Saturday, May 24, 2014

A trip to the Maidan

Trades Union Building eleven weeks after being set fire to during the protests

Normally our blog is about rail travel and not politics. But today on the eve of the special presidential election in Ukraine I am going to touch briefly on what I saw and experienced in Ukraine during this tumultuous time. While in Kiev on the 6th of May I wandered down to the Maidan Nezalezhnosti to see for myself the heart of a revolution that had begun in late November 2013.

Since the protests on the Maidan peaked in late February the majority of the media has focused on the ongoing conflicts in other parts of Ukraine and simultaneously has glossed over the continued occupation of the Maidan by a civil militia opposite business as usual in downtown Kiev.

One of many memorials to the fallen. photographs are displayed on the side of this occupiers tent
What began as individual protesters has become a militia in a kaleidoscope of military & police uniforms and field gear encamped on the Maidan and nearby streets.They are living in a motley assemblage of old army tents and makeshift shelters. Organized as the "Guardians of the Maidan" they carry photo ID cards and are equipped with captured police riot gear. Their stated intent is to maintain peace and prevent disruptions to the upcoming election.

A barricaded encampment, yet open to pedestrians
Despite the horrific scenes on the news over the winter, and despite the current fears of violence leading up to the election this Sunday spirits were high in the center of Kiev. Right next to the protesters camps and memorials are vendors selling to international and national tourists alike. For foreigners there is the usual assortment of Soviet military relics such as hats & pins and the ubiquitous nesting dolls. For Ukrainian tourists there were all manner of Ukrainian flag themed merchandise and patriotic apparel. A more somber item for sale was photo cards of the fiery riots.

"Glory to Ukraine" crowded out by a street vendors wares
The usual city activities outlining the scenes of protests was quite the juxtaposition. Within meters of a municipal crew doing a paving job was a burned out riot control truck, Nationalistic campaign posters almost blocked by street vendors and McDonald's advertising boards flanking a quarters tent. Ukrainian flags were as thick downtown as American flags are in Washington DC around the 4th of July. One flag wrapped around the scaffolding of a building under remodel must have been 3 stories tall and was on two sides of the building.   

A destroyed riot control truck has become a donation center for those wishing to financially support the protesters

It was a unique experience to walk through the square and talk to members of the "Guardians of the Maidan", many of whom have been here since December. Their spirits were high, but they were also nervous about violence from Russian or Russian leaning groups and disruptions of the special election.

Katerina repairing her bullet proof vest 

With friends in and from both Ukraine and Russia it saddens me to see these events. Here's to a peaceful election and an end to the violence in Ukraine.

Friday, May 23, 2014

An Anachronistic Piece of Ukraine's Soviet Past

Creaky, clanging, bouncing, with hard seats and no climate control many of Kiev's trams are from an era of five year plans and central committees. The price to ride is as well. Only 1.50 Hryvnia (pronounced Grivna) or about thirteen cents when converted to US Dollars. But that is where the similarity to the Soviet Union and Ukraine's cold history ends. 

Kiev has some newer trams, some even specifically targeting tourists. But the trams I sought out are the original Tatra T3's connecting points in suburban Kiev for local denizens.

Cheaper than using the public toilets.

The tram lines terminate with a turning loop near but not quite at Kiev's main passenger station. But rather about a block away accessible by walking through a pedestrian arcade of shops to Starovokzalna street. As these lines serve citizens and not tourists the signs for routes and times were minimal and confusing.

Turning loops at Starovokzalna street
I began by approaching a tram driver taking a smoke break. Using my limited Russian and a lot of hand gestures it was determined that his tram was the one I needed and that a conductor on board would sell me a ticket. After the conductor authenticated my ticket with his punch he checked what stop  I wanted and proceeded to at each stop tell me "not this one" and how many stops until the one I wanted. This was of course all done in a combination of the occasional English word, some Russian, some Ukrainian and a lot of  "pointy-talk". My experience on the tram was unique among my travels. I've been a tourists in many places, I've occasionally been mistaken for a foreigner living and working in a city. But it was in Kiev that I was warmly welcomed by local citizens as well as municipal workers. I was not where tourists or ex-pats normally visit. So with my DSLR camera I was assumed to be a journalist. As an English speaker it was apparent to the people I met that I must have been a Western journalist. This assumption of my role in suburban Kiev resulted in one of the most remarkable interactions I have had in all my travels.

A man boarded the tram and seeing my camera grabbed my hand to shake it. He did not let go for a solid minute, maybe two. I know absolutely no Ukrainian and only limited Russian. I tried to tell the gentleman that I only spoke English, and like many people interacting with foreigners he simply slowed down his speech. For two minutes of conversation I was a able to pick out: 'Journalist', 'You are a good person', 'Not Russian' and 'thank you'.  He was then gone the very next stop. But since the local population had labeled me a journalist I felt I should act as one. With enthusiasm both the conductor and driver agreed to be photographed at their job. Here is a video of what the driver sees and further down photographs of the driver and conductor.

