Why I Prefer Old Slovak Trains to “Better” Western European Trains

Slovak Trains

April 8, 2012

Allan Stevo

As people hop on trains all weekend long, travelling throughout Slovakia to their ancestral villages, I thought this piece would fit well.  These are issue I think about when I gratefully ride an older model Slovak train and when I sadly get stuck on a new, more modern, train from the West.  From where I stand, newer Western trains , though they are in better condition, based on design are lesser trains and offer less freedom to passengers than the older model Slovak trains.  This piece first appeared at LRC in March of 2010 as “The Wrong Side of the Border.”  – Allan

In the year 2010 if you step into a train in Slovakia, it is likely a train built 30 years ago. A train that squeaks and is so noisy that the gentle rocking won’t work you to sleep. Each window opens, or is at least supposed to open. The seats often stick to your skin on hot days and chill your clothed skin with a hard vinyl on cold days. Still upholstered with the original materials of 30 years ago and mended with duct tape-like material here and there. If the lights work they are harsh, but can be switched off in each six- or eight-passenger compartment, each coupé, as the Europeans are fond of calling them. The toilets have ages of wear on them that are indecipherable from filthiness. When you flush, a trap door in the toilet opens to reveal the sound, sight, and draft of the tracks below. There is no pretense of there being a storage tank on this train.

This train is the superior train in Slovakia, a train you are lucky to be on if you have the opportunity. Every passenger on that train can control the temperature, the level of draft that reaches him or her, the amount of light, out of politeness by first asking the six other people in the coupé if they wouldn’t mind and then opening or closing a window, door, drapes, hanging a head or arm out into the breeze, switching on the heat or air-conditioning, turning the lights on or off. This is the communist built train that surprisingly exemplifies and recognizes the freedom of the individual, a responsibility to people immediately around him, the ability to change things immediately around him.

When walking out on the street or on the sidewalk, you can never be certain of who sees you. In a coupé, you can make it more private. You can actually close a curtain if you don’t want passengers walking by to be able to look into your coupé. You can close other curtains if you don’t want to be stared at by people standing on the platform as your train sits at a station. You can even lock the door. Yes, you can lock the door to your coupé built during the days of the intrusive seemingly omnipresent communist government. Sometimes the conductor will use his key to open it when coming for tickets. Sometimes he or she will just knock and wait patiently for you to open it.

Some trains are crowded, others are not. On some lines, at certain times of the day, even when just riding second class, you can quite literally read a book in peace and quiet, entirely on your own, not a person in sight or earshot. Even on pretty full trains if you’re travelling with a bigger group of friends, you can get a coupé or two to yourselves. If you are with family, travelling four or five in a group, often other passengers will allow you a coupé to yourselves, especially with little kids in tow.

And in contrast, we have another type of train in Slovakia – new and shiny. It sometimes even smells new, fresh out of the factories of the Western democracies. It’s at times a hand-me-down from a country of the West, fallen below Western standards, but of high standards for a post-communist country, so it’s often a welcome hand-me-down. This is the inferior type of train that you can step onto in Slovakia.

It’s created with a love for sameness and for identical behavior and wants throughout a community. A train created in one of the Western European democracies. A train that doesn’t let you open a window. If everything’s working properly, a train where every room, every car, every seat has the identical temperature, the identical amount of fresh air.

Of course, everyone is able to put on a sweater or take one off, but beyond that very limited option you have on this train no greater control over yourself and your surroundings. Nor does any other passenger. In that respect it is equal. Nor, would it seem, does anyone else on board have that ability, as you would learn from an attempt to change the atmosphere on the train on those 43 degree (6 C) days in late September when someone left the air-conditioning on or those 87 degree (31 C) days in April when someone forgot to turn down the heat.

You can always ask the conductor to turn down the air-conditioning in September. He might even do that for you. Or there’s a list of surprisingly familiar options to anyone who’s gone to an overseer (a.k.a. public servant, a.k.a. government employee) and begged for something.

He might tells you “yes,” and not do it. He might tell you “no” and walk away. He might tell you he can’t because he’s not allowed to. It’s “the rules” that it must be at that temperature and the person/people who make/s the rules is/are not even on the train, nor do/es he/she/they have a phone number, but “will get in touch with you promptly if you send him/her/them a letter to an address that I can provide for you.”

