In Praise of Trains

I write this on a sleeper train to Montreal from Moncton: the VIA Rail Ocean. Because of my general antipathy to air travel and because of their equivalent price, I splurged for an upper berth. VIA called and upgraded me for a cabin for one. This is the first long-distance train I’ve taken in a long time, certainly since learning to drive, and I have forgotten the way trains facilitate flow.

By flow, I’m thinking of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s, the Hungarian-American psychologist, concept of the mental state of being immersed in an activity, with focus, energy concentration, and enjoyment, so that one loses track of time and feels “in the zone” (Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper Collins, 2009.) Although Csikszentmihalyi means what occurs when skill is matched to challenge, I am referring to the feeling of being fully immersed in the present.

The train facilitates flow.

The train has been an unexpected time to think, daydream, and write. Neither driving nor flying facilitates flow in the same way. Part of the reason is that the train is slow. I left Moncton yesterday at 5:30 pm, and I won’t get into Montreal until 10 am. After that, I go to Ottawa. It’s a 20-hour train journey.

The same flight takes a couple of hours, and requires rushing, people, stimulation, a terrible schedule, security, and lots of interruptions. While fast, flights don’t create time. The train can.

The semester was busy: four classes, a grant application, and a few writing projects. The train has been an unexpected gift of time.

I’ve graded term papers, entered grades, had dinner, stretched, meditated, sent some messages, had a beer, slept, had a leisurely breakfast, and written this. The steady sound of the train passing over the tracks lends itself to flow.

Prior to the pandemic, I used to travel for academic conferences. At times, they left me exhausted. But, at their best, conferences were space to engage ideas, to think about other people’s work, and to read. The travel to and from the conference were part of the fun, which is why I’ve not been terribly excited about online or hybrid conferences. I never seem to take the time. But, next conference, if I can swing it, I think train travel has air travel beat, precisely because it makes time.