Of trains and metro systems

Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org) defines metro as:-
1. an urban, electric mass transit railway system (meaning carrying living passengers and not cattle or other livestock for making a profit in the business sense)
2. totally independent from other traffic (in loose terms, its running track does not have direct contact with automobile roads or rely in some way on this mode)
3. high service frequency (making money;not losing money as in the now defunct PUTRA LRT consortium who registered losses despite the rather encouraging passenger influx since 1998)
not necessarily below street level ala Paris Metro and the London Underground. By extension, the KL LRT is a metro system.
My earliest memory of a train ride is blurry at best. It was circa 1984/1985. Being one with Johorean roots (Mersing), a train ride seemed the perfect alternative to a car trip down south, when petrol prices were more or less the same inflated price as today and there is always a first time for everything. And then, it was a trip down memory lane.
The train had apparently derailed quite far off the Gemas central station and orders were (hurriedly and poorly) issued to abandon train. Then a long frogmarch to the nearest station. Again, memory is sketchy at best but it was dark (not stormy la) and then orange floodlights illuminated our path. Recalling the scene and then watching movies set in Yuan Shikai’s (袁世凯) era vividly portrays Shanghai’s chaotic railways with immigrants fleeing in their own directions. It was rowdy. Being youngest has its perks and that time, it’s no different. I barely had to endure any hardships of walking (other than the profuse sweat from the unbearable heat) and was given first class transport aboard manual labor. My love for trains have not died that day, and it seems, too neither have my other comrades in surname.
When I was done admiring with the KTM rolling stock in 1995, fascination turned an alluring gaze to metro systems of the world.
To me, a country’s developed status hinges directly on a proper metro system for its capital or main city, where it be a light rail or a subway ala New York City. The Hong Kong folks had the MTR (Mass Transit Railway) (地下鐵路) and the arrogant neighbors down south had the MRT for at least 8 years since 1987. And KL was still relying on those diesel rolling stock! We must have been living in Soviet times.
When plans were afoot in 1997 for a proper metro system in Kuala Lumpur, the prospect was delicious. Finally, something to be proud of. My own birth city virtually taking up small steps to rub shoulders with the giant cities of the world. Various thoughts came to mind :-
1. Kuala Lumpur is finally having the progressive mind to show that metro systems are possible this side of the world.
2. We’re having 2, not just one system back to back. And running on different lines at that. How’s that for solving traffic woes? Not much, but enthusiasm breeds better foresight.
3. State of the art, modern trains are the new ART (Advanced Rapid Trains) used in the service lines. From Bombardier at that. No Prague or Budapest Soviet-made EMUs.
4. Arrogant neighbours down south can bite their tongue and think of something else demeaning to say.
5. By extension, the former Commonwealth friends up north can also hold their tongues and point at something rude or politically correct to say for a change.
6. A train which can be boarded for as little as 50 cents (at time of inception, not now) and travel back and forth until you found out that you have no life.
7. Place to rub shoulders with old friends who live near the stations!
8. At 17, you aren’t really serious. So are observing those who are anatomically different from you and aesthetically pleasing while waiting for the trains on the stations with like-minded pals with similar hormone buildup.
9. Tuition at KL is no longer a problem.
10. KLites would have proved that beautiful new facilities don’t last very long in the hands of the very same KLites. It’s time we educate Malaysians not to mistreat public facilities or face being spanked in public.
I took the London Underground in late 2003 and gives the true meaning of hectic subway life. People don’t shuffle out of the trains like lazy KLites are tending to do. They walk with a purpose. And stations which interconnect to lead to other stations far and beyond the current one. Referring to the map brings another challenge, with all the streaks of red, brown, yellow streaming in all directions. They do make sense after a while. English people are also likely to announce out their stations if travelling in pairs or more and they act as a good clue as to your destination. And the English stations serve decent refreshments to deal with the manic crowd.
The London Underground is still ok. Living la vida loca is to go to the Paris Metro. And I can’t put a finger as to why I love the Parisian Metro more than the London counterpart.

Métro de Paris is an excellent way to access Paris in a cheap and meaningful manner. But don’t be fooled with the seductive posts that greet passengers into its stations. February 2004. A trip to the City of Lights.

For as little as EUR 1,40 the innards of Paris can be traversed. While some stations on the map are clearly defined, some stations are not. Imagine looking out for Villejuif-Louis Aragon station when there is nothing on board to remind the poorly-French educated tourist and relying on looking at station names as they flash by. That would be easy, but for the Parisians whose passengership of the train make visibility of the stations barely conceivable. With another travel comrade, we got lost in the rail catacombs.

