There is exciting news about the increase of long-distance train journeys in Europe, made possible by EU funding. The list includes enhancement of the Hungary-Austria-Roumania service, and of the Amsterdam-London route for Eurostar (probably the money that is enabling the upgrading of Amsterdam station). It also includes night trains: Stockholm-Copenhagen-Berlin; Paris-Milan-Venice; and Amsterdam-Barcelona. This pulls my mind back to the long train journeys of my youth along some of those routes.
Twice yearly train journeys
Our family moved from Vienna, to where we had fled from Hungary in 1956, to North Westfalia in 1961. We didn’t have a car, and our twice yearly trip back to Austria was on the ‘Ostend Vienna Express’. We joined it in Dusseldorf, and it was a roughly 14-hour journey. I have wonderful memories of our family in a so-called ‘couchette’, where the seats were converted into bunks one could sleep on.
Our mother was very good at entertaining three children on the long trip by talking about the area we were travelling through, reading to us, singing with us, or playing cards and other games. When I was old enough to walk to the loo on my own, I remember having loads of fun walking along the corridors peeping unobtrusively through the glass doors of the compartments to look at other passengers. Sometimes, we had friendly neighbours to chat with while standing in the corridor.
At a time when the UK is planning to close ticket offices, when very few trains have any conductors on board and there are even driverless trains in London, I fondly remember the conductors on my childhood journeys. Their job kept them busy during the whole duration of the trip. There were several conductors responsible for various parts of these long international trains. There were carriages for passengers who booked seats only, carriages with couchettes or the top of the range carriages with individual sleeper cabins. Of course, there was the restaurant carriage.
Conductors walked around to check tickets of new passengers at every stop. It was a time when one was expected to buy tickets in advance, but conductors could issue them as well. They were then hand-written pieces of paper, which looked like cheques. Sometimes there were stops nearly every half an hour; sometimes the train didn’t stop for two to three hours. It was the role of the conductor to walk along the train to inform passengers.
The restaurant car was open for snacks and drinks during the whole trip, but had special times for warm lunches and dinners. It was the conductor who announced the times and handed out menus. We used to bring packed lunches and snacks, which we ate in our compartment, but from time to time we had a special treat and had a meal in the restaurant.
Finally, in our couchette carriage, the conductor came around in the evening and handed out a blanket, a small pillow and two crisply ironed white sheets per person. In the posher sleeper carriage with individual cabins, the conductor even brought meals and drinks to order. The cabins also had their own washing facilities. As a child, I thought it must have been like being in a moving hotel.
Train journey from England to Italy in 1971
When my family moved to the UK in 1970, our stepfather had a car and a campervan, with which he had made trips to the mainland. My mother, stepfather and siblings decided to drive to Italy in the Fiat camper, stopping off in Germany and Austria to visit friends and to sightsee. They left straight after schools had broken up for the summer. I was working and didn’t have a whole month of holiday. Therefore, it was agreed that I was to take a train a bit later to join the family at their camping place in Lido di Venezia.
On my own across Europe
I was 19 and very excited to travel on my own across Europe for the first time. The travel agent booked the tickets I needed for the trip all the way to my final destination. There was no Eurostar or Eurotunnel, so crossing the Channel was by ferries only. I took the Harwich to Hook of Holland overnight ferry and remember dancing the night away in their small disco. It was fun at the time, but I regretted it later, as I had an uncomfortable snooze sitting up on my train ride through Holland and most of Germany. I was glad when the couchette beds were made up for the six passengers of the cabin and I could stretch out.
I was in a compartment with five strangers, but it never occurred to me to worry about my safety. The conductor walked along the corridors, and that gave one a sense of security. Of course, if one had the bad luck, as a light sleeper, to share the cabin with a loud snorer, train journeys could be less relaxing.
At the time, there was no Schengen, so passports were checked at borders. To make it a smooth process, the conductor collected the passports when he looked at the tickets, and the German and Austrian border control checked them without having to wake up people in the individual compartments.
I knew all the stops to Vienna, of course, from my childhood trips, and looked forward to changing in Vienna for the journey to Venice.
Missed the bus
I don’t remember much of the Vienna to Venice part of the trip on the train, as the more exciting last part to meet my family was to follow. From Venice mainline station I took a local train to a small town near Venice. There, I was stranded at around 9pm at a bus stop. The bus was meant to take me to the camping place at Lido de Venetia, but the Sevenoaks travel agent where I had booked all my trips had given me the wrong information about the last bus. I wasn’t the only person at the bus stop who had missed the bus.
I quickly made friends with the equally stranded Italian youngsters. There were no mobile phones to contact my family. I didn’t have the money to book into one of the hotels nearby. My local Italian new friends knew the area, and we walked to a nearby beach, where, spreading out some of our clothes on the sand, the group snuggled up closely to look at the stars until tiredness took over and and I fell asleep.
I happily caught a morning bus to the camping place where my family was staying and had a lovely holiday. I often met with the young Italian friends I had met at the bus stop. Since they didn’t speak any English, I learnt quite a bit of Italian that summer.
Train versus car
From these personal memories, the reasons why trains may be better than cars for family travel are evident. The first is that children, who are often a pain to cope with on a long car journey, love the freedom of train corridors to move around. Hot food, cooked on the trains before the time of cook-chill techniques, tended to be pricey, but was good quality. The service was excellent and the tableware elegant, of a style only achieved these days in luxury trains. I hope the new long-distance trains allow passengers to take their own food to a dining car and buy their drinks/snacks there while socialising at shared tables. The opportunities for socialising are a big plus for train travel. Sometimes, the bonds formed while on shared transport can last beyond the journey, as my story from Venetia shows.