Trains in Eastern Europe

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Home Page > Features > Taking the Train 101 > Lesson Four:  Trains in Eastern Europe

Also See:  Your First Trip ] International within EU ] Taking the Night Train ] [ Trains in Eastern Europe ]

Taking the Train 101: Lesson Four -- Taking the Trains in Eastern Europe

Up to this point, this series has covered train trips, short and long, within the European Union and Switzerland. All of western Europe is now open to you by rail…but not just western Europe. Many of the former Warsaw Pact nations have extensive rail networks and passenger services as well, and are inviting western tourists to come visit by train.

Tallinn Train Station, Tallinn, EstoniaIn fact westerners, especially hostel-hopping youths, flock to eastern Europe by the thousands each week to visit Ljubljana, Budapest, Prague, Bratislava, Krakow, and just about every town and hamlet in between.

The train offers a tremendous advantage over the automobile for going to eastern Europe. The roads are not as good. Traffic laws are unevenly enforced. Traffic in the cities is out of control. Roadside services are hardly robust. The quality and prices of gasoline are poor. And four countries (Poland, Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria) have an allowable blood-alcohol content (BAC) of 0.0. Meanwhile, the train is convenient, safe, and reliable, taking you direct to your destination.

The following tips will help you plan that trip out East you’ve always wanted to do.

Tip #1. Plan Your Trip to a Major Destination, Satellite from There

There are a small number of Eastern European destinations that have direct long-distance service to EU cities: Berlin to Warsaw, Krakow, and Prague; Vienna to Budapest and Bratislava; Munich to Budapest, Ljubljana, and Zagreb. These long-distance runs are highly reliable and normally have plenty of seats available. Lesce-Bled Train Station, Lesce, Slovenia Also, these locations have numerous tourist facilities available, especially hotels that can be booked via the Internet.


Once you are in a major city, it is easy to use regional services to visit remote locations. For example, when I visited Budapest, I used regional trains to pop over to lesser-known tourist havens like Szentendre and Eger (both of which I highly recommend next time you go to Hungary).

Why is this important, well…

Tip #2. Regional Service is Much Lower Quality

In western Europe, the regional trains are reasonably reliable and comfortable, and service is not noticeably lower in quality than long-distance trains. Not the case in Eastern Europe, some of the regional service can be quite bad. I encountered old beat-up diesel trains that chugged loudly downBudapest-Keleti Train Station, Budapest, Hungary the tracks and offered bumpy rides without air conditioning. Timeliness was not a guarantee. There was little chance that the conductor spoke English.

The good news was that regional service was dirt cheap, just a couple bucks got me a round-trip across the country. Don’t let concerns of quality dissuade you, the trains are perfectly safe, and buying tickets, etc., in eastern Europe isn’t much different from Germany or Italy.

But it’s worth knowing where the differences are…

Tip #3. Each Country is Different

The following are some peculiarities I’ve found from personal experience. Your mileage may vary, but forewarned is forearmed:

bulletHungary:  Regional trains are tickets by distance, not destination. When I bought my round-trip ticket from Budapest to Eger, the ticket read “160km” and did not mention either place. Conceivably, I could have used the ticket to go elsewhere, as long as my travels did not exceed 160km.
bulletThe Polish system is actually the best of the Eastern train systems I've tried yet.  The regional service is in excellent shape, and restaurant cars are commonplace (and they have real stoves in them, it's not all microwaved food!  I wondered if they ever have grease fires in those trains...).
bulletThe one minor peculiarity is that the trains don't approach a "track", they approach an "island" (peron) which has two tracks (one on each opposite side).  Islands are numbered by arabic numerals, but on the schedules it's in roman numerals!  So, half the fun is making sure you go to the right island, and then make sure you are on the proper side of the island if two trains approach simultaneously.
bulletSlovenia:  Slovene trains are extremely punctual, and leave little room for error. If your destination is coming up, you must be standing at the door to get off. Otherwise after three seconds of the train stopping, the conductor will blow the whistle and resume course instantly. Make sure you have a timetable with all intermediate destinations handy.
bulletSlovakia:  The Slovak system is not yet fully automated and the posted schedules vary on occasion (as I personally discovered when I visited Bratislava). Confirm everything with the ticket agent to be safe.

This lesson was originally published on 13 June 2002 with a travelogue on my trip from Heidelberg, Germany to Ljubljana and Bled, Slovenia.

(c) 2002 Tom Galvin

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