The programme of the trains

I AM AN INVETERATE COLLECTOR. During my childhood, I collected all kinds of things especially if they related to travel. For a long time, I hung on to my collection of used travel tickets: bus, air, rail, boat, tram, etc. I do not know what ever happened to my hoard of salt, pepper, and sugar sachets, and ‘sickness’ bags collected whilst on air flights. Likewise, my bags filled with London Transport bus maps have been long lost. I thought that I had mislaid my collection of exotic toothpaste tubes, but some of these, including those I bought in Albania in 1984, resurfaced recently. My extensive collection of printed airline timetables has disappeared, but not my library of railway timetables, most of which are safely locked into a storage unit. Let me tell you about some of them.

 

BLOG TIMETABLE toothpaste

Some exotic toothpaste found in Serbia in 1990

I was in my late teens when I began collecting railway timetables, both British and overseas. One of my earliest gems was a paperback containing the timetable of CFR, the state railway system of Romania. Many decades later, when I was practising dentistry, my boss, Andrew, had a dental surgery assistant from Romania. Knowing that I had visited many places in south-east Europe, Andrew said to me:

“Adam, you must surely know a bit of Romanian. Say something to Cristina.”

I replied:

“Well, actually the only words I know in Romanian are ‘mersul trenurilor’”

Cristina looked at me blankly for a minute or so, and then exclaimed:

“Aha, the programme of the trains.”

My first copy of “Mersul Trenurilor CFR” was given to me at the Romanian Tourist Office that used to be in Jermyn Street. A few years before I retired, I told a charming Romanian patient about my first two words in his language and how I had first encountered them. Some months later, he came to my surgery for some treatment and presented me with the latest edition of the timetable, which he had bought for me during a recent visit to his native land.

Another gem in my collection was a set of huge volumes containing the timetable of FS, Ferrovia Statale, the Italian railway network.  The hall porter at a hotel where the family regularly stayed in Bologna was the source of these outdated editions of the timetable. He also gave me a large volume containing the timetable of SNCF, French railways.

Soon, I had the idea of sending letters to foreign railway companies to request their timetables. I used to address the envelopes containing the letters with simple addresses like “Central Station, Moscow, USSR”. Moscow replied, sending me a hardback the size and thickness of the Holy Bible (both testaments). It contained the timetables for passenger trains in the USSR. The timetable of MAV, Hungarian state railways, was as large as that from the USSR. From the advertisements contained within it, I learned one of my first words of Hungarian: ‘fogkrem’, which means ‘toothpaste’.

Someone in Tunis sent me not only the slender timetable of Tunisian Railways, but also an extremely old book of regulations (in French) for the Phosphate Railway of Gafsa. Some kind soul in Teheran sent me a small glossy-paged paperback containing the timetable of the railways of Iran. This volume, sent to me long before the Shah was deposed, is prefaced by photographs of the Shah and some of his family. Other people sent me the large timetable of South African Railways and a smaller volume containing the timings of Turkish railways. I bought timetable for its neighbour Greece in Athens.

A letter sent to the “Central Station, Prague, Czechoslovakia” hit the jackpot. My correspondent there sent me any used timetables he could find – from East Germany, from Czechoslovakia, and several thick volumes from Poland. In return, I sent him used British stamps, which he collected. This went on for several months, and then ended abruptly. I hope that he had not got into trouble for communicating with someone in the West. The timetable for East Germany (DDR) had a page written in the Sorbian language for the benefit of those few travellers who were born into the Slavic Sorb race, which lived in the DDR. I was given “Red Vožnje”, useful in Yugoslavia, by the Yugoslav Tourist Office that used to be in London’s Regent Street.

In 1970, I joined the BSc class in the Physiology Department of University College London (UCL). It was then that I met and made friends with an Indian woman, who was later to become my wife. At the end of the second year, she went back to India to see her parents who were then living in Calcutta. Before she left, I asked her to do me a favour. Yes, you have guessed what I asked her: to get me a copy of the timetable for Indian railways. She said she would.

Some months later, a small parcel arrived at my home. The paper in which it was wrapped was falling to pieces, only being held to the package by the string tied around it. The parcel contained a thick paperback, the timetable of Indian Railways. It was only many years later that my wife revealed to me how much trouble I had caused her father. Always ready to take up a challenge and determined not to disappoint his daughter’s new friend, he had sent someone from his office, a ‘peon’ (a lowly clerk),  to Calcutta’s Howrah Station to obtain a timetable, but he came back empty-handed because the station had run-out of the current edition. Undeterred and unwilling to admit failure, my future father-in-law sent the peon back to the station at regular intervals until finally he obtained one to send me. Years later, when Lopa and I decided to marry, we telephoned her parents from my home (in Kent) so that I could ask their consent to our marriage. After Lopa had spoken to them, she told me what her father had said. He had asked her hesitatingly:

“Is that the boy … for whom … I had to search for a railway timetable?”

