The man who (really) loved trains

Rattling along on my daily commute, the announcement would come over the PA, as it did every day: “Tsugi no eki: chikatetsu hakubutsukan mae” (next station: the Subway Museum).  I’ve walked past it countless times.  It’s an unimpressive squat, beige building, wedged underneath the subway line itself.  In the several years I’ve lived in this area, I’ve never bother to go – how interesting could a museum about trains be, anyhow?

(Source: Wikipedia)

So, let me just say that contrary to my expectations, the museum was really quite impressive.  I can recommend it if you happen to be out this way.  But that’s not what I want to talk about today.

I want to talk about a certain young fellow and his hat.  Let’s call him Taro-san.

One of the centrepieces of the museum is a full-sized subway simulator.  I would imagine that actual train drivers practice on something very similar to this.  It comprises of an entirely authentic front section of a subway train, which moves around to simulate accelerating and breaking.  A kindly looking elderly staffer in a green blazer would explain to the (mostly) dads and their sons how to operate the throttle and break, and to watch the speedometer.  In front of the simulator was an enormous, high definition screen showing the driver’s view as you moved between two Tokyo stations.

(Source: http://blogs.yahoo.co.jp/team_toshi_aoki2/58175782.html)

Standing in front of the simulator on this day, there were about five people lined up, but Taro-san was the one who really attracted attention.  Probably in his mid-twenties with a stooped, short frame, he wore a train driver’s hat festooned with subway-related pins and badges.  He completed his ensemble with white gloves, a green-ish jumper, beige slacks, and white trainers.  And, inevitably, glasses – not the stylish kind, either.  Sitting beside him on the desk was a small, soft attache case with a Tokyo Metro logo on it, the same kind I’d seen actual train drivers carrying as they come off shift.  Two of his friends were with him, dressed similarly, but he was clearly the leader of this weekend train crew.

He was patiently lined up with his friends, with the look of someone on well-trodden, comfortable ground. They might as have been wearing leather jackets and hanging out by the pinball machines at the local pizzeria, given the nonchalant vibe radiating from them.  Whereas most of the visitors received a polite welcome and their instructions as their climbed the simulator’s steps, the gentleman with the green blazer stood aside wordlessly as our be-hatted and gloved subject bounded up the stairs come his turn.  It seemed obvious that this routine had been carried out many times before.

Once sitting in the simulator seat, he affected a different bearing altogether, became a different beast.  His shoulders went back, his chest out, his spine stiffening as he operated on auto-pilot, opening his attache case and laying timetables and documents swiftly and precisely in their appropriate places on the train console.

Checking the wall of dials and gauges, he smartly brought his gloved hand up to the brim of his hat in a pointing motion, perfectly mimicking the protocol of Tokyo subway drivers.  Bringing his hand down in a crisp salute, he looked back out the window of the simulator, doing a safety check.  With everything set, I saw him mouth a radio command for departure, and he let the breaks go and throttled up.

Looking on from the sidelines, I was riveted.  What kind of person spends their weekends in a train museum, lining up again and again to pretend to drive a train?  I mean, sure, I’ve been accused of having a few obsessive hobbies from time to time, but – train driving?

I was temporarily a little depressed for Taro-san.  Apparently the competition to become a Tokyo subway employee, let alone a driver, is quite fierce, involving entrance examinations matching you against a large number of other hopefuls.  There’s even a word for people who love trains – densha okaku – train geeks.  I imagined poor Taro-san missing the exam cut more than a few times, having to console himself with lining up with the tourists to experience his dreams two simulated minutes at a time.

When he got off the simulator though, his friends gathered around as they went to the back of the queue to line up again.  They smiled and talked excitedly about trains, waiting for their next chance to become a train driver for just a few moments.

And then it struck me.  As I was standing on, looking at these guys with pity for being obsessed with a hobby outside the mainstream, you know what?  They’d discovered something they loved to do.  The amount of passion they put into what they were doing, the precision, the as-close-as-they-could-get authenticity, made me think of them passing the time at university or working in a convenience shop by day, waiting for the weekend when they could be a train driver again, just for a little while.

I’m sure Taro-san will get his wish eventually – I don’t think you could ever repress that kind of passion and zeal.

The guy just loves trains.

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