Who rides long distance trains in 2015? Well, the short answer, of course, is people for whom travel is about more than ‘getting there.’ It turns out, though, that we are a remarkably diverse group.

Last night, as I was enjoying a brandy in the club car, our conductor entered and sought out the Chinese couple sitting across from me. She was looking for someone bilingual in English and Mandarin to help her with the questions of another Chinese couple who had no English at all.

Knowing that train people usually seek conversation, and always on the lookout for a chance to test the latest tech, I offered to help. I’d recently downloaded a beta of Google Translate, which promises to turn your iPad into Star Trek’s universal translator. What followed was a travel encounter that I think could only have happened on a train.

As my new friends and I found out, the software isn’t quite there yet, but Judy and John were game, so we kept at it. Imagine the scene. Seated side by side, we took turns speaking to my iPad, oblivious to how absurd we must have looked to our fellow passengers.   I would ask a question and, after a moment, Chinese characters would appear on the screen, followed by a female voice speaking Mandarin. Amazing.

Then Judy would nod and answer in Mandarin, again speaking to the glass and metal artifact in my hand. English characters would appear and the female voice would speak English. Some of this back and forth was quite accurate; some hilariously non sequitur. But, it was enough.

Judy speaks very little English and I, not a syllable of Mandarin. Yet, with the help of the ghost in the machine, I was learned that she had been in Canada since 2008 and had recently received permanent residence status. She was able to tell me what she had done in Shanghai before emigrating, what John did for a living and that their son had graduated with a degree in business from the University of Toronto and was now working for a bank in Shanghai.

As Judy remarked near the end of our encounter, we had just experienced the beginning of something quite remarkable—the end of learning foreign languages. It was a uniquely 21st century moment, made all the more interesting for having occurred in a 19th century environment. On the other hand, maybe the Victorians who invented trains understood something about people that denizens of the jet age no longer appreciate.

Travel is among the most exciting things the average person ever does… or, it should be. Does it make any sense, then, to simply have to endure any part of a journey? In that sense, the environment on board a train doesn’t belong to any century—it’s a universal space where travelers can meet, learn from each other and appreciate that newer and faster have never necessarily been synonymous with better.


  1. Gerald Brown says:

    Enjoyed reading this posting Tim. It would have been a wonderful experience. Best wishes, and good luck on the next trip too.

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