Or he just doesn’t know how to turn down the A.C. It’s outside of his pay grade and in a need-to-know world, it’s not his business. In the end, in order to ensure some modicum of comfort, and to stop your travelling partners from shivering, you are likely to have to open a window on that chilly September day in order to warm up the air conditioned train. Or in April to cool down that superheated train. Except the windows simply don’t open. They’re all bolted shut.

On these trains there are no barriers separating compartments. There are no compartments. Entire trains composed of entirely undivided train cars. Everyone can see and hear everyone else. Sure, there are plush seats, big windows, the things around you feel new and a little cleaner. It’s well-lit, consistently well-lit regardless of how light or dark it is outside.

If you happen to find a car that has a coupé, it will be a coupé with entirely glass walls. No hiding behind curtains or locked doors in there. No momentary privacy. No small groups. No isolated family units. This is the train of the Western democracies.

On this “up to Western standards” train, you can’t even do one of the most beautiful things there is to do in Slovakia: to open the window any of the four seasons and to take in the fresh air as you run through the countryside, along rivers, past mountains dotted with castles, at 90 miles an hour, allowing Slovakia to whip through your hair.

No, on this up-to-Western-standards train you can’t do that, but you can view your country through tinted windows, to see a green-hued or maybe a blued-hued or brown-hued or gray-hued Slovakia.

Perhaps a color of window designed in a country that does not have its own colors. For here, in a country like this, with such a rich palate of rural colors, clear is the preferable color of the glass manufactured. And why is the glass tinted? Because the designer/design committee didn’t trust you to look away when the sun shone, to cover your eyes from the UV rays. It might be dangerous for you if you act irresponsibly, so all people get the same tinted view.

It’s one of the paradoxes one encounters in skirting the border between East and West. In repressive regimes you find these surprising ways that individual freedom pokes out. It seems there will always be people with a desire to not have every aspect of life centrally controlled. The design of the communist-era Slovak train being but one small example in a constant flood of them, a constant flood of them that are apparent to the keen observer. A constant flood of ways that people (most often quietly) allowed for the individual, himself, herself, or another, to be the boss of oneself in some aspect of life.

And that same paradox is true as you move West of that border. You see things you would never see East (especially pre-EU-acquisition of the central European post-communist nations aka “Eastern Europe”); the train being but one small example. In nations that are, relatively-speaking, considered to be some of the freest countries in the world, you can find a virtually endless supply, really virtually endless to the keen observer, of ways of controlling other people. It’s fascinating how it always seems to be there, this underlying idea of “I know what’s good for you, better than you know what’s good for you.” Behind political façades of freedom, you always find this in places you don’t expect to find it. Not the idea of “individuals choose for themselves,” but the idea of “I will choose for myself, and for you as well.”

Just as a sense of decreased political freedom in the US has brought out a sense of rebelliousness in me, I wonder if a guise of increased political freedom brings a willingness to tolerate less freedom, a willingness to tolerate more central planning where one worker, or more often a committee decides for all with limited avenues of recourse.

“1,000 years without a king makes the heart free” reads a Slovak t-shirt. But I wonder if it’s really years of those failed (usually foreign) repressive regimes that made so many Slovaks so beautifully apolitical. So apolitical that not once, but twice they had the worst voter turnout in EU elections for any EU member state. Politicians simply don’t have the fertile soil here for widespread voluntary political hero worship.

In 2004, “W.” visited the Slovak capital of Bratislava to give a well-attended public speech. In an image captured by many cameras, a group of approximately 10 Slovak thirty-somethings were engaging in the uncharacteristically Slovak act of holding placards with George and Laura Bush’s photos on them and showing fervent vocal support. Cheering, jumping, clapping, chanting. They weren’t in the easy-to-enter VIP section, but were suspiciously in the “everyone else” section. Shocked by what I was seeing I asked a few of them which of Bush’s policies they liked most. The answer was something like “WE LOVE GEORGE BUSH!!!” I tried again, to which I received a substanceless answer. So the third time, I pulled one person off to the side, tried again, and she said to me “Don’t tell anyone, but we work for the Prime Minister. We have to be here today doing this.”

The lack of widespread voluntary hero worship seems to allow for this tremendous distrust of government. Seldom can individual politicians be mentioned at a table full of ordinary people without someone at the table laughing aloud about the politician. Frequently what follows is the latest joke going around about that politician.

