Monday, 8 August 2016

The WCSC Trip: Days 1, 2 and 3 – from Sheffield to Belgrade.

My trip to the European Chess Solving Championship (ECSC) in Kiev in 2012 had persuaded me never to fly again. There were late flights leading to missed connections both going out and returning home. There was lost luggage on the way out. There were multiple,  intrusive security checks, an aborted landing in Kiev and, finally, a delayed final flight home from Paris that was itself a later flight than booked because of a late earlier flight.
For all those reasons, and a few others, I decided to travel to the World Chess Solving Championship (WCSC) in Belgrade by train. This meant two and a half day’s travelling going there and another two and a half day’s travelling coming back. I searched the Internet for guidance on how to get there and found this page, and very useful it was too. The route I selected to get there was Sheffield to London St. Pancras, London St. Pancras to Paris, Paris to Munich, Munich to Budapest (on the overnight sleeper) and finally Budapest to Belgrade. I used almost the same route in reverse for the return trip. In each direction I stayed overnight in London.
This is the first of a series of blog posts describing the journey and also the event, and we start with the outward journey.
The train journey from Sheffield to London St. Pancras is these days just over two hours in duration. Not wishing to rush things, I decided to travel mid-afternoon so as to arrive at my hotel at about tea-time. Travelling on your own with luggage is stressful and I like to give myself plenty of time to allow for things to go wrong, as they often do. However, everything went smoothly, I arrived at my hotel at the right time, had a leisurely dinner and retired to bed for a good night’s sleep before the more tiring travelling of the next couple of days.
I took the mid-morning Eurostar to Paris, arriving at the Gare du Nord on time. Following a ten-minute walk to the Gare de l’Est, I sat down and waited for the TGV from Paris to Munich. I boarded that train and it left Paris dead on time. It is some years since I have travelled on French or German railways and things have improved in the intervening years, even though they were pretty good before. The new train was comfortable, air-conditioned and very fast. The screen at either end of each carriage kept us informed on the progress of the journey, the extent and reason for any delay, and, from time to time, the speed the train was travelling at, which at times approached 320 km/h! We did in fact suffer a signalling failure and we arrived at Munich HBF about fifteen minutes late. This did not worry me as my onward train, the overnight sleeper to Budapest didn’t leave for another three hours. It was very hot in Munich (as it had been in Paris), so I sat on a seat outside the station and had my dinner: a bottle of Coca-Cola and a cheese and ham baguette, purchased inside the station. It was at this stage that I started to feel tired. I found the heat oppressive and I began to wonder how the citizens of central Europe coped with it.
The journey so far had been smooth and almost stress-less, but little things began to go wrong from about now. As I had expected, the sleeper train was run by Hungarian Railways and, being old rolling-stock, was not up to the standard of the trains I had been travelling on so far. I had a single-occupancy sleeping compartment that had a narrow bed, a wash-basin and a cupboard, which contained two bottles of water (very welcome) and a couple of packaged snacks. There was adequate air-conditioning, but it was very loud. The wash-basin had a hinged lid, which was intended to be secured in the open position by a magnet, but the magnet wasn’t working, so actually using the wash-basin wasn’t possible. The cupboard had a similar problem: it had a door that couldn’t be secured in the closed position because of a failed magnet. Of course, once the train started moving, this door swung backwards and forwards, regularly hitting the cupboard and making a sleep-disturbing noise. This all meant that I anticipated a difficult night’s sleep, and indeed I had one, but not just because of the noise inside the compartment. I have never intentionally slept on a train before and I soon found that I was waking up every time the train came to a halt. One of the stops seemed to go on for some time, so I opened the window-blind and looked out. We were at Salzburg and it was the middle of the night.
At about 06:30 in the morning, three hours before we were due at Budapest, I gave up the effort of trying to sleep and got up. Shortly afterwards the coach-steward brought breakfast. This consisted of a cup of coffee (ordered the night before), a croissant and a sandwich, all very welcome.
All my train tickets, with the exception of the return trip between Budapest and Belgrade, had been bought online at either the Eurostar site or the one of Deutsche Bahn. Tickets for this trip, if bought in advance, had to be bought online at the Hungarian Railways site and then collected at Budapest Railway Station. I knew to look for a blue machine. I spotted a couple of such machines and duly keyed in my reference number to one of them. This prompted an error message, in English, telling me that the machine didn’t print tickets for international journeys. Luckily, next to the machines was the information desk. Before I asked anybody what I should do, I spied a notice in English saying that International Tickets could only be printed at the ticket office for international tickets. So, I looked around for a sign and found one, which led me to what was a closed and unopenable door to the required ticket office. There was a clear no-entry sign, but no instructions about how to enter the ticket office. I eventually found the entry to the ticket office (which didn’t appear to be sign-posted from inside the station at all) and, from the outside, looked inside for the blue machine. I couldn’t see one. All I could see was lots of people buying tickets from ticket machines or queuing up at the information desk. I entered the ticket office and eventually found a blue machine, hidden away in a dark corner. I keyed in my reference number and got the same error message I had got on the other machine. I assumed that this error message was itself an error as this time the machine also gave a couple of buttons I could press, both labelled in Hungarian. I picked one at random and the machine began to whirr, eventually printing six pieces of paper, all apparently  identical. As I was only expecting a ticket and two seat reservations, this was confusing. As the tickets were spat out of the machine upside-down, what I could see was the advertising on the backs. I turned them over and inspected them. At that point it became clear that what it had printed was two tickets and four seat reservations! I inspected the print-out of the confirmation email message I had got weeks before from the Hungarian Railway’s website: it listed two tickets and four seat reservations! I had actually bought two tickets and not realised it! At the time I had had to repeat my order with the site because it had frozen on a page where none of the options were working. I have to say that it was one of the worse web applications I have ever used. If I ever do this trip again, I will buy my ticket when I get to Budapest. Better for the pocket and the blood-pressure!
It was hot in Budapest too, so my wait for the train to Belgrade was uncomfortable. The train to Belgrade was the slow train: it seemed to stop at all the stations along the way. What I found most surprising was the lack of platforms at the stations. Passengers climbed up/down  to/from the train from/to the track-side. This must be difficult for young children or elderly passengers and for those with luggage. Passengers wait on the track-side behind a white line, sometimes even between tracks, and they walk over the tracks to get to and from the trains. This is the case even at the bigger places like Novi Sad. This seems dangerous, even when the trains are travelling as slowly as this one was. I can’t imagine the health and safely authorities allowing that in the United Kingdom.
The journey itself was, at over eight hours, interminable. There was air-conditioning, but it wasn’t working all the time, so we were all sweltering. At the last stop before the Serbian border, the Hungarian border police entered the train to inspect our passports. A mile or so up the track, at Subotica, the Serbian border police did the same.
I was very glad to arrive, somewhat late, at Belgrade station just after 21:00. I was even more glad to see that I was being met by one of the congress officials, who took me direct to my hotel, where I had a very light dinner and then went straight to bed.
To be continued …