Six European Train Tales

Train Sprint, Part 1

Venice, the heat of 1991. I was working as a bicycle tour guide, and the summer so far had been a good one: The weather was working steadily in our favor — not a drop of rain seen for weeks — group dynamics were self-propelling, and the horizon was clear of logistical sink holes. Clear, that is, except for the threat of war in what was then Yugoslavia. Oh, there had been skirmishes, shots fired, politicians postured and all, but outright war still seemed unlikely. So unlikely, in fact, that notoriously skittish American tourists were still flocking to Venice, a city nowhere near the noise of rebellion and nascent nationalism, but to the geographically imploded American mindset, close enough to think second thoughts about.

Then, true to the nature of unexpected things, real fighting did begin. And the clear trip-organization horizon grew cloudy. The overnight train my clients would be taking from Venice to Munich (but which began somewhere deep in Yugoslavia) was cancelled. The timing was doubly bad since I was due to be relieved by one of my colleagues so I could scamper off across Europe to a wedding in central England.

Thus the great train sprint began. Hold on tight.

Before I could go anywhere, I had to find alternative on-board sleeping accommodations for my clients leaving Italy. Unfortunately, owing to the famous vagaries of the newly computerized Italian train reservation system, let's just say that this was easier said than done. But we succeeded. My colleague coming to relieve me would meet me in Bologna and bring with him the clients' new reservations (made for a train coming from Bologna!). We could meet, he could guard the reserved beds, and I could catch a train to Milan, where I would meet my overnight train to Paris.

It was a perfect plan. But, like all perfect plans banking on the reliability of the Italian national railroad, it was doomed to failure.

Oh, for the excess of perfection and promptness of the Swiss. Swiss trains run, well . . . they run like clockwork. German trains are similarly punctilious about respecting schedules, although the hard-nosed attempt to keep trains on time sometimes seems more important than actually being on time. Ditto the modern French.

But the Italians? Well, that Mediterranean sense of flexible time has pervaded everything. Even the trains. Sure, the conductors and stationmasters try to keep everything running smoothly. They just don't seem to succeed. And the worst possible feeling a commuter can have is that haunting awareness of seconds ticking . . . and ticking . . . and ticking . . . but without any forward progress being made.

And so it was that summer evening in 1991; all the wheels of my perfect plan had been set in motion . . . until the engine ground to a halt.

To this day I do not know what happened, but somewhere between Ferrara and Bologna, my train slowed to a canter, then a trot, then a walk, then a limp, a crawl, and then just stopped. And didn't move for 30 minutes. So much for the 50-minute transfer buffer during which my colleague and I could chat. I took advantage of the delay to write down everything I would otherwise have said.

When we put-putted into Bologna, my colleague was waiting nervously on the platform. He quickly informed me that my connecting train was also delayed (the only advantage to a congenitally tardy system) so all was not lost. But we had no time to lose. We talked quickly; I dumped the essentials on him and he thrust my own all-important train reservations and plane tickets at me. After switching platforms, we stood, he on the platform and me on the steps leading up to one of the cars of my train, until the whistle blew. I held the door open with my shoulder and he jogged alongside the departing train until it sped out of the station. The slam of the released door released me too from my tour guide duties. I settled into a seat.

My thoughts turned elsewhere: to the wedding, the series of train connections I needed to make — Bologna to Milan, Milan overnight to Paris, Paris regional train service to the airport, flight to Stansted, another (British) train, and so on. It would be a long trip, but recuperative too.

Until, once again, everything ground to a halt.


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