Here an illustrative interview with a Chinese student, translated from the Mandarin, which nicely illustrates various elements of the imaginary of the train in the encultured life space of this individual. For this part of the project, we are collecting interviews from train users and non-users, as well as political decision makers to investigate the imaginary of the train as part of the imagineTrains project.
imagineTrains interview, July 2015, Beijing
IER: Hello, my name is [name of interviewer]. This is about a project on trains. It is about your own opinions and experiences about trains, no matter how many or few you have. This interviewing may last 30 minutes, so please take your time with answering the question and give me as much detail as you remember.
Here is the first question: Could you please tell me all the things that come to your mind when you think about trains.
IEE: Trains relate to my childhood. When you mention trains, firstly, the green trains come to my mind. When I was a little boy, the traffic was not convenient, and it was luxurious to take a train. When I was around 6 years old, I took a train for the first time, and it shocked me because it was the first time that I came to know of the existence of trains. In my memory, the first impression of trains was green and long. There were many seats inside and a lot of people standing there or even some of them had no place to stand. However, to think deeper, trains for me are convenient now, because it is easy to buy train tickets, and many seat options are available, such as hard and soft sleeper, or business seats. You will find that first of all it is fast to take a train and secondly it is comfortable. I can strongly feel the characteristic of fast. For the first year of my undergraduate study, it took me around 23 or 24 hours from Lanzhou to Beijing. That was 7 years ago. Although high speed trains (the C Trains) and the slower trains (the G trains) have not yet been connected, the travelling time has shrunk. Last week, I took a trip from Lanzhou to Beijing and it only took around 15 hours. The travelling time is cut by 50% to 60%. The trains have become faster and more comfortable. I took the soft sleeper from Beijing to Lanzhou and it is quite comfortable. The hard sleeper is less comfortable than the soft, but it is cheaper. The first impression is the green trains, and it has become faster and more comfortable. It is a common option for my long-distance travel.
IER: Anything else comes to you mind when you think about trains?
IEE: To my mind….The first one is the green train. That is the memory of my childhood. The second is a more intuitive feeling. Thirdly, the purpose of taking trains are usually going home or to the university. So when talking about trains, I may think about going back home to see my parents and relatives, or for going to the university, to see my teachers and classmates. More like from the place I work to the place I grew up. The train is like a bridge, linking them together. I always took trains from home to the university or from the university to home. For tourism, I rarely take trains but airplanes.
IER: You said it is easy to buy train tickets. Could you please tell me more about it?
IEE: You know, the internet. The internet has developed rapidly and we, the young generation, highly rely on it. When I just enrolled in the university, there is no internet (for booking tickets). The most convenient way to book tickets is to go to a ticket selling point. If your home is far, there would be only a few options, so you will need to go to the train station by 12 p.m. midnight to buy tickets, and I experienced this. It may not be exactly 12 p.m. I can not remember the time clearly. Anyway, I would go there around midnight to get tickets for the next day. Later, it had become better. You can book via phones. However, only few ticket options were available, no matter if booking via phones or at selling points, you can not book a ticket. You had to go to the train station, and this was the most reliable way. But now, online booking is quite convenient. I do not need to wait in lines. The release of online booking tickets are regular. The amount of tickets is abundant as long as you have enough patience and you are experienced in the internet. It is convenient to buy tickets through online booking. At least from the year before last, I never encountered the situation of failing to buy a ticket. It is not a problem for me to buy a ticket back home. Sometimes though you can not buy a hard sleeper ticket, you could take the soft sleeper, or the business seat. I may prefer to take airplanes compared with the business seat.
IEE: The business seat is expensive, more than 1000 yuan. The soft sleeper is 500 yuan. That is acceptable. Moreover, available train options have increased these years. I notice that the amount of trains between Beijing to Lanzhou has increased. Before, there might be only K lines and T lines. Now we have Z lines, standing for going directly back home. There are more train options, resulting in more tickets. In addition, there are more ways to buy tickets.
IER: You mentioned comfortable. Could you describe that?
IEE: Comfortable is like this, similar to the first question. The earliest train. When I was I child, my father worked far away. My mother and I would take trains to see my father. There was no seat. I can clearly remember my mom holding me in her arms. During that time, it took around two days and three nights from Lanzhou to Beijing. I might be comfortable, but I can feel the others are not, since there was no place to sit. Though some could sit, they had to sit for the whole journey rather than have a place to sleep. Now it is OK to have a sleep ticket, though the bed is not big. At least there is a place to sleep. The train provides a more comfortable choice, the soft sleeper, which is quite comfortable. The soft sleeper has enough room, only two beds one side compared with three beds for the hard sleeper. The price is only a little bit higher. It is comfortable. The equipment on the trains are good, including food and drinks.
