“The painfully slow Personal trains should be avoided as a rule, unless you’re heading for some tiny destination.” – The Rough Guide to Romania
“These trains are achingly slow.” – Lonely Planet: Eastern Europe
I hadn’t sufficiently studied my guidebooks when I asked the lady in the Brașov, Romania Tourist Information office for the train times to Sighişoara, the birthplace and family home of national hero, Vlad the Impaler (a.k.a. Dracula).
“The intercity trains to Sighişoara depart at 10:36 and 15:45,” she told me.
“But I want to leave around noon,” I said.
“I am afraid that only a Personal train leaves around noon,” she said. “We never recommend for the foreign tourist to travel on a Personal train.”
Duly warned, but committed to my schedule, I approached the Brașov station ticket counter the next day and requested a ticket on the Personal train to Sighişoara. “First Class or Second Class?” the agent asked. When I learned that the price difference was only 7 Romanian Lei (about $3), I splurged for the best, assuming that the discomforts of the Personal train could be assuaged by an upgrade.
I bought a sack of Romanian beer from the platform kiosk as an additional precaution and sat down to wait for my Personal train. At nearly the appointed hour, a small diesel engine towing half a dozen carriages that may have once been painted blue with windows that may have once been transparent staggered onto the designated platform.
I searched each car’s markings, but saw no first-class compartments. This omission, coupled with the fact that the train’s final destination was not Sighisoara, led me to conclude that this was someone else’s Personal train, not mine. But when all my fellow platform occupants boarded, I took the precautionary step of showing the conductor my ticket, emphasizing the prominent “1” next to the word “Clase,” and with a perplexed look, pointed at the train.
Then I learned a simple, but important Romanian train travel truth: Even though a ticket agent will gladly sell you a First Class ticket on a Personal train, this sale in no way implies that the train actually carries a First Class compartment.
The conductor found great humor in my revelation. He laughed, “Da, Da. Is train. Is train,” and gave me a hand up as the train started to move. By the look of the conductor’s oil-stained uniform and haggard face, I guessed he rarely finds humor in his work and was consoled to have given him the lighthearted moment that only a clueless foreign traveler can provide.
As the train left Brasov and its personal passengers began to unscrew their liters of brown beer, unwrap their packages of sweaty salami and pull off their shoes, I knew I was, at least, getting the real Transylvania travel experience. If this train had had a first-class compartment, I would have surely been its only occupant.
Still, I was out 7 Lei, and when the ticket checker came by, I attempted to alert her to this injustice. She responded in English with words she must have memorized when previously confronted with First Class foreigners on the Personal train: “I am sorry.”
“So can I have a 7 Lei refund?”
“I am sorry.”
“This is no way to run a railroad.”
“I am sorry.” She emphasized for the last time as she moved on to check the Second Class tickets and I decided to abandon my grievance and crack open a brown beer. “When in Romania…” as they say.
The train’s bench seats were either designed in the style of a 1950s American school bus, or stolen from a 1950s American school bus. They were covered in the hide of a long-dead creature that may have once been brown. The windows, though smeared and sooty, were functional for countryside viewing and for savagely increasing the late spring’s afternoon temperatures on the sun side of the train.
My bench-mate fellow traveler was a quiet rural gent who occasionally chewed on something that looked like meat. He was dressed in an olive-green sweater that needed some darning and a black wool coat that would have kept him warm through a Carpathian winter, but was dangerously inappropriate for a window seat on the sun side of the train. He had fastened a strip of ribbon in the national colors to his lapel as a kind of do-it-yourself flag pin.
I imagined his name was Gheorghe and he had suffered under Ceaușescu’s agricultural collectivization disaster. He looked about the right age to have lost everything when Communists confiscated small private farms, but looked too old to have started over after the 1989 Revolution. He nodded sympathetically when the ticket checker expressed her sorrow at my worthless first-class ticket, but he was otherwise a non-communicative companion.
We had only traveled about 10 miles when I discovered the significance of the term “personal” train. I had originally assumed that it was some translation mistake by the Brasov Tourist Information lady. But no. Personal train passengers can make the train stop anywhere they personally want.
If they want to stop in front of their farmhouse, at a fishing pond, or beside a sports field, they tell the conductor and the train stops to let them off. At these personal stops there are no platforms. The passengers just jump down onto the ground with their sack of feed, their fishing rod, or their football and pick their way across the tracks to their own personal destination.
The Personal train traveler gets a close view of Transylvanian country life. Horse-drawn plows furrow rich soil. Strong well-fed men in white shirts and suspenders cut hay with a scythe, rake it by hand, and load it onto horse-drawn wagons. Women gather at communal roadside hand pumps to collect water. Children in bright clothes scurry everywhere.
Personal trains do make scheduled stops at tiny villages with tiny station houses and platforms, but passengers mostly get on the train there, not off. If your destination is a scheduled stop, presumably, you don’t take the Personal train.
Personal train passengers enjoy curling up on the hard benches after overdosing on brown beer and sausage. Since most of these guys are soon snoring away, and since the conductor makes no stop announcements, I deduced that a designated “stay-awake-passenger” system is employed to arouse these undead from their slumber at the correct disembarkation point.
I had designated no one to wake me, and Gheorghe looked fairly unreliable, so I tried to stay alert. This proved difficult in the slow-moving, gently swaying, overly warm carriage that smelled like a deli. To make matters worse, I assumed, after watching the train’s randomly interrupted progress, that the “Arrival Time” printed on my ticket was just a space filler.
Somehow I stayed awake or jolted awake, and incredibly, we pulled into Sighisoara within 5 minutes of “on time” – albeit long after a regular train would have arrived. Experience, luck, or sophisticated computer modeling of decades of Personal train disembarkation data must have assisted this scheduling miracle.
However they did it, I was impressed with the punctuality, amused by my fellow Personal travelers, and most importantly, after a massive wreck the day before on a Romanian Intercity train, happy to be safely delivered to my destination.
I only wished I had my 7 Lei back.