Friday, December 07, 2007

Train travel in Romania

You may be wondering why, after a short silence, I posted two things yesterday within about ten minutes of each other. This is because I was stuck on the train journey from hell, and had lots of time to write blog posts. Bucharest to Miercurea Ciuc is approximately 250kms. Yesterday by train it took me 12 hours from getting on a train in Bucharest's Gara de Nord to stepping off the train in Csikszereda station. That's not terribly fast. I am a pretty even tempered person, but towards the end of this marathon I felt like I was about to explode (not helped by the fact that the train I was on was like an oven, and nobody would let me open a window since the biggest fear of any Romanian is that of drafts. If a future president wants to whip up support for an invasion of Moldova or somewhere, he or she would only need to imply that the government of that country were planning on exposing Romanians to cold drafts of air, perhaps by installing fans on the border. Forget WMDs.

Anyway some tips about travelling on trains in Romania

Different train types: There are a number of different types of trains in Romania. The lowest level is the "P" which stands (amusingly) for "personal" These trains are old, rickety, and stop everywhere - even in the middle of fields in the middle of nowhere. Above this are the trains marked "A" on the timetable - Accelerat. Slightly faster than Personals (they only stop at every second hut), they actually appear to be dying out to be replaced by ever increasing number of "R" trains - Rapid. These trains are often actually very new and modern stock. Clean, fast-ish, and with fully functional heating/air conditioning, many people will rave about the "blue arrow" for example, as being the evidence that Romania (and the CFR) has entered the 21st century. You should be careful though - these modern trains have absolutely no leg room and have obviously been designed for amputees or 4-year old children. Anyone taller than 5 foot/1.5 metres will find their journey to be painfully uncomfortable. On arrival you will need at lest 20 minutes of exercises in order to be able to fully uncurl your body. The Personal trains, despite other drawbacks are much more comfortable. Finally there is the Intercity "IC" trains, which combine the best bits of the rapids (fast, clean, functioning systems) with the advantages of the personals (legroom and comfortable seats). Sadly there are very few such trains, and there is a corresponding price hike for such things.

Heating on trains: You will quickly become aware that in winter the trains are seriously overheated (and in summer they're just hot anyway). The heating is cranked up to the max (actually that implies that there are settings beyond "on" and "off" which I suspect there aren't), and you will sweat buckets. You will of course want to open a window. This will either prove impossible (since most of them apparently don't open) or will create huge problems (as everyone will complain). Romanians hate cold air, or drafts of any kind. Take a look at old people in the winter and you will often note that they have cotton wool in their ears as a further barrier to the evils of drafts (or of hearing anything). Opening a train window is like standing up in the carriage and saying that you a paedophile. Erika tells me that this is because people were cold and shivering for so many years under Ceausescu that they cannot forget and would rather swelter in stinking trains than be reminded of that time by feeling a breath of air. Which actually seems quite logical, although even young people who cannot possibly remember that time do it too.

(By the way, on our summer holidays I worked out what the British equivalent to the fear of cold is - it's the fear of too much sun. While I was panicking around Paula, making she had sunscreen on and trying to keep her in the shade for a while so she didn't get sunstroke, everybody else was relaxing without a care. If I dared to take her out without a hat in a temperature of 15 degrees though, I'd be lynched on the street by concerned mothers. I can safely say though that the British fear of sun is not brought about by too much of it)

Getting up when it is your stop: You will notice that people stand up and put their coats on and take their luggage to the door of the train about 10 or 15 minutes prior to the arrival of the train in their station. I have no idea why, but rest assured you do not need to do the same. If people want to stand by the door, with their coats on (in the sauna like conditions) that's their business.

Platform/Train incompatibility: You will often notice that the vertical distance between the train and the platform (if there is a platform at all) is quite large, and will necessitate some climbing skills to get in, and an abseiling rope to get out. On Wednesday when I arrived in Bucharest this was reversed and we had to climb up out of the train. Here you can endear yourself to people by offering assistance. The elderly in particular will need to have some aid in getting up and down.

Tickets: I've noticed recently that people seem more and more to be buying tickets and not "discreetly" slipping the ticket inspector a small bribe instead. I don't know whether there's been some kind of crackdown. For Rapid and Intercity trains you will need to have a seat reservation.

Dangers: I'm told that theft is quite common on trains, and you have to be alert. I have to say I've never actually experienced this, but I'm told it's true, so take this with whatever pinch of salt you need. Sitting near the door of the train, with your bags on the luggage rack is reckoned to be the biggest danger - the thieves get on, grab your bag and jump off just as the train sets off.

