For the 4th year running, I have had the opportunity to participate in the annual youth exchange organised by FEDECRAIL, the European organisation for museum and tourist railways. This is only open to railway workers between the ages of 16 and 25, and there is usually a fairly small group of between 20 and 30 each year. This year we were based in Budapest, Hungary. It had originally been planned to take place in Serbia, but, due to complicated reasons, Hungary was selected to host instead. Normally the youth exchanges take place in multiple locations within a country with participants moving from one location to another throughout the 10 day trip, but unusually this year we stayed in one location for the whole 10 days. Our home for the duration of the trip was a pair of refurbished (and thankfully air conditioned) sleeper carriages from Golden Eagle Luxury Trains’ “Danube Express.” This post is intended to be a detailed report of what we did on the trip, and to show off the many photographs that I took (or, at least, the ones that are safe for publication!). The trip took place between Friday 31/07/2015 and Sunday 09/08/2015.
Day 1 (Friday 31/07/2015)
Day 1 was arrival day, where all the participants from all our various corners of Europe and (for the first time) the United States of America were to gather and meet up, some for the first time. I chose to fly in but many of the participants travelled by train. I had an early flight, 08:15 departure (UK time) from London Luton, meaning an early wake up, but no matter, I’ve had a 4.00 am departure before. The flight went without a hitch and I arrived at Budapest Airport before noon (European time). I met with my contact, who first apologised for her poor English (despite her speaking better English than most English people), and said that we’d have to wait a little longer because the president of Fedecrail was due to arrive shortly. After he arrived we exchanged pleasantries and transferred to our accommodation, which as mentioned earlier was a couple of luxury sleeper coaches in MÁV Nosztalgia’s Rail Historic Park.
Upon arrival we were greeted by the rest of the organising team and given an absolutely delicious lunch of hearty potato and meat stew (I’m not sure what was in it, but it was absolutely fantastic, and just what I needed after the journey). Anyway, after lunch I settled into my room, dropped my stuff off and started to get a bit bored. After all, I was one of the first to arrive, and there wasn’t much to do, so I decided to go and explore the park. On my travels I found various exciting and interesting exhibits including a roundhouse filled with coaches of varying age, a turntable surrounded by retired steam locomotives, and this sign:
Eventually more participants started to arrive and we started talking and trading various foods and sweets that we had brought with us. I brought a box of English Breakfast Tea, a Vimto Squeezy, and a small jar of Marmite. The other English participant brought a box of Cadbury Heroes. So we made small talk and as other people arrived, caught up with each other over the next few hours, then settled in for our first night in Budapest.
Day 2 (Saturday 01/08/2015)
On day 2 we visited the Budapest Children’s Railway, which in my opinion, is one of the greatest things to have come out of the former Soviet Union. The idea of a children’s railway is simple, a railway staffed and operated by children between the ages of 10 and 14, The Budapest Children’s Railway is entirely staffed by children under adult supervision (with the exception of the train driver, who has to be an adult). It was originally constructed in 1947 by the Hungarian State Railway Company (MÁV), to be a railway run by children. The adult staff are all MÁV employees and have additional duties apart from the children’s railway. The line runs for 11.2 km from Széchényi-hegy to Hűvösvölgy through the Buda hills to the west of Budapest, offering unparalleled views of the city of Budapest.
We left the historic park at about 10 am and got the bus into the centre of Budapest, followed by metro M2 and another bus to the base of the Budapest Cog Wheel Railway, a standard gauge rack railway using the Strub Cog Wheel system, and officially designated as tram route 60. The Cog Wheel Railway runs from Városmajor to Széchényi-hegy, almost opposite the station for the Children’s Railway. We traversed the whole length of the line and got off at Széchényi-hegy. We then walked to the Children’s Railway and had a tour of the station. Each station at the Children’s Railway operates on a different signalling system to give the kids as much experience as possible with the different systems. At Széchényi-hegy the station master gets a phone call saying that there is a train approaching, and using their machine selects a platform and sets a route for the train to arrive in. Normally one platform is used, but at busy times a second platform can be used as well. This information is relayed to the signaller’s machine and the signaller sets the signals and the points for the train to arrive.
