Dear fellow travellers
You could easily miss Elton. The train from Dublin to Cork speeds past Elton. You hardly catch a glimpse of the cluster of houses that make up this little Irish village. When the grandly titled Great Southern and Western Railway built a line through the district in 1849, they judged Knocklong, just a couple of minutes up the line from Elton, as deserving of a station. So Elton, a little smaller than Knocklong, lost out.
Folk in Elton probably couldn't resist a smile in 1977, when company accountants in distant Dublin decreed that it was no longer economic for trains to pause in Knocklong. Nowadays the trains from Dublin to Cork zip through County Limerick without stopping once on their journey through the county. Some of the old station buildings at Knocklong remain, one bearing a plaque that recalls a dramatic moment in 1919. During the Irish War of Independence, IRA sympathisers rescued volunteer Sean Hogan, who was being escorted under arrest by British soldiers on a train that stopped at Knocklong station. Dramatic things like that never happened in Elton which has forever remained the little community by the railway line that was never judged worthy of having a railway station. Elton is a quiet spot, hardly a place for a daring ambush. Just a fleck on the map on the edge of Europe.
You could easily miss Elton. The main line north from Astrakhan to Saratov passes through Elton. At least it has a railway station - better than its Irish namesake. Elton is six hours north of Astrakhan and most trains on the route stop here briefly. But six hours is a long time in these dry and dusty flatlands. And long before the train reaches Elton, most of the travellers on board have taken to their bunks and pulled down the blinds. Like so many train journeys in Russia, passengers retreat into the world of the train and what passes beyond the window is supremely irrelevant.
But this journey is not only in Russia, for the railway that heads north from the Volga across the arid plains criss-crosses the border with Kazakhstan. Four times this railway crosses the border within a two hour stretch, and Elton finds itself curiously positioned on a stretch of line where the railway dips back into Russia between two diversions into Kazakhstan. This makes Elton a minor bureaucratic hub, with the police and customs living undemanding lives in this odd little town. "Watching the border," they say, though there is not really a lot to watch. Just the railway lines and telegraph poles heading north across the Kazakh border - and the tracks and poles marching off south across the saline steppes towards the Kazakh border.
The station itself is neat, blue and white stonework edging the railway platform. The modest station building is a nice essay in simple neo-classical design, painted in white and two tones of blue. Elton is hardly the spot where anything very exciting ever takes place. Just a fleck on the map on the edge of Europe.
Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)