The two guards on the EN472 “Ister” between Bucuresti Nord and Budapest Keleti pu. set aside their fading hats with the silver trim and the CFR logos and tuck into the dinner they have brought from home in the bar carriage. They crunch what look like home grown, gnarled gherkins, and pork paté, bread and tomatoes.
Meanwhile I drink my Ursus beer as the train rumbles along between Brasov and Sighisoara in the fading evening sun, with the storks running away from the line, the dogs lazy outside the farms, and men scything the grass as they have no doubt done for generations. It feels that this train is a small step back to times past.
Yet while the sleeping car I’m travelling in may have air conditioning these days, it is nevertheless one carriage of just six on this service. A decade ago two whole night trains, each of 10 carriages or so, plied this traditional central European route between the capitals of Romania and Hungary, and two day trains as well (now just one). Even more worrying is that, so far, only 3 passengers have entered my carriage and the guard thinks my compartment will be for me alone all night (it is a three bed compartment). There even seem to be few backpackers and Interrailers in the train today – apart from three Swedes it does not feel the train is full of people seeking to see parts of Europe still off the beaten track.
Bucuresti Nord might be clear of the worst of the drunks and the beggars these days, and the concourse has been spruced up, but the hustle and bustle of the place has subsided too. The trains to Suceava, Craiova and Pitesti are just three or four carriages each, still hauled by hulking and heavy communist era electric locomotives that look ill suited to such light tasks.
The route is smooth enough between Bucuresti and Predeal (2 hours from the capital), but thereafter the problems for Romanian rail become painfully clear. The infrastructure is as bad as it was when I travelled this way in 1999 and 2000 – no welded track, and speeds so low that cars and trucks on the narrow road beside the line in the hills speed past the train. Even on the flat plain beyond Brasov the speed is so painfully slow that it feels as if it would be faster to walk.
At Brasov itself, a station I remember as being full of life (and its fair share of beggars too!), all is quiet, eerie even, and my train is the only one in the station. A freight train in the sidings is not run by CFR any more, but by the private Grup Feroviar Roman (who is trying to take over CFR’s freight division too).
It strikes me therefore that Romanian rail, particularly the state run CFR, is stuck in a hard place. Retro in its own way of functioning, it cuts back its services, which mean even fewer people take the train. Air (even within Romania – to Cluj or Timisoara), and the private car, are more appealing options. In the meantime the infrastructure investments that would be needed to make rail more appealing cannot be funded, as passenger numbers drop, and private operators eat into the state railway’s share of the market in freight.
So as the orange sun drops below the forest-covered hills, and a heron stands to catch a fish in the lazy river beside the line, so I fear for the future of the railway in this part of Europe. If I head this way 5 years from now, will this service even exist?