Summer Stories Series: A Tale of Two Trains

The most memorable parts of my summer did not occur in the presence of great landscapes.  Though I was fortunate enough to have been surrounded by much glossy postcard scenery, I found my most cherished memories were made inside the warm steel cocoon of the modern train car.  Train travel characterized my life this summer; I clocked over sixty hours of train time in July alone before I gave up my tally.  As my ridership spanned countries and continents, the range of my train-related snapshots increased.   My true summer story is told in the divided tale of two completely distinct train lines - the painfully postmodern D.C. Metro and the ultra-animated Tokyo subway. The New Carrollton Metro Station is a woefully unimaginative square of nothingness-- dirty concrete slabs wedged into the side of a hill just a few miles from the Maryland-D.C. border. Blink fast enough and you might think you're looking at some new-age WWII bunker.  Typically, this is where I began early each morning without my customary coffee: drinking and eating on the D.C. Metro is strictly forbidden.

Usually I tried to read on the train, but I frequently found myself distracted by the impressionistic portraits of my home state, Maryland, that streaked past.  During this portion of the ride, the tracks run several stories up, where the train lifts riders above a mix of jammed commuter avenues and lush greenery. We are the city's spillover; those who reside on the edges, whether for breathing room and a backyard or for an escape from the city's high rent.  There's a silent bond we commuters share on the ride in, each of us battling a love-hate relationship with the city.  As the train rolls closer to the District, it slowly sinks below the tree line.   Riders catch one glimpse of that iconic marble mountain, the Capitol, rising on the horizon, before the metro furiously burrows into the dark ground, like a worm wriggling into the earth.  Then there is darkness.

9,000 miles west of New Carrollton lies a dizzying network of stations that weave through the city of Tokyo.  Here, the buildings glow from the neon lights, even after darkness cloaks the sky.  Despite the chaotic arrangement of colors outside the car, the interior atmosphere is calm.  A small TV displays the weather report in cute pastel suns (naturally) while a friendly Hello Kitty sticker cautions riders not to get their fingers stuck when the doors closes.  Talking on the cell phone is strictly prohibited on the Tokyo subway, so even though the cars carry a heavier concentration of people than those in the States, the noise level is surprisingly low. Even the eccentric Harajuku girls, with their pastel bows and doll-faced make-up, sit crouched over, texting, with their lime green cell phones silenced.

There is, however, a dark side to commuting here that mars the placid atmosphere.   Frequently, there are delays due to suicidal platform jumpers, who tragically end their lives by jumping in front of the cars.  This horror occurred on average five times a day in 2008.  This summer, I saw a body bag for the first time through the smudged window of a train car.

Bookstores sell an array of travel literature, but if you want a true portrait of the culture of a city or country,  just ride the local trains.   Forget that your mother told you it's impolite to stare and gawk.  An egalitarian form of transportation, trains take all different types of people - the rich, the poor, the misfits, and the beautiful - and pack them into one small car.  When the doors close, a temporary microcosm of the region exists within the boundaries of a metal capsule.  The observer can attain an authentic glimpse of a city or region and its people.  My most vivid memories of this summer are of moments when I was crammed inside a train car, and I wouldn't have it any other way.