Trains of thought - Jimmy Carter thinks I'm a sinner - CycleBlaze

May 23, 2007

Trains of thought

The road from Sebes to Sibiu, this year's European Capital of Culture, is green on our map and a look through the window shows it thick with trucks. It's one of those E-roads, and one very much to avoid.

Sibiu is a place to visit, though,

Sibiu - 2007 European City of Culture, which is quite something considering Romania only joined the EU at the start of the year. The city has all been cleaned and repainted - perhaps a little too much - to become a gem in a country that is still often grey.
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and to ride a circuitous route presented so many difficulties that we took the train instead. And this little journey of 75km - 10 per cent longer than by road but a thousand times more pleasant - so much encapsulated modern Romania that I wanted to tell you about it.

Sebes (pronounced Say-besh) is your everyday rural train stop where tracks overgrown by grass show it has seen better days. On the other hand, the ticket seller and stationmaster are immaculate, the stationmaster in his bright blue jacket and trousers and his cap and trimmings of red looking for all the world as though he's waiting for a marching band to lead.

The train was headed by a huge diesel half as high as the carriages it was pulling, the whole painted in matt, dull blue with the initials CFR and the emblem of an optimistically speeding locomotive painted through a stencil.

Inside was like being on trains I remember in Britain when I was a child. I was born after the second world war but the trains had been built before it and there was no money for decades to spend on anything better. These Romanian carriages had a side corridor, which you'll remember from a dozen European spy films, and compartments in which passengers sit knee-to-knee.

A sliding door, opened with difficulty, let into the compartment and the window on the other side was hinged halfway down so it would open inwards at 45 degrees or collapse back on itself to leave a draughty slot big enough to poke your head through. Above the seats were metal luggage racks.

The seating was decades old and some sort of leather. A rusting, square ash tray with a hinged lid just about stayed attached to the carriage side. The toilets were spectacularly filthy and had a diagram of how they worked - all the pipework and cisterns explained - but no running water.

But best of all was that the train left as it arrived - with some of its doors still open. They weren't hinged doors of the slam variety, it's true; they had a complicated swivel fixing which opened a little floor platform, so only the determined or drunk would have succeeded in falling out. But an open door on any other railway would be enough for the train to be halted before it left the station and, on modern trains, the thing wouldn't have been able to depart in the first place.

Now, this is the more striking because the journey back was on a streamlined, glistening train with permanent subdued lighting (when we went through a tunnel on the other train, it was as dark inside as it was outside), soft carpets, comfortable seats, triple-glazed windows and - while personally I could have done without it - piped music.

For me, this represented in a single journey the state of Romania. This is a country fast progressing but tied by its poorness. When we have seen factories that photographs told us once belched smoke and polluted cities, they are being demolished. Somewhere the old smokestack places may still exist; I can speak only of what I have seen and I have seen none of the bad old days.

Now, this is a rural area - arable crops and timber, mainly, with a few cattle and sheep (all supervised by a shepherd, because there are no field fences) - so there wouldn't be much industry anyway. But, when we've seen industry, factories have been new or at any rate cleaned up.

The past lingers on in Romania but the dreadful old factories are now abandoned.
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There are tales that money from outside Romania hasn't always reached where it was supposed to. Maybe that's not unusual. But enough of it is getting through to make a difference. Our ancient train to Sibiu was replaced by a two-year-old train for the return; along the way, we saw not just the ugly concrete, flat-sided apartment blocks that are everywhere but bright, airy and modern housing that would be acceptable anywhere.

'My country, she is not rich', a woman said to us the other day. 'But she will be.'

Rich? For the moment, perhaps, that doesn't matter. For the moment it's good to see things getting better.

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