My tram journey in Kiev stands out as a highlight amongst my travels. The hospitality of the driver and conductor was genuine, not the cynical charm of a person who knows their paycheck is dependent on fat and happy tourists from England or America. The passionate thanks for my mere presence in that area by one of my fellow passengers will stay with me for the rest of my days. Like so many of the finer points in our lives he was gone before I could even photograph him.

A view inside. All ages ride these trams.

The driver's cab is as personalized as that of a long haul trucker or lorry driver.

The trams of Kiev are the natural habitat of The Hobo Proletariat. If you are a follower of this blog then surely you must feel a desire to ride these time capsules, physically trapped in the Soviet era yet blanketed with unmatched hospitality.

The Conductor

Friday, March 21, 2014

Thalys & TGV Hi-speed Rail

On 29 November 2013 I boarded the Thalys at Amsterdam Centraal for the first of two trains, an airliner and car ride to return home for a couple of weeks.
Waiting on my train
As an American my ideas on hi-speed travel are pretty much limited to the skies. Sure there is the Acela Express on the off chance I want to travel from Washington DC to New York or Boston.  A trip to Boston would take nearly seven hours. One can drive the distance in about the same time, or fly it in 1.5 hours (really about 4 with ground transport and security), so even with the added time to check in it’s still far faster to fly than take a train. Although the Acela is a hi-speed train it’s hampered by running on rails with regular passenger trains. And not just any rails but some of the most crowded in all of North America. The Acela only occasionally can achieve its top speeds, which are still well below the roughly 200mph or 300 km/h top speeds of the Belgian/Dutch Thalys or the French TGV.

The Thalys approaching the platform in Amsterdam Centraal

But in Europe hi-speed rail truly means fast and easy transport. A road journey from Amsterdam to Roissy would take you about four and a half hours, the Thalys and TGV took me there in only about three hours. Flying time would have been about an hour and twenty minutes but as I’ll explain below would have been almost as long a taking the trains.

As you can see in this chart once I added up all the non-flying times to the trip by air it really was comparable to going by rail. By booking directly with the rail operators as I described in my post Buying train tickets for travel in Europe my train tickets were about the same price as going by air. 

If you are an American reading this and have never experienced rail travel in Europe let me warn you that it is vastly different than US transport systems. Firstly there is little point in arriving at your station any more than 30 minutes out from your departure time, 15 minutes in fact is probably fine. It’s not until about 30 minutes from departure will the platform to meet your train will be posted. There is no check-in, no baggage drop, no Transportation Security Administration. Just find your train on the departure board and head for that platform. Your ticket will identify which coach you are seated in, long trains will have signs on the platform with a coach diagram, and the Thalys being a small train-set no sign was needed. I had a large duffel bag with my hand luggage backpack crammed on top. This made the walk to the station easier. Upon boarding the train there was ample room for this bag to fit in the overhead shelf directly above my seat. Had I been taking even more luggage than I could carry there also is ample storage near the doors, similar in manner to airport shuttle buses.

I had a 2nd class seat on the Thalys for the ride to Brussels Zuid. Several years ago I had the opportunity to fly 1st class in the U.S. The seat in 2nd class on the Thalys was wider, more comfortable, had more leg room, had an enormous tray table with room for my breakfast and my ipad as well as a charging port and free wifi. There is a café car where I could have purchased breakfast but I had brought some snacks with me and the seat was so comfortable that I didn’t leave it for the entire trip! 

Conductor checking tickets on the Thalys

I nearly botched the change at Brussels.  The Thalys was several minutes late arriving in Brussels and I had trouble finding the platform for the TGV. I was very fortunate to catch a second TGV to Charles De Gaulle that was departing only a few minutes after the one I was supposed to be on. The train was not anywhere near full and I was able to actually get my same first class seat I had reserved. This caused a moment’s pause by the conductor upon inspecting my ticket but no questions were asked and he moved on. 

The Sprawling Audi factory in Brussels, Belgium

The TGV did not have wifi nor a charging port but otherwise was even more spacious and comfortable than the Thalys. Something I didn’t think was possible. Just as on the Thalys there is a huge amount of luggage space and unless you are on an Everest Expedition there is no reason you can’t have all your luggage near your seat. 

200 miles per hour, low clouds and patches of fog made photography challenging. Still I was able to grab a few good pictures of The Netherlands, Belgium and northern France. But if you want to take photos from a train I’d strongly suggest a slower one. 

