design by rebecca johnson
design by rebecca johnson
  A definite style mainstay, nautical sailor stripes have worked their way into our cabins and closets for seasons now, but what about another mode of escape?  In Europe, train travel is quite commonplace—by far the preferred method for moving between cities, and popular whether or not one has car or another way of getting around. (A Eurorail Pass is actually the thing for a summer in Europe – travel 24 countries with the two-month continuous pass.) Passenger usage in Britain is as strong as it was sixty years ago with nearly a billion passenger journeys made each year. An array of languages float off the platforms at London’s King’s Cross Station. Stroll through the Atocha Train Station in Madrid, Spain in the afternoon and you’ll witness travelers taking aperitivos beside its indoor rainforest. Board an overnight train in Lisbon, and wake to freshly baked baguettes in a corner bistro beside the gothic styled archways of Gare du Nord in Paris.

Train travel has largely disappeared as a transportation option in America (not including commuter trains). In the U.S., long-haul passenger trains tend to operate once a day in each direction, and since 1971 they’ve been run by Amtrak as opposed to private railroads. While Americans have traded in the romantic tradition of long carriage rides, locomotives are being made even more luxurious in Europe.  The Venice-Simplon-Orient-Express is a multi-destination journey between London and Venice, stopping at stations in Budapest, Prague, and Vienna.  Referred to as the “Orient-Express,” the train fuses adventure, style, and romance into its private cabins, which have been restored to their previous 1920’s elegance.

One station Americans have salvaged is Grand Central Terminal, which celebrates its centennial this year.  In the 1960s, as Americans abandoned the rails in favor of cars and planes, the railroad that owned Grand Central proposed building an office on top of the rundown terminal.  New Yorkers, already upset by the demolition of architectural dream Pennsylvania Station, rallied Jackie Kennedy, a staunch supporter, to protect the train station.  Their efforts led to a Supreme Court ruling, which upheld the terminal’s status as a landmark and ignited a 20-year restoration project.

The station has more than a few well-kept secrets (like the presence of a hidden spiral staircase inside the information booth). In Alfred Hitchcock’s film North by Northwest Cary Grant is mistaken for a government agent by a gang of spies, and makes his escape from New York City in a suspenseful sequence filmed inside the real station. Terry Gilliam’s 1991 film The Fisher King features an elaborate waltz scene in Grand Central Station – hundreds of passengers stop to dance as Robin Williams spots his dream woman. In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Kate Winslet’s Clementine slides backwards through the station – it’s an immediately recognizable setting for her disappearance through memory and time. Film stars have taken cues from the railroad terminal. Marilyn Monroe was photographed in New York taking the train, which was an attempt to re-position her image to the public, portraying her as just another struggling actress.

Fashion designers are utilizing the playful blue and white stripes of summer into sexy, jagged, and daring lines, transforming the trend from seaside to trackside. For Spring 2013, Marc Jacobs harnessed the railway with a whole collection of… stripes.  Parallel lines, black and white, and sequined, the details in the fabrics mimic the twisting of a train track. Nicolas Ghesquière of Balenciaga paid homage to the seduction of the train with midriff-baring molded bras, pinstripes, and black and white ruffled skirts that flowed away from the body, emphasizing a bare leg.  In their Fall 2013 collection, Ruffian incorporated a red pinstripe on a dark charcoal suit; a special touch of velvet adorned the runway, like the vintage seats of a steam engine car. Stella McCartney introduced an ankle-length black and white striped sweater dress, the perfect assemble for a wintry train ride, while Altuzarra paired extreme blocks of black against white with exaggerated striped fur gloves and accents of leather. For Resort 2014, Julie de Libran looked to “the French girl” to infuse a little effortless chic into a railroad striped indigo tweed, long sleeved mini-dress at Louis Vuitton. Marc Jacobs showed wide blue stripes as well, dressing Jamie Bochert in a crème and deep blue barred knit top. Valentino shared a similar frame—navy and ivory bands were lined in cherry red for a railroad stripe look that was quite casual in feel. 

