On track with the rail­way chil­dren of Bu­dapest

Hun­gary’s charm­ing line run by young­sters marks its 70th an­niver­sary this year. Olivia Green­way takes a mag­i­cal jour­ney

The Daily Telegraph - Travel - - FRONT PAGE -

The girl in the ticket of­fice looked ex­traor­di­nar­ily young – about 10 was my guess. “That will be 700 forints (£2), please,” she said in per­fect English. My Hun­gar­ian guide con­firmed she was in­deed 10. I was in the hills above Buda and had just bought a ticket for the Chil­dren’s Rail­way. Un­sur­pris­ingly, it’s so-called be­cause it’s largely run by chil­dren, and has been for sev­eral gen­er­a­tions; in fact next Wed­nes­day marks 70 years since the start of the con­struc­tion of the rail­way on

April 11 1948.

There had been snow­fall overnight and the ground around our start­ing point, Hu­vosvolgy, re­ally was deep and crisp and even. We waited on the plat­form for the train to ar­rive, stamp­ing our feet in the freez­ing air. Young boys in smart navy-blue uni­forms passed us on the plat­form. They work on the rail­way one day in 15, from 7am to around 5pm in win­ter; it’s a 12-hour day in sum­mer.

The Chil­dren’s Rail­way runs for nearly seven miles (11km), climb­ing high into the for­est and makes six stops. Back in the late For­ties it was known as the Pi­o­neer Rail­way, a project in­sti­gated by the Hun­gar­ian Com­mu­nist Party as a means of get­ting young peo­ple from the city to the camps that they ran for two months ev­ery sum­mer. At­ten­dance was com­pul­sory and chil­dren spent two weeks away from their fam­i­lies, learn­ing about the party.

Our nar­row-gauge train ar­rived and we pho­tographed the en­gine. (They have a steam en­gine dur­ing sum­mer week­ends.) All the chil­dren who work on the rail­way are aged be­tween 10 and 14. (The driver is an adult and there are a few adult su­per­vi­sors.)

Nearly ev­ery­one wants to work on the rail­way, but only a few are cho­sen. In fact, that’s why it was con­tin­ued when com­mu­nism ended: the chil­dren love it. They have to be good at their school stud­ies, re­li­able and well-be­haved. They also have to un­dergo train­ing ev­ery week­end for four months be­fore they start.

Our guards Bence (14) and Levi (13) were pos­i­tively an­gelic: mov­ing to sec­ondary school when they are 13, not 11 as in the UK, might be a rea­son for their seem­ingly child­like de­meanour. Our car­riage was spot­less (“We clean the train,” Bence told me later) with old-fash­ioned, pol­ished, wooden slat­ted seats and win­dows that slid open. When we trav­elled they were snapped shut to keep out the cold, but mer­ci­fully the car­riage was heated and toasty warm.

Bence checked ev­ery­one was on board, a whis­tle was blown, and we were off. Levi clipped our tick­ets, old school style with a metal con­trap­tion, smil­ing shyly, and we sat back to en­joy the jour­ney, pass­ing through lovely clus­ters of dark wood trees – beech and spruce, I sus­pected.

I thought about the chil­dren’s sum­mer camps both our city guides had spo­ken about separately the pre­vi­ous day. Now in their late 40s, they at­tended the camp dur­ing the com­mu­nist era. Surely it was aw­ful?

“I hated it,” our first guide told me. “I don’t like be­ing with peo­ple I don’t know.” Our other guide had a dif­fer­ent view. “I re­ally en­joyed it and looked for­ward to it ev­ery year. We had singing ex­er­cises and went ex­plor­ing. It was fun to be with chil­dren of my own age.”

Our train reached its first

Ten quirky train jour­neys around the world: tele­graph. co.uk/tt-quirky­trains


The guard blows a whis­tle; Bu­dapest, right; through the woods, be­low

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