Look a wind turbine!
Aggregate facility in northern France

The TGV has a dedicated station directly under one of the terminals at Charles De Gaulle Airport. This makes it one of the easiest airport transfers I’ve ever done. After de-training I simply went up the escalator and to the check in for my flight to the States. Roissy is not the only airport to have hi-speed rail in its cellar. Schiphol airport in Amsterdam hosts a Thalys stop as does the Brussels National Airport. The ICE stops at Düsseldorf, Leipzig-Halle, and Köln/Bonn airports. Besides Charles De Gaulle, the TGV also hails at the airport in Lyon.

TGV Station an escalator ride away Charles De Gaulle Airport

Any fan of passenger rail should make it a point to ride on a hi-speed train. The seats are comfortable, the ride is smooth, the speed that the scenery flashes by is just breathtaking. Even a trip nearly two hours long isn’t nearly long enough to satisfy those who take joy in rail travel. Quieter, smoother, more enjoyable experience, and no lines. Why would anybody fly if there is a hi-speed train?

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The CityNightLine Experience

Station clock at Praha hl. n.

Destination card on my car

The trip from Prague through Dresden follows the Elbe River and taking the trip at night was really shorting myself of some incredible sights. Not only the river and architecture of Central Europe but also freight yards, switch towers and the other fascinations of rail buffs. Through the dim light I could see a little and at some of the stops I took a few pictures by opening the upper windows. But I really need to do the trip in daylight.

A photo taken out the window during a station stop, I think this was Bad Schandau
I had purchased a ticket for a couchette car. A shared sleeper compartment with washrooms and toilets at the ends of the car. Up to either four or six persons to a compartment. Kind of like a hostel on wheels. Couchette bunks are cheaper than sleeper compartments and would give me a chance to talk with fellow passengers. Apparently my car was broke. In its place was compartment coach with six seats to a compartment. But with only two people in a compartment I was able to fold up the armrests and sleep across three seats. I had to use my coat as a pillow as since it was no longer a couchette but a coach car there were neither blankets nor pillows. Originally I shared the compartment with a lady traveling only as far as Decin. Her ticket was stamped by a Czech conductor, when I said I was traveling to Amsterdam I was told somebody else would come by. At Bad Schandau what appeared to be two police officers came through the car, shining flashlights in the compartments, not a word was spoken and they walked by after shining a light on me. That was the extent of my interactions with any railway employees. I saw no more the rest of the trip.

I slept across the seats on the left
By now I was pretty sleepy so I made do the best I could; somewhere around Dresden I began dozing off for short periods. I gained a compartment mate then he left and I gained another in Berlin close to midnight, he stayed with me through Arnhem and sometime around eight in the morning we both gave up on sleeping.I followed the signs for food to the next car to find a canteen that was closed. As a frequent traveler I had prepared for this eventuality and ate a Clif bar for breakfast.

The man who rode with me from Berlin to Arnhem was a Dutch biologist who taught at Penn State University in the States for three years. We had a wonderful long conversation on rail and road transportation. As a European he is envious of the wide open spaces of the US and the incredible rail routes that did or do exist albeit for freight not passenger. 

A cargo train of hopper cars moves through Utrecht Centraal

At Emmerich we had a “lok change”, that is a changing of the locomotive from a Deutsche Bahn to a Nederlandse Spoorwegen locomotive. No pictures because it was very foggy and not quite light enough yet. A Railion (Now DB Schenker) cargo train passed  us going the opposite way while at the station. The DB Railion train had the effect of provoking some discussion on the importance placed on cargo/freight versus passenger service in the United States versus in Europe. It had been my fellow passengers experience with Amtrak to expect delays of upwards of several hours. On the contrary in Europe the rail corporations face fines for delayed passenger trains. In the US emphasis, with the exception of the Northeast Corridor, is placed on freight movement. In Europe it is passenger, with cargo trains having to wait. This lead to the construction of some dedicated cargo lines including a controversial one in The Netherlands that is not currently extended into Germany, upon entering Germany the cargo trains are back on rails shared with passenger trains and no longer on a dedicated right of way. A right of way that through Dutch countryside meant the buying up of farmland and property to create, as one had not existed there before. 

From Arnhem through Utrecht and to Amsterdam attempts at trainspotting were hampered by fog and low clouds but from time to time I was a able to take some decent shots. The lack of a compartment mate meant nobody was complaining about the open window and cold wind. 

The upper windows opened affording me the opportunity to take the photos and video shown here. But I'm still not sure if it's ok or not to climb out the window. The signs were a bit confusing.

Using my iPad I shot some video in Utrecht and coming into Amsterdam of the other action on the rails. Trainspotting from a train. Here are some photographs and video taken from aboard the CNL

Finally I arrived at Amsterdam Centraal on the morning of Thanksgiving Day. Sixteen hours on a train is far, far superior to Sixteen hours on a plane. But I was glad to be on non-moving ground. Several hours afterwards I could still feel the motion of the rails. Even though the experience isn't quite what I anticipated I feel that I'd give the CityNightLine another chance. In the summer time there would be some daylight movement of the train affording a chance at seeing some scenery. Maybe next time they'll be a bunk for me to rest on after a full day of walking around Prague.

