Depressing news for travelers came out of Hungary this past week. MAV, the Hungarian State Railways (Magyar Allamvasutak), announced that beginning in December many of the international trains they operate would no longer have buffet or sleeping cars. The reason given, the great financial losses incurred by MAV in operating these services. I was saddened, but not surprised by this news. All over Europe, both east and west, such night trains are getting cut due to their unprofitability. My sadness stems from the fact that once these services are cut, they are likely to never come back. This is what happened in America, unless one includes Amtrak which offers an increasingly rare and less than desirable experience.
Slowly, but steadily, during a century and a half of European railway travel, comfort has been increasingly forfeited and services slimmed down in adherence to the profit motive. Speed, efficiency and the bottom line trump everything else. The romance and leisure of long distance rail travel is slowly becoming a thing of the past. Nothing seems more appealing to a traveler such as myself than departing from Budapest one evening and arriving in Munich the next morning. One day in the not so distant future that may no longer be possible. Then again, from my own experience, at least in Eastern Europe this style of travel went out long ago.
Off Track – Looking Back Rather Than Forward
The Hungarian Railway History Park (Magyar Vasuttorteneti Park) is not exactly on the beaten path for tourists in Budapest. It is located north and east of the city center, an area where people work to live rather than vice versa. Though I have a passion for trains and the history of rail travel, I did not manage to visit the museum until my third trip to the city. The museum is not nearly as well-known as many others in Budapest, mainly because of its location and the fact that it is rather new. It did not open until the beginning of the 21st century, a year after a Foundation was formed to build the museum. The foundation must have realized that there was much to preserve regarding the history of railways in Hungary. The museum can also be seen as a response to the fact that railway travel might already be in decline. Thus, it was time to look back rather than forward.
The golden age of rail travel in Hungary was the late 19th and early 20th century, a time when the pace of travel was speeding up, but still slow enough to offer a relaxing experience. Many of the rail cars on display at the museum were from this period. The ones that I found most engaging were dining and sleeper cars. The compartments in the sleepers looked so comfortable and cozy that I began to daydream about travel in an earlier era. I imagined myself tucked into bed in the early evening, reading a novel while traveling through a snow covered landscape in Transylvania on an overnight trip to Budapest. One of the dining cars I stepped into was the very scene of elegance. The place settings were immaculate, glasses and silverware sparkling, fine white linen. I imagined that the food would have matched the décor in excellence. Looking at all this served to reinforce the fact that railway travel was not what it used to be. I knew this from personal experience.
Crossing Over – A Painful Awakening
The only MAV night train I have ever taken was the IC407 which runs from Budapest to Bucharest. I took this train to visit the old Saxon city of Brasov in eastern Transylvania. Boarding the train at Keleti Palyudvar (Eastern Station) in the evening I found the train clean and well kept, the compartment functional, but far from luxurious. The dining car was not on my agenda and from the looks of it on no one else’s either. Most passengers stayed either in their compartments or close by. My food selection was limited to what I bought in the station. Other services from the attendant were unmemorable, which meant it was good enough. The compartment was satisfactory, but felt a bit cramped. I had imagined a night train into the heart of Transylvania would be a romantic way to travel, stirring my literary sensibilities. The experience turned out to be much different. After a couple of hours I was ready for bed. The only problem was unlike in the early 20th century, there would be passport control to tear me away from the arms of Morpheus. This meant two stops, first on the Hungarian side of the border, then on the Romanian one. In 1900 there was no border to cross when traveling between Budapest and Brasov. Since that time the situation had regressed. Even with European Union membership for both Hungary and Romania, there were still tedious border controls.
Not long after falling asleep I was awakened by the call of “passports” from a Hungarian border agent. Less than an hour later the same thing happened on the Romanian side, only this time with a good deal of shouting. A drunken passenger had to be roused several times from his alcohol induced slumber to produce a passport. Less than an hour after this disquieting incident, the train pulled into Arad, a city on the frontier of western Romania, for an extended break. It was not until the wee hours of the morning that I finally fell asleep. I woke not long after daylight with stiffness in my lower body from the cramped conditions.
Old Romances – Left To The Imagination
By the time I arrived in Brasov, my romance with night train travel had ended. I was bleary eyed, agitated and ready for a hotel room. This was my jilted romance with a modern Hungarian sleeper train. This experience stripped away any illusions I had about the luxury and refinement of Hungarian night trains. I have had much the same experience throughout Eastern Europe. The night train has not gone away quite yet, but the legendary service and romantic odysseys have largely passed into history. Trying to recapture that past is a futile pursuit. Some old romances are best left to the imagination.