickly put my boots back on and laced them up tight to reduce the swelling and waited for a few hours for the pain to diminish enough for me to hobble back to my seat again.

I won’t be sticking any part of my body out of a train again, that’s for sure.

Epilogue. Mt Isa had a Laundromat and proper motels with clean water!