In a country where government has so consistently failed the people, it’s an attitude one should expect. (After all, if failure is marked by instability, the last century saw six different officially acknowledged currency changes with four different officially acknowledged implosions of government in Slovakia. Any person on the street of a certain age can tell you that.) Freedom might be more precious to a Slovak who knows his government failed him than to an Austrian who believes in his government. To a Czech more than a Frenchman.

It seems we notice our freedom most when that precious freedom feels most keenly threatened. But what is it that brings out the central planner in men, that moves one to force his will on others, and more importantly that allows us to acquiesce to the planning of the minutia of our lives by fiat? Is it the veil of political freedom? If we believe we are free, will we consent to anything? If we simply feel free, will we consent to even more?

Allan Stevo writes on Slovak culture at www.52inSk.com. He is from Chicago and spends most of his time traveling Europe and writing. You can find more of his writing at www.AllanStevo.com. If you enjoyed this post, please use the buttons below to like it on Facebook or to share it with your friends by email. You can sign up for emails on Slovak culture from 52 Weeks in Slovakia by clicking here.

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  • Allan, you definitely made some good points, but I feel need to add some opposite side view. I will comment just the trains part, not the political metaphore part.

    All of the things you mentioned are somehow connected, and are so complex that letting you a one option can ruin all others dimensions off your and all others’ comfort.

    It probably all starts with different layout of train cars… no compartments but open-spaces. I supposed it has been done so to find a reasonable compromise between capacity of a train car and comfort of passengers. In new “Western” trains everyone, or most of the passengers, have a table in front of them (it was a privilege of just two passengers seated right next to the window – and they had just a small table for themselves). Is table necessary? Well, when you take in consideration, that a lot of people are traveling with computer and they are also using it – even more likely when there is a free wi-fi available (does not matter if you are watching a downloaded movie or writing another article for your blog), table comes handy.

    Some another arguments, that comes to my mind, why open-spaced cars have been chosen:

    1, Control of temperature – limits your freedom, but serves you well when it works properly – temperature between 21 and 24 degrees should not make you sweat. I also suppose air-conditioning is done so that you will feel just a “final product” (it does not blow a cold air on your neck, so your muscle would got stuck – that can easily happened with opened window). Opening window should be an agreement of all people in compartment – some are more likely to be sensitive on cold wind, some not. Yes, it can be very helpful when someone / something smelly comes on board, but controlling temperature in old train means turning heating on and off. Personally I, most of the times, did not feel a difference between heating turned on or off. To cool down a compartment you have to open a window – what can be very unpractical when there is -10 degrees outside and snowing.

    2, Another thing that comes to my mind with option to open window is safety and tidiness. Sadly, some Slovaks still things that you can throw trash anywhere, just to get rid of it, and throwing a trash outside a window can be dangerous and also irresponsible, because you can harm someone else by hitting him/her, destroy his/her image of Slovakia or his/her feelings from trip, with garbage around railroad tracks.
    You can harm yourself even by leaning out of window – also quite popular.

    3, Social control could be another argument for open-spaces – yes, it limits your privacy, but I thing many will agree with me on that, there is nothing worse when you have someone drunk, smelly, or anybody who makes you uncomfortable in a compartment. In open-spaced cars, more people are likely to see this person, including conductor who is responsible for order, safety and comfort of passengers.

    4, What is more important? Your personal well-being, comfort and privacy or safely and comfort of as much people as it is possible. (I know it can sound that I am opposing my own argument above – actually, it does a little, but let me finish.) You can lock inside a compartment with some friends, but you action lowers a capacity of a train and comfort of other passengers who does not have a place to sit. Why should, for example, 5 people have a compartment for themselves when 8 people could be seated there. Point is to get seated as much people as you can – what makes it more safety or easier to go through the car to a toilet or to get off the train.

    I liked old trains too, but what seems as more freedom for one person, can mean less freedom for others.
    I see a point of changing to open-spaced train cars in maximizing a capacity of train, seating as much passengers as it is possible and still offer them as much comfort as it is possible.

    Privacy, maximizing your own comfort and giving you freedom can be possible if a train is empty of half-empty. But that means it is not economical and that, in today’s world, means bad. Unfortunate? Maybe. Not taking cars from half-empty train and adding them to fully seated train. Unfortunate? Definitely!

    You wrote a very nice article that made me think of something I never thought of, but it sounded a bit one-sided to me and I felt a need to balance it a little. Hope it is fine with you.

