I confirmed my love of trains and stations – particularly subways – on my recent trip to Europe. I realised that there is something incredibly powerful about a city’s public transport system. At first I thought the subway had a special ability to reflect a city’s character, but then I realised that, more importantly, a subway can set a tone for the city, something its citizens can (perhaps unconsciously or viscerally) aspire to.
Travelling around Paris and Berlin on the trains, I really felt that I was in some of the great cities of the world. There are arms of subways everywhere, crossing over, connecting. The stations have historical names and the platforms are beautiful in a gritty way, or beautiful in a grand way. Trains are arriving and departing constantly, there are people everywhere, running from one platform to another. In the middle of the night, there are still people down in the subway. It’s quiet and you all know you’re part of that strange after dark subculture, even if just for one night.
And then I came home to Melbourne. After sleeping a day away, it was time to get back into Melbourne life. There were friends to see and Christmas presents to buy. I walked to Coburg station (inner north-ish suburb, about 8kms from the CBD) on the day before Christmas eve, around 11.30am. I stood on an almost empty platform and waited for 25 minutes for the next train. You could imagine the tumbleweed rolling by. It wasn’t an uncharacteristic experience. You can stand on any platform in Melbourne and wait for 25 minutes almost any time of day or night. There are all sorts of reasons why we don’t have a metro like Paris. Some of them make sense, some of them are frustrating, whatever.
But the feeling I had that day – that I had returned home to a lifeless city – was palpable. Probably unfair, but inescapable. I’d say that’s the power of public transport. There are some beautiful train stations in Melbourne. I’m quite fond of South Yarra station for reasons I can’t pin down. And when I’m at those stations I can feel the life in the city and I want to be a part of it. That’s the power of public transport.
I don’t want to reflect on the potential failings of systems. I just want to travel the world and experience those amazing subways again.