Traumatic Train Tales - CycleBlaze

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Traumatic Train Tales

Scott Anderson

I’ve been enjoying following Betsy Evans on her current tour of Sardinia and Puglia, but I really enjoyed her latest post describing her travel by train from Rome to Puglia.  It quickly brought to mind a number of traumatic or nerve-racking train experiences we’ve suffered through over the years.  With many awful candidates to choose from, I still think our first prize for worst train journey goes to the time almost twenty-five years ago that we got thrown off the train at the Polish-Czech border trying to get from Krakow to Vienna.  

We were on this train thanks to the assistance of a mysterious man who approached us at the Krakow station the night before and offered us a room in his pension for the night for a reasonable price.  It was late in what had been a long and stressful day, one we had not expected to end in Krakow - returning there and taking a train to Vienna was a last minute decision when we decided the roads further south at the Slovakian border were too dangerous so we scrapped our plan to bike to Austria by way of Slovakia and eastern Hungary.

We were glad to have our lodging problem solved so easily, but we were really appreciative of his help in the complicated problem of ticketing ourselves and the bikes to Vienna.  A sophisticated man fluent in multiple languages who claimed a background in engineering with work experience in Chicago, East Germany and the Ukraine, he was just the savior we needed.

Later, when we realized we’d been ticketed to Vienna but our bikes were only ticketed to the border and bikes weren’t allowed on the train beyond that, we came to believe that he knew this but didn’t say so, wanting to keep our business for his pension.   I’ve always suspected he was ex-KGB.

So that’s our best worst train story (or mine at least - with good cause, Rachael might put our journey from Venice to Florence in first place).  What’s yours?

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7 months ago
Graham SmithTo Scott Anderson

Scott in 1989 my wife and I cycle toured / island hopped from Turkey to England. When we arrived by ferry in Dubrovnik, we decided to store our bikes for a couple of weeks, and use trains and buses to do a side trip to Austria. All good until we tried to re-cross the Austrian-Yugoslav border by train to return to Dubrovnik.

Border guards looked grimly at our passports in the dim light, took us off the two-carriage train at night and put us in the backseat of police car and a very serious cop drove us quite a way to a police station. No explanation.

This was during the time when the Berlin Wall was about to fall, and the tension which resulted in the Balkan War was palpable. There were a lot of grim people around.

We eventually realised that the visa we’d be given in Dubrovnik was a single entry visa. Thankfully the unsmiling officials at the remote cop shop did whatever they needed to do, and then the cop took us back to the train which was still waiting.

After a quick search of our panniers (hand luggage) we were on our way back to Dubrovnik and our bikes.

 A couple of other passengers who were taken off, and put in another cop car didn’t return.

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7 months ago
Scott AndersonTo Graham Smith

Traumatic, alright!  This must have been a crossing into what’s now Slovenia, as Yugoslavia didn’t start breaking up until 1991.  Amazing that they held the train until you returned!

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7 months ago
Graham SmithTo Scott Anderson

Scott it so happens that I’m in Wellington NZ waiting for two cycle touring friends to arrive from Australia this evening. Tomorrow morning we’ll be rolling our bikes onto The Northern Explorer train to Ohakune to begin a ten-day tour of the central east part of The North Island, then catch a return train back to Wellington. 

I’m anticipating far less train drama than in Europe 34 years ago. And 39 years on the subcontinent.

My absolute worst train experience (no bikes involved though) was in northern India in 1984 with two friends. One friend was so sick with amoebic dysentery that the train conductor declared him dead, and tried to throw us off the train because in his words, “I don’t want any dead bodies oo my train”.  

We had to barricade ourselves in the carriage compartment overnight until the train arrived in Varanassi and we were able to get medical help and a flight home.

The declaration of my friend’s death by the panicked conductor was grossly exaggerated. Sure my friend had a bluish tinge, and was barely conscious, but he bounced back once we were able to get some fluid into him.

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7 months ago
Lyle McLeodTo Graham Smith

Graham,

You can declare victory. 

This thread may come to a short and glorious end, but we’ll all raise a toast to your friend.

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7 months ago
Graham SmithTo Lyle McLeod

Lyle the good news is that old mate, declared dead by that pessimistic India Rail conductor, is still alive and cycling. He’s well into his 70s now.
He and I are part of informal recreational ride group, The Friday Peloton. 

We seek out low risk coffee shops to ride to on Friday mornings. 

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7 months ago
Andrea BrownTo Graham Smith

I was going to recount some  harrowing tales from Burmese trains (or at least hilarious ones) but yours takes the cake. The lesson I'm going to take away is that if an Indian train (conductor) doesn't kill you, you only grow stronger. Long may your pal ride the peloton of champions.

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7 months ago
Gregory GarceauTo Scott Anderson

I've never ridden a train in the middle of a bike tour, but I have taken trains to begin or end them a few times.  The worst of those trips might have also been the best one.  I had just completed my tour from Seattle to MY Town in Minnesota, but I still had to go back to my in-law's house to pick up The Feeshko, Diggity, and our car.  Instead of flying, I thought it might be fun to try Amtrak.