After our tour of the station we boarded a train and travelled a couple of stations up the line to Virágvölgy station, where we got off and went hiking in the hills to the Elizabeth Lookout tower at the top of one of the hills, giving us beautiful views over the whole city. The Elizabeth Lookout tower (Erzsébet-kilátó in Hungarian) was built in 1911 and was named after Empress Elisabeth, wife of Emperor Franz Joseph I. It was built at the highest point overlooking Budapest. During the Communist days it also hosted a huge red star to remind everyone of their loyalties.
After climbing back down from the tower we hiked through the hills to the chair lift. Constructed in 1970 the line is 1070 metres long with a vertical climb/descent of 262 metres, and a journey time of approximately 15 minutes. After a ride down on the chairlift we did some more hiking to Szépjuhászné station on the Children’s Railway, which uses a fairly modern signalling system with coloured lights, a modern panel, and electrically operated points. We then took the train to the end of the line, where we had a tour of that station and its facilities, and a late lunch in the recreation building next to the camp where the kids are housed during their time at the railway.
After our delicious meal we took a train back along the line to Csillebérc station and walked through the nearby Normafa Park, which has some more fantastic views of Budapest. After a photo opportunity we headed down into the city centre and did some sight seeing of Budapest at night.
Day 3 (Sunday 02/08/2015)
On Day 3 we travelled north to visit the Királyrét Forest Railway, which is a 760mm gauge ex-forestry line running from Kismaros on the shore of the Danube for 11.55 km into the Börzsöny mountains to Királyrét. The line was originally built in 1893 to 600mm gauge to transport wood from the forests down to the Danube and the big railway at Kismaros. It was then rebuilt in 1912 to basically the same alignment as is seen today. It was nationalised in 1945 and continued to operate almost as is until the trackbed was damaged in the spring of 1978 due to a rapid thaw of ice. It was then rebuilt to the 760mm gauge line that we see today. Traffic restarted in 1981. Traffic declined throughout the 1980s and in 1992 the forestry company stopped using the line, effectively closing it to all but tourism traffic, which is what it runs on today. Most days passenger service is diesel hauled but occasionally a steam locomotive comes out to play. On the day that we visited they were running 2 trains, a diesel railcar with a trailer coach, and a traditional locomotive and coaches set.
We took the train up to Királyrét where the line ended and close to the station we found a rail bike course. so naturally as professional railwaymen (and women) we had to have a go! The bikes could take 4 people each, and it was one lap per group, swapping half way. I thought I was being clever by sitting as a passenger for the first half, which was downhill … We swapped at the half way mark and the other passenger and I took the pedals for the way back. It was tiring but great fun! Shortly after we walked off into the hills to do some more hiking, with some of the older organising team staying behind in a nearby cafe. After an enjoyable hike through the hills (and finding a couple of small caves to play around in), we returned back to the station with about an hour or so to spare before our train. Some of the other participants and I went across to the cafe for a refreshing drink and an ice cream. While there the president of Fedecrail told us some of the fascinating stories about his past experiences in Hungary from well before the fall of the wall.
Soon it was time to return to the station, with plenty of time to spare, and like true bored railway people we did what we were absolutely not supposed to do and inspected a short section of the track. Needless to say we were glad that the short section we looked at was a non passenger section on a low speed narrow gauge light railway. But I digress. Our train, which was made up of a diesel locomotive and 3 coaches, soon arrived and we boarded for the trip back down to Kismaros. Some of us had a cheeky cab ride, and at stations we quickly swapped over. I was quite fortunate as the section I cabbed was both the longest and one of the most scenic.
We arrived in Kismaros about an hour later and explored the station. Soon we walked down to the bank of the Danube to find a group accommodation place where we were originally due to spend a couple of nights but for various reasons we couldn’t actually stay there. We did have a delicious meal of spaghetti bolognese though. After the meal it was time to board a mainline train for the half hour journey back to Budapest Nyugati station where we had a quick tour before returning to the historic park for the night.
