175 Years of Swiss Railways – Writing on the rails: why the train is the perfect place to write – Culture

If James Watt had not invented the steam engine, what would have happened to literature? There would be no steam engine poetry, there would be no Orient Express, no Greene nor Christie, no plot lines and no second-tier writing sockets for railroad customers.

Tolstoy could not have opened the Kreutzer Sonata with the most Russian structural intrigue; An endless train journey, during which strangers approach and begin to confess. Today you do not need to admit, we read e-books, listen to podcasts, watch Netflix.

The Swiss face of Maitland

The train is a waiting room on wheels. “I am also a writing studio,” might be the trend in my case. For 20 years of my life, I used to call what is called a “home office” today a “train office”. Exposed to the gentle vibration and grimace of a Swiss Mittelland.


The train journey reduces Mittelland to its noisy buildings on the rails.

KEYSTONE / Gaetan Bally

It’s good to say “fratz”. Just as a life porn movie reduces genitals, a train journey through Maitland reduces Switzerland to those neglected buildings built on railway tracks. Commercial, Industrial, Warehouses. This is a Swiss porn site Mittelland, you can see the genitals of the Swiss economy.

Creativity vs. escape reflex

As a twice-a-day traveller, I fall into the twilight between travel inspiration and human loathing from enclosed spaces. There is only one way out of this situation: creativity must overcome the escape reaction.


open box
close the box


SRF / Lucas Maider

Basel author Lucas Holliger has written prose, scripts, panelling, and radio plays. Since 2000, Lukas Holliger has also worked as an editor at SRF in the fields of culture, radio plays, and satire.

His first novel, The Shorter Life of Klaus Halm, was nominated for a Swiss Book Award in 2017.

More on Lukas Holliger on the SRF literature platform Perspectives.

The second chapter of my novel The Shorter Life of Klaus Halm, written largely on the train, is the product of a traveler. Transferred to the Basel tram in the novel, this chapter describes a thought experiment. Who is the passenger shown here whose appearance would make me want to trade places with this person?

Trains are heaven and hell

Like Klaus Halm in the novel, she made the passage between the rows of benches a distinct corridor. Who is so intriguing today that I’m going to turn him into a literary character? Who could be my alternate literary self, who is anti-ego? Where does the technically usable spark of sympathy or hate jump?

As far as this question goes, trains are heaven. or hell. Nothing is more ominous than seven in the morning crammed next to a passenger loudly blowing his bad breath into a horseshoe neck pillow and snoring for 50 minutes.

Every tree is a ballerina

The self-defense program for every traveler is headphones with noise canceling as well as products from the creative industries. For years, I’ve alternated between writing and filming, flinging myself between the lines and dirt of world cinema with a portable DVD player. There are some comparisons.

A man in front of a train window, cars behind him on a highway in a traffic jam.


Train window as a canvas: Navigation provides a lot of inspiration.

Keystone / Gitan Bali

A train window, for example, is the monitor. Landscape, kinescope passing. Objects enter into motion that they would not have as a static image, and seem to rotate on their own axis. Each tree turns into a ballerina, completing the same nail over and over. What is far passes slowly, what is near flashes like a visual disturbance.

train love movies

It’s obvious how much the movie loves the train. From “L’arrivée d’un train à la Ciotat” by the Lumière brothers to Jean Gabin in the driver’s cabin of a fast-racing steam train at “La bête humaine” in Renoir to Bogart, who has to catch the train in rainy Paris without Bergmann (“Richard” , I can’t go with you!”) to Wong Kar-Wai’s magical “2046” or “Snowpiercer” by Bong Joon-ho.

It is certainly no coincidence that Juliette Binoche pronounced the novel’s title for The Unbearable Lightness of Being in a train carriage all over the place. It has always been clear to me that the train is a shop window that indicates our inner being and the history of the world. There are obvious literary moments in Zug that make you start playing right away or later.

chicken death sounds

I found one such literary moment, a moment of existential amazement, in my early childhood. I’m four years old and I’m in the sleeper car Basel-Vienna Westbahnhof.

The hour before you go to sleep and the hour after you wake up until you arrive is magical. The rumble and howl of the train, the links of the car that look like dying chickens, the trains flailing in the opposite direction, the endless crowd yards.

A man lies in bed on a night train and reads a book.


The magical hours in the sleeping car create literary moments.


My mother is always busy (in the evenings: presenting and storing tickets, passports, customs forms and breakfast, and in the morning: an endless ritual of feminine hygiene in a small toilet), while all I can do is the window.

