Waving at Trains

Michael Onsando
2 May ,2017

People wave at trains.

This is the only form of transportation that people wave at. Not just children, adults as well. People stare at the train as it passes by always scanning as if looking for something, and with a particular curiosity.  Part of it must be the novelty of a train, that a train passes the same spot only so many times in a day. Perhaps it is that the commuter train has this feel to it, an indicator of class – and that old structures of class demand something of us. Like how your mind still races for a split second when you see an old class teacher in town – conditioned responses are difficult to unlearn.

I’m reminded that people also wave at cars, not everywhere – but in some places. And these places are often places where cars themselves are seen as an indicator of class (also places without trains I would like to imagine because why wave at cars when you could wave at trains?).

The laying of the first plate of the Uganda Railway happened on 30th May 1896. It was opened in 1901. After a 104 year run it was in dire need of rethinking. Rift Valley Railway came to the rescue in 2005, signing a 25 year deal to keep the rail alive.  7 years later, on April 5th this year, the deal was terminated. So on Friday 28th May 2017 the last meter gauge train slowly pulled itself out of the station, the strain on its nuts and bolts audible.

The train itself is functional in a highly mechanical way. A way we do not often interact with in this world, where we swipe and touch for everything to happen. But trains had to be thin enough to fit on the 1000mm gauge – and not too long as to overbear the engine. Yet somehow people were also going to be in them for long periods of time. So there’s a deliberateness in the design around comfort and space that is now purely a product of luxury.

In this way, the beauty in mechanics is in how it shows its work. Close inspection of a mechanical object will yield answers – this turns because of this lever, this happens for this reason.  Close inspection of a phone, for example, will do nothing to explain to you how talking into one end leads to your voice being heard halfway across the world. Which doesn’t mean that there is no logic to how the sound is transferred – just that the logic is not apparent to us. Or that the method that we are using to interrogate does not fit the thing we are trying to find out. Or that the single function we are trying to understand is a mix of different forms of interrogation – like electromagnetic fields and wireless technology.

Maybe it is in this showing of work that class itself is seen. Because class is a product of resource (commonly known as purchasing power) and time is money – then an effort that shows the most time (and consideration) deserves the largest amount of money. And so in order to attract money the elegance must show itself in the detail. Not only must the thing be well thought, it musts also be seen to be well thought out. And it is in this way that the train itself can show us the person(s) who designed it. To look at the work is to see who is behind it and, perhaps, to chance at beginning to understand a generation that worked towards ensuring that their work is seen as good.

But good and bad are subjective things. And what we define as good and bad, particularly with regards to aesthetics, are tied to the things we would like to become, or the people we would like to associate with (dress for the job you want anyone?). These people, are often also trying to get the things that will define them as who they would like to be as well. So in many ways then, it is these things, these indicators of class (and money), that show us as people of a certain class – whether or not we would like to be perceived this way.

I write this to explain that not only does the train drip with class, but a particular kind of class – old British upper middle class kind of experience. And perhaps this is why the waving confused me. In this moment, when one is feeling like a royal because of the surrounding, they find themselves looking out the window only to see people waving at them like they are a politician of sorts.

“The metre gauge is now gonna be rendered useless. The locos and the rolling stock will now lie unused in the railway yards across the country and eventually sold as scrap metal. End of a century old line. Another white elephant

Onetwo  (comment on business daily article)

The new SGR, they say, is destined to be all the things we have been missing from travel. Each passenger train will have a capacity of 1,096 passengers and with a designed speed of 120 kilometres.

I wonder if we will still wave.

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