Day 4 (Monday 03/08/2015)
On day 4 we travelled back north to Visegrád (which is basically just the other side of the Danube to Kismaros). This time we went by bus rather than train which was more convenient because the stop was nearer, but nowhere near as much fun. We then hiked up the mountain to visit Visegrád castle which has an almost 360 view of the surrounding area, with stunning views over the Danube. After spending a couple of hours exploring the castle and taking in the view we walked partially down the hill to Bobpálya Visegrád, which is not one, but two alpine slide/bob sled tracks. One was an older, traditional one with basic sleds, and the other a more modern advanced one with roller coaster like cars. I preferred the more modern roller coaster style cars which couldn’t come off the track and had a seatbelt to the traditional style sleds. Unfortunately I didn’t take any photos of the sled course as I was too busy enjoying myself. We had a late lunch there as well at about 3pm.
Soon it was time for the long downhill trek back to the bus stop to head back into Budapest for some more sight seeing in the city. When we got back we travelled the almost brand new Metro line M4 with its unique and modern stations and we had a boat ride along the Danube on one of BKV’s river boat services (similar to the Thames clippers in London, but with more stops), after which we returned to the Historic Park for an early night. Day 5 was to be our first working day.
Day 5 (Tuesday 04/08/2015)
As mentioned earlier Day 5 was a working day. Our task was to strip one of the coaches at the Rail Historic Park. The coach we were working on was half saloon and half sleeper, constructed in 1968 by VEB Wagonbau Bautzen DDR, in East Germany. When it was built it was a full sleeper, but in 1998 it was converted into a saloon, and has since gone on to be used in the Royal Hungarian Express, and now on Golden Eagle Luxury Trains’ Danube express running between Budapest and Istanbul. The coach itself has a saloon (called “The Golden Saloon”) with a bar serving food and drinks and 6 sleeping compartments, which are arranged in pairs and can comfortably sleep up to 3 people individually or up to 6 people when combined. We worked for the whole day up until 4:30PM when we got changed and went by local bus to Aquaworld Resort and Spa with its world renowned water park to relax for the evening. Unfortunately on Day 5 I did not take any photographs of either the work or the spa.
Day 6 (Wednesday 05/08/2015)
On Day 6, thankfully we were allowed to have a lie in and get up a bit later than we had been earlier in the week. This was because we were going to visit Lake Balaton, the largest lake in Central Europe, and one of the region’s most popular tourist destinations. But first we had to do some railway stuff, so we had a tour of Budapest-Déli station, including a trip to the stationmaster’s office, and the adjacent signal box.
Budapest-Déli is one of the three main terminal stations in Budapest (the other two being Keleti and Nyugati), serving the southern suburbs of Budapest and with international, intercity and regional services going further afield. There have been mutterings about closing Déli station and diverting trains into either Keleti or Nyugati, but aside from the building being a bit ugly there is no real practical purpose to closing and demolishing it. But I digress. After having a look at the office we walked around the corner to the signal box and had a tour there, discovering that the levers here are much heavier than at the Children’s Railway!
After visiting the signal box we boarded a train to Balatonföldvár for Lake Balaton. We spent the rest of the morning either swimming in the lake, sunbathing or just relaxing with some ice cream, and we had a delicious lunch of Lángos, a traditional Hungarian flatbread, made with garlic, deep fried and traditionally served with sour cream and cheese. In the afternoon we went back into the lake or did some more sunbathing, and before long we found a kiosk that sold beer and a couple of other participants and I enjoyed a local Hungarian beer.
Soon it was time to return back to Budapest and we spent the evening doing some more sightseeing in District 1, the old part of Budapest, where Buda Castle and the administrative area are. The views from up there were staggering and a sight to behold. But after some time spent admiring the view and exploring District 1, it was time to head back home to the historic park, on a fairly uneventful bus and tram journey across the city.
