Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Night Train to Vienna

The Fifth Pit of Hell* 

*Assuming There Are Seven

After many wonderful rail journeys I had such high hopes. I remembered all of my Renfe trips in Spain, the magnificent Eurostar, France's beloved Thalys and TGV's, Japan's Shinkansen and the Trenitalia.

So when I saw overnight sleeper service via Austria's OBB Rail from Venice to Vienna I thought "that will be an adventure!"

How right I was.

I began to worry when our train pulled up with its few operable windows all wide open despite Venetian temps running 99° coupled with 90% humidity. Open windows suggested no air-conditioning.

The first challenge was to locate our train car. Although Trenitalia trains had coach numbers digitally identified, our train had paper numbers taped to each coach. But, for some reason, the coaches were not in order. Coach 402 was not located in front of coach 403 etc. So as we ran down the siding vainly attempting to locate car 404 it began to sink in that this was not going to be the Orient Express.

Then as we ran along the sid of the train coach doors started closing. I said something unprintable and in one of those "Man lifts car off kid" moments I wrestled the hydraulic doors open and my two kids and I all jumped in.

Before the night was done I began to wonder if we'd have been better off remaining on the platform in Venice.

Once on board we faced our first encounter with the OBB Rail "Train Team".

And to say they were completely clueless would be kind. The OBB staff had no idea which direction our coach might be. So we flipped a mental coin and started making our way from one coach to the next looking for our sleeper.

Now bear in mind the corridors in OBB sleeper cars were about 18-1/2" wide. So with the lack of clear signage, we faced corridors full of desperate passengers all trying to move simultaneously in both directions. And all of us were sweating profusely and all maneuvering coffin sized luggage.

As we felt our clothes saturate in sweat, it hit us - in year 2013 this train had absolutely no air conditioning. 

Actually lets be clear. It had no ventilation period.

The OBB "Train Team" member I now encountered muttered that the first leg of the journey "is always like this". I inquired why? She said in Italy the train had to be pulled by (accompanied by a snort) an "Italian" engine that did not have proper adaptors to allow it to power the OBB Austrian rail cars.

So, my initial "everything will be fine once the train starts to move" thoughts quickly disappeared as I realized the few sections of operable windows would not allow us to enjoy the positive health benefits of ventilation anytime soon.

When we finally found our compartment (again more paper numbers taped to it), it seemed nice enough. It even had a little bathroom with a shower that could only be appreciated by Chinese acrobats.

With the train now moving everyone migrated (staked out) spots near those few operable windows. We all tried to ignore an "eau de toilet" smell that was becoming increasingly pungent.

The OBB "Train Team" assured us we could buy cold drinks to ease our pain. So we all migrated to the snack bar only to find out they were completely out of bottled water.

We had our choice of beer or red bull.

As I hugged a window next to a very nice Chinese family they pointed out how much better the trains were back home......

So, as my perspiration dripped, forming giant puddles on the floor beneath me, my college age son offered a positive spin on the trip. He relayed that during his recent college tenure he had endured some pretty awful situations. He offered the opinion that "total crap" situations like this help build character.

I am, of course, well past the part of my life where I feel any desire to allow my travel experiences top be character builders. But I appreciated his positive attitude.

My wistful dreams of a restful sleep punctuated by the gentle rhythm of the rails evaporated completely.

I continued hugging "my window" till 2:00 am.

The OBB "Train Team" informed us that we'd change engines at the Italian border and get a superior "Austrian" engine capable of activating our AC system. 

Of course we would be doing that at the top of a mountain where temps would also be much cooler.......

The OBB "Train Team" just kept repeating it would be "90 minutes" till we have AC. In actuality it took 5-1/2 hours to get some AC.

They just kept telling us that "when the blue light in your compartment comes on the AC will begin". 

The Infamous "Blue" Light

Then, for seemingly no reason at all, the train stopped altogether. We pulled off on a siding and remained there a fuzz under two hours (still no AC and no breeze). 

With the train stopped, all of the smokers asked for permission to jump off and puff like chimneys on the siding. And, with all the beer and red bull consumed a few hours earlier, legions of passengers roamed the train searching for operable WC's (as did we - not wishing to use the toilet in our compartment for fear it might add to the already bad smell in there). Of course the OBB "Train Team" had locked all of the WC's on the train while we were stopped on the siding.

A poor Brit kid who had availed himself of numerous cans of beer looked absolutely destroyed rattling the door in vain to a locked WC.

Finally the train rumbled to life and began to moved again (still no AC).

Then around 2 AM the snotty, short, dreadlocked OBB "Train Team" member came up to my son and I yelling "go to your compartment and stay there!"

Now, I strive to be a pacifist in life, but I will admit scrutinizing the dimensions of my little operable window.

I was pretty sure that at age 57, even without my sons help, I could demonstrate to this particular OBB "Train Team" member that he could easily fit through that window.

For him it would simply be one of those "can you remember birth?" moments.

In a fit of international good will, I bit my lip and returned to our compartment where Ms. M had tried to put the best light on sleeping. An hour or two later the blue light flickered on and our AC followed. I know because the cold air was introduced from a register next to my foot. As my foot turned blue (being the oldest I was afforded the lowest bunk) I wrapped it up tightly in my little train blanket.

Note to Austrian Rail Engineers - heat rises, cold falls! 

In the morning my son jumped down from his elevated berth and confirmed that he could not remember a time where he ever smelled this bad. He noted that the AC (that froze my foot) never made it to his penthouse bunk.

With our long stay on the siding I knew we'd be pretty late into Vienna. I mean they could not have planned all that hell (locked WC, no AC) misery, could they?

As we chugged along the sun rose over meticulously prim alpine houses amidst lush green pines I heard a fellow passenger unloading at one of the OBB "Train Team" members demanding how she might obtain a refund for this "Bleeping Disaster!" I thought you go girl! Then nodded off for a bit more groggy sleep. 

After about an hour of sleep, a knock on the compartment door alerted us that a truly bizarre little Wagon-Lits (the caterer) breakfast had arrived.

Then the announcement came that we would soon arrive into Vienna "on time".

I grimaced in the realization that the whole wretched adventure had indeed been carefully planned by OBB.

When we arrived at our SPLENDID Vienna hotel could tell we'd had a descent into hell and informed us our rooms would be rushed and available early.

My odiferous son was even offered wishes for a Happy Birthday! 

At that time we realized we were back in a better place.

My take away? Well, I have not given up on trains. But I sure as hell will never again board anything with OBB on the side of it.

Roadboy's Travels © 2013

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