Other annoyances: Trains stop for no apparent reason in the middle of nowhere for ages, and you never get any info. This is often because much of the network is single track only, and there are certain places where trains pass each other. If you are on time and the train coming the other way is late, you have to wait until it comes. Thus creating a knock on effect around the system. In this way, trains are very often late. Personal trains are particularly susceptible to this since the thinking appears to be that if you are happy to take a personal you are happy to sit around for ever in a field somewhere.

Remember, despite how I felt last night at about 10pm when I had been travelling for 11 hours, CFR does not actually stand for Complete Fucking Rubbish.


Emil Perhinschi said...

"Bucharest to Miercurea Ciuc is approximately 250kms"

... in a straight line, probably; on the railway there must be a lot more, since it has to cross the mountains ... there are 436 km from Bucharest to Suceava, and it takes only 7 hours to get there, but there are no Transylvanian Alps to cross.

The seats on the R trains are indeed horrible ... I wish the designer would live until 140 years old, be incontinent for the last 80 years of his or her life, and suffer from sciatics for the last 90 years, to compensate for the pain his/her work caused.

Andy H said...

No it's not much more than that Emil. The railway follows the road pretty much all the way, especially up and over the moutains through Predeal and Sinaia, and I know the distance by road from M-C to Otopeni airport is more or less exactly 250km. It can be no more than 300km to Gara de Nord by rail, and I'm guessing less than that.

Andy H said...

Oh, and just so I'm clear, if you get a direct train (though there are precious few of those) it takes no more than 5 hours. It's just that yesterday we got stuck in snow-induced electrical failure in Predeal, arriving at Brasov 3 hours late, hence missing all my good connections and having to stay there for three hours before hopping on a personal that took three hours (an hour longer than stated) to get to Ciuc.

Emil Perhinschi said...

looks like you're right: 260 km, 4h45m normal journey time ...

"If a future president wants to whip up support for an invasion of Moldova or somewhere, he or she would only need to imply that the government of that country were planning on exposing Romanians to cold drafts of air, perhaps by installing fans on the border."

you managed a very political joke here ... if you understand Rumanian, try this Legamant01 for a Moldavian version ... fans are mentioned :P

GadjoDilo said...

Sorry to hear of your crap journey, Andy. By way of balance, though, I think I've never been on a CFR train that was significantly late in all the time (a year) that I've lived in Romania. CFF ( can be a little more uncertain, but the scenery compensates!

Tinshed said...

I know this doesn't help, and I really don't want to sound unempathic, but one alternative to your nightmare is a bland, anodyne journey on an air-conditioned train where your journey takes place in comfort and for a reasonable cost. This will happen in 5, 15, 25 years or whenever and then we all yearn for the good old days when travel had an air of mystery, discomfort and adventure. Sigh, I must be getting old. Nonetheless the "romance" of your journey, and I use that word advisedly, will become apparent as globalisation/blandness reaches even the Romania. But, even so, it sounds like a crap journey and I'm glad, mostly, that it was you, not me, that had that journey.

GadjoDilo said...

Yeah, maybe. Kinda crucially, though, it's also going to get more expensive. Which is a crapness that most people here can really do without.

Andy H said...

GD: Actually I hadn't had any form of negative train travel experience until last week. The occasional discomfort, but no real lateness problems.

Tinshed: I actually think that the "Rapid" trains are a sign of this boring (uncomfortable) rail ahead. While the slow old outdated "personal" trains can be a pain, at least they do have a level of comfort (seat wise anyway - if not in terms of the heating system). The last one I was in on the journey in question had an old poser for the Orient Express on it - advertising London to Baghdad in 8 days, which was kind of cool.

LucyRM said...

Szia Andy,
Hungarians are terrified of draughts too. You can start a huge fight in August by opening a window on the crowded, claustrophobic, airless No. 7 bus and watching somebody immediately fly over seats, people, grannies, babies etc to slam it shut with a terrifying glare and herrumph. 'Huzat van' is a common whine, even in the height of summer.
Incidentally, I was writing about snacks and googled kurtos kalacs, your blog post from Jan 2006 was one of the first answers, so you are an authority!

That Girl Who Shall No Longer Be Named said...

Thanks you, sir, for the most comprehensive description of trains in Romania I have found. You make me feel more better about buying the cheapest ticket for a 15 hour train ride on an A train.

Luckily, you also happen to be the first google ping, after some thoughtful searches.

I live in Moldova for the moment, and your description of the cultural attitudes towards the current is spot on. Anytime we (non-moldovans) try to open the windows we're accused of trying to kill babies.

Anyway, thanks for the info.

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