Day 7 (Thursday 06/08/2015)
Day 7, a working day, and one of the best work activities I’ve done for Fedecrail. We were working at the Children’s Railway, all day. We had a choice of either of two work activities, changing sleepers in the yard, or working on the line with the kids, and seeing how they run the line. As a guard at my home railway I chose to work on the line. In the morning we travelled to Hűvösvölgy where we had a safety briefing and those of us who chose to work on the line were put into teams and split between stations and trains, My team were put at the end station Széchényi-hegy for the morning, where we assisted the kids with everything from making English announcements (for the English tourists), to operating the signals and greeting and dispatching trains. After a two course lunch of soup, followed by turkey and potatoes, we swapped with one of the on train teams and spent the afternoon travelling and assisting the conductors, and even got a cheeky cab ride for half the line. When we got back to Hűvösvölgy, and the train yard the group who were changing the sleepers weren’t exactly thrilled to see us. I only have one publishable photograph of them and that was taken from a distance before they realised we were back. They did incredibly well having changed several sleepers in extremely hot and humid conditions.
We rested in the train yard for a while and exchanged pleasantries (and insults). After a few minutes the organisers had unexpectedly brought over a wheelbarrow full of ice cold beer for us to enjoy. We had a drink, discussed our days and went to the Railway’s cafeteria for one of the best Spaghetti Carbonaras I have ever had. After the meal we had a choice of either visiting a nearby cave, or heading back to the historic park for an early night. We were going to be getting up early the next morning to finish off work on the coach we started on Day 5. I chose to visit the cave. It had been so hot during the day that a cold cave sounded like heaven. We then said farewell to the group that were heading back (which perhaps unsurprisingly were mostly from the sleeper gang), and hopped onto a bus to the Pálvölgyi cave system.
The Pálvölgyi cave is part of the 3rd largest cave system in Hungary, and is the largest in the Buda Hills. Inside the temperature is a constant 10 degrees C, and the humidity is 94%. Bliss! The cave is rich in dripstones and was discovered in 1904 during stone excavations. We spent a good hour or so having a guided tour and by the end of it had got quite well acclimatised to the cold. There were several interesting shaped rock formations (yes there were some rude ones as well before you ask), and many tight passages. Upon exiting the cave, I and a few other participants found that our glasses had steamed up! We laughed and jumped on a bus to go home. It was to be an early start the next morning.
Day 8 (Friday 07/08/2015)
A whole week had passed since our arrival. It certainly did not feel like it. It seemed like just the day before that we had all met up for the first time, after falling off an aeroplane and rolling into the Historic Park. On the morning of Day 8 we worked to finish stripping the coach that we were working on and as well as working inside, our attention turned to the outside as well. We had to remove some of the old rubber seals around the window frames as they had started to rot away. We started at 7AM to try to get as much done before the heat got too oppressive. Work progressed quickly, we didn’t want to be doing physical work in a sauna all day! By lunch time we had pretty well completed all we were asked to do so we sat down for a traditional two course lunch of Alphabetti Spaghetti (yaaay), followed by a choice of either chicken and rice or pork and potatoes, I chose the latter.
After lunch we travelled by various buses through the suburbs of Budapest (avoiding the city centre for some odd reason) to visit the Knorr-Bremse brake factory in the south of Budapest. Photography is strictly forbidden inside the facility, and I can’t say everything we were told/shown. The facility is an ultra modern factory producing and refurbishing braking systems and components for various railways throughout the world. I saw containers labelled for London Underground, Siemens, Bombardier, MÁV, DB and many, many others! After the factory tour we headed back home via the city centre. We took Suburban Railway Line H6 from a station just by the factory to its terminus, where we changed to Tram Route 2 and rode it all the way along the full length of the line, where we got on a combination of trams and trolleybuses and visited the WestEnd City Center Shopping Mall, the largest shopping mall in Central Europe with over 300 shops spread over 3 floors, and a 4th floor with a multiplex cinema on it. Opened in 1999, this shopping centre literally has everything in its 50,000m² floorspace, including the kitchen sink! After spending a couple of hours there we headed home for some well earned rest and some fantastic goulash, courtesy of one of the organisers who skipped the factory tour specifically to make it. When we got back we were greeted by one of the vice presidents of Fedecrail, who traditionally comes for the last couple of days to see what we’ve been doing, participate for a day and make speeches at the formal dinner on the Saturday.
