An email came with a reminder of the details of a flight to Belgium. It is not for another four months, but no-one can complain that the airline does not keep its passengers informed. The plain details of the journey are set forth in black and white print; that is the nature of air travel, it is so prosaic. Recalling numerous flights, there is not one that was especially pleasant. There have been times when the views below have been special – Greenland, the Prairies, the Great Rift Valley – but the flights themselves were predictable, the usual airline experience.
Flying is about varying degrees of grimness, grimness that can start with the airport terminal with its queues for check-in and long lines at the security scanners. But even if one is rich enough to pay for express services and luxury lounges at the airport, anyone who has walked through the first class cabin of an airliner while making the way to the door after an overnight flight would have to wonder whether it was worth the fare, that might have been the price of a new car, to pay for a bigger seat and extra legroom. It’s not even as though they have dined at a table on food freshly prepared in the kitchen, or been able to have a shower or a bath. Flying is about speed, not comfort, and certainly not about romance.
Trains can be an altogether different experience.
A train journey can begin in majestic 19th Century buildings, great monuments to the industrialisation of a country. Even humble rural halts were built with a sense for the aesthetic quality of the place; stone buildings, fine fences, intricate ironwork, even flower beds. Few airports compare for beauty with the great railway termini. The days of great locomotives and carriages in finely painted company livery may be past, but trains still have more character than aeroplanes, and can provide the opportunity to walk around and to sit down with friends for a meal. In a train the landscape is not a flat map viewed from above, but something experienced directly, railway lines often providing vistas not even available to road users.
Trains come from the pages of novels, from film locations, from poetry, from times when skill and craft and beauty came before balance sheets. Of course, the problem is that they do not move at five hundred miles an hour, nor do they offer a return fare to Belgium, including all taxes and charges of €71.98. So the dull and prosaic airline it must be.