Photo: They do exist - a container freight heads towards the Serbian border past the wayside station of Bösztör, 45 miles south of Budapest.
Though an impressively long train, about one third of the flat wagons were noticeably devoid of containers.
Train Ride to the Kunság
I've been researching a story for Euronews on the soon-to-be-modernised Budapest – Belgrade railway line.
This is a controversial project: largely financed with Chinese capital, critics say it will take hundreds, if not a thousand years to pay back its investment. Supporters, ie the government, say it will slash the overall passenger schedule between the two capital cities from something like eight hours to around four. This is not that difficult since the current average speed for the whole journey is around 30 mph (50 kmph).
Actually, that's not quite true, because right now you can't actually get a train from Budapest to Belgrade. For a start, the one service a day scheduled to cross the border has been suspended on account of Covid-19 fears. But even when it was running, it has of late been dumping you in Novi Sad, about 60 miles (95 km) short of the Serbian capital, and with not a rail-replacement bus in sight, say facebook group complainers. Serbian railways have, you see already started the renewal of that last (or first) section of track, hence no trains are running on it.
Anyway, since the Hungarian government has declared the project a state secret (if you are wondering why, rest assured many opposition politicians are asking the same question) and the Serbian Rail Infrastructure public relations department is about as talkative as the North Korean Minister for Human Rights*, I decided to take a lil trip down the line for some hands-on experience.
I somehow don't think many Perspective-Budapest readers travel by train very much in Hungary, but it's a real eye opener. I just about caught the 07.57 departure from Budapest Keleti to Kelebia – be ye warned that it leaves from a set of platforms added onto the main station some years after the original train shed was first built. That leaves these addenda about 150 metres short of the main buffer stops, and that in turn means an additional three-four minute (brisk) walk from the metro station before you can board your train – that's a lot of time if you have cut it fine, as I had.
No matter, I made it. Inside the carriage, there were about eight other passengers, including two sixty-ish working men talking football and each merrily quaffing a can of beer - a reminder, it's 07.55 in the morning. I think only one 20-something young lady passenger to my left was wearing a face mask. Clearly, health issues are not of much a worry in the vidék.
If you've ever been to Vienna by train, you'll know that the initial few kilometres around Budapest treat passengers to an ever-changing, fascinating glimpses of Budapest suburban vistas.
These range from shabby, 19th century housing blocks in places like Kőbánya, then past some fancy new flats before plunging into another 19th century environment, this time comprising ageing industrial sites in Ferencváros. Rattling over the points as the maze of tracks criss-cross, it's an exhilarating ride.
Shortly after leaving Ferencváros station, the Kelebia route diverges from the main line before the Danube bridge and we head more or less due south, soon passing the massive BILK container terminal at Soroksár. This is an impressive sight, with hundreds, if not thousands of containers stacked high and wide.
A symbol of Hungary's commercial dynamism, one might think?
Except that, as noted, most of these containers – many of them sporting Chinese calligraphy – are stacked, some five units high, and that means they don't seem to be going anywhere, anytime soon. Perhaps it's a result of the Coronavirus downturn: perhaps they are awaiting transfer to lorries, rather than another train. But moving right now, they are not, and as economic assets, losing money they are.
I think it's been a single track line pretty much since we left the junction at Ferencváros, so we pass one or two passenger trains bringing commuters into Budapest at various stations.
However, freight trains have so far been noticeable by the absence. This is not a good sign, because the real reason for the massive investment earmarked for modernising this line is supposed to be freight: lots of chinese-made goods making their way from the (Chinese-owned) port of Piraeus in Greece, to millions of (relatively) wealthy consumers in western Europe, all eager to snap up Chinese products at good-value prices.
That's the theory: but if the freight does not materialise, this investment will prove a costly folly, at least as far as the taxpayer is concerned. Somewhere about 30 miles outside Budapest we pass our very first, rather long, container train. It has, admittedly, a lot of Chinese containers in its consist.
* UPDATE: It took the best part of two months, but Serbian Rail Infrastructure did finally answer most questions, and in quite a full manner.
To be continued.
Here's a link to the story I was doing, for Euronews.