Day 9 (Saturday 08/08/2015)
Day 9, our last full day in Budapest. All our work was completed, all that was left to do now was finish our holiday! We travelled to a small town on the outskirts of Budapest called Szentendre, where we visited a small museum for the trams and suburban trains of Budapest, The museum is housed in a former depot vacated during the modernisation of the suburban railway during the 1990s, and houses a collection of trams, buses and suburban trains from throughout the history of the rail network in the Budapest area.
After the museum visit we gently strolled over to the bank of the Danube for some relaxation time, and to have something to eat. After spending some time relaxing we explored the town centre for a bit and bought souvenirs to take home. I was looking for Bulls Blood wine, one of Hungary’s finest wines, but others were being more traditional tourists and getting real souvenirs. After we bought our souvenirs, we headed into the city centre to visit Margaret Island, an island in the Danube which is entirely car free and is mainly parkland. There we found a fountain that synchronised jets of water to music. I had hoped to film a song, but we got there at just the wrong time and I missed the last one. While on Margaret Island we tried out some bicycles from the Budapest Cycle hire scheme, similar to the Boris bikes in London, but green.
Almost too soon it was time to head back to the Historic Park for the final formal dinner and party. Upon arrival we cleaned ourselves up and got changed into our formal clothes or railway uniforms, ready for a high class dinner in one of the elegant Danube Express dining coaches, and despite wearing a shirt and tie, I felt a little under dressed for the occasion! Despite this the meal was excellent, and we had a 3 course buffet style dinner with speeches afterwards from the organising team, the vice president of Fedecrail, and one from our guest from the other side of the Atlantic, who loved every minute of the trip and seemed to spend the whole time in awe of the surroundings.
After the meal was finished, we transferred to a different coach. MÁV Nosztalgia has, based at the Historic Park, and painted in the same livery as the Danube Express, a real disco carriage! Complete with a bar, a dance floor, a stage and a lighting system. We partied right into the small hours of the next morning, not caring that some of us had early trains or flights home. The party was so intense at some points that the whole coach shook, and if it had been moving it would have derailed almost instantly! The only problem with the disco coach was that there was no air conditioning, but we really didn’t care. We were going home the next day!
Day 10 (Sunday 09/08/2015)
Day 10. Home time. I took no photos at all on day 10. The morning after the night before as they say. That’s not to say I was hungover – I wasn’t. But several others were. We all parted company at different times, with some going off on early trains, some catching early flights, and some going into Budapest city centre for the day while waiting for their flights. A couple of other participants and I left at 09:15 for lunchtime flights. When we left there was still a hungover participant in their room, trying to forget about (or should that be remember?) the night before. My flight left at 12:20, and at 12:27 flew over the Rail Historic Park. I wondered if there was anyone still there, and if there were, did they look up and see me wave goodbye to them?
To conclude this post, which is the longest post I have made so far on this blog (and will probably make for quite some time), I want to thank MÁV Nosztalgia for offering us a place to stay. I want to thank the organising team for putting together one of the best, if not the best Fedecrail youth exchange I have had the honour of going to. I would like to thank the whole of Fedecrail for organising the annual event. I would like to thank the Leighton Buzzard Narrow Gauge Railway Society (who I volunteer for in my spare time) for giving me the opportunity to go on these extraordinary trips. But most of all, I would like to thank you, for taking the time to read this and hopefully, if you don’t already do so, consider donating some of your spare time and skills to one of the hundreds, if not thousands of museum and tourist railways throughout Europe and in fact, the whole world. No matter how unskilled you think you are, you will be welcomed with open arms, you will meet some fantastic people, be a part of a family much bigger than you can possibly imagine, and most importantly have the chance and opportunity to develop skills that will stay with you forever. Go on, what’s the worst that could happen?
All the photos from the trip (including the ones above) can be found below in chronological order of when they were taken.