Trains are a fascination in many a child's life – from the shrill blow of the commanding whistle to the clunky levers used to stop and go. Today, in Budapest, kids don't have to dream about becoming the next train conductor, they can simply join the Children's Railway. Rough Guides writer John Malathronas went to find out more...
So there's a railway line operated by children – but why?
Blame the Communists. After World War II, several railway lines popped up in Eastern Europe manned by the Pioneers, the youth section of the party. The idea was to give children a big toy where they could learn how to work as a team. It was also a canny way to spot the leaders and quick learners and promote them through the ranks.
After the fall of Communism many countries, including Hungary, thought that the values instilled to the children were worth preserving. In April 1990 the Pioneer’s Railway was renamed the Children’s Railway and – in a gesture that defines the word ‘turncoat’ – the kids and guards simply changed uniforms.
Is it safe?
Yes. They are precocious lot who have to earn top grades at school just to be considered in the first place. They’ve also been on a four-month training course and passed the same exams that adult railway workers also sat.
In any case, the station master, crew chief and, more importantly, the drivers are adults. Children work as ticket sellers and conductors, sell memorabilia, run the back office and man the switch points, supervised by railway staff.
Children at work? Is it ethical?
Don’t worry. It’s more of an adventure and learning experience than a job. The children volunteer for a year and do a shift twice a month during term time. As a bonus, they are excused from school on their “railway days”.
During the summer holidays groups of children spend two weeks each at a summer camp near the head stop at Hűvösvölgy. During that period they work every third day and for the rest of the time play games or go on organised excursions.
What's the ride like?
A museum at Hűvösvölgy details the history of the railway (in English, too) with many retro 1950s items on display, but it’s the kids that steal the show.
The children are as animated as Disney characters come to life, but they take their jobs with gravity that verges on the comic. Boys in blue shirts and red caps salute the departing locomotive, and girls in pilotkas – Soviet Army-like caps – ask for tickets with the stern face of an official inspector. Apparently they were more bossy in the Pioneer days, asserting their authority to the max.
The train chugs for forty-five minutes over nearly 12km, meandering through the Buda woods, thick with Austrian oak and beech, while lime and ash occasionally make an appearance. Don’t be surprised if you catch a glimpse of a startled deer, or even a wild boar digging roots behind a bush.
This stretch was built by volunteers between 1948 and 1950. The first section – three stations and three kilometres of track – was completed within 66 days. Hungarians never tire of boasting that it was a stunning achievement.
Buy a family day ticket and you can hop off and hop back on at one of nine alpine-looking stations for a quick hike. Vadaspark is in the middle of the Budakeszi Game Reserve – where mouflons are the big attraction – while in Jánoshegy there is a chairlift to Zugliget, at 528 meters the highest peak in the Buda hills. Once there, climb up the hundred steps of the neo-Romanesque Erzsébet Tower for some fantastic vistas.
In Csillebérc you can visit the old Pioneer Youth Camp, now an adventure park with an obstacle course and, finally, at Virágvölgy you can trek to the mysterious Tündérszikla (fairy rock), a lump of dolomite that sticks out improbably from the ground.
Tip: Sit on the left for the best views, particularly during the long “panorama curve” between Hárshegy and Szépjuhászné .
What if the weather’s bad?
This is an all-weather ride – although the train doesn’t operate on Mondays during the winter. There are eleven heated carriages and eight summer coaches with open chassis. If it rains the children are quick to pull down plastic covers over the windows to keep you dry.
I'm on board! How do I get there?
Take tram #61 from Budapest metro station Széll Kálmán tér to the end of the line at Hűvösvölgy. At the end of the day, return via the cogwheel #60 from the final stop at Széchenyi-hegy. The #61 ride itself is worth the trip; the scenery it passes is reminiscent of the Carpathians, with oaks and spruces all around. But despite the woods, you’re still within Budapest city limits and any travel passes you hold are valid.
Top image © LostintheCity/Shutterstock