IER: What do you mean by good?
IEE: Just like beverages and snacks, and their prices are not high. The toilet was always a problem before. It was blocked or out of use, like no water to flush, in my memory. I took trains frequently since I went to the university. At the beginning, I cannot use the toilet. I have to bear it. Now it is alright. I think the water system is improved. It is clean. The management is better now. People slept in the linking area between wagons before, but now this would not happen. Maybe they could not afford the sleep ticket. They would get on the train first and just sleep in the linking area.
IER: What is your best memory about a train? Just think of one event and tell me about it with as much detail as possible…
IEE: What do you mean by best memory?
IER: Think about your best memory about a train.
IEE: You mean the process of taking a train?
IER: It means your best memory about a train.
IEE: I usually take a train between home and school, ever since I went to university. This is a very good memory because I would be at home or school after only one night sleep. I study far away from my hometown, and I return home every half year. When I am busy, I return home only once a year. I can see my parents after one night sleeping, so it is very nice. But the best memory, sometime, not every time, I may meet some people and talk a lot with them.
IER: Please give me an example.
IEE: For example, last time I took a soft sleeper from Beijing to Lanzhou, there were three adults and three children. The adults talked about the experience of raising children, and the children played together. Even though I had no child with me, I was still curious about what they were talking about. It was funny to watch the children play. Though I can hardly sleep because of too much noise, I still felt good. You will meet different people, and cannot know who lives around you, where do they come from, and what do they do. You will know about other’s lives by talking, which you would never know if you stay in school. For example, if you work in a bank, most of the time, you are in touch with shop assistants and customers but you will meet all kinds of people when taking a train, like foreign workers with their children, people who live in Beijing and go home to visit their family, or travelers. I think different people’s ideas are very interesting.
IER: What is your worst memory about a train? Just think of one event and tell me about it with as much detail as possible…
IEE: There are two bad memories. The first one is about seven years ago. It was so hard to buy one ticket, especially for direct trains from Lanzhou to Beijing in the peak period of returning, so I had to buy a ticket from Lhasa to Beijing, passing by my hometown Lanzhou. I went to the railway station an hour early but the train was five hours late. I did nothing but wait in the train station, so I was very tired and wanted to find my bed as soon as possible. I found a Tibetan woman sitting on my bed and her little child slept on the middle bed. You know that because of their religion, Tibetans seldom or never take a bath in their lifetime. The bed and pillow were dirty with smelled bad. She said to me “Sorry, I should sleep on the middle bed, and this bed is yours.” I said “You can sleep on the lower bed, and I will sleep on the middle one.” Because the middle bed was better than the lower one, although the middle bed was still dirty, at least,the days that the child didn’t have a bath was much fewer than the old woman. Because the smell was so strong, I had to bear it all the way. What is more, since Tibetans are not good at speaking Mandarin Chinese, I could talk with them.
The second bad memory happened two or three years ago. I took a train from Beijing to Lanzhou. Because I was fat, so I preferred a lower bed. A woman, an alien worker, went home with her two children. She was kind-hearted and friendly, but at night the little child who slept in middle bed had train sickness. He rolled over and vomited into my shoes and on my arm. His mother kept saying sorry to me. I found my shoes like a ship and I even knew what her child ate last night. Then she washed my shoes. I am afraid that he would vomit again, so I didn’t sleep any more. I asked other passengers for a pair of slippers. These are two very bad memories.
IER: You both mentioned children in the best memory and the worst memory
IEE: But what has happened is different. I also thought the child was lovely until he vomited in my shoe. When you take the train, you can’t take too many of your personal things, like shoes, so what a mess then. But children themselves are nice.
IER: When and where do you take trains?
IEE: When I go home or school, I take trains. Beijing and Lanzhou, these are the places I take trains.
IER: What time?
IEE: Summer and winter vacations.
IER: No other time?
IEE: No. I take a train to go home at ordinary times. Sometimes, I will also take a train when I go on a short journey. A few times a year.
IER: How often do you take trains?
IEE: Maybe five times a year.
IER: When was the last time you used the train?
IEE: Did you listen to me carefully? I just said to you that last week I took a train back.
IER: Why did you use the train?
IEE: When I travel between Lanzhou and Beijing, 90% of probabilities I chose to take a train. I have taken a plane before, but that was very terrible. Firstly, the ticket was not expensive, about 600 or 700 yuan. But I miss the plane in the morning. What’s more, I didn’t take any cash or credit card with me, so I did not leave the airport until the next day on another flight. I have not taken a flight since then. It is troublesome. Though airplanes are fast, it takes about 2 or 3 hours from the airport to my home. I keep sitting on the plane for 3 hours, and 2 hours sitting on the train to home. If I take a train, I can lie down and sleep. When I travel between home and school, 90% of probabilities I chose to take a train, so this time is no exception.
