Monday, 5 June 2017

Train travel in ponyfic – or the lack of it

Something that occurred to me recently was that there isn't much detailed treatment of train travel in ponyfic. There are exceptions, such as The Descendant's superb The Railway Ponies: Highball, but not that many. When you consider that rail is the basic way for ponies not otherwise equipped to travel long distances in Equestria, that seemed a little surprising. I wondered why it was so.

One possibility I can suggest is that most ponyfic is written by Americans, whose personal experience of train travel isn't entirely relevant to Pony. With a few exceptions, passenger railways in the US are commuter lines in densely populated cities. With the possible exception of Manehattan, Equestrian railways are all about inter-city travel. (Okay, not always between cities, but you get the idea.)

This fits with the show's vaguely 1900-era technology (again, outside Manehattan) since back then railways were the way to go cross-country in America. They aren't now: Las Vegas, a city of two million people, has, unless you count a limited monorail service, no passenger trains at all. In Europe, however, inter-city railways remain heavily used, and are familiar to hundreds of millions of people.

If you've only ever been on a train on holiday, especially a super-luxury cruising train, your experience perhaps hasn't been very close to the "Come on girls, we need to get to Canterlot!" experience of Equestrian ponies. Unless you're actually a rail enthusiast (like the aforementioned TD) it's probably going to be quite difficult to appreciate the rhythms of that type of train trip.

This isn't a very developed theory. I just thought I'd throw it out there and see what people made of it.


  1. I knew rail in the US was sparse but I hadn't realised just how sparse. Seeing Amtrak's passenger network map was an eye opener for me:

    On fanfiction, it might be that it's just not much fun to work out details of the Equestrian railway network when the show itself obviously isn't interested. It has a frankly downright bizarre portrayal of a railway with trains conveniently running whenever the ponies need them, even to very remote locations like the rock farm, Ghastly Gorge etc., acting almost more like a taxi service than a railway at times.

    1. There are a few other things at work here. I think a lot of ponyfic does have travel by train, but it's just mentioned they rode the train without actually have a scene occur in transit. I know I've encountered it a lot. So just because they don't dwell on it doesn't mean it was absent.

      There definitely is a much higher usage of trains in Europe, but you have to think about why that is. Europe is so much more compact. It's easier to build all that infrastructure when it doesn't have to cover as much space. Another is expense. I was really surprised when talking to blueshift that he said it was a pretty negligible cost difference to travel across England by plane, train, or automobile (heh). Here, those modes of transport are vastly different in cost. Train does become comparable to airplane at longer distances, but car is much cheaper until you're talking about very large distances, like across the entire continent.

      Point taken about the show doing weird things with the trains. They have stations in places that can't possibly be profitable, and what's an overnight train trip from Ponyville to Canterlot (A Canterlot Wedding) apparently takes no more than a few hours to walk (The Best Night Ever), and a trip to the absolute end of the line (The Cutie Map) can be walked in less than a day, several times a week (Hard to Say Anything).

    2. Heh, as a non-driver train travel is pretty much my specialist subject! So, great long waffle coming up...

      The relative costs of transport modes in the UK are partly explained by the much higher cost of petrol/diesel here (and in Europe generally). At the moment, it's somewhere around $6 per US gallon, and even that is lower than it was when the oil price was higher. At the other end of the scale, domestic aviation is largely a niche thing except to some extent for London-Scotland. The distances aren't long enough for the security delays to be cancelled out, and there are far fewer airports than stations in Britain.

      European railways also give priority to passenger rail over freight, since that's where the money is. It's the other way round in America – which also means that many US lines have infrastructure that isn't sufficient for the regular 100+ mph trains that you need for long-distance rail to be sensible. High-speed rail is just starting to take off in the US, I've noticed recently, and I'm encouraged by that. While I don't think it'll ever be on a European scale, I think it has potential to be far more used than it is.

      But you're right, it's a very different world. My local two-platform station sees about 1.6 million passengers a year, which would put it fifth on Amtrak's network just ahead of LA's Union Station – yet in British terms, it doesn't even crack the top 300. Make a similar comparison for regional aviation and I suspect the equation would be equally unbalanced in the US's favour.

    3. Trains are just so much easier to use in Europe because nothing is terribly far from each other. The US is far too spread out, so that it's difficult to serve that many useful places. I like to use public transit when I go to Washington, DC, but that's more because I hate driving around in cities, so I don't mind a longer trip when it means I can park just outside of town and ride the Metro in.

      And yes, I should have mentioned the big difference in fuel prices. I wouldn't mind higher taxes on that, as it would disincentivize a lot of stupidity, though in the absence of nationwide public transit, it would hurt too many commuters who can't afford it. I did spend a year in Europe when I was younger, and I very much enjoyed the easy access to train travel, but I was only 8 at the time, so I have no sense for how expensive it was.

    4. True, which is another reason why European levels of passenger rail aren't likely to happen. Los Angeles to Las Vegas (227 miles) is the right sort of distance for a train, so maybe that service will be restored one day. But one of the key advantages of rail (here) over air is that it reaches most smaller towns too, so it's much closer to being a door-to-door service. As you say, the US is too spread out for that to work.

      How expensive or otherwise train fares are is a fraught and highly politicised question in Britain. Had terrorism not intervened, I expect the subject would have played a significant part in the election campaign. Very roughly, though, our trains are cheapish for advance booking and quite expensive for walk-up fares.

    5. Several times an LA to Las Vegas rail line has been proposed, most recently a high-speed line and a mag-lev track. This would make sense because of the high volume of traffic, (auto and air) between the two cities.

      The current high-speed rail being built in California is also an effective replacement for the huge number of commuter flights between north and south.

      But, as has been said before, those are for travel between major cities, and not much good for local transportation.

      With the coming advent of long-rang, electric self-driving cars, we will likely never get local rail in the US.

      It's kind of a shame, because I love rail travel, particularly when it's in places like Europe and Japan where it's cheap and convenient for nearly every destination.