SATL LAKE CITY —
If you have been a passenger on any FrontRunner train in recent weeks, you have heard THE VOICE.
Deep, resonant, not unpleasant, and with a distinct accent — a recording of THE VOICE comes on between stops and carefully tells you where exits are located and what to do in the unlikely event of an emergency.
We have become so accustomed to monotone Midwestern English, devoid of any distinguishing, potentially offensive or exclusionary dialect, telling us how to buckle seat belts, which numbers to press for customer service and how many minutes we may expect to stay on hold, that we don’t really listen anymore.
“Please pay attention, as our options have changed,” they tell us, but we haven’t the slightest idea what those options were in the first place, no matter how often we may have heard them before.
It’s as if Siri and her sisters were all around us, pretending to know us by name but filled with as much warmth as a stainless steel pillow.
But THE VOICE is something different. It commands attention. It makes you listen. It makes you wonder who the heck is running this train, anyway, Boris and Natasha?
I will admit to worries that Vladimir Putin’s reach may have extended farther than just a few electronic voting machines in Illinois.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The voice belongs to Ananda Alles, a native of Sri Lanka, a 66-year-old who retired from a long career in the security and safety industry in England and the Middle East and who, while he always loved and romanticized about trains, never in his life expected to be driving one in Salt Lake City, of all places, let alone narrating safety instructions to Wasatch Front commuters, whatever those are.
“Life is strange,” he told me by phone on Tuesday. Yes, indeed.
It all started when Alles and his wife (they now have been married 46 years) had four boys. The oldest two, as luck would have it, ended up with scholarships to the University of Utah. One graduated and returned overseas, where he now is a broadcaster for BBC 4. The other stayed in Utah.
After he retired in 2006, Alles and his wife came here for the first time to see their first grandson. They fell in love with the place and decided to retire here.
That’s only part of the story. For the rest, you have to travel back to Sri Lanka in the 1950s, and to the extensive railroad system the British had built there. Alles has clear memories of his parents taking him on sleeper cars to visit his grandparents about once a month.
He remembers “the polished wood, the crisp white linens and the polished steel. Everything would look so gleaming and new.” The engineers were assigned to their own specific engines and took pride in how these looked and operated.
The words “railroad” and “romanticize” have more than just their first letters in common. To many, even a step aboard a commuter train can be a step into a previous era that evokes thoughts of crisp white linens, polished brass and the gentle rocking of a bed in motion — even if you’re only sitting next to a complete stranger heading to work.
That’s especially true if you have the childhood memories Alles has. An avid reader, he grew tired of a retirement that consisted of daily trips to the library. So when he saw a newspaper ad for UTA, he didn’t waste any time. That was eight years ago.
Now I’m guessing few people are as happy with their post-retirement job.
“I know most of my passengers,” he said. “For instance, there are certain stations where I know some people will exit later than others, maybe because it takes a little while to put away their laptop computers. I know to wait for them.”
He may not have the same train every day, but he is living the life of the engineers in Sri Lanka who took such pride in their work.
“I’m lucky. I found something I love,” he said. “If you have a good day and a nice train, what could be better than that?”
As for THE VOICE? Alles said he was asked to show up and record his voice one day. He never thought UTA actually would use him.
A UTA official told me the agency wanted a safety message that would stand out. “We did want people to take notice,” she said, adding that Alles is one of UTA’s star employees.
Mission accomplished, UTA. Now get to work on the polished brass and crisp linens.