Even now, if I see a railway timetable during my travels (sadly rather limited during the Covid pandemic), I add it to my collection. However, with the desire to ‘save the planet’, printed timetables are gradually being replaced by paperless online versions.

Illinois Central

A TRAM RIDE IN the northern Portuguese city of Porto (Oporto), home of the drink ‘port’, evoked memories of Chicago in Illinois.

In Porto, we travelled along the riverbank towards the seaside in a very old tram. Most of its seats had reversible backrests so that a passenger was able to choose to sit facing the direction of travel or face the opposite direction. These seats had a mechanism beneath each of them that allowed the seat backs to be shifted manually. On close examination I noticed that the mechanisms had been manufactured in the USA.

Seeing these seats in 2010 reminded me of Chicago in autumn 1963. My father had been invited to spend three months at the University of Chicago. We sailed across the Atlantic in the then almost new SS France (launched 1962). Sadly, this wonderful ship no longer exists. It was sold to be turned into scrap metal by shipbreakers at Alang in Saurashtra (Gujarat, India) a few years ago in 2008.

We had high hopes of Chicago, naively expecting to be put up in ‘swish’ accommodation. The first floor (American 2nd floor) flat we were lent was far from swish. There was nothing wrong with it, but we were expecting something more up to date and in harmony with our preconceptions about America being at the ‘cutting edge’ of living standards. 5608 South Blackstone Avenue was a dowdy two storey house with a highly dubious looking wooden fire escape, which would have been the first thing to go up in flames had the house caught fire. I have recently learnt that our temporary home and its neighbours have been replaced by newer buildings.

At night, the air was filled with the sound of police car sirens almost continuousl and the occasional lengthy rumble of long freight trains passing close by on the railway that followed the shoreline of Lake Michigan.

This railway line near our home was used not only used by freight trains but also by passenger trains, both inter-city and local.

Our nearest station, a few minute walk from our flat was named ‘55th-56th-57th Streets’ and was both close to a superb Science Museum and served by the suburban trains of the Illinois Central Railroad. These rather antiquated trains carried us to the then terminus, Van Buren Street in downtown Chicago. The trains were electrically powered receiving current from overhead wires.
Often whilst waiting on the platform at our local station, trains heading towards or from Indiana, operated by the Chicago South Shore and South Bend Railroad, would hurtle past us.

What interested me then, aged 11 years old, were the backs of the seats in the train carriages. They were reversible just like those on the trams in Porto, which I was to see about 37 years later in Porto.

It is curious the way that seeing one thing can trigger old memories to come to the forefront of one’s mind.

Picture of reversible tram seats in Porto from TripAdvisor

Hotel Lokomotiv

IT WAS 1982 WHEN THE ‘IRON CURTAIN’ still divided Soviet-controlled Europe from Western Europe most effectively. I was heading off towards Budapest from England in order to meet my friend and budding author the late Michael Jacobs, who was  becoming a renowned travel writer.

 

SOPRON 1

Before setting out on this trip, I had noticed that there was a railway line that began in Austria, crossed over the Iron Curtain into Western Hungary, and after running a short distance through Hungary, it crossed back into Austria. Intrigued, I checked whether it carried passengers, and found that it did. This, I decided would be the way that I would try to enter Hungary.

On reaching Vienna’s Westbahnhof, I travelled through the city to the Südbahnhof, where I caught a train that took me to Wiener Neustadt. When I disembarked, I noticed a diesel powered passenger rail bus standing on a siding. It was painted in a livery that I did not recognise. It was not the livery of OB (the Austrian State Railway), or of MAV (the Hungarian State Railway).  Two men wearing black leather jackets were standing next to it. I asked them in German whether this was the train to Sopron (just over the border in Hungary). With hand gestures, they motioned me on board. Soon, the two men boarded the train. One was its driver. We set off. I was the only passenger as the train drifted through vineyards and fields. After a short time we stopped at a small village called Wulkaprodersdorf.