  • Another great post Allan!
    I just love the way you make me look at things differently (in addition to make me feel nostalgic  ).
    I think to a great degree it’s all about our choice of being free or being right and unfortunately, desire to be right is what wins way too often.

  • jim stasheff

    Apr 8th, 2012

    I think you would appreciate Havel’s comments (which resonate especially with your concluding comments) as quoted in
    The Nation April 9 issue “Havel’s Specter’. On the other hand,
    respect for politicians is hardly any greater in the US these days.

  • In Austria we had the same train layout: controlable heat, windows that open, they even let you turn down the volume of the announcents and boy i loved to do a number 2 through that open hatch in the toilet. I guess it’s just a difference between old and new – not so much of political ideology.

  • Last time I went with one of the new trains, the airconditioning was set on too hot and it was hard to breathe. There were some drunken students that first complained noisily about the thick air, but because they were Slovac they didn´t stop at that- they opened the window with some armyknife or screwdriver or something (they didt break it). So this shows us that you can still change things around you when it really bothers you 😀

  • Most if not all train carriages even the new westlike ones are constructed or refurbished in ŽOS I think.

  • oooh, and you didn’t discover the most wonderful thing about that 8-passenger coupées – you can sleep in them quite comfty. even 6-ps are good, but 8-ps are the best..

    I think fux’s comment is all wrong, mainly because: 1. air conditioning is quite often blowing from windows (right below windows onto your arms – brr) and there is no fresh air in a car. It’s simple horrible in a car full filled with people in summer. 2. there is a sign forbidding leaning – if you are stupid than well – go for your death. also forbidding throwing trash from windows is not a recipe for cleaner Slovakia. 3. eh? this point is completely wrong and that’s true also for 4. – there is always a place to sit in the train – you only need use your brain to reach it 😉 brr

    and a note for allan: i think you should separate goverment’s things and politics from common things. there is so much beuaty in them – don’t blow them away with the trash.

  • Last time I went with one of the new trains, the airconditioning was set on too hot and it was hard to breathe. There were some drunken students that first complained noisily about the thick air, but because they were Slovac they didn´t stop at that- they entered the window with some armyknife or screwdriver or something (they didt break it)

  • I love your article. I am not sure I follow all of the East vs. West details but fully agree that modern compartments are rubbish. I suspect that reasons for growth of open floor plan of trains are similar to those behind open office floor plans in offices: They look better to the architect, aesthetically, and are in accord with what other architects and designers are up to. The idea is also that design should promote community or a communal sense…or some such rubbish which of course simply devolves into everyone having to listen to everyone else, especially Mr Mobile Phone Guy. There is zero charm to modern train travel because of these communal train cars. If I had a choice, I would also always go for the older style train. I suspect (and hope) we are not alone in loathing the trend. If a train company were to start using older style train cars I would again consider that form of transportation. Otherwise I will fly or rent a car. I remember compartments in trains from when I was young. They were cozy and personal and although no one had a mobile phone back then, they were mobile phone friendly as there was always an available corridor where that person could, I imagine, stand and chat as obnoxiously as he cared to without anyone else having to hear it. The only country where I have experienced modern trains that are cozy is Japan but that is because Japanese people never would think of chatting loudly and never on a mobile phone and the temperature is immaculately maintained at a very comfortable level. The challenge is for modern train design to rediscover the coupe. It is not impossible. In fact, how about buying the old train cars and refurbishing them? Virgin train service in UK is just the sort of company I imagine could make this happen. I think I will contact them 😉


    P.S. A relevant quote: “Civilization is the progress toward a society of privacy. – Ayn Rand

  • I loved reading this article and chuckled to myself a few times. I grew up in East Germany and spent a lot of times on trains – very similar to the ones’ described in the article. Dirty (my grandfather would always wip out his handkerchief and wipe down the seats and fold away tables, drafty, too hot or too cold, but somehow they were personable, you’d sit with complete strangers, or very privately in the coupe; you could stick your head out of the window, or watch the gravel of the tracks through the toilets little poop chute.

    The current expression of Western market driven democracy is absolutely achieving a homogenization of the social sphere and the actors – consumers – in it. By creating little room for friction it is very non-stimulating.

    I don’t miss the repressive system that I grew up in, but I miss those little moments of personal triumph, when defeating the system and asserting a moment of individual freedom, and the creativity that comes with that.

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