A rail journey at night
I wrote this quickly as a response to our experience going up to Melbourne and back by train on Thursday night. An edited and hopefully improved version has just now (Saturday) been posted on our babasiga blog site. The first version here was posted Friday.
A man with no name
‘You will be detrained,’ said the female conductor in a moderate voice that not everyone heard.
I had never heard that word before. Others like it ‘the train will terminate at Southern Cross station’ – well I’ve heard that a few times.
The off-peak train trip to Melbourne and back seemed like a good idea at the time. Only about $5 each and no worries about finding an expensive car park in the city. The 12.35 from North Geelong station where we left the car was on time and we reached the Uniting Church offices by 2.5 for the workshop on cross-cultural ministry and how migrant congregations are going. Only representing Fijian and Indonesian groups for this day. The meeting room was claustrophobic as the ground floor is like a rabbit warren and we were given electronic tags to open a door. I just held my peace except to say, ‘Don’t you trust God to look after you,’ and I breathed deeply. It was a small group but the conversations were lively, sometimes theoretical, but as practical and down to earth as we could make it. At 5.40 we had a delicious dinner together then Peceli and I caught the Collins Street tram in time for the 6.28 p.m. Warrnambool train which should stop at North Geelong about 45 minutes later.
Well, that’s what we thought. There were six carriages, crowded, and the front carriage for Geelong commuters without reserved seats was totally packed. My feet were sore and I really wanted to get home quickly to take my tight shoes off. Our seats were face to face so there were six of us who would get to know one another quite well a bit later, but at the beginning of the journey we just nuzzled into our books and magazines without speaking. I had a Marama magazine from Fiji to read. That is the default situation – like a computer goes back to Times Roman point 12 perhaps. A journey ‘alone’, without reference to people whose thighs touch yours and knees sometimes bump.
Ten minutes later, after North Melbourne the train stopped. Through the window I could see graffiti on walls so we were in a narrow section of the tracks.
We waited and after about ten minutes the V-line conductor, a young woman, announced, 'We would have to stay put for a while as a trespasser was on the railway line and they had to change drivers.'
What did that mean? The middle-aged woman with bright blonde hair rang her mobile. Her ex was a policeman. Shortly after, she said to us that something must have happened. The driver might be in shock for some reason. She was seated in between two young guys and I was between Peceli and a young woman engrossed in a novel.
Another period of time elapsed and the conductor walked up the aisle and now said calmly, ‘ A person is deceased and we will have to wait for the police and the coroner as this is a crime scene. The train is not allowed to move. We might have to stay inside for three hours before being detrained.’ I think she perhaps realized she had told us too much.
My panic buttons set off then and I wanted to breathe clean air, step outside but we were not near a platform but between North Melbourne and South Kensington stations. All the trains would be diverted away from this area, they told us.
This changed the situation of each person in their own world of reading or sleeping. The three opposite us started talking, (they knew one another) particularly the guy holding a magazine of glamour women. He was a Deakin student in Public Relations and Journalism and the blonde woman was his mother, down from Queensland to catch up with family. She had only come on the train to talk with his son. The other young man, 21 he said later, was a Journalism student at Deakin also, and on workplace assignment with the Age. He had a cutting from today’s paper with his byline, the positive article with a lovely picture of two Aboriginal girls I had noticed earlier at breakfast time.
‘Good for Reconciliation Week,’ I said.
About a school at Healesville re-opening. There was much talk about editing, taking photos, and I asked about copyright and pinching photos on the internet.
The photo guy said,’ I have my named embedded in the photo – not that anyone can see it, but Google can and I ask them to delete any of my pictures used without authorisation.’
Peceli started drawing the scene inside the train with a pen, using my sketchbook, and then it was passed around and there were comments of my sketch of the bridge over Yarra St.
The guy said, ‘I did the PR writeup for the development.’
So of course I said, ‘I was one of the protesters against Westfield bridge. I can’t stand huge super size developments.’
None of us were talking about the ‘thing’ on our mind. What had really happened? Who was killed and did he or she jump, or just wander onto the tracks? Or was a graffiti artist talking risks? We were just guessing.
Announcements came over the speaker periodically and the conductor kept informing us, minimally, about how long to wait. ‘If you want to move back into another carriage because of the smoke, do so.’
Peceli said, ‘I thought smoking is banned on trains.’
Apparently it was a compromise this time because some people were starting to panic without their nicotine fixes. The conductor said, ‘There is free coffee from the snack bar which is now open.
‘Where is it?’
‘Back four carriages.’