I wrote about that return trip on my original Blogspot journal.  I dropped it when I re-published it first on Crazyguy and then on Cycleblaze.  (How many people can say they've posted a bike touring journal on three different websites?)  Luckily, I still have my notes about that train trip so I can share my experience on this forum topic.  It was a few pages long so, for forum purposes, I'm going to condense it down to a few bullet points.   

 THE BAD:

  • The train arrived more than an hour late into the station in St. Paul and didn't depart until well after midnight.
  • The train was a cold and uncomfortable place to try to sleep.  True, the seats reclined and were large but, for me, the movement was too much.  So were the people around me.  Some were snoring, some were talking loudly, and some were already drunk.
  • Somewhere in northern Minnesota, the train came to a complete stop . . . for about an hour.  No announcement was made as to the reason.  We were already far behind schedule, so I was pissed. 
  • I bought a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale at the little store on the bottom level of the train.  It cost a mind-bending $7.00.  Later, I paid $2.00 for the third worst cup of coffee I could ever remember tasting.
  • I still hadn't slept when the sun started rising.  I hadn't pulled an all-nighter like that since my college days.  By the time we reached Havre, Montana, we were almost three hours behind schedule.  An announcement was made that the scheduled 20-minute stop in Havre would be reduced to 7-minutes and no more.  A few oil workers who got on the train at Williston figured that was plenty of time to hit a bar across the street from the depot.  Sure enough, everybody else got back on the train at the "ALL ABOARD" call except for them.  The train pulled away from the station as the oil workers sprinted along the tracks.   To my dismay, it stopped to allow those dumb asses back on.
  • At Shelby, Montana, there was another announcement that the stop would again be cut short to make up for lost time.  Twenty minutes after the seven-minute deadline, another announcement came over the speakers.  It was the conductor.  "Ladies and gentlemen, I just removed one of our passengers."  He sounded exasperated.  "When you get drunk and you start using foul language and acting belligerent, you are going to be kicked off the train.  I don't have to put up with it and I WON'T put up with it.  You do NOT want to unexpectedly end your trip 500 miles from your destination.  But that's what will happen if you can't act responsibly!  So if you've been drinking all day, I suggest you go back to your seat right now and go to sleep."  I knew exactly which obnoxious guy was removed.
  • By then, I knew there was no way the train would make up enough time to make it to the beautiful mountains of Glacier National Park before dark.  Indeed, I saw nothing of that scenic highlight of the Empire Builder route.

THE GOOD:

  • Between Havre and Glacier National Park, a storm developed to the south, complete with very dark clouds and big bolts of cloud-to-ground lightning.  It was most spectacular.
  • I managed to get supper in the dining car at 8:30 p.m.  I was seated with three other lone travelers.   I still hadn't slept for a day and a half, and I did not relish the idea of sharing a table with a bunch of strangers.  We introduced ourselves and told each other about our reasons for our travel and where we were going.  I told about my bike tour and how I was going back to rejoin my family.  The woman across from me was going to visit her son and his family in Portland.  The guy next to her was slowly working his way to Canada's Northwest Territory to observe the Northern Lights.  He said conditions were just right for an excellent display in Mid-September.  The fourth member of the party, seated next to me, simply stated that he had been hiking and was going back home to Los Angeles.  I noticed the long beard, the sweaty hair, the hiking boots and the Gore-tex jacket, and after a few minutes of interrogation, I managed to pull out of him that he had just finished backpacking from Mexico to Canada on the Continental Divide Trail.  Only then did he reveal that he had also hiked the Appalachian Trail the previous year and the Pacific Crest Trail the year before.  To his knowledge, only 178 people in the world (at the time) were on record as having completed that trifecta of America's great long trails.  In the end, I felt privileged to be in such good company.

There was more good and bad stuff, but those were the highlights of that 29-hour train trip. 

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7 months ago
Bill StoneTo Graham Smith

Graham,

It's true that my ace support crew and I were also railroading in northern India in 1984. On our train to Varanasi, I think there is a slight chance that I might possibly vaguely remember a mysterious conductor muttering to himself something that could conceivably have sounded sort of like "Throwing that bluish body off the train...."

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7 months ago
Graham SmithTo Bill Stone

Bill yes that conductor was a role model of efficiency and carriage aesthetics. Absolutely no blue corpses allowed, even if they had a ticket to Varanasi. 

A fond memory from that rail trip is the cover of the hard-copy booklet with the Indian Rail Timetables. Millions of these were printed. Trains at a Glancewas the intended title. Pre internet, the printed timetable books were almost essential to planning subcontinental train trips.

The edition we had a typo writ large on the cover:                                                           “Trains at a Glane”

This did not overwhelm us with confidence in the accuracy  of the numerous details within the book. 

More seriously, despite a few hiccups, Indian train travel was a wonderful experience. It probably still is.

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7 months ago