The train crosses the outside world

Shortly after departure, the Feldschlösschen brewery with its glowing red tower ledges, the midnight castle of aliens. Green and orange billboards and scary box cars.

The train can fly, on highways full of red and white eyes, over black rivers. An animated world for a four-year-old that offers endless resources of buildings, masts, roads, bridges and clouds.

175 years of Swiss railways

open box
close the box

In 1847, the “Spanish-Brötli-Bahn” (Spanish bread and roll train) set out from Zurich to Baden on Switzerland’s first railway. The railways were the cornerstone of the industrial, technological, spatial and social development of Switzerland. After 175 years, the SBB has become a Swiss cultural asset. The anniversary will be celebrated in various regions of Switzerland.

The dark forests at night with a crazy moon cut between the treetops seem enchanted, almost menacing. Ingmar Bergman captured this childlike marvel at the strangeness of the outside world she traveled with the train in perfect spectacle.

In the movie Silence, a young boy looks out of his carriage. Suddenly, hundreds of tanks passed in a resounding train in the opposite direction. The march never stops.

There are enough military vehicles to be seen in Switzerland, even in peacetime (they were almost intentionally placed on the stage of the SBB, for example the permanent display of the Army Logistics Center in Othmarsingen). But with Bergman, the child notices the real preparations for war.

The highlight of the film visually, a terrifying picture that remains relevant. Unreal and almost poetic from a child’s perspective, Bergman’s sequence wasn’t to be cut as mercilessly as Blitzkrieg.

We are racing through time

Trains make our lives literary, which is why this mode of transportation is ideal as a place to write. Disc locks are impossible while riding, you’ll never get stuck. The train rolls over and draws attention to the fact that time is running out. The constantly moving train proves that there is no substitute for the flow of our existence.

On the train we race through time, every second bringing us closer to the great metaphor of our final arrival. Maybe faster than you think.

A moving express train, pictured from outside.


You’ll never get stuck: The rolling train – like here EC between Aarau and Olten – is the perfect place to write.

KEYSTONE / Gaetan Bally

In the infamous tunnel before Olten? When I was driving, there were often huge brake maneuvers and stops for a few seconds, which smelled of burning rubber. The result of a heavy braking maneuver.

Shortly thereafter, a train from the opposite direction hit the air in our windows. I remember the following announcement: “Dear passengers, unfortunately the automatic braking maneuver has begun, please excuse the inconvenience.” I wonder if it shouldn’t be “fortunately”. “Dear passengers, fortunately the automatic brake maneuver has begun.”

The famous Dürrenmatt Tunnel does not want to end, the tunnel between Tecknau and Olten smokes, makes noise and lifts passengers from their seats. An author comes up with horrific ideas.

Love through a train window

What about love at first sight? Two people see each other through the train windows of two parallel trains entering the station. The trains are getting closer and closer until the train crashes. Glowing faces collide with each other seconds after the spark of love. “Kiss of death at the entrance to the station.”

Well, it could also be more lyrical. When the battery dies and the port runs out, occupants have time to study the window panes.

flow drops…

He sees raindrops racing through the glass like comets, including the tail. The drops hit the rubber seal with transparent heads. Affected by collision and wind, it combines with debris from other droplets, flows back or dries up, and disappears like ancient Babylon.

Although new comets are constantly racing through the glass, the window pane remains covered in a starry sky full of untouchable drops. They are the reason the disc appears smeared with unreadable letters made of pollen and dust on sunny days.

If you take a closer look, you will find “Richard, I Can’t Go With You” in thousands of copies.

…and crawling bugs

Yes, and while travelers are preoccupied with such observations, they can freely listen from the cabin behind the life story of a woman telling her friend that a bug crawled around her eyeball as a child.

I never got the picture out of my head. This narrator’s words became insects that entered my ears and have been crawling endlessly around my eyeballs ever since.

landscape protocol

It’s time to get off the train. Wim Wenders explains how. At the end of “Alice in the Cities” we see her two protagonists on a moving train. They both look out the open window.

Then the camera comes. The train gets smaller and smaller, the landscapes expand and the characters of the movie disappear into the depths of our real world. The fairy tale ends with a documentation of the German countryside in 1974.

This is the case with us with travelers. We document our contemporaries with our own eyes, recording the smallest changes in the Swiss landscape, noting every soundproofing wall added, every newly built salt warehouse.

But in the end, we ourselves are disappearing under the force of change in the world. What’s still in place this morning after the third tunnel tomorrow.

Leave a Comment