IER: Any other reason?
IEE: No. Just these two reasons, one is that I don’t like to take a plane, the other one is I get used to take a train between my home to school.
IER: You said 90% of probabilities you chose to take a train. So the reason you take a train is…
IEE: Yes, I mean between my home to school, 90% of probabilities I chose to take a train. But when I went to far away places for playing, or on a business trip, time is limited. If the plan is sudden, I would choose a plane. If everything is on a plan, I would choose a train. When it takes too much time by trains, I prefer planes. Even though there are high speed trains, they do not go everywhere. If you want to go to remote places, such as Yunnan province and Guizhou province, taking high speed trains will also cost more than ten hours, which is less comfortable than planes. Under this circumstance, the less time, the more comfortable you will feel. One reason I do not use trains, it depends on whether my plan is urgent. The other one is that trains take too much time, when I want to go somewhere too far away.
IER: Both reasons are about time, will you consider other reasons?
IEE: No. Though trains take more time than planes, I would always choose trains because I can see the scenery on a train. It is enjoyable.
IER: What kind of tips do you have for people who make decisions about trains? What should they do to improve?
IEE: I haven’t thought about this before.
IER: You can think over it now, take your time.
IEE: I like to compare things. Compare to previous trains, trains today are good, and I believe trains will be better in the future, I mean faster and more comfortable. The normal beds are narrow, and the space is limited. Six people with their luggage sleep in less than 5 m2. It is very crowded. It is hard to change the space, this may relate to the number of trains. If there are few trains, in case of more people have a chance to get on trains, most people want to go home as soon as possible and have no intention to enjoy their bed on the train. It is a very good thing if the people who make decisions about trains improve the comfort level, and in the meanwhile make sure that as many people as possible can get on trains. Make the bed wider, make the space more roomy.
IER: What do you mean by space?
IEE: The coach of the hard sleeper.
IER: Space of coach? Anything else?
IEE: The washroom. Haha… Washroom is ok now.
IER: You think washroom doesn’t need to improve?
IEE: There are five-star-level trains, on which everyting is big. Things will develop as time passes. There are too many people in China, we are still on the primary stage, which only meets people’s needs. In my opinion, trains’ duty is to bring people from one place to another. Then we should consider the need of safety. There exist cheating and stealing on the trains. Last time, when I came back, my father told me to be careful on a train because a man played cards with other passengers. He lost 5000 yuan unexpected. Every time when I leave home, my parents would warn me to lock my suitcase, keep the important things carefully. This problem is hard to resolve. We need to enhance the quality of citizen. What is Maslow’s Hierarchy of “Needs” Theory? Primary needs, safety needs, and self-esteem needs? How to make trains better? Maybe it is not for me to think about this. That’s all.
IER: Take your time, we still have time, and you can think about what is your suggestion.
IEE: I gave two suggestions just now.
IER: You can talk more about Maslow’s Hierarchy of “Needs” Theory.
IEE: That’s all. Because what I can think about the train is only the primary needs. After meeting all the primary needs, maybe I will think more.
IER: If it really meets all the primary needs someday, what will be the next?
IEE: Supporting facility. Clothing, food, housing and transportation are basic necessities of life. Trains include two parts, housing and transportation. Now we concentrate on transportation, housing is secondary. When we have considered housing, we then need hot water, fresh food, Internet, movies, a rest room.
IER: You used “five-star-level trains”…
IEE: Everything needed is ready, which is beyond your imagination. For example, I want to have a bath, and you can have a bath on that. I want to have dinner, and someone will bring food in front of my eyes. I feel cold when sleeping, someone will give me a blanket or make the room warm.
IER: Do “five-star-level trains” exist?
IEE: Yes. They are private trains.
IER: What are private trains?
IEE: I don’t know, maybe customization service.
IER: Anything else?
IEE: No. My knowledge is just in the hemisphere of these.
IER: In your opinion, what will happen to trains in the future?
IEE: Trains in the future can be compared to airplanes, the same speed as planes, even though they run under the sky. Magnetic suspension is still on the land, but the rails will hang in the air, like a cartoon. It is boring when you take a plane, since there is no scenery but only clouds. However, scenery around trains changes a lot. Planes’ core competence is fast, because they can fly directly to the destination. Trains have to go around. The speed of trains will be promoted, and distance will be shorter, if they run on the sky. I said trains run on the sky. I don’t mean the same height as a plane. I think almost as high as mountains. Or trains in the future would run underground, like a subway. But trains running on the sky is better.
IEE: No scenery underground, like taking a plane.
IER: Thank you for your time.