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Jim Nicholls

My fascination with trains began during my childhood in the grand old railway town of Cootamundra in southern New South Wales. It was there that I grew up beside the main line linking Sydney and Melbourne, spending what now seem to have been endless days in a whirl of fantasy and awe watching the mighty steam engines and their glamourous trains taking people away to exotic places. Those exotic places may only have been Sydney or Melbourne, but to a young schoolboy looking up at trains from a lonely level crossing, there was an air of romance and mystery about them that I was unable to find in my bucolic birthplace.

No other form of transport has ever come near to creating such an aura of romance and excitement as that presented by the railways. Although cars and aircraft may be convenient and have now removed much of the thrill and gloss and nostalgia from long-distance travel, noxious motor cars, stuffy buses and claustrophobic aeroplanes will never offer the same feeling of luxury and smugness, and the spirit of adventure that a train journey brings.

Train travel also opens a window on the world, allowing a visual eavesdropping and intrusion into a country’s backyard that, if done in any other form, would probably result in arrest. With no feelings of guilt one can become a blatant voyeur at large and can peer unashamedly over the back fences of the world, and into the lives of strangers. Life, no matter how indiscreet and indelicate, is played out for all to see on the far side of a carriage window.

Perhaps the most pleasurable experience of all that is pleasurable about being on board a train is meeting new and interesting people. Strangers on a train tend to tell each other things they would never dream of saying if they were anywhere else. I’m sure it has something to do with the realisation that once their secrets have been offloaded, they know (or indeed hope) they will never see you again.

Modern train travellers tend to have something in common: an appreciation of all things to do with railways and a sense of belonging to a community that, for the duration of the journey at least, is isolated and insulated from the outside world. Trains have it all, they convert the journey into an adventure. Real people travel on trains.

Weeks away from home and thousands of kilometres along the Trans-Siberian Railway, this same subject was the core of discussion among a group of strangers in a cramped compartment on a Russian train. A young girl from New Zealand, taking a long way home, whom I had never met until then, neatly summed it up. ‘Yeah, how many nice people do you ever meet on an aeroplane?’

Author's Books
Tales of Travels and Trains

Jim Nicholls takes readers on a journey like no other. Visit places as remote as the Zulu battlefields in South Africa, learn about an inventor who made the first heavier-than-air flight before the Wright brothers, and take in an Easter church service in a small Portuguese town. All this and more a...

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