It’s All In The Detail

The technical department have completed a second pass of the route and have come up with the following  report. I am now on the hunt for agents who can handle at least parts of this. The hardest portion to book is probably the Balkan section south of Belgrade and Budapest. No one so far has offered to work that bit out for us.  Most people, well actually everyone I’ve found so far, just bought their ticket face to face in Istanbul for the run back up. This is a classic problem with our group size. If we try and wing it we are certain to end up with some of us on the floor, or at the very least wasting time farting about in booking offices when we could be saluting the local brewery. It’s all part of the mad group size takes on mad railway challenge, challenge.  I’m going to go through each of the national carriers and train operators and see what they can offer, but I need to cut that down to a handful else it will get too complicated to manage. The Scando section and these Trenhotel folks in the west both probably need dealing with directly. We should get a free ticket on some things (not passes it seems) for the group booking if we’re over 10 which I think we easily will be, which I will naturally pass on and expect alcohol in return.

A Few Corrections and Clarifications

Amsterdam is the capital of the Netherlands, Den Haag is the capital of south Netherlands. The total country count is now 20; UK, France, Belgium, The Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Austria, Hungary, Romania, Turkey, Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Italy, Switzerland, Spain, Portugal. We travel through 18 of the capitals of those (Germany and Turkey the exceptions). Only Bern and Zagreb do we not change trains, but I’ll be jumping on and off the platform at both.  This is subject to the Bucharest link, at 52 minutes a nail-bitingly tight connection for that part of the world, being tested against known arrival times.

The Narvik to Kiruna railway line is alas not the northernmost passenger railway in the world, or Europe for that matter. That honour belongs to the Murman Railway that runs to Murmansk, and indeed the Murmansk-Nikel Railway, which actually runs north-west from Murmansk up to the Norwegian border, and I’m told it does run passenger trains (they arent listed though, there’s another Nikel in the Urals just to confuse matters).  Nikel, as it’s name suggests, exists for the production of smelted nickel. It is an environmental disaster due to massive amounts of sulphur dioxide pollution. So instead of witnessing the worst horrors of Soviet industrialisation, we’ll be spending the day riding up a Norwegian fjord (which has no accompanying road from what I can see),  then along the shores of the massive lake Torneträsk, and through numerous national parks. If you ever fancy it, it takes 3 and a half days to get from Moscow to Murmansk and back.

The only ecologically acceptable railway north of the Kiruna line

Contrary to the disinformation I received from a certain Cockney Bob, Cascais railway station is 25 miles further west than Cabo de San Vicente of the Algarve.  As such it is easily the the furthest point west on the European railway map. It is less than 4 miles by longitude from  the westernmost point of mainland Europe  which is at Cabo de Roca . It’s 10 miles / half an hour in a cab from the station to the cape.

The southern most point of the connected European railway is not in Sicily, it’s in Greece, at Kalamata. But the Greeks, as you may know, have rather inconveniently become insolvent, and so the much raved about “Friendship Train” sleeper between Istanbul and Athens (which would have doubtless been jam packed with bandanna clad Americans) , and indeed the overnight train from Athens up to Sofia, have been canceled till further notice. It would have taken several days to do on the painfully slow Greek trains that are still running. Kalamata is off a branch line which in turn is off a branch line. And catching a ferry to Brindisi/Bari would also take longer than riding the train all the way round.

So you get Sicily instead, including a roll-on-roll-off passenger train ferry across the Straights of Messina (which I would argue makes it as good as part of the network) , and the length of Italy twice, i.e. Trieste to Milan and The Alps via Venice, Rome and Sicily, in 36 hours. Syracuse is almost exactly the same latitude as Kalamata, and is easily the most southerly principle station in Europe.  Pozzallo is indeed the most southerly railway station of any kind in Europe by a good 20 miles over Kalamata, but you’ll have to come back to Syracuse on a bus.

The Belgrade link of 2 hours has failed to meet tolerance requirements. It’s late as a matter of course by several hours according to the traffic controller in Belgrade. The ramifications of that are that we are going to have to spend another day at it, so 15 nights. In return we get to spend 8 hours in Sofia (minus a probable delay of least 1 hour), a further few hours from sometime after 4 in the morning plus delay till 10am in Belgrade, and then a second night off the train in Ljubljana (the other being in the Arctic Circle at Narvik of course). Just 300m from the station is this palace called  Celica, which is an ex-prison. So as near to a 4 berth sleeper compartment as you could get.

Duplicated track is down to the following;

1. St Pancras to Calais. I dont propose that I or anyone else gets off at Ashford for fix that in any way.

2. I thought the whole Malmo to Hamburg run would be same same. But no, our sleeper out of Amsterdam not only goes south to Cologne, but then goes the long way through Denmark via Odense. So it’s only just before Copenhagen to just after Malmo that is duplicated. And even if there was another efficient way across, which there aint, the Øresund Bridge and tunnel  is worth traversing at least twice.

3. Istanbul to Dimitrovgrad in Haskovo, Bulgaria, which is where the Bucharest line meets the Sofia line. (note that there are, at least, two Dimitovrgrads in Bulgaria, and the other one is the railway border crossing with Serbia, it’s very confusing).

These first 3 are essentially unavoidable.

4. Bologna to Syracuse (and Pozzallo if you can be arsed).  This adds up to a huge amount of duplication. Technically I think that as our sleeper on the way back up wont be on the high speed route, then Rome to Bologna will be slightly different as the two routes are a few miles apart. It is quite possible to ride all the way down the east coast of Italy on a night train from Venice to Bari, and then long the instep of Italy via Catanzaro and reduce duplicated track down to just from Lamezia, just above the upper side of it’s toes, to Sicily. But it would be yet another day on top of the 2 1/2 that Italy has got already. If we had the time it would be a great way to do it though.

5. If the Bucharest connection fails it’s review, then we’ll have a whopping lump from Belgrade to Istanbul and back, but the schedule would remain intact. The route through Romania takes us through Brasov and the Carpathian Mountains, so apart from the extra capital, and less duplication, there’s geographical and pictorial interest. The news so far is good, but I want the station master at Bucuresti Nord to tell me “it’s never more than 30 mins late”.  If we did go for it and it failed, we’d be able to get to Sofia, but it would be a real bummer to lose Istanbul.


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