Remedy the feeling of being static by drawing the window blinds and putting on a train travel-inspired film.  These movies celebrate the appeal of passenger trains, steam engines, magnificent terminals, and the many railroading accessories (who doesn’t covet a steamer trunk in place of a blasé coffee table).  While traveling in Europe, a rich young playgirl notices that an elderly lady has disappeared from the train in The Lady Vanishes, another Hitchcock masterpiece.  Murder on the Orient Express, directed by Sidney Lumet, is story that follows Hercule Poirot, a detective called on to solve a murder that occurred in his car the night before.  Two western train robbers flee to Bolivia when the law catches up to them in George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  Director David Lean intertwines romance and scandal in a Brief Encounter, when a woman is tempted to cheat on her husband after meeting a stranger in a railway station.  And who can forget the 1944 nail biter, The Train?  We watch as the Resistance must stop a German train with stolen French art treasures on its way back to Germany.

It should not surprise anyone that the movement of trains is enough to move the lyrics of musicians. Bob Dylan, an original locomotive fan, turning out several songs about trains, such as It takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry and Slow Train Coming.  The Clash rode into pop stardom with Train in Vain. Classic Rock would not be complete without the infamous Crazy Train, in which Ozzy Osbourne’s maniacal laughter invites us “All Aboard,” or the Pip’s Midnight Train to Georgia, a southern favorite.  There seems to be a fair share of controversy that surrounds trains, from Grateful Dead's Casey Jones to Duke Ellington’s Take the A-Train. (Ever notice how a train entering a tunnel is edited into videos to symbolize…um, the moment of union?)

Trains have also made tracks in the literary world- acting as vehicles to the work’s plot, as well as to the writer’s imagination. Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train is about an unhappy husband with an unfaithful wife who meets a helpful psychopath on a train, naturally.  The stranger offers the husband a deal: I'll kill your wife, if you murder my dad- with no connection between us, the police will never track us down. In Anne Sexton’s “’Daddy’ Warbucks,” the train is indicative of the burden of being a woman. Sylvia Plath’s train is her body entrapped – “I’m a means, a stage, a cow in calf/Boarded the train there’s no getting off.” Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is fueled by a dark image of the train.  Anna first makes her ill-fated acquaintance with her lover, Vronsky, in a train station, and sees the death of a railway worker after this meeting as a bad omen. We witness Anna being carried away by her train-station passion for Vronsky, derailing her family life, social reputation, and physical health.  And like a colossal train wreck in motion, we just can’t look away.

Today, Russia embraces the history surrounding train culture, and each year since 2007, Moscow installs an “art gallery train” to mark the anniversary of the opening of the Moscow Metro in the spring of 1935. The Aquarelle (Watercolor) Train is painted with colorful flowers and fruit on the outside; the inside features art reproductions from famous Russian art galleries.  It is meant to bring color and light to the cold, grey months of winter, reminding the citizens of the region’s ongoing beauty.  The cars vary between a reading train, a poetry train, and a retro train with leather seating- a replica of the first Moscow Metro train.

While train stations are some of the largest buildings in the world, with dome roofs and high ceilings, they are also some of the loneliest. Thousands of bodies frequent them every day, but they are disconnected- distracted by transit schedules. An emptiness can exist when pre-occupied with the fundamentals of arrival and departure.  And what happens when these majestic buildings run their course?  Bricks crumble and the once-vibrant walls fade from memory, like a train taking a bend.  There is something fascinatingly beautiful about looking at a place that was once bustling with people, become a part of its natural surroundings, like the soil it sits in.  Visit the abandoned station in Abkhazia, bordering the Black Sea.  Walking among its ivory columns, turquoise peeking from the ceilings, you’ll feel like you have discovered ancient ruins.  There’s an eeriness inside the Croix Rouge Metro Station in Paris, as it invokes the essence of the city’s catacombs. Rows of orange chairs act as natural planters- covered in clumps of dirt- ghosts waiting for the next train to come.  The Anhalter Bahnof Station of Berlin has a much brighter disposition. A building nearly whole, it has clock-like windows that filter natural sunlight.

Instead of sailing away on your next trip, don a railroad-striped tunic and bask in the quiet history of train travel. Surrender into a deep window seat, feel the car rock back and forth, and listening to the steady sway of the train. A passenger on a train, you are not watching the world pass you by, but rather, you are partaking in the scenery: a character in its story.  Light through trees flicker, ramshackle houses abut faded fences, the rhythm of moving through…You are embarking for the next destination, flying faster, surging forward, choosing platforms, and different tracks of life. 
After all- A train of thought is a type of cerebral escape-a ticket to nowhere and everywhere.
~Susan Brickell
August 2013