The Train Diaries
If a reporter with a camera hidden in a rolled up newspaper were to film me you would see that I was leaning against a ticket machine at a railway station. Swarms of Monash University students flooded by me. With that goal in mind, I straightened up and grabbed my monthly ticket and walked up the steep ramp to the platform.
An announcement came over the tannoy speakers; an express to Flinders Street was arriving in one minute.
After three decades I needed a break from music; I no longer had the endurance to deal with the doughnuts. I have ignored the geographic side of Melbourne for too long I will experience the city as though I were an out-of-towner. I will travel to Jacana, Alamein, Ivanhoe and beyond.
I live by a railway line. Concrete sleepers and rail maintenance apparatus are stacked between the tracks and the walkway. First thing in the morning and again at sunset I see the trains as I walk the dog. They came roaring beside me covered in tags and graffiti. Unexpectedly, one stopped due to power malfunctions. At least I'm guessing it was that.
The passengers looked warily out the windows, exhausted and vacant, crammed together willy-nilly after eight hours of drudgework. I wanted to experience some of their indolence. Which was why I had forked out the money for the ticket and rushed between groups of students and 40-something workers, to platform three for the stopping-all-stations train to Altona, switching lines at Southern Cross Station.
As I understand it, the CONNEX legacy, the cancellations, and disruptions, break failures, overcrowding has the public in an uproar. More train services, greater reliability and punctuality … a better transport system for our state was the battle cry. Since METRO took over Melbourne's suburban rail system, the trains were still running late. It has been a short but troubled existence thus far.
I noticed there were no seats available and no one was inclined to stand for me, a silver-haired old rocker. The commuter’s philosophy is simple: the strongest wins out. Where did it all go wrong? A vapid train conversation took place at a loud volume between the passenger and their cell phone. Everyone had their nose buried in a newspaper or book or stared vacantly, tiny white headphones trembling all the way to their hidden MP3 players.
I settled into a nook between a frame and a door. I hung on to a hand strap. I couldn’t move if I’d wanted to. School kids with bags shoved themselves aboard. I closed my eyes. It was full all the way and took 20 minutes.
I switched trains at Southern Cross Station, arguably Melbourne’s only emblematic structure. Alternatively, it’s a portal to ugliness and the central connection to Melbourne’s never-ending suburbs. It’s all hard angles, escalators and closed circuit surveillance cameras.
Footscray, Seddon, Yarraville Spotswood, Newport, Seaholme and Altona are some of the stations we passed through. Once were seedy, but are now upper working, lower middle class with more closed circuit surveillance cameras. This area had been a tryout zone for immigration for years and minority groups have come and made money and moved on to the outer eastern and southern suburbs.
Solid weatherboards with refurbished kitchens with island benches the alternatives salivate over. This is what happens when the sharp but cash poor buy houses in dilapidated suburbs. The municipality is a swathe of Indian supermarkets, organic fruit shops, Western Bulldogs signage, African restaurants and a new respectability.
To be honest, I was confused what to do once I’d arrived at Altona. For me, this was all pleasantly bizarre, but for other passengers its their daily life’ they catch the same trains every day. I will buy some notebooks, make some connections and find out what-hell-is-happening across Melbourne.
I chose the back carriage for my return journey because it was handy to the exit. Such were the crowds you couldn’t move your arms. Yet no one panicked. For unknown reasons the train stopped for 10 minutes at Richmond. My head was a vacuum. Nothing much else happened. Station attendants or were they security inspectors huddled together at a stationmaster’s office. The train arrived at Caulfield and there was a mad scramble for the door. Aspirational people doing higher education by night, rushed for tutorials and God knows what else besides.
I’m a morning person; tomorrow I shall travel to Camberwell and take photos with the mobile phone I’ve had for years and never used. Everyday commuters will have noticed I have much to learn.
The Train Diaries
Time runs at different speeds at the Camberwell railway station. The other morning, the platform was crowded. Citizens were dressed to the nines, keeping up appearances. There was a genuine pernicious strangeness. I felt like an extra in Brideshead Revisited. Everyone was a statesman; women included. It was like being in a giant warm, leafy autumn wonderland. The suburbs saviour, accomplished actor Geoffrey Rush was omnipresent. There was an orchestra playing next to the ticket office. Elderly executives accepted tea from maids who mysteriously vanished. An ambulance siren screamed down Burke Road. What else? Hordes of schoolkids, shared headphones giving me what the hell is going on here expressions. Most had laptops that were splashed with stickers for 3RRR.
METRO has had a short but troubled life. They promised high-speed trains zipping around town. All we got was a disastrous timetable, a skeletal service and break failure. Travellers with Myki cards posses a gallows sense of humour. A simple question: Why do Europe and India have terrific trains and Melbournians can’t take a trick?
I tried talking to people standing nearby about the future of the passenger rail system and did they approve of the way Premier Brumby had hit out at the suburban train operator, but the commuters exhibited a look of paralysing helplessness. As though we were nothing but passive receptacles. Which made me think that at some deep level we got the train system we deserved.
The city bound train was late. We were filled with a rage, not against the dying of the light, but because we were impatient and unhappily resigned to the idea that we were doomed and redundant. Possibly that was just me.
While I was observing others I had stopped looking for answers to my own existential neurosis.
Meanwhile, a train arrived from the opposite direction, we scrambled aboard. As the train exited the great railway termini, the band upstairs played on and an elderly station attendant waved us goodbye while playing ukulele. I think it was Geoffrey Rush, imaging he was in a French farce at the MTC.
The next stop was Auburn. Interestingly enough, I lived in old soot blackened terrace house here, briefly looking after a goat while attending art school.
Two girls talked, one put the other straight in no time flat, “Hey, you don’t get brownie points for getting to work early.” The other waif nodded and fingered her long hair back into place.
Young male media professionals, grouped together, looking tall and angular with a clean-cut style like characters from the television series Madmen.
The train departed Glenferrie and ran express to Richmond and continued to Parliament and the city loop where the lights faded to black between stations. The train quickly emptied as the workers disappeared into health food juice bars that doubled as purveyors of energy drinks sushi and coffee.
When I was a little boy the only time we went to the city was after my big sister had dragged me to a dentist in Camberwell as it happens and I would leave the surgery with a mouthful of blood and she’d drag me to Myers in Little Burke Street to their downstairs cafeteria where I would eat jelly and spit out more blood into my hanky.
Uh huh, voices from the past, I was reminiscing. It was time for me to go home. Ten minutes to the Sandringham line, time for me to go through the rubbish bin in a search for yesterday’s newspapers. Now the others were at work, I was free to relax.