Later Rather Than Sooner – Sibiu to Sighisoara By Rail

In 2007 Romania became a member of the European Union (EU). Since that time, the question has been raised about whether they should have been admitted as members. Critics believe that the country was not ready to join. The foremost reason cited was the level of corruption. Romania is plagued by opaque government and poorly functioning institutions. Everything from procurement to health care is prone to waste and graft. I have now visited Romania three times since its accession, but on these trips I have not personally experienced corruption. Of course, tourists are not applying for unemployment benefits or using the public health system. The closest most tourists get to experiencing the effects of the Romanian government is when using the public transport system. Accession to the European Union was supposed to help Romania improve their transport infrastructure. After traveling through Transylvania a month ago I would have to state unequivocally that Romania has a long way to go in order to catch up with developing countries let alone the rest of the EU.

Time Delayed Device – The Romanian Express
A memorable experience, occurred when my wife and I decided to take a day trip by train, traveling from Sibiu to Sighisoara, a place famed for its citadel, medieval old town and as the birthplace of Vlad the Impaler. We went to purchase our round trip tickets a day in advance. The ticket agent was a lady so helpful and pleasant that she felt compelled to lead us into a labyrinth of route iterations and timetable possibilities. We finally called mercy after a good ten minutes of migraine inducing options. Settling on the simplest plan, we were to leave Sibiu at 7:23 a.m., make one change at Medias and arrive at Sighisoara at 10:25 a.m. Even if one did not count the 19 minute layover in Medias, this was still over two hours and 40 minutes of travel time to cover a mere 80 kilometers. On the return trip, we would have a straight shot, but it would still take over three hours. Our main worry seemed to be making it to Medias for the connection. I had never been on a Romanian train that arrived on time. These trains were the ultimate in time delayed devices. Even the night express which took us direct from Budapest to Brasov earlier on the same trip was over two hours late. Then again that had been a thirteen and a half hour trip, so another two hours didn’t seem all that bad. On the trip to Sighisoara I would find out just how long hours or two can be.

The Most Polluted Town In Europe
The next morning, we left the station beneath clear blue skies. It was shaping up to be a beautiful Saturday, the time of departure was exactly 7:23 a.m. We were rolling along slowly, making stops at various villages along the way. Village life looked as though it had not changed much over the last hundred years. There were as many horse drawn wagon carts, as there were cars on the road. Cracked facades were the main hallmark of the houses and roosters crowed at nothing in particular. It was another spring day in the sleepy villages of Transylvania.

Slowly, ever so slowly the train crawled along, an ominous landscape came into view. The train stopped just outside one of the most depressing places I had ever seen. The land was scalded and scarred between the railroad tracks and a nearby town. Gruesome skeletons of abandoned industrial buildings were haphazardly arranged in the distance. The scene was toxic and nasty. This was the dustbin of heavy industry. I opened my guidebook to Transylvania, hoping that this unsightly monstrosity was marked. It was. The nearby town’s name was Copsa Mica. It was said to be the most polluted town in Romania. I later learned that many believe it is the most polluted town in Europe. I believe it. Copsa Mica was ruined by the heavy industrialization policy of Nicolae Ceaucescu. Two industrial plants had been the culprits. One produced carbon black for dyes, the other was a smelter. This has caused lead poisoning and lung cancer on a terrifying scale. The life expectancy for the citizens of the town is nine years lower than Romanian average.

Copsa Mica with Carbosin Plant in the distance  (Credit: Julian Nitszche)

Copsa Mica with Carbosin Plant in the distance (Credit: Julian Nitszche)

Welcome To Romania
While staring at this environmental disaster I reminded myself that next time someone tries to say a good word about communism, I will ask them to google Copsa Mica. It is a tragic, horrific concoction of ideology and industry. Copsa Mica made it hard to believe that we were still in Transylvania or that less than an hour away was the beauty and elegance of one of the first European Capitals of Culture, Sibiu. I have been to Chernobyl and the nearby abandoned city of Pripyat, but Copsa Mica looks much worse. Today over five thousand people still live in the town. With a shutter and clang, we pulled away from the unsightly, industrial wasteland and through Copsa Mica. I have rarely felt so relieved. Even with a couple of five minute delays, it seemed that we just might make it to Medias in time for the connection. We had to be less than ten kilometers away by now. And then the train began to slow, as we arrived at another village. The difference this time is that we just sat there. The engines shut down. This was followed by an uneasy silence. Minutes went by and nothing happened.

The passengers in the half empty car began to murmur and frown. A ticket checker was stopped and questioned by one man. Even though I can hardly understand a word of Romanian, one could tell that he was being quizzed on the problem. He patiently stood talking for some time. The passenger he addressed sighed when he was finished. Interpreting these gestures I guessed that it was going to be awhile. It was more than awhile. A good 30 minutes passed before the train slowly, ever so slowly began to roll again. We asked a young man of college age on the train if he could tell us what exactly had been the problem. He replied that the ticket checker claimed the line was undergoing construction. He also added for effect, “Welcome to Romania.” The final miles to Medias were prolonged by an excruciating slowness.

