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Page last updated at 17:17 GMT, Friday, 19 September 2008 18:17 UK

Our love affair with the train

Eurostar passengers waiting on the concourse at St Pancras


Commuting by train brings us together in a very down to earth way - something flying and all its associated queues and security cannot do, says Lisa Jardine.

Ever since my childhood I have particularly enjoyed travelling on trains. Trains give me a comforting feeling of independence and self-sufficiency, of being in control.

Man holds up a child to look at trains at St Pancras
Train spotting

From the station where you start your journey to your destination you know precisely in what direction you are going and how long it will take. You can make an excursion of it, choosing your route so that you admire the countryside and glimpse cathedral spires from your speeding train window.

On long journeys, you watch the landscape gradually unfolding, modulating from familiar to unfamiliar as you travel, and adjust your expectations while you are in transit.

By contrast, a plane journey from a chilly, rain-soaked London to the south of France tumbles you out onto the hot tarmac at Nice airport still wearing your waterproof shoes and heavy overcoat, and dazed by the easy Mediterranean pace of life after the hurly-burly of the city.

I have just returned from a research trip to the Netherlands, to study an extraordinary collection of 17th Century letters in the Dutch Royal Library, the KB. The fellowship which enabled me to do this was awarded by the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study, who provided my accommodation, half an hour away, idyllically situated in secluded woodlands, close to the sea and the dunes at Wassenaar.

Lisa Jardine

My daily journey also reminded me how taking the train keeps you connected to your fellow human-beings - everyone in Holland takes the train

It was taken for granted that I would use public transport to get from the one to the other. The Dutch frown upon frivolous use of a car. So I travelled to and from the KB each day by train.

Dutch trains sum up the country's national characteristics - down-to-earth, sensible and conveying a comfortable sense of community and getting along together.

My nearest station was in Voorschoten, 7km from the institute. Trains ran half-hourly from Voorschoten to Den Haag Centraal, and sensible, sit-up-and-beg bicycles were available at the institute to negotiate the network of broad, tree-lined cycle-paths across an endlessly flat, watery landscape to and from Voorschoten.

On days when the rain turned from a drizzle to a downpour, and it does seem to rain a great deal in Holland. There was a free car park beside the station. The return fare to The Hague was under four euros, and the trains always arrived on time. Each morning I waited on the platform looking out over fields of grazing cows, marvelling at the ease and speed of my transition from rural calm to my desk in the library.


I am currently working on a Dutch 17th Century poet, musician, art connoisseur and diplomat, Sir Constantijn Huygens, whose long, eventful life spanned almost a century - he was born in 1596 and died in 1687.

As I made my way across the station concourse in The Hague, the destinations on the departure boards above my head evoked all the places Huygens frequented, from Voorburg where he built his elegantly classical country house, to more scattered locations - Leiden, Arnhem, Delft, Utrecht and Amsterdam.

Names that recall Dutch paintings of the same period in which meticulously detailed skylines of houses and churches hover between wide blue-grey expanses of water and sky.

My daily journey also reminded me how taking the train keeps you connected to your fellow human-beings. Everyone in Holland takes the train.

You mingle with people from all kinds of background, and everyone seems to look out for one another - helping with heavy bags, offering information, or simply chatting about the weather. The well-to-do and the hard-up travel side by side. It takes no time at all to feel at home with the Dutch as a people when you travel amongst them by train.

Home time

My Dutch idyll was shattered the day before I was due to travel home. Naturally, I had come to the Netherlands by Eurostar and Thalys - the high-speed train that links Paris to Amsterdam.

Passengers at Eurostar terminal at Waterloo, London
Stranded by the fire

So imagine my dismay when I heard on the news that there was a serious fire in the Channel Tunnel and all trains were suspended. Within hours it was clear that there was no hope of the service being restored in time for my return journey.

Hastily, I booked a plane ticket from Schiphol airport to Gatwick. It all seemed so simple: check in online and print your boarding pass; hand in your bag at the desk marked "bag drop" on arrival at the airport and there you are, ready to travel.

As I boarded the train from Leiden to Schiphol, early on the Saturday morning, I began to wonder whether my attachment to this form of transport was sentimental - after all, my flight was scheduled to be not much more than an hour long, compared with the five hours it would have taken me by train.

Within minutes of entering the airport I had changed my mind. Schiphol is an airy modern airport, clearly signed to assist the traveller, and with ample encouragements to shop and enjoy yourself while awaiting your flight. But I am surely not alone in being enveloped by a pall of misery in airports.

Schiphol Airport
Inside Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport

My bag duly dropped, I began following an apparently endless series of signs to the departure lounge. Almost at once I was brought up abruptly and without explanation in a long queue. Passport control - as it turned out to be - was unwelcoming. The immigration official unsmiling and suspicious.

Once past him, I continued to follow sign after sign, round corners, down long featureless corridors, up and down stairs towards my departure gate, with no clue as to how far I was going or how long it might take. It was 20 minutes away at a brisk walk. Having finally got there, there was the full array of security equipment to go through, manned by another set of unsmiling officials.

