Vienna-Bucharest, Nov 21st - 26th
On November 21st at 7.42 p.m., we set off for our first metropa ground study trip, leading us from Vienna Hauptbahnhof to Bucharest/Gara de Nord and same way back on November 25th.
The idea to this kind of series of long distance travels is neither new nor utterly extraordinary. There are many train bloggers, travel influencers and also official testers out there who do this all the time, professionally or simply because they love it. In our case, it came to our minds on a different way.
In spring 2022, we attended at the Ö1-„fixing the future“-award – and we won. The prize was a cooperation with the Austrian Cultural Fora. Soon after, an executive of their Romanian office reached out for us and invited us to Bucharest. And for us it was clear to go there by train.
We were indeed surprised, however, how long that would take. 21 hours! For 1000km? We’ll talk about that later.
First we thought to make a round trip out of this, going to Budapest, Bucharest, Belgrade, Zagreb, Ljubljana and back to Vienna. But that was, in that short time, too much of planning.
So we cut it back to the single destination trip to Romania and coned it as the first metropa „ground study“, in order to make a series out to it later. In the remaining time, we could win over some important and potent partners to support this. Which meant that it promised a respective gain of knowledge about what issues Europeans railway mobility is still facing today.
And that is exactly the point of this metropa ground study.
When we got on the train in Vienna, it felt like a time travel back in the nineties, if not even further in the past. But as long everything works, this shouldn't be a problem. I wouldn't use the shower anyway, a catlick will do. The cabin was quiet and cozy, and we've had a nice conversation with an elder lady who travels this train every four weeks back from work. She also introduced us quite informatively to what would expect us in Romania (culture, temperament, food, etc), and she would become right. The conductor that was responsible four our wagon was also very friendly and obliging. He brought the coffee straight from his own compartment. Which had its reasons.
In Austria and Hungary, the train had Hungarian wagons with Romanian sleeper carriages, while at the Romanian/Hungarian border, the whole train changed into Romanian. But there was no proper dining car at all during the whole trip. Which for 21hrs is quite challenging: Hence the wagon manager’s private coffee. If I hadn't had a big dinner right before the trip started, I would have had to live on crisps and schnaps only.
Our travel companion Angela told us to keep the passports right on us while sleeping. The border officers wouldn't care waking us up anyway, she said, but the procedure only takes unnecessarily longer if we don't.
And so was it.
At 2.30 a.m., the Hungarians entered the carriage, knocked at the doors and turned on the lights. ALL the lights, including their torches. And twenty minutes later, same thing with the Romanians, only louder, ruder and brighter. There were no "thank you, have a good trip, sorry to disturb you, good night". Spoiler: on our way home, they did the same, but even let the doors open.
And the wagon manager unfortunately was an unfriendly and arrogant idiot.
But is the human factor part of our examination at all? Not in the first place, because as already mentioned, the train went well, all was in place and worked.
But the biggest failure on the human side is that this train takes this long. The tracks are new, as to see when you go to the end of the train, open the rear door (!) and take a look (or even jump) outside. It's all electrified and even better looking than on many german railroads. So why the heck are we literally going at walking pace? When you walk along the corridor against the driving direction, you do not move at all, geographically speaking.
Everyone I asked said that the responsible people simply don't care: Railway in Romania is politically sensitive, highly controversial and very un-chic anyway. No-one burns his fingers on or loses elections for it. The money the EU puts in railway projects, is considered lost money, put into an unloved cause. We would learn about this later in our workshops at the civil engineering university of Bucharest.
This does not explain why our wagon manager was so rough, of course. Out here on the periphery of Europe, without any touristic interests (especially in November), things are coming to halt. And this is not worth of Europe. This is maybe also the reason why we couldn't reach any of the MEPs of Romania or members of the Romanian Infrastructure Ministry.
And when it comes to the mentioned border controls: why don't the managers collect the passports in advance, such as in other night trains, and then hand it over to the policemen? Why must officers always be so rude? Waking us up in the middle of the night doesn't make their night shift being less pain-in-the-ass – unless they are sadists.
Nevertheless – both trips were far less boring, annoying or dull than expected. It is in fact a matter of what you expect. We really enjoyed the experience. We learned much more about the country and its people than we had if we went on the plane or the car instead.
In other words: if it takes this to make the responsible people finally act on reducing the durations of train travels, its prices and also the nuisance of border controls – we'll do recommend to take the train to Bucharest.
With this first ground study trip in our back, we created the pilot of what should become a series. Of course, we couldn't cover all expectations, neither those of our partners nor our own. It was just the first trip! But we hope (and are confident) to keep them on it and connected to our common cause.
Here they are, our partners:
a big railway company (wants to remain anonymous)
and many many crowdfunders