Unless you have really not been paying attention, then it would not have escaped your notice that we have spent the past fortnight at the other end of Romania, in Petresti, Satu Mare.
All good things must come to an end, however, and so last night we left Petresti, and returned home on the sleeper train from Carei to Bucharest. It was not, by any stretch of the imagination, an altogether wonderful experience.
For a start there is the price of a ticket: 226 lei (one-way) for a berth in a two-person compartment (the other person in the compartment was Mrs. Bucharest Life: if you are travelling alone and want to make sure that you have the compartment to yourself you need to pay a supplement of 92 lei). Given, therefore, that at today’s exchange rate our ticket cost over €50, we think we are more than entitled to take a closer look at just what you get for your money on Romania’s railways.
The short answer is: not much.
You do not, for example, get much in the way of speed.
The distance (by rail) from Carei to Bucharest is 746 km, with the journey scheduled to take a whopping 14 hours nine minutes (an average speed of just over 53 kph – 32 mph in old money). Yet even such modest speeds as these are rarely hit: our journey actually took 15 hours 19 minutes (yes, it was over an hour late: check the arrivals board pictured below), an average speed of just 48.75 kph (barely 30 mph). That’s pathetic.
Such delays would be understandable if Romania’s railways were a busy, bustling hive of activity, with thousands of trains coming and going from Bucharest’s Gara de Nord each day. In fact, there are fewer trains on the railways than ever, and just 210 trains arrive at or depart from Gara de Nord every day. That the railways are close to capacity and resources overstretched is not, therefore, a viable excuse.
Neither do you get much in the way of comfort. The sleeping carriages on most Romanian trains are old and in serious need of reconditioning (or replacing altogether). CFR (Romanian Railways) do have some modern sleeping coaches, complete with air conditioning that works and with toilets and showers in every compartment. These, however, are few and far between. In fact, we have only ever seen them on the Bucharest-Cluj route, and then on only one of the two night trains that runs between the two cities.
Alas, the carriage we were lumbered with on our trip back from Carei was one of the older sleeping coaches still in use. From the outside it didn’t look all that bad, but then – to steal a line from a particularly good episode of Only Fools and Horses – that’s what the Christians said about the Colosseum.
Inside, the first thing which hits you is the heat: the carriages had clearly been in a siding under the blazing sun all day, and were therefore hotter than your average oven. There is no air conditioning at all (not even in the corridor), and so the only respite from the heat is the breeze which comes in through the (small) window as you speed along at 32mph. (Fortunately, having your own compartment means you do not have to worry about anyone complaining about curent).
Each compartment in the sleeping wagon comes with two beds, kitted out with crisp, clean sheets and comfy pillows: if we have one word of praise for the sleeping car it is for the always impeccably turned down beds.
You also get a sink, which rather optimistically has both hot and cold taps. As you might imagine of course, irrespective of which tap you turn on, the water is always cold.
There is also an electrical socket which, while clearly labelled (in German, helpfully) as being only for razors, can be used for just about anything. We have charged phones and used laptops with these plugs and nothing has yet blown up or caught fire.
Until recently, you would also get a little travel pack containing a bottle of mineral water, a toothbrush, some toothpaste, soap and some hand towels. This little luxury extra has disappeared of late, alas. On the positive side, however, passengers do get the free use of two coat hangers throughout the duration of the trip. Which is great.
Finally, there is the unavoidable issue of the khazi.
These, in our experience, vary from merely awful to outright disgusting. Fortunately, the toilet we had to use last night was of the merely awful variety. It flushed properly and was even stocked with both hand towels and loo roll (we had, of course, brought our own: only beginners board a Romanian train without any toilet paper). There were, in fact, two toilets in the carriage: one also had a shower. Do we need to say that it did not work?
In a desperate attempt, however, to end on a positive note, we were mildly impressed with Gara de Nord itself when we arrived back in Bucharest. There is now free Wifi throughout, good news for everybody of course, but especially welcome for foreigners arriving in Bucharest who do not want to rack up huge data roaming bills while checking out highly informative mobile websites (such as, ahem, m.inyourpocket.com) to find the best way of getting into the city centre or to their hotel/hostel.
The station network is called Train Delivery.
The other small improvement is the appearance of a number of clear, well-designed station maps. Again, not a huge deal, but they are a welcome addition, not least for new arrivals.