Friday, March 12, 2010

Romantic? All I can smell is diesel.

Catching a train often seems like a good idea until that moment you’re standing on the platform, left wondering where, exactly your train might be. From there, if you happen to be a Victorian, it just goes downhill. Quickly.

A large part of this feeling of rapid decline could well be attributed to the fact that there aren’t really any regional trains anymore. Oh, yes, they say there are, but it’s pretty obvious they’re lying through their back teeth like the scum dogs they all inevitably are.

Once upon a time when I was just a little Rantolotl, I went to school in Melbourne and caught the train home for school holidays, the odd long weekend and other momentous occasions. This was in the days where the train actually ran all the way to Wangaratta, and in fact, they bothered to run more than once a day. My school would foolishly transport us all to Spencer Street Station some time in the afternoon, and let us loose on the unsuspecting public. We would spend hours cruising the dodgy little subway, the dodgy giant cafeteria, and the even dodgier pub across the road - the one that is now boarded up - where amazingly, we would get served despite being fifteen year olds in full school uniform. Mind you, in those days the ‘unsuspecting public’ largely consisted of junkies, thieves, particularly grotty homeless, and exceptionally low grade hookers, always presumed to be the retarded cousins of the ones we had heard about in St Kilda. But none the less, we ran riot. It was great fun! I might also add that these were the days where Spencer Street Station actually had character. Not necessarily a nice one mind you, but character none the less. It made you feel alive. Doubly so if you survived a mugging.

The trains themselves had character too. Just like the suburban lines, the regional lines all had a different feel about them, and different regard in the eyes of the seasoned V/Line traveller. Geelong line passengers were just taking the piss. You call that a train trip? I’ve seen better train trips coughed up into a hanky. Yeah, that’s right. A HANKY. It was trips to Mildura, Wangaratta & Warrnambool that earned you the real train-cred. In retrospect, I’m not sure I understand why Wang scaled to the dizzying heights of that illustrious list, but for some reason it did. I’m beginning to think it got extra points for danger.

I recall not once, but twice, that there was a police chase in the train. Somewhere around Benalla. My favourite one involved the bandits in question leaping off the train as it slowed down to stop at the platform. The police somehow didn’t quite anticipate this, and just stood on the platform looking dumbfounded as these guys ran off in the opposite direction while the train slowly came to a halt. Clearly they decided to make a day of it and searched and interrogated the train anyway. WHAT WERE THEY DOING! They barked. DRINKING! I replied with equal enthusiasm. WHAT WERE THEY DRINKING?! They responded. STRAWBERRY BIG M! I replied with gusto. And that was my interrogation over.

These days the train is far less fun. It’s full of old people and young regional refugees like myself. As I type, I’m sitting on the train, still waiting for it to leave Spencer Street (It’s now an hour late) and am surrounded by avid Herald Sun readers, and a nice young man, who, unfortunately, is reading a Dan Brown novel. The elderly are clambering over themselves to get little microwaved treats from the buffet car, in total denial that there are now places at Spencer Street that you can get food at much cheaper. Without the risk of stabbing.

Once upon a time, the punters on this train were all sorts. Families, kids, the elderly, bogans, farmers, scrubbers, ferals and bush pigs. In between the carriages people would drink tinnies of VB, and craftily open the door and smoke cigarettes and spliffs, usually in equal amounts. Occasionally someone would walk through on their way to the buffet car with a kid on their shoulders, having a chuckle and telling the enshouldered child not to breathe too deeply – a lesson/joke that would be lost on the child for about ten years or so, I suspect.

Now, the punters, particularly midweek, are mostly holidaying elderly or country residents who have lost their license. There’s also a smattering of younger country refugees (the lucky ones who escaped) like myself, who are almost inevitably heading home for a birthday, funeral or family illness. I will probably see a lot of these people on the return train tomorrow. And when we’re all collected on a train like this simultaneously – some in tears frantically trying to contact their mum or dad or brother or sister or hospital at each stop when there’s a hint of mobile coverage, some desperately trying to wrap their last minute birthday presents, almost certainly bound to be some random crap bought at a Spencer Street chemist(Happy Birthday! I bought you a travel pillow! Don’t like it? Here, have a luggage lock!), and some just patiently biding their time with laptops and ipods – boy, do we stand out. We’re all dressed to impress our regional acquaintances, while remaining hideously under dressed for Melbourne - unless you're heading directly to a funeral, in which case the standard Melbourne uniform of black on black is just perfect! It’s a delicate balance, one that involves jeans, sneakers, a smug look, and careful t-shirt selection. The delicate art of making it clear that we are at home on a farm, but are also successful Melburnians is clearly deeply entrenched in us all.

But for all the reminiscing, the dubious romance of train travel is not all gone. Why, just now, the conductor – who I might add, in my long career of regional train travel have always been wonderful, helpful and friendly – declared that she has a ‘sweet little super charger’ waiting for her at home. I’m not sure what the prompt for this was exactly, but she soon moved on, telling me that she likes my t-shirt, and proceeded to explain the graphic on it to me in full detail: "I like how the space invaders are learning to become space invaders! With a blackboard and a teacher!".

It’s very nice that VLine give country types a job. Since they don't really bother with the trains much these days, perhaps the conductors are the last honest thing you can really expect out of them.


chompchomp said...

don't forget the fact that you can hop on the vline when you're not supposed to, and feign ignorance about regional trains when asked to produce a ticket, and the friendly conducter will sneak you a free ticket and wish you a good night, after briefly giving you a run-down on the difference between vline and metro trains!

This has only happened to me once, but i will love conductors forever because of it =)

The Rantolotl said...

My return journey had such an interloper, who was promptly heavied off the train by a friendly Vline staffer. No ticket for that chump.

Anonymous said...

I'm assuming your conductor conversation proceeded thusly:

"I like how the space invaders are learning to become space invaders! With a blackboard and a teacher!"

"Well, yes, that's definitely one interpretation of the joke. I prefer to think that they are cute little ice cream scoops, and they are learning to square dance. But space invaders also works as a theme, if that's the angle you want to take."