Small wonder, then, that - unlike my train experience in Holland - passengers eyed each other warily, and nobody uttered a word. In fact, when, through force of habit, I ventured a remark to the person in front of me, I was brusquely rebuffed.

In such situations alienation sets in. We feel isolated and at risk, anxiously scanning the faces of our fellow passengers in case any looks strange or suspect. This is the feeling that makes many of us today anxious and afraid of the faceless masses all around us, threatening our way of life.

Going underground

I return to The Hague for another spell in the archives in November. Until I do so I want to hold on to that sense of belonging that using the Dutch local trains gave me.

Commuters squeeze on the Tube
All aboard and mind the gap

Because the feeling of sharing a way of life with all those who travel with you, and of recognising yourself as belonging to the large, diverse community thronging the platforms around you is, I believe, a vital part of our everyday lives. The experience of mingling and sharing is the social glue which holds us all together and tells us - there is no need to be afraid.

Fortunately, since I have been back in London, the experience of the past weeks has sensitised me to a comparable effect to be felt in the city in which I normally live and work. Each day the British newspapers are full of alarming stories about the breakdown of society - the chaos and danger outside our front door.

But that is not how I feel as I travel to and from work. Now that I am back to my daily routine moving around London by bus and Tube, I can recognise how much this has in common with my Dutch trains. There too people of all sorts mingle and rub shoulders. Each improvement that is made to public transport, encouraging more of us to use it regularly, sustains and broadens that feeling of community I cherish.

Being surrounded by other people focussing on their own lives, brings moments of understanding like those I experience in the Netherlands - there is no hostile mob or masses ranged against us, undermining our standards and values, roaming the streets, threatening us with their dumbed-down mass culture and mass entertainment.

Rather what I see is other people like myself, reading, talking or looking around them. And just as often I feel I see them reflecting, facing surprisingly similar worries to mine - concerned about the speed of change, struggling to keep pace, hoping that we can explain all we are learning to the next generation. We are all, I recognise, "the masses". We are all in this together.

Below is a selection of your comments.

Growing up in Switzerland I adored taking public transport and loitering in public places, squares etc. as I am inexcusably nosy and any legitimate excuse to place myself within eye and earshot of other people's lives is most welcome, but since moving to the much busier and hurried England I have done a 180 on commuting.

In fact, it is because of my love of observing people and appreciating their quirks that I prefer to steer clear of crowded trams, trains and buses, because it's so much harder to appreciate your fellow man when your nose is being forced into his armpit. On those occasions where transport is busy but not bustling, occupied but not stuffed, I do still like to sit back and enjoy the sense of calm that comes from realising that there are literally millions of people like you. I should keep it in check though, or I might end up one of those little old dears with the Net Curtains.
J, Manchester

"Trains give me a comforting feeling of independence and self-sufficiency, of being in control." Have you ever travelled on the Piccadilly line in the morning rush hour, far from comforting and feeling independent when you end up under someone else's armpit for the best part of an hour? About "being surrounded by other people focusing on their own lives, brings moments of understanding..." you should try bus number 111 for size as well and see how you cope with loud and rowdy youths going to school in the mornings.
Hassan, London

I agree, there is something about the Tube that I like even though I commute every morning. It's a place of no mobile phones, where people sit a read a good book or a paper, no television and barely no computer screens. The noise and movement sometimes strikes me as like a dance, and I often giggle to myself when I concentrate on the synchronised movements of everyone on board. More often than not I am warmed by the actions of people, those who give up there seats or back up a stranger or those that just smile. Sure you get the idiots but rather than make you cross you just feel sorry for them that this is effecting them so much!
Charlie, London

It might be true that a larger number of people use trains in The Netherlands in comparison with the UK, but the statement that "everyone in Holland takes the train" is just rubbish. Trains in The Netherlands may be more punctual than their UK counterparts, but they are not 100% on time.

I would agree that train tickets cost less than in the UK - and for all but journeys on high speed/TGV international trains (including domestic journeys on these services) a ticket costs the same whether purchased 6 months or 2 minutes before departure (you cannot buy tickets for a particular date in advance - you just buy a undated ticket and use a stamping machine on the platform on the day of departure). The downside to this system of buying tickets is that, with the exception of the high speed international trains, you cannot reserve a seat. One thing I do like about many Dutch trains is that they are double decker trains and you get nice views over the polders and bulb fields during your journey.
Paul S, The Hague, Netherlands

My friends all think I'm crazy, but I really like airports. I frequently have a 5 hour wait at Schiphol which I always look forward to. Whenever I can I give up my seat on an overbooked flight (I once managed it 3 days in a row). This means that I can spend 2-3 hours at an airport without actually flying anywhere. I always make lots of friends there, and am always swapping business cards. It always amuses me to watch other people stressing at airports, you can't fight with an airport, so just enjoy it.
Eleanor, Oxford

I commute from Leicester to Derby by train everyday. Apart from the fact that it is about twice as fast as driving in rush traffic the engagement with the masses is why i wouldn't give it up. I have a collection of about 10 or so "train friends" that I met on the train, we sit together if we can and chat about work and home. I wouldn't have met these people if I hadn't been taking the train. I even went to one their weddings recently. Who says you cant talk to people you don't know?
Sam, Leicester to Derby commute


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