There was a feeling of unreality that came over me inside the ruined kingdom. One that I could scarcely have imagined even in my most fevered dreams. Being allowed into Istvantelek Train Yard was like leaving the world behind in search of the starkest reality. And then the strangest thing happened, for the next few minutes Attila and I discovered the train yard looked much like any other old industrial site. There were random buildings that looked ever so slightly occupied with a few cars scattered about the premises. These were the few signs of life in an otherwise lifeless landscape of muddy roads, overgrown weeds, bare trees and an alarming amount of rust growing on any substantial surface.
We did notice one area with a warehouse door closed and a large truck parked outside of it. Whatever kind of work was going on at Istvantelek these days was hidden from view. It was odd seeing scattered traces of human activity, but with no discernible signs of what might be taking place inside the many buildings. This was an area plagued by neglect. That aesthetic was most noticeable with the first major railroad relic that came into view. Sitting on a small segment of rusty rails was a gigantic locomotive with the ominously iconic Soviet red star painted upon the front of it. At this point, Attila decided to park the car so we could get a better look at several of the locomotives and carriages strewn about the site.
“Nurmi” – An Indestructible Workhorse
Sitting on a small section of track amid encroaching brush was a MAV Class 424 steam locomotive. The very definition of a hulking beast. Weighing in it at a colossal 137 tons, the behemoth stood silent and omnipotent, a singular, immaculately crafted set piece from the age when locomotives were shrinking time and distance. Forged with intensity and magnificent craftsmanship, the amount of work that went into creating this monster must have been incredible. A total of 514 MAV 424 locomotives were constructed between the mid-1920s and late 1950’s. It was nicknamed the “Nurmi”, after the famous Finnish distance runner Paavo Nurmi, due to its speed and endurance.
The MAV 424 was used for both passenger and freight transport. It could pull up to 1,400 tons of freight at a speed of 50 kilometers per hour or up to 500 tons of passenger carriages at 90 kilometers per hour. This indestructible workhorse looked as formidable as any locomotive I have ever seen. Over 70% of the MAV 424’s were either sold or given to communist countries. 15 of them were sent to North Korea in the 1950’s. A few may still be in use by that hermit nation today. In Hungary, the last ones were resigned to museums, outdoor exhibits in provincial cities or in the case of the Istvantelek Train Yard. While the MAV 424 at Istvantelek was in nothing like prime shape, it was certainly built to last. The components looked as though they could survive a nuclear blast. I was quite surprised that the locomotive was in such good condition, especially considering that it had been exposed to the elements for many years.
A Fiery Magic – The Industrialized Sauna
We climbed inside the hulking brute and stood awestruck in the same space that engineers did for decades. Most of the knobs and dials were still in working condition. We got a feel for just how difficult it would have been to drive the locomotive. The coal furnace was within arm’s length of the driver’s space. The only windows were on the side. The smoke and heat must have been ferocious. All the romanticism of train travel suddenly melted away. Only a person within an iron constitution could have stood in this industrialized sauna for hours on end. We also saw where the coal shoveler would have worked their fiery magic within arm’s length of the engineer. The shrill noise, infernal heat and brutal physicality of such jobs must have taken a terrible toll. The MAV 424 may have been state of the art, but for those who worked on this locomotive, I imagined it had all the appeal of a blast furnace.
The iconic emblem painted on the MAV 424 locomotive resulted in the area being nicknamed the Red Star Train Yard. This is misleading and causes many train enthusiasts to think that Istvantelek is a communist era creation. In fact, the site has a long history that predates communism in Hungary. Officially, the train yard was known as the Istvantelek Main Workshop (Istvantelki Fomuhely). Its storied history goes all the way back to the turn of the 20th century when train travel was booming across the Austro-Hungarian Empire. To deal with the many maintenance issues for its expanding fleet of locomotives, passenger and freight cars, Hungarians decided to construct a workshop in the northern part of Pest. Development of the site took place from 1901- 1905. Construction included the main workshop which was the largest building anywhere in Budapest at that time.
Going Nowhere – A Different Kind of Museum
The site continued to expand in the years after its opening, especially during World War I when two thousand workers were on-site servicing trains for the war effort. The Second World War was less kind to Istvantelek as it became a target of aerial bombing and sustained a great deal of damage. Nonetheless, it somewhat recovered after the war. What really sounded the death knell of Istvantelek was when the age of steam came to an end. By the mid-1980’s regular operations had ceased. The site’s future became the past, as it was tied to the Vasuttorteneti Park (Hungarian Railway Museum), adjacent to its grounds.
Many of the locomotives and carriages that were now resigned to the rustbin of Hungarian railroad history had been possible exhibit items for the museum. The problem was that the museum already had quite a collection, plus there was only so much money for restoration and room for storage. Thus, Istvantelek had become a different kind of museum. One where the locomotives and carriages were left to speak for themselves, austere reminders of a golden age that had turned to rust. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the main workshop which we would soon stumble upon.