End of the line

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The trams of Prague

27 November 2012 about 9 in the morning I landed in Prague. It was clear, no wind but a chilly -10 Celsius. Dressed appropriately for the weather and for walking I took the bus from the airport to Praha hl.n. and stowed my luggage. From a vending machine I bought a 24 hour transit ticket and set out to explore Prague until evening when I had a train to Amsterdam to catch. 

Prague has an extensive public transit system and for only a few dollars you can get a 24 hour transit pass for all of Prague’s public transport; buses, trams and the subway. The subway was built during the cold war and portions are very deep to act as a bomb shelter. I did not explore the subway while there but near the central station are two of these ventilators for the subway tunnel. The Soviet influence stands starkly against the Art Nouveau Praha Hlavni Nadrazi (Prague Main Station).

    Subway ventilator

Besides rail travel under or just adjacent to the central railway station are bus, metro and tram stops. A future post will have videos and still photographs of the station. For now we focus on the trams.

The trams in Prague range from classic Tatra T3 to some of the most modern in Europe. As the central tourist area of Prague is rather small I actually only rode on one tram during my trip. I lucked out and was able to ride one of the T3 cars. I doubt there is a more fitting tram car for a member of The Hobo Proletariat to ride in. In total over 14,000 T3's were constructed and were exported all over The Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc nations.

A rebuilt T3 Tram with low center floor on the outskirts of Prague

 A Tatra T6A5 exits the Ujezd stop.

Groomed lawns obscure the rails along portions of the tram line near the city edge, where the trams run in broad median between highway traffic.

A Skoda 15T approaches Ujezd.

I was witness to a most severe punctuality in the operation of the trams. I did not witness a tram arrive even seconds late to a station and frighteningly as you'll read below, nor did I see one leave seconds late from a stop. Not only did the tram doors close shut nearly on a women’s nose as she ran late to a tram stop but the driver than pulled away, the hopeful passenger stuck as a pedestrian scant millimeters away from the moving car. Much more horrifying was the pensioner with forearm crutches struggling to step up into the car and having the doors shut on his leg. Another passenger and I assisted the man as the doors opened and shut on him two or three times. From inside the tram, unless you have a seat, it’s difficult to see the station signs so it’s helpful to have looked at the map beforehand for landmarks.  

    Of course the T3 cars are no longer in their original state. They've had various upgrades include the destination sign shown above.

Vagabond can handily use the Prague public transport system to move around the city. Keep in mind the Czech stop names can be a bit of challenge to read and remember, particularly during the very, very short tram stops. For my trip I printed out a map with the tram stops I might use marked on it as well as the destination station and tram number so when three cars were stopped at a station within a minute of each other I would know the right one to get on. The tram was very crowded but I was lucky to stand near the driver’s cab and shoot this short video of the operators view.

I had no difficulty spotting my stop, I knew in my direction of travel it was the first stop after crossing the river. It was the nearest stop on that line for the Petrin Hill cable car. Dating back to 1891 the funicular has been opened, closed, fallen into disrepair, gauge changed, rebuilt, and lengthened. The current iteration dates to 1985. A nice summary time line and some more information is available at the The Prague Post newspaper website.

A look up Petrin Hill and a look up at the cable car at Ujezd Station at the base of the hill.

The Petrin Hill Funicular is a quick trip up a steep hill overlooking Prague.  The transit pass for the other public transportation options in Prague also covers the Funicular. 

The view from the cable car ascending Petrin Hill.

There are two cars running on rails but movement is controlled more in the manner of a cable car or ski lift. The two cars counter balance each other and pass just downhill of a central station. On the trucks one wheel is double flanged, the other has no flanges, at the passing siding no points need to be thrown to move the car to the adjacent track. 

Passing track halfway up Petrin Hill.

Petrin hill is home to an observatory, gardens, a replica of the Eiffel Tower and several other attractions. In addition to these the upper station includes a small museum showcasing the history of the Funicular.

Motor and gearing from 1932 still operating today.

Unfortunately the sun was on the wrong side of the building for this photo of the machinery at the top of Petrin Hill. Not part of the museum this is the equipment running the cable cars still today.

Prague is an excellent city for Vagabonds. Transit passes are cheap, food is affordable, the main train station is convenient to the main tourist destinations. The tram and metro networks are extensive and pretty much negate the need for taxis or buses. One drawback for rail fans is there is no rail connection from the airport to any rail stations. A bus runs every 30 minutes and only cost a few dollars.  It's efficient, cheap and takes you where you need to go, but it's no train. Coming soon; thoughts on the Dubai and Amsterdam transit systems and an extra long article on my experience on the City Night Line.