Transports of delight (by Alan Durant, December 2020)
The Hungarian railway system is by no means the worst in the world, and having traveled third class in India, I can testify to this. Also, if you’ve ever tried to travel from London to Manchester on a packed train, it throws things into perspective.
In fact, the Hungarian railway system in some places is surprisingly good; then there are the other places. As an example going from Vienna to Budapest is modern and comfortable but as you penetrate further into the darker, less frequented regions of Hungary, you seem to slide back in time to a more robust, not to say, more uncomfortable age, which although having a certain pre-war, (first world war) style, can be more than a little wearing on the soul, physic and patience..
This age was peopled by gay (in the old sense of the word, but not always) Hussars and stoical peasants, and they tended to be made of stern stuff with backsides like leather, due to habitual horse riding or jogging along on farm carts. Backsides that as a consequence, could cope with the stuffing, or lack of, of Hungarian train seats and the splinters of the wooden seats provided for the lower classes. That being as it may, there are interesting and quaint echoes of bygone age parts of the rail system.
The stations in Budapest and other places exude old-world charm, dust, and some, thankfully, unidentifiable smells.. Keleti is the Main railway station in Budapest, but the approach from the Metro is modern, though the angular lines are sometimes broken by decent buskers and dubious beggars, not to mention Syrian refugees hoping to escape to the west.
Entry from the new part of the station to the old is via a set of steps impersonating the North Face of the Eiger. There is a tiny lift cunningly hidden where no one could ever find it if they didn’t know. So, pack lightly or bring a Sherpa. If, however, you approach from ground level, the station is rather impressive in a slightly flea-bitten fashion. After you have gone up into the actual station, found out the ticket office is downstairs, queued at the wrong downstairs window, been treated with disdain by the ticket seller, and gone back up into the station, you can appreciate the grandeur of the building.
Tickets, however, are free for EU citizens over 65, (haha you Brexiteers), but you need a place ticket; for Intercity, it's a nominal amount, but don’t forget, or you will be fined, beaten, and thrown off the train. OK, I made the last two up, but it feels like it.
While waiting for your train, you might indulge yourself in the belle epoch station restaurant. The décor is eclectic and the food excellent (and cheap) nothing quite replicates the pleasure of being greeted with a growl from one of the waiters, reminiscent of a Doberman that hasn’t been fed recently. They may not be the grumpiest waiters in the world, but they are working on it.
On leaving the restaurant, you board your train with your reserved seat ticket. You find your place, but frequently, your place has been double booked. If you are lucky, this can just result in glowering stares followed by shouted insults, the train staff often intervening to suggest filthier expletives that might be used. If you’re really lucky, the whole spectacle can degenerate into a fistfight, hopefully without you taking part. It's a bit like the Wild West, where one person hits someone, then everyone else hits somebody else.
After a while, with you ensconced somewhere, you set off. They don’t blow a whistle or anything for the departure of Hungarian trains, they just wait for when you’re not expecting it, and suddenly you notice you are moving. Don’t forget to look out the window at poor souls sprinting up the platform, on which they had been unwisely having a smoke (illegally), in a vain attempt to be reunited with their loved ones who are on the train.
If you have been wise, you have purchased a first-class ticket. It's a bit hard to tell the difference from a second class, but you have a marginally better chance that the heating or air-con will be working. However, as with so much, there are no guarantees. The heating might work but too often in the height of summer, leading to attempts at mass exodus, fainting, extreme arguments with the train guard, other passengers, and a general melee. There again, there is the interesting alternative of freezing to the metalwork in winter when the heating isn’t on. You may, of course, be lucky, and the temperature, behavior of the other passengers, and level of surliness of the guard all be within acceptable parameters, so if you go on your journey.
Hopefully, you are on an Intercity train, which will get you there all be it pretty slowly but is not as bad as it might be. Some trains are called express, they are not, and there are also ones called fast, they are even slower.
On one occasion, when looking out of the open window of my carriage (no air con on this train) and wondering if it could go any slower and still be classed as moving when I was overtaken by a cow out for an afternoon walk. Don’t make the mistake of getting too comfortable, though. It is not all that unusual to be decanted from your train to another, climbing down high steps from the carriage to the often none existent platform and struggling with your bags across a hinterland to another apparently identical train. Worse than that, you may end up on a bus rattling through the countryside apparently aimlessly until being deposited on another train—such fun.
It is not unknown for trains to just stop and stand there so long that people get out to have picnics by the track. There used in former times be a buffet car where you could sit eating good food and drinking good wine at a reasonable price. There I would be sat in classical elegance, (me not the place), but no more. It was never promoted, and you always got the feeling that they would rather not bother, and now they’ve scrapped it altogether. Shame, in my experience, you can always spend a pleasant hour or two eating and drinking. Slow speeds can, of course, be a plus as you gaze raptly at peasant smallholding as they trundle before your eyes. If you’re lucky, you might even see a Llama or two or an Ostrich (neither native to Hungary).
The stations can be fun as well. At one time, there were people crowding around the trains with baskets selling beer, sandwiches, chicken, and sometimes anything else that wasn’t nailed down. Alas, it has moved on with civilization, which unfortunately can throw out the good with the bad. You may well enjoy Hungarian railways but remember to keep calm something which is not promoted by the Hungarian railway experience.