I have admitted here before that I do like flying, which is not the same as saying that I do it whenever I can, or that I’m encouraging you to do the same.
From an environmental point of view, flying is, of course, terrible. But – a bit like smoking crack the first few times (I imagine) – it’s terribleness doesn’t make it any less enjoyable.
Sometimes I’m delighted we live on an island; other times I think it’s a shame. To get anywhere in a (relatively) guilt-free way requires taking a ferry, which means quite a bit of hassle and bag-carrying. But after that, you can take the train. One thing you can never take away from our British and European cousins is that they do excellent trains.
There’s nothing wrong with Irish trains. They’re grand. They’re about the right size and get you where you need to go. As long as where you need to go isn’t in Donegal, Cavan, Monaghan or west Cork. Or if you want to travel from say, Sligo to Galway, and are prepared to invest seven hours and two changes.
Sorry Iarnród Éireann. I don’t want to be mean. The historical neglect of the Irish railway system isn’t your fault. My point is more emotional than political anyway. It’s about how the trains make you feel. European trains are imposing machines that travel the Continent. They work through the night, crossing international boundaries: they ooze romance. Get on one and you might meet the modern versions of Bogart, Joan Didion or Jean-Paul Sartre. Get on the train to Portarlington and you might see Ed Sheeran.
[ Irish volunteers bring medicine and feed for hundreds of Kyiv’s horses ]
Just a couple of weeks ago, I had the experience of catching an international night train in Poland; one you get to sleep on. (Deliberately, that is, not because you’ve too many Heinekens from the snack cart.) The passengers were ferried through passport control and onto a dimly lit, movie-set platform, their breath misting in the cold. Smartly dressed conductors appeared and showed everyone to their bunk beds.
Like many people, I don’t always sleep as well in a bed that isn’t my own, but on a train, the gentle rocking sent me straight off. Early the following morning, I woke up in Kyiv.
My time there is another story. But I must admit that I was rather looking forward to the trip back, even though it was days away from the first anniversary of Russia’s attempt at full invasion, when most people expected a fresh attack.
Unknown to me, something like an armada of trains had left Kyiv that night: one every half hour. They queued on the border the next morning, almost overwhelming Polish passport control
Kyiv-Pasazhyrskyi Station is, like Kyiv itself, astonishingly beautiful. It has vault-like waiting rooms with panelled walls and low lighting. It’s like something from a Terry Gilliam film or where Paddington Bear might go on an excursion. Romantic to me, but to most Kyivans, just another reminder of their country’s grim Soviet past. In the centre of Kyiv, overlooking the old town, there’s a monument to what Ukrainians call the Holodomor. Punishingly high grain production quotas triggered a famine across the country. Millions died.
As we waited to mount the train back, another filmic special effect: a gentle snow started to fall. I settled in and heard people speaking French, Danish, but mostly Ukrainian. Women, children and small pets. They’d already endured a year of full-scale war and didn’t want to be around for the possible re-escalation of that. Unknown to me, something like an armada of trains had left Kyiv that night: one every half hour. They queued on the border the next morning, almost overwhelming Polish passport control. Our train chugged into Przemysl Station six hours late, where exhausted but surprisingly good-humoured Ukrainians were required to queue again at stands erected by aid agencies.
[ Number of Ukrainian pupils in Irish schools rises to almost 15,000 ]
The train we had disembarked from moved out of the station again, back to Kyiv and an uncertain future. Trains can be romantic and comfortable and environmentally friendly. They can also save lives.