On the Train

This poem was written by Gillian Clarke on a train in October 1999, the day after a terrible rail accident just outside London Paddington Station in which 31 people lost their lives.

Cradled through England between flooded fields
rocking, rocking the rails, my head-phones on,
the black box of my Walkman on the table.
Hot tea trembles in its plastic cup.
I’m thinking of you waking in our bed
thinking of me on the train. Too soon to phone.

The radio speaks in the suburbs, in commuter towns,
in cars unloading children at school gates,
is silenced in dark parkways down the line
before locks click and footprints track the frost
and trains slide out of stations in the dawn
dreaming their way towards the blazing bone-ship.

The vodaphone you are calling
may have been switched off.
Please call later. And calling later,
calling later their phones ring in the rubble
and in the rubble of suburban kitchens
the wolves howl into silent telephones.

I phone. No answer. Where are you now?
The train moves homeward through the morning
Tonight I’ll be home safe, but talk to me, please.
Pick up the phone. Today I’m tolerant
of mobiles. Let them say it. I’ll say it too.
Darling, I’m on the train.

2 Responses to “On the Train”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    Have you read “Red for Danger” by LTC (‘Tom’) Rolt? It is an acknowledged classic about how pioneering England learned the principles of railway safey the hard way, mainly in the 19th century, ie accident by accident. The three biggest principles are: manage the track in blocks so as to make sure no train enters a block before another train has left it; couple (electrically or mechanically) signals to points so that they can never conflict; design train (vacuum) brakes so that if the vacuum is accidentally broken then the brakes come ON rather than become inapplicable (failsafe). Also, heat carriages by electricity rather than gas, so that if there is an accident there is not a large amount of explosive material in the wreckage, which often catches fire. Nothing can ever guarantee accident-free running but if you do all of these then several unlikely things have to go wrong at once for an accdent to happen.

    Rolt was a talented writer as well as an expert, and his book has all the drama of the accidents without any of the nonsense of the “Mrs Smith was knitting in seat 3A when suddenly…” sort. The book opens with this quote: “Out of this nettle, Danger; We pluck this flower, Safety” (Shakespeare: Henry IV, part I).


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