When it was booked, the trip from Berlin to Amsterdam seemed secure. On the way out to Berlin a change of trains halfway, at Duisburg. But on the way home there would be only leisure and boredom. It was not to be.
At midday in Berlin Hauptbahnhof the train did not go. We went to the railway counter to be rebooked. There would be an international train hours later. My partner suggested an alternative: driving to Brandenburg Airport and flying from there. But I refused, fearing new complications. “Rather bear those ills we have, than fly to others that we know not of.” (Hamlet, Shakespeare)
So we waited. We ate outside the station at a snack-bar. We returned with the new ticket. The train was late and full. My seat was taken by no less than three Ukrainians in yellow and blue football attire, sitting on top of each other. They went and I waved goodbye through the crowd at the silhouette of my friend.
The international train stopped at a dozen stations. At every station a tribe of seat-hunters would join. Installing themselves on the floor, between the compartments, standing. Then the intercom would order them to leave the train and the majority would leave. This unnecessary ritual would take between ten and fifteen minutes at every stop. I felt the safe transition time of 90 minutes, at Duisburg, where I had to change, slipping away. Indeed, when at Duisburg, my connection had already left.
I began to recognize fellow victims. People I had noticed in Berlin, also people that told me about starting the day in Copenhagen. At Duisburg we found each other together again on a platform without train or guidance. I considered, as it was midnight, to look for a hotel. But there was no help. Waiting there, information was exchanged, most of it false. But at last after midnight a train was announced, bound for the Netherlands, and everyone climbed in.
Half an hour later on the way to Arnhem, the intercom told the after midnight compartment that a train ahead of us had been technically incapacitated and that 300 passengers would be unloaded into our vehicles. Indeed through the darkness a new tribe of stragglers reached our track and struggled in. They were to be unloaded at Utrecht.
After two o’clock we reached Amsterdam, most of us relying on family and acquaintances to take them home. A handful, including the new friends from Copenhagen, were stranded on a platform in Amsterdam.
We were saved by a train, for night-workers and late partygoers. Most of them asleep. At three o’clock, after half an hour of walking from the Leiden station, no taxi, I put my key in the front door of my home. The trip from Berlin had taken more than half a day.
Is there any lesson? Except from the obvious, taking the plane, that going by train has been dehumanised. There is contact via the electronic system but not by helpers. Also that international seats should be protected against interlopers that derail the timetable. Trains should be a public service, not a private ordeal.
By