An Ode to the Subway

Anything involving trains is an instant like for me. There’s a story I tell all my friends from a time back in high school, when I discovered the LRT station near campus. I bought a ticket to the end of the line, and on the train just marveled at the expanse of residential areas, museums, malls, and the Pasig river passing by my view through the train window. Reaching Baclaran station, I bought another ticket this time going back where I came from. Alighting from the train and on through my journey back home, I felt like I’d just discovered ice.

Since then I’d make any and all kinds of excuses the ride the train. What a pity that the LRT and MRT lines resembled nothing like the elaborate subway systems of more advanced cities like Singapore or Japan, but I made do with what I had. During undergraduate I’d take the northbound train on the way to my classes, which only involved two stations and covered about a quarter of the total distance to campus. A more direct route could be taken by bus or jeepney, but that was no matter. What mattered was being on the train, and the fifteen minutes it afforded me of marveling at this feat of human engineering.

Imagine then my elation when in 2018 I finally had the opportunity to travel abroad – and to Japan, at that! Me and my closest college friends were invited to attend a conference in Kyoto, on account of an undergraduate paper that we wrote for an experimental designs class. Serendipitously, I was able to score a flight alone to Nagoya (it was the last one available on sale), while everyone else was headed to Osaka. Alone and in a foreign country for the first time, I did what any sane person would do: I explored the subway station.

Being unleashed into the Nagoya subway system, I understood what the kids felt like entering Willy Wonka’s factory. It took very little time for me to understand the timetable, language barrier be damned, and how to transfer between converging lines. In 48 hours everything I needed to visit, I reached through the subway, even if it meant taking on a more elaborate route. I think a good quarter or so of my time alone in Nagoya was spent underground.

Recently, I learned the proper name for my hobby: trainspotting or railfanning. In fact, there’s even a distinction in Japanese between various forms of the hobby: toritetsu refers to the hobby of photographing trains; nori-tetsu refers to people who simply enjoy riding on trains; and eki-tetsu are enthusiasts of the architecture of train stations. I’ve started getting into contact with a wide community of railfans across the globe, mostly through Reddit and Instagram.

Railfans come into the hobby by all sorts of different reasons. But aside from being a fan of the engineering involved, I find myself drawn to the subway and metro lines in particular largely because of how train stations, to me, feel like a living canvas of converging human lives. It is a stage unto itself, upon which stories play out.

People come in transit, both literally and figuratively: there standing close to the edge of the platform, biting her fingernails as she anxiously awaits the next coach is a scorned lover looking to be reconnected to her errant beaux. Further back, two friends are planning eagerly for their first trip out of town. On the bench, a salaryman fights for wakefulness as he prepares for another full day of work: his wife’s thirtieth birthday is coming up, and he’s looking to earn a big commission so he can buy her something nice. Hidden way in the corner, by the stairs, a wife on the way to meet her lover is conscious that everyone else on the platform with her is suspicious of her motives.

Being in a subway station, among the great throng of commuters, I am always reminded of Nick Carraway’s introspection early in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby where he thinks on the variety of life playing out through the various windows of towering skyscrapers in New York City: “High over the city our line of yellow windows must have contributed their share of human secrecy to the casual watcher in the darkening streets, and I was him too, looking up and wondering. I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.”

Except deep underground, there are no walls to separate us. I become one of this inexhaustible variety of life, simultaneously within and without. I become part of their lives in this single, fleeting moment, and so do they in mine. Even greater is the thought that we may never meet again. It’s a kind of anonymous intimacy that astonishes me to no end.

That anonymous intimacy has become even more precious to me now, after three years counting in the wake of the pandemic. The world feels like it’s becoming gloomier by the year, and I suspect it’s a symptom of our ceaseless drive to build higher walls, and carve narrower spaces. People like highways better, where they can drive in their small sedan cars disconnected from the rest of the world: underground loops for Teslas instead of trains.

As technology continues to progress, and as our public spaces continue to be infringed upon by government moves to privatize, public transport will become more and more important as one of the last convergence points for human life. It’s apt that the subway is a 19th century piece of technology that continues to be the most efficient way of transporting humans from point A to point B. Sometimes, tech revolution and disruption is a myth (sorry Elon Musk). If you want to feel connected with the rest of the world, I suggest you put down the VR headset and get on the subway.

Pictures were taken by me on my week-long trip to Japan back in July 2018. I’ve also started posting some of these photos on my trainspotting account on Instagram. Why not give me a follow? See you there!

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