Lucky Peceli had bought that bottle of water in Collins Street as we had been drinking from that. My claustrophobia was kicking in and we talked about moving to a carriage where there might be a bit of space, but the three people in front of us were entertaining us with their chatter, the guy talkative and telling hilarious anecdotes. The girl beside me was onto her last forty pages of her book.
Peceli and I wanted coffee so traipsed through the carriages, past people sitting quietly without panic but a few were sitting on the floor in the in-between carriages areas. The smokers had been sent right to the front of the train in the front of our carriage. (Some were on pot, a guy told us.) We met a couple of people we knew. The V-line coffee was sweet and hot. There was not the usual stumble along the aisle on a moving train with your coffee as this train was stationary, very much so.
Through the window I could just see the scribbles and scrawls of graffiti on a cement wall. We were all ignoring the reality of what had happened at the front of the engine - police officers and forensic people with a body. Instead we chatted with people, observed others with their various books – Anatomy of a Dog was one of them. Many city workers had their laptops open, and some academics were grading papers. Not everyone had shifted like us into talking ten-to-the-dozen with strangers. Many were still ‘alone’ with their books. Two women had their knitting out and bundles of wool were flung on their laps.
The young woman next to me closed her final page and sighed. I had not interrupted her at all, but now we started a conversation. She was a tertiary student of myochem.. something to do with bones and muscles. She said she was originally from Canada so that elicited travel stories from the blonde. I was thinking about the way people manage a situation where they cannot control the outcome. Oh, eventually we would be moved out of the carriages but for now, there were 350 people trapped for two hours or more. Most people seemed to manage okay but several older men were getting noisily drunk down at the end of the carriage.
After two hours a voice came over saying, ‘The train will go to Footscray and there will be buses waiting.’
We certainly sighed with relief. The train moved and soon we reached the next main suburban station. But there were no buses. we would have to wait for maybe 45 minutes. Remember many of the travellers still have a journey of three or four hours to their destination at Warrnambool in the western district.. The smokers leapt out onto the platform, Peceli and I after them, to get cold fresh air. We talked with strangers, asked questions, gave answers. One V-line staff there told us that the train should have stayed put for five hours but V-line had argued with the police that you just can’t maintain order with 350 people locked into a claustrophobic situation.
A bus arrived and an announcement rose in the frosty air. 'A bus is ready. Geelong Express. Go straight away if you want that bus.’
We went into cave-man default this time, rushing, running, pushing, shoving, ignoring the young, ignoring the elderly, to reach the door. Although we wanted to get to North Geelong, this was near enough for Peceli and me. A $10 taxi ride would get us back to North station and our parked car. We got seats together and it was a luxury bus, the kind for long tours. We left three hundred people behind, still waiting.
Near Werribee the driver announced that we would be taken to Werribee station to catch the train to Geelong! What? We were on the freeway going home!
Some travellers were loudly talking into their mobiles, one guy abusing someone the other end. Another, a young woman was discussing her mixed up marriage and bashings. We were in a different space now from the orderly discussions we had had in the front carriage. A talkative young woman who wouldn’t let up about there being three dead at the ‘incident’ as she had heard the police talking, she said. Now this gave me a really bad feeling of despair for the lives of people who see no other way but suicide. Was there one person or three? Our minds raced and speculated. However a young man across the aisle from me said something about it all being a tragedy. He was right. We had mostly been just thinking of our inconvenience.
Was a train really waiting there? This might mean another wait though. The bus driver changed his mind ten minutes later and took us straight down the highway and we would be home at last. Several people on the bus actually wanted to exit at North and the driver drove into the side lane and dropped about eight of us at the traffic alight opposite North Geelong station. We really thanked the driver.
We had forgotten to thank that female conductor who had looked after us for those awful two hours on the stationary train though I did pat her on the shoulder as a gesture of thanks'
Our car was still there with only two other vehicles left. Ws I glad to see the old car with the mismatched bumper and the broken tail-light.
What a relief it was to get home by 11 p.m. five hours after leaving Southern Cross Station in Melbourne. I listened to the Geelong radio news and the ABC news but there were no stories about the train accident or the death of a man.
Next morning I bought the Advertiser and read a small column headed ‘Rail commuters angry at delay‘ or words to that effect. Actually I don’t recall many people our end of the train shouting and abusing V-line staff, but someone said it happened._ There was mention in the paper of a man who had jumped in front of the train. No name was given.
Was there a phone call last night or a knock on a door by a police officer to inform relatives, his mother, father, sibling of the death? We will not know.