Last March, in hidden europe 1, we surveyed the growth of European budget airlines, and noted the expansion of discount carriers' networks into eastern Europe. While air travel has acted as a considerable force for European integration, what can be said of the trains?.
In this issue of hidden europe, we unravel a little known tale of how, although rail passengers numbers have grown overall, many of the regular train services that connected eastern and western Europe in the cold war years have disappeared. But there are one or two quirky survivors.
I can remember making a dash down the Karl Johans Gate, which then, as now, deteriorates into an unhappy mixture of burger bars and drop outs as it runs down to the train station. It was sometime in the mid eighties, before the days when eastern Europe's governments began to topple, and when, despite the ripples of perestroika from Moscow, it still looked for all the world as though the iron curtain was there to stay.
An awkward moment negotiating a route between the slowly moving buses, a quick sprint across the windy Jernbanetorget, and with no more than a millisecond to spare, I somehow made it onto the train. This was a regular Thursday morning trip, and on the face of it an inconsequential journey from the Norwegian capital to Göteborg in Sweden. It is a pleasant enough ride, a little less than five hours, and one I knew well. The train runs down the east side of Oslofjord, sweeping through sleepy little waterfront hamlets. There were stops in fortified Fredrikstad, with its geometric street plan, at Trollhättan, with its waterfalls and rapids, and at half a dozen other points besides.
But what caught my attention on that particular June day were not the sights outside the windows, but the train itself. As we rolled out of Oslo's Sentralstasjon and turned south through the suburbs, I made my way through the train to the seat I had reserved. And here was the surprise. For the train was composed partly of Russian railway carriages. Already the provodnitsa was busying herself preparing chai for her passengers, but it was clear that my second class ticket to Göteborg carried no entitlement to linger in this exotic realm. So I was ushered on, past the samovar at the end of the corridor and on to my rightful place in the more prosaic Swedish carriages that formed the bulk of the train. But that momentary encounter with another world, where chintz curtains hung at the windows, set me wondering.