The Châtelet station is the first stop from the Charles de Gaulle Airport and from there, if you can take stock of your surroundings, you’ll love the City of Lights. If within 5 minutes you’re still making up your mind, then you’re really lost and should ask for directions. But wait. The proud French sneer on English-speaking people and would cursorily wave off your ‘excusez moi’ with the usual ‘Je ne sais pas’ . Apparently, they can sniff a French farce from your pronunciation of ‘excusez moi’. Fortunately, my unintentional Quebec-style French was passable (thanks to a Mauritian friend Sabah Carrim for French pronunciation lessons) and earned me the tag of a ‘Vietnamese’. Better being passed of as Vietnamese than an English chien (dog). Buying tickets for a ride was a problem, however. A smartass French clerk kept asking something irritating in French. To my well-meant efforts at ‘ Deux billets, s’il vous plait‘ he gave a sharp look and muttered something sullen and irritable. So much for French gallantry. Must have been the Koreans who came before us who have probably invoked his wrath.

The most fascinating station has got to be the ‘Abbeses’ station. (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abbesses_%28Paris_Metro%29) Okay. First, when we got to the station to see the sights at Montmartre, the elevator was out of order (or that the passengers scrambling for it looks troublesome). Anyway, deciding that doing a constitutional by walking the spiral stairs might do a world of good proved torturous. Not only did we endure the ardous climb of 30 metres ascent on stairs, we were toting heavy winter wear and a good-sized hand luggage each.

Well, we did prove our fitness level on that day. The early agendas were involving running up and down elevators in anticipations of incoming trains in momentum with the crowd. There’s hardly moment to think, but look at directions and slip into the throng.
‘Abbeses’ station was pretty as was Montmartre, of which at the top of the hill is the Basilisque du Sacré-Cœur
, which commands an enchanting view of Paris at night. Definitely worth all the workload to get up there.

But enough of the Paris stations which can drive any Anglophile mad. (I’m part Sinophile-Francophile by the way). Names like ‘Les Gobelins’, ‘Le Kremlin-Bicêtre’, ‘Tolbiac’, ‘Place d’Italie’ drove deep into my cranium and started appearing in dreams. It’s that bad. Paris in the winter was worse than Oxford where I was holing up for my degree with temperatures flirting way below 15 minus Celsius. Taking a shower indoors can even leave the entire body in violent fits if clothes are not donned within 5 seconds.

I’ve read about the SNCF (Société Nationale des Chemins de fer Français) Trains before I left English soil temporarily, and images of the TGV trains come to mind. Oddly, no TGV rides were on the agenda, but for an interesting SNCF Class Z 26500 which is a double-decker train. Double decker bus is plentiful all over the UK but I’ve not encountered a double decker train before.  

A small episode occurred on that train. 2 Arabic-looking boys came to us with some placards proclaiming that they were 5 years old or something like that and that they had not enough to eat or something like that, in French of course. Sensing that we’re disinterested, they started to literally beg to us, rubbing tummies and indicating extreme hunger. But 5 year olds being 5 year olds, they cannot be sharper than us. From a corner at the stairs to the upper deck, I can figure out the watchful eyes of a 40-something year old Arabian beast, not very tall but huge like a Saudi sheikh. I reckon he might well be the bouncer of the train. Plus, no one else was on the train. Not one French. No one at all, besides us Asian tourists from the other side of the globe. I refused money to the kids ( as if Malaysians do not know this ploy like the back of the hand), who quickly moved on to the back of the train and sidled up another carriage to look for another victim who may have the audacity to board that train alone. We’re probably safe because we’re Asians we should know some form of martial arts. (Incidentally, we do – some taekwondo enough to earn a decent-ranked belt).

That train would be to Gare Saint Lazare. Beautiful station.




Taking a Komuter ride in Malaysia offers not many real excitement as those of the Parisian rails: the oversized stations (KL Sentral is a pea compared to Châtelet – Les Halles) and the running into of crazy flight of escalators which descend deep into the bowels of the city. The pushing and shoving crowds which, oddly enough, do not provoke skirmishes. The mild sunlight which you’ll see emerged from the near-darkness of the metro, the Arabian vendors trying to sell you knitted gloves, more jostling to get into the crowded trains, the anticipation of  a train emerging from the darkness of the tunnel to the station you’re at especially when the stomach is growling for food, the unbearable heat underground which was sharply contrasted with the biting cold outside in the rues of Paris, subway musicians performing for yours truly, strange station names which cannot roll of the tongue. And there are many pretty French women to look at. (and many ugly equivalents to snap your head back on track). 

And the trains. Nothing like KTM Komuter rolling stock which often ran to unexplained and obviously frustrating delays. French trains are at least fast, efficient, on-time and sometimes clean (Aha!). The ride from Paris proper to Versailles to visit the Palace was a blissful, beautiful trip. featuring many lovely views of the Parisian suburbs. The afternoon trains provide ample space and privacy to take in the views without the usual bustle. Since the KTM people have not learnt to go on strike, this can ostensibly mean that their level of service is still not as admirable and up to acceptable standards. And they probably never will…not with the Bolehland spirit coursing through the Boleh-people’s veins.

Notwithstanding the events of the London bombing, nor the projected Paris bomb terror; I won’t tear myself off the European railroad.



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