a walk along the tracks

An abandoned train station has a loneliness all its own. A hub of motions, of all manner of comings and goings, new exchanges and intersections, has been rendered utterly still. As if time has frozen over. Scrub grows between the tracks like exclamation marks of this presiding stillness. And yet the architecture of all this activity remains, its continued presence amputated from its purpose, seeping with ghostly nostalgia. As I walk along these tracks, the ghosts of trains that ferried their last living passenger 23 years ago, whistle softly past my ears.

p1110886Back then Parthenay station had multiple passenger lines—linking to Niort in the South, Bressuire to the North-West, Thouars to the North and Poitiers to the East. A few years ago, the North-South line was re-opened but only to freighters. They shuttled earth mineral deposits, over a thousand tonnes at a time, from the quarries of Saint Varent to Niort, from where their loads were transported to large aggregate companies throughout France’s great south-west to make new motorways for more cars. They ran only at night, as if to conceal the irony of these last surviving trains carrying the very substance that spells further doom to their kind. Every year, 550,000 tons of freight was transported between Niort and Saint-Varent, and over one million tons between Saint-Varent and Thouars.  All endings have in them their beginnings. Railway construction originally began in France with the development of short lines to access mines.

p1110875The station itself, a little run down and weedy, still looks as if it is waiting for a makeover. The station house now sells bus tickets, connecting Parthenay to the larger towns of Poitiers to the East and Nantes and La Rochelle to the West. The platform clock still functions, the time keeper of bygone schedules and trains that never arrive.

I never thought I would write about trains. The topic seemed the domain of a very specific kind of geek. But I understand the Parthenaisiens’ nostalgia for their train station. Train lines are like the connective tissue between places. They are permeable membranes, allowing the passage of new ideas, new ways of looking at the world. With the closure of its only train station, Parthenay, already a town edging off the map, had been thrown into even greater isolation. Some saw the freight run as a ray of hope that might, in some meandering way, resolve into the re-opening of the passenger lines between Thouars and Niort via Parthenay. Late into the night, in the hours of the quarry trains, I forayed into the blogs of local train enthusiasts, running them through Google Translate, trying to piece together a story from the broken shards of history. I find a Youtube video taken from a camera fixed on the cabin of one of the freight trains. The video lasts over thirty minutes. Thirty minutes of trees and a single track, all of it the same. I find it strangely soothing. I am reminded of train journeys in India, Egypt and Turkey, and all over the English countryside. A train journey takes time, it carries you, and lets you drift a little in its arms….

For almost 60 years, the Niort-Thouars line formed a section of the great Paris-Bordeaux line, a major artery that passed from Paris through Chartres, Chateau-du-Loir, Saumur, Thouars, Niort and Saintes, before joining Bordeaux. In 1938, when Tours and Poitiers were favoured in the circulation between Paris and Bordeaux, the Niort-Thouars line declined but continued to run. Then in 1983, the trains were stopped completely. Now, even the freight trains have been banned. In December 2015, the track was marked unsafe. And just in case anyone has other ideas, just before the viaduct, two hefty logs lay padlocked across the track.

p1110893It is an unnerving sight. The logs strapped across the track. Padlocked even. As if to say, don’t even think about it. You find yourself trying to imagine the wheels of a train clambering over them. A train track has a pleasing visual continuum that offers perceptual momentum to the eye. Train tracks always look like they could be heading anywhere. The horizon field they create takes the mind somewhere off the map. To parts unknown. Often constructed in the outlying parts of a town, where the trees and shrubs grow untended, they both protect the traditional provincial circuitry and nudge at the dormant spirit of adventure.

p1110889This visual continuum of a track runs in step with its utility, engineered to the very purpose of physical momentum. The logs not only disrupt the visual continuum, they disrupt any plausible idea of a moving train beyond that point. They disrupt the very purpose of the track. The visual and utilitarian disruption together create a conceptual paradox. One that simply stepping over the logs cannot altogether resolve.

I step over them anyway, and continue to follow the tracks.

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