The driver and his assistant disembarked, and so did I. From where I stood next to the ‘train’, I could see men in blue overalls working in a distant field. The two train men stood smoking and chatting to each other in Hungarian. An old steam engine with the logo ‘GySEV’ stood on a plinth, a memorial to times gone by. The rustic scene reminded me of lines from the poem ‘Adlestrop’ by Edward Thomas:

The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.

No one left and no one came

On the bare platform. What I saw

Was Adlestrop — only the name

 

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,

And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,

No whit less still and lonely fair

Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

 

And for that minute a blackbird sang…

Just change Adlestrop for Wulkaprodersdorf, and you will know how I felt waiting there.

After a while, all of the workers in the field converged on the train and boarded it. I joined them in the now full train, and we set off towards Hungary.  To my surprise, we sailed past the rows of barbed wire fences, the sandy tracks, the watchtowers, the military men with dogs, without stopping. I had crossed the ‘Iron Curtain’ and entered Hungary without showing my passport. This was quite unlike any other time that I had travelled to Hungary by train.

The single carriage train pulled into Sopron’s station alongside a platform that had a barbed wire fence running along it. When I stepped out onto the platform, two uniformed guards came to meet me. How they knew that I was on the train was a mystery to me. They took me to an office, where their superior examined me and my visa, before stamping my passport. As the officials seemed friendly, I decided to ask them where I could find a private room to stay. Instead of directing me to the state tourist office, which usually arranged accommodation for foreigners, the official told me to come with him. He drove me to a house on the edge of Sopron, and told me to wait in its garage.

After a few minutes, he returned with a lady, who then took me to her house. Somehow, she managed to explain to me that I could rent a room from her, but I had to leave at 8 am in the morning. I rented her room for two nights.

On the following morning, I decided to try to ring Michael Jacobs at the number he had given me where he was staying in Budapest. I found a coin-box public telephone, but was completely flummoxed by the instructions which were only written in Hungarian. Undaunted, I entered Sopron’s fin-de-siècle central post-office. The large public hall was surrounded by desks each with signs above them in Hungarian. I looked for a desk with a sign that resembled ‘telephone’ or even ‘telefon’, but saw nothing remotely similar. While I was looking, a man in a suit and tie came up to me and announced in passable English:

Today is my day for helping foreigners. How may I help you?”  

I told him that I was trying to ring a number in Budapest, and he took me to a desk where I parted with a not inconsiderable amount of cash, only to discover that the call could not be made.

After that disappointment, my ‘helper’ asked:

You like wine?

I replied that I did.

Come with me then,” he said, leading me to a group of well-dressed middle-aged men.

“Visitors from Austria,” he said, leading me and his visitors to a minibus bearing the livery of OB, Austrian Railways. We drove through Sopron, and my new friend explained that he was hosting some Austrian railway officials who were visiting for the day.

We arrived at a wine cellar in a historic building in the heart of Sopron, and sat at wooden tables in a cellar with a vaulted ceiling. By now, I was getting quite hungry. My new friend sat me beside him, and for the rest of the time ignored his Austrian guests. In front of us there wooden platters with salami slices and what looked grated cheese. Greedily, I put a handful of this grated matter in my mouth, and sharp needles shot up towards my eyeballs. The ‘cheese’ was in fact freshly grated horse-radish! Wine was served, and all of us partook of it liberally.

During our drinking session, my friend said to me:

It is Vunderful. So Vunderful. You could have visited Paris; you could have visited Rome; you could have visited New York.  But you have come to our little Sopron. That is so Vunderful. So Vunderf…”

Eventually, it was time for the Austrians to return home. They piled into their minibus, and we waved farewell to them. Then, my Hungarian friend led me to a rather tatty looking faded green minibus, an East European model, and we entered. My host, an official of GySEV (Győr-Sopron-Ebenfurti Vasút) – the mainly Hungarian-owned railway company which had brought me into Hungary – drove me to a shabby hotel.

Hotel Lokomotiv,” he announced proudly, “now we drink more.”

By now, I had had enough wine, but insufficient food. I drank Coca Cola or its Hungarian equivalent whilst my friend continued drinking wine – all afternoon. After the sun had set, I decided that I should return to my room.

I will take you there,” he said slurring.

As we began walking through the town, I had to support my staggering friend, and also guide him through his own town. When we had nearly reached where I was staying, he said:

Next time you are in Sopron, you will stay in my house. I will put wife in another room. You will sleep in my bed.”

With that, we parted company.

I never took up his offer because the next time I visited Sopron, I was already married.