15 November 2006

To the Finland Station

The Finns have an excellent railway system, which for some reason is known as VR (a link to the VR website is embedded in the title above). I am writing these words on the Pendolino train 53 as it makes its way northward, at speeds of 135-140 kilometers per hour, from Tampere to Oulu. Those are not TGV speeds, but it's still pretty fast, and even then the journey takes about four and a half hours. My train left Tampere five minutes late, but I expect we will arrive at Oulu precisely on time. One of the reasons that train service has not deteriorated in Finland the way that it has in many countries is that the government regards it as an important means of promoting national unity as well as regional growth.

I am not particularly fond of flying, and so I patronize the railways whenever possible. I am productive on the train, and trains are simply more comfortable—even in the U.S.A. Train travel in Finland is not cheap, however. My round-trip ticket from Oulu to Jyväskylä cost 120 euros.

One thing that the prospective rider needs to keep in mind is that while Finnish trains are not really crowded, it is prudent to purchase your ticket in advance. You will be asked what kind of seat you want. There is of course the aisle/window issue; I am a window person. But there also are other considerations. If you plan to use a laptop, you might wish to request a seat located in front of a fold-out worktable and adjacent to a power source. Otherwise, your work time will be limited to how much life there is in your battery. Also, keep in mind that there are some singletons—seats all by themselves, usually located near the entrance of a car, or vaunu. At the moment, I am seated in such a seat because the travel agent at Stockmann thoughtfully assigned me to one. I have a little more leg room, and no next-door neighbor.

VR offers special services for business passengers, but I have noticed that the company scrupulously avoids using the discourse of “class.” Class distinctions run very much against the grain in this decidedly egalitarian society. There are, for example, no honor rolls in the schools, or dean’s lists at the university. I have no idea what kind of an increment one would have to pay for the privilege of riding as a business passenger on the train. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was quite substantial.

Be sure to arrive at the station in plenty of time; your train is not likely to be late. Check the big board to see what track it will be departing from, and then consult your ticket for your coach and seat assignment. My comfy solitaire is in vaunu 8, ikkunapaikka 37. Next, look for the oversized poster that dissects all the trains regularly serving your station. The trains are laid out like so many cadavers, and if you mind the letter codes you will know exactly where to stand on the platform to board your particular vaunu, meaning that you won’t have to join the conga line of passengers who got on at the wrong place because they didn’t bother to do their homework. There is nothing particularly Finnish about any of this (though the Finns are unique in still using the broad gauge they inherited from imperial Russia). Most of it is par for the European course. Still, there is an element of precision here that takes some getting used to—for regular Amtrak customers, particularly.

Finally, the Finns are a quiet people and this adds to the appeal of train travel. When I first arrived in Helsinki, I was told by one of my Fulbrighter colleagues to note how Finnish motorists refrain from using their horns. It’s true. In my apartment house, which has fairly thin walls and is inhabited by a number of university students, I have not been kept awake, even once, by a wild party or a boisterous drunk, even though there is no dearth of either parties or drunks around here.

And the Finns are a quiet people in spite of their Nokia addiction. They are not above chattering on the kännykää in the train, but their conversations tend to be fairly short, and conducted at a polite volume. Family members and friends traveling together will converse, but very rarely does it constitute a distraction for us bookish types. For the most part, train passengers pass the journey in silence. That’s why, unlike Amtrak, there is no need for a designated “quiet car.” They’re all pretty quiet.