Volcano Trains: Thousands Take to the Rails

Hundreds of the “the volcano-marooned” battled it out for the few remaining seats

A man desperately consults with an ÖBB official about the status of his delayed travels | Photo: David Reali

Apr. 17, 2010, ICE 26 north to Dortmund, Germany from Vienna, departure time 10:40 a.m. At Vienna Westbahnhof the lines in front of the ticket counters are easily 50 meters long. The platforms are teeming with people. The numbers pulling little black carry-on bags and shouldering laptop briefcases are a clue to who these travellers are: The airline passengers stranded when the Vienna International Airport at Schwechat was closed Apr. 16.

The “volcano-marooned,” they described themselves.

The ICE 26 pulls into the platform, as it always does, a half hour before departure. What is usually a quiet and slow accumulating of passengers is now a mad scramble to get the last unreserved seats: only four in each car. All other seats had been reserved since the day before: at 3 p.m., one of the passengers had seen the last two reserved seats of the ICE 26 being snatched away before her eyes on the computer screen at an ÖBB (Austrian Railways) travel center. There are hopelessly more passengers than usual: a train with 55 first class seats and 322 second has 150% capacity within minutes. And most of these extra guests should have been in the air.

The atmosphere is not, however, stressed. It’s a hassle, but also exciting. From the confused reading of the seat numbers, friends shouting from one end of the car to the other, the difficulty getting their luggage up the steps or through the aisles, it is clear that many haven’t been on a train for years. A young man with blond dreadlocks carries a sign around his neck: “keep smiling.” And most are.

An announcement over the loudspeakers brings immediate silence to the crowds:

“Those passengers traveling within Austria are asked to cross the platform to a second train that will follow as far as Passau. Otherwise we will have to empty the train.” An empty threat perhaps, but many do go over to the second train. And the ICE 26 leaves on time.

All had an organizational odyssey behind them. Many had spent the whole day before at Schwechat standing in lines to get information. The airline telephone info lines had endless “please wait” messages; the computers at hotels were crashing.

A couple from Cologne was glad to have been able to add a night to their Vienna holiday: “The hotel was booked out, but luckily many people coming to run in the Vienna marathon hadn’t arrived as their flights had been cancelled.” They praised the Viennese service personnel everywhere, from the hotel, to the airport, to the train station: friendly, intelligent, professional, precise and multi-lingual.

A couple from Mauritius had spent 24 hours searching for another way to get home than with their scheduled flights via London. First they re-routed via Hamburg, but when the German airports were closed they decided to “get moving” and take a train to London. They had “made the most of it,” spending a fabulous day in Vienna going to Schönbrunn and the opera. “And the pastries…” they sighed. “It’s heaven on earth. We will come back.” Although they were supposed to be back at work on Monday, they don’t seem overly worried. “According to CNN, Heathrow will open in three days.”

A cigar representative from Cuba was nostalgic about his student days in the GDR, studying German literature in Leipzig in the 80s. At that time he had known all the trains and schedules “as well as a train conductor,” he boasted. When Schwechat had closed, he had simply re-booked his entire business trip through his central office. “I should have flown to Zurich today, but instead I’m taking the train to Düsseldorf. It wasn’t complicated. And it’s nice to doze all day on the train.”

A group of businessmen from Dublin were on their way home from the Ukraine. They had managed to fly as far as Vienna, but were now standing in the train corridor – there were no more seats – on their to Dortmund. From there, they had a train to Calais, then a ferry to Dover, a train to Hollyhead, and a ferry to Dublin. Where they would rent a car to drive to Dublin airport to pick up their cars.

“Every leg of the journey is already booked. Been doing it while on the road with our Blackberries.” They would get home two days late, but “it’s been a quest,” requiring much resourcefulness. In the Ukraine they had even considered “looking for a good horse!”

The sky was a quiet, vivid blue, with wisps of feathery clouds. It was an idyllic day. There was none of the tragic horror and anxiety as when planes were landed worldwide after 9/11. There is no fear and eerie disquiet about something hazardous falling out of the sky that you can’t see, like after Chernobyl. The volcano Eyafjallajökull (pronunciation: eye-ufyudla-yöködl) in Iceland has caused inconvenience, no more. Somehow everyone will get home, and have an adventure on the way, a story to tell when they arrive.

The crowded train was strangely peaceful; there was a buzz of happy conversations, people playing cards, a long line at the bistro for coffee in paper cups. Everyone seemed to be enjoying the unexpected hours of enforced leisure. The only flying transportation to be seen all day as the train moved north through Germany were two low-flying gliders and a hot-air balloon. And as a passenger on the ICE 26 said, “the trains are having a golden age again.”

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