Tuesday, May 24, 2005

 

They're taking all the fun out of trains

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DSCN0635

I've always loved train travel. Although train service is pretty pathetic in the U.S. outside the Northeast Corridor, I take trains whenever I feasibly can. Unlike U.S. air travel, U.S. train travel allows you to buy a ticket ten minutes before the train pulls away, no reservations needed, and you need not even commit to a particular train. If I'm traveling anywhere between Washington D.C. and Boston I will always take a train rather than fly.

At one time, train travel in Europe was even more charming. Those intimate six-seat compartments. Couchettes. When I was 22 traveling with my best friend in Scandinavia, the bunks of the couchette were pulled out at night and the young Swedish woman we'd been chatting up asked us if we'd be offended if she took her clothes off. I think my friend and I both wanted to say casually, "no problem," but instead we may have sort of blurted it out.

All that has changed. In Europe, train travel and air travel are almost exactly the reverse of what they are in the U.S. Europe now offers cheap quick flights. Airline tickets are easy to get.

In contrast, European trains are expensive, more expensive than air travel on many routes. You need to make reservations way in advance, through a cumbersome and confusing process in which you buy the reservation as a separate document from a ticket.

In fact, B and I had booked train tickets: night train with private sleeping compartment, Krakow to Prague. A couple of days in Prague. Then another train from Prague to Berlin. Cost: around $200 per person.

DSCN0664
Europe's vanishing six-person compartments, aboard the Warsaw-Krawkow express. Our compartment mates scented our compartment by taking out, in succession, cigarettes, perfume, a flask of vodka, and a cat.
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We got these tickets thinking the trains would be charming. But European trains have lost some of that charm. To begin with, most Western European trains have abandoned the old-style six-person compartments in favor of Amtrak-type airplane-cabin seating -- pairs of seats on either side of the central aisle facing forward.

Then, most west European trains are now high speed, racing through the landscape at such a velocity that objects closer than the horizon appear in a blur.

The last straw for charm-removal, however, began to come into focus when Nina's sister in Warsaw informed us a few days ago that there was a not insubstantial chance that we would be robbed on the Krakow-Prague night train.

She regaled us with stories of travelers whose pockets were slashed open, after they had gone to sleep.

"Well," I said, "we're going to be in our own sleeping compartment. I'm guessing those people were just sleeping in their seats. We can lock our door."

To be sure, she replied, some of them were in second class seats, but in fact there were several incidents of robbers breaking into locked sleeping compartments.

"Well," B said, "we'll just have to take turns and sleep in shifts."

Yes, we could try that, said Nina’s sister, but in fact the robbers spray cloroform through the grating or the keyhold in the door and put people to sleep that way, then break in, then slash pockets, straps etc.

“But it doesn’t happen to everyone, of course,” she added reassuringly. “The percentages are probably in your favor.”

The conversation shifted to why it took the night train over eight hours to make the 300 kilometer journey. Probably lots of stops, we speculated. Probably to let the robbers on and off, I thought.

We were shaken, but not stirred by this. Rallying around our motto (“No fear!”) we decided to stick to the plan, even after we read in our Let’s Go Eastern Europe guidebook that “Let’s Go does not recommend traveling on night trains between Krakow and Prague.”

No, for me the last straw was hearing the young American behind us telling his travel companion about “this girl I know” who was robbed while she slept. “The robbers lifted her shirt and cut off her money belt. I hear they put gas through the door to make sure you’re unconscious.”

Anesthesia or no, the idea of robbers – even well intentioned ones – applying a sharp knife to my clothing on a moving train takes the charm out of the overnight train. Even if the percentages are with us. The idea is good enough for a sleepless night.

This morning, I went online in my internet cafe and in 15 minutes was the proud owner of two one-way tickets, Krakow-Berlin, non-stop. Cost: $80 each. I could have left tomorrow if I'd wanted.

Comments:
Smart choice!
 
i think the chloroform thing is a bit of an urban myth. here is something more common: Organized groups of thieves and pickpockets operate at major tourist destinations, in train stations, and on trains, trams, and buses in major cities. Thefts have occurred on overnight trains. Most pickpocketing on trains occurs during boarding; in the most common scenario, a group of well-dressed young men will surround a passenger in the narrow aisle of the train, jostling/pickpocketing him or her as they supposedly attempt to get around the passenger. (State Dept.)
 
Take the bus from Krakow to Prague--(during the day rather than overnight). It's cheaper and faster.
 
I don't know what the current situation is, but this actually did happen to James "The Amazing" Randi a few years ago. However, I think it was in Germany or Austria. He recounted the incident on one of his (now discontinued) webcasts.
 
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