Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2011/19 posted by hidden europe on

There is much talk today about how we live in a new age of the train, and that many journeys around Europe are now much more sensibly undertaken by rail rather than air. Only too true, but such rhetoric does imply that rail travel in Europe was utterly dreadful for an earlier generation of travellers. We have been taking a look at European rail travel 40 years ago.

article summary —

Dear fellow travellers

There is much talk today about how we live in a new age of the train, and that many journeys around Europe are now much more sensibly undertaken by rail rather than air. Only too true, but such rhetoric does imply that rail travel in Europe was utterly dreadful for an earlier generation of travellers. We have been taking a look at European rail travel 40 years ago.

Checked luggage on trains

Cast back to the summer of 1971, and many English travellers bound for the continent could register their baggage right through to their foreign destination. No need to book the baggage transfer in advance. You simply turned up 20 minutes before your train was scheduled to depart, handed over your luggage, and you could travel unencumbered, making changing trains (or transfers to and from cross-Channel steamers) so much easier. Be it Sheffield to Stuttgart or Lincoln to Lucerne, the railways and their associated shipping companies lightened passengers' loads (and kept carriages happily free of cumbersome suitcases) by taking care of the luggage, which was transported in baggage vans on the same trains as the passenger.

Of course rail travel across Europe 40 years ago still had a distinct premium sector with prices to match. Nowadays there is not a single European scheduled train service that carries exclusively first class accommodation, but a quick look at the summer 1971 schedules reveals many such trains. The lunchtime train from Paris to the French Riviera, called Le Mistral, was first class only. The train carried two restaurant cars, a bar, as well as a bookstall and hairdressing salon. Travel time from Paris to Nice was a shade over nine hours; today it is less than six on a modern TGV.

Le Train Bleu

One of several overnight services from Paris to Nice in 1971 was still Le Train Bleu. But in 1971 it was by no means as stylish as it had been in 1924 when Sergei Diaghilev (working in partnership with Coco Chanel, Pablo Picasso and Jean Cocteau) had created an extravagant ballet celebrating this august night train.

Old timetables reveal the travel patterns of yesteryear. The affection of the English for vacations in Yugoslavia is reflected in the summer 1971 schedules, with a number of seasonal direct services from Channel ports direct to Tito's holiday paradise. There were through carriages from Ostend or the Hook to the Dalmatian coast and the Slovenian Alps. Indeed, during summer 1971, British drivers could take their cars on the daytime ferry from Harwich to Hook of Holland, and then load their vehicles directly onto a car train to Ljubljana. By the following afternoon, they could be boating on Lake Bled or driving through the Slovenian mountains.

Lost links

In summer 1971, there were still direct overnight train services from London to the continent, with the sleeping cars conveyed on ferries between Dover and Dunkerque. Across in eastern Europe, a train called the Chaika (which means seagull) provided an excellent daytime link between Tallinn and Vilnius via Riga. Nowadays, north-south links through the Baltic States are woeful. Half a dozen trains each day travelled east from Trieste across the border into Yugoslavia - nowadays not a single train links Trieste with neighbouring Slovenia.

The prevalence of Kurswagen (through carriages, which were switched from one train to another during their journey) created many more direct links than exist today. Thus there were through services from Rome to Belgrade, Copenhagen and Moscow; direct carriages from Paris to Istanbul and Stockholm.

In summer 1971, there was even a daily direct train from Athens to Istanbul. No longer. This summer, not a single international passenger train crosses the borders of Greece.

The Red Arrow

Some things don't change. Forty years ago this month, the Soviet Railways celebrated the 40th anniversary of the launch in June 1931 of the Krasnaya Strela (Red Arrow) premium overnight service from St Petersburg to Moscow. Another 40 years on, and the Red Arrow is still going strong. And it still leaves St Petersburg at five minutes to midnight, just as it has always done.

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

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.