Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Michael Palin: Great Railway Journeys

(UK, 1980)

This BBC series had 8 episodes in the ‘80s, then it shut down, only to reappear in 1994, ’96, and ‘99. The format: various people were picked (I don’t know how) to take a trip on a train. Cameras followed, and the footage would be edited into a one-hour show. Michael Palin (no relation to Sarah) made two of them. I would go anywhere with Michael Palin—we have already gone with him around the world (in 79½ days! no flying allowed), from the North Pole to the South Pole, across the Himalayas and the Sahara, and many other places. And I love trains. I have always wanted to take the Trans-Siberian across Mother Russia to Vladivostok, a 5-day journey that no one ever said was luxurious. I’d like to cross India by train. I’ll probably never do either of those, but I have been lucky enough in my life to have made some pretty darn good train journeys. I’ve gone from Portland to Los Angeles on the Coast Starlight, from Los Angeles to Alpine, Texas, on the Sunset Limited, and from Seattle to Minneapolis on the Empire Builder. (Always in a room; trips that long are hellish in coach.) My best trip was Sydney to Perth, across the whole width of Australia, on the charming little pufferbilly the Indian Pacific. I’d love to take the Ghan from Adelaide to Darwin via Alice Springs.

“Confessions of a Trainspotter” (1980) I don’t know if there are any trainspotters in the US. It seems to be a big hobby in the UK. What you do, you sit by the side of a rail line or in a train station, and you note the numbers on the side of the engines, or even the individual cars. You are armed with train schedules, and lists of all the rolling stock in England and Scotland and Wales. It’s sort of like bird watching, in that you keep a list, and when you see a yellow-bellied sapsucker, you mark that off your list. So when you see Engine #5590, you mark that off. Trainspotters hope to eventually see all the engines currently on the rails. Whew! I don’t know if I could handle the excitement.

Michael was a trainspotter as a youth, when there were still some steam engines highballing it through the English countryside. Now, that I can understand. Steam engines, even if they were the same model, had their own character. They are awesome behemoths of black iron, some of them painted elaborately, they have giant wheels, amazing mechanical movements that you can see, and they go choo-choo-choo, as God intended trains to do. People love them, even if they never saw them in use. You can find thousands of them in small town and big city parks, rusted solid and painted black. America has nearly a hundred museums devoted to trains, and England has a lot. That’s how Michael made his journey interesting—from London to the farthest northern terminus of British Rail at Kyle of Lochaish near the Isle of Skye in Scotland. He stops along the way to visit museums and some of the private railroads that use steam engines to take people on day trips on disused spur lines. As an ex-Python he is moderately well-known, and of course the BBC gets him access to places you and I couldn’t go. And as an ex-Python, you expect silliness and jokes, but what you get is ironic, affectionate, and gentle observations, which is better. The fun of traveling with Michael is his sometimes quirky but always interesting take on things.

“Derry to Kerry” (1994) Derry is what most Northern Irish call Londonderry, and County Kerry is in the far south of the Irish Republic, so this trip covers pretty much the length of the island. Naturally in Belfast he has to get a look at the results of the “Troubles.” It’s very sad. My personal favorite place he stopped was some little town where a few dozen of the residents had built their own home theaters. They were of various sizes, some fancier than others, but the thing to do of a weekend was to go from theater to theater and watch the shows. Most of them specialized: ‘50s sci-fi horror, noir, musicals, westerns, Bogart, Eastwood, etc. And they weren’t showing videotapes, either, this was actual celluloid and 16mm projectors! What a grand way to spend an evening in Ireland.