Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2012/39 posted by hidden europe on

Europe's railway geography was reshaped last night. New timetables kicked in, bringing a host of novel travel options. Newly-built rail routes opened in Holland and Austria. A new high-speed service now links Amsterdam and Brussels. And northern Sweden edged a little closer to Stockholm with the launch of direct fast daytime trains from Umea to the Swedish capital. Yet it is easy for rail operators to shout about new routes. These are the good news stories that everyone wants to hear. But what of the trains that are being axed, and the lines where trains are being shunted into sidings and left to rust for ever?

article summary —

Dear fellow travellers

Europe's railway geography was reshaped last night. New timetables kicked in, bringing a host of novel travel options. Newly-built rail routes opened in Holland and Austria. A new high-speed service now links Amsterdam and Brussels. And northern Sweden edged a little closer to Stockholm with the launch of direct fast daytime trains from Umea to the Swedish capital.

The London Underground map, an iconic representation of railway topology, was embellished a little by the opening of a new route through south London that is in truth not an underground line at all, but actually part of the London Overground - a generally above-ground network that as of this morning allows Londoners to devise some new orbits around their home city along routes that recall the Outer Circle lines of Victorian London.

It is easy for rail operators to shout about new routes. These are the good news stories that everyone wants to hear. But what of the trains that are being axed, and the lines where trains are being shunted into sidings and left to rust for ever? Late last night, some railway stations which had served communities for a century or more were barred and shuttered for good.

This weekend saw the cruellest cuts in the north Balkan region. Yesterday, it was relatively easy to cross the frontier from Hungary to Croatia by train. Less so this morning as many cross-border services were cut from the new timetables. Schedules from Croatia to Serbia and Bosnia are savagely pruned. One victim is a train service that started just three years ago this week. When the rail link from Sarajevo to Belgrade re-opened in 2009, it made world news. The re-introduction of the daily train was seen as a symbol of a new spirit in the Balkan region. Here was a service that set off from Bosnia late morning, traversed Croatia during the afternoon, and deposited its passengers in the capital of Serbia in time for supper.

Sounds good? The train was in fact not quite as romantic as it sounds. It used ancient carriages, and though when it first started it was possible to get a coffee on the train, that convenience was quickly scrapped. So luncheon on board was perforce a do-it-yourself affair. In our experience, the train had just three carriages. In the middle of the sandwich lay Serbia, with a Bosnian carriage on either side. Each of those two Bosnian carriages was provided by a different Bosnian entity. The blue-and-yellow carriage represented the Muslim-Croat Federation. The silver carriage represented the Serb portion of Bosnia-Herzegovina. So, for three years, this train has trundled through the Balkans, reminding all who saw it that Bosnia is still a divided country.

Even in late 2011, there were plans to introduce smart new Spanish rolling stock onto the route. Press releases from Bosnia announced that chic style would prevail with Talgo trains serving the routes from Sarajevo to both Belgrade to Budapest. The trains never came. And now the peace train to Belgrade has been scrapped. And, just for the record, the service to Budapest also slips quietly from the schedules this weekend. Too bad! The region deserves better.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

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This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.