Romanian Railways - not exactly at your service (Credit: Marcin Szala)

Romanian Railways – not exactly at your service (Credit: Marcin Szala)

The Hurry Up To Be Late
We rushed off the train at Medias. Groups of bored looking people were listlessly waiting on several platforms. I rushed into the station, wondering whether or not we had missed our connection. The station was empty. It brought to mind an abandoned public latrine. Fortunately, some invisible being had updated the arrival times. The train to Sighisoara was late. Who would have thought? I felt a sense of foolish relief as I walked back out to the platform. My wife had joined the group of placid faced, would be passengers. It suddenly struck me, how much time do people spend waiting on trains in Romania? Could such a figure even be quantified? The inefficiency, the waste of it all. Could the beauty and romance of Transylvania’s landscape somehow make up for it? Perhaps, I was just being too western, too business oriented, too selfish. After all, at least we were on vacation. What about the poor souls who actually needed to get somewhere. Everyone standing on the platforms looked either complacent or resigned.

After a while the train that would take us to Sighisoara arrived. I find it exceedingly ironic that as soon as a late arriving train shows up, everyone hurries to get on fearing that they might be left behind. This is for good reason. Late arriving trains never dawdle at the station more than a couple of minutes. Instead their modus operandi is to never wait on the tardy, but to only stop for prolonged periods in the middle of nowhere. At least we were back on the tracks. This kind of progress couldn’t last and it didn’t. Sure enough within half an hour we were stopped yet again. This time the situation turned desperate. We waited longer than it had taken us to first arrive at this point. We really were in the middle of nowhere, not a village in sight.

How Far Is it? How Far Is It Now?
This time we stopped right where the adjacent line was undergoing construction. Our train stood still on one set of tracks while we stared longingly at the tracks still under construction. They gleamed in the sunlight, brand spanking new. This was of little consolation. We even saw construction workers, kicking a soccer ball, having lunch or standing around. The problem was that no actual construction work seemed to be going on. Soon a stale heat permeated the train car. An older lady in front of us, smiled knowingly. I shook my head in resignation. She acknowledged my frustration with a knowing glance. She soon questioned the ticket checker, who seemed to be giving her a minutes-long description for the cause of delay.

After he left the lady began to talk with us. She could not speak English and we could not speak Romanian. Trying to communicate was rather amusing, but I felt a twinge of sorrow. We understood enough to ascertain that she was going to see a friend in Sighisoara who was sick. I wondered how many times she had dealt with this same thing. I wondered if she had ever been on a train that was ever on time. I wondered if we would ever be on a train that was on time. I tried to blame the whole thing on Ceaucescu, but he had been dead for almost twenty-five years. It was corruption, waste, graft and whatever else I could conjure up that might shoulder the blame. A generation had passed, would this ever change. I went and used the bathroom, if you could call it that. When a train is stopped passengers are not supposed to use the bathroom. If everyone followed that rule, there would be chronic bladder bursting all across Romania. Finally, the train started rolling along once again. Could this really be happening? Would we make it to Sighisoara just an hour late? That was too much to ask.

Finally at the point of arrival - Sighisoara Railway Station

Finally at the point of arrival – Sighisoara Railway Station

Later Rather Than Sooner
We stopped again and again. The delays were not as lengthy, but nonetheless it was hard to believe we would ever get there. Finally we really started moving, perhaps as fast as 30 miles per hour. It was surreal. A few more twists and turns, then we were suddenly at Sighisoara. I could not believe it. The station was cute, tidy and trim. This was more like it. Only problem was that it had taken four and a half hours. We now only had two and a half hours to see the place. That worry paled in comparison to thoughts of the return trip. We could only hope that it would be less than two hours late. I shuttered at the thought of taking the same route. Perhaps by the late afternoon construction would have stopped. Then again, it had never started. Welcome to Romania!

2 thoughts on “Later Rather Than Sooner – Sibiu to Sighisoara By Rail

  1. Hi…thanks for the sharing! I was thinking to take the same train as what you’ve taken to Sighisoara coming weeks 🙂

    Just curious when you make your transit at Medias, do you change the train at the same station or you actually have to go to another railway station? I saw the map imagine indicates that the train from Medias to Sighisoara is another.

    Please advice.

    Tahnks in advance! 🙂

  2. I’m writing an essay about traveling in Romania through this region in 1984. We jumped off the train in frustration, it was going so slow. It wasn’t a dramatic jump, like in the movies. It was more like stepping off. So I guess things haven’t changed? I really enjoy perusing your blog and it has distracted me from my writing for a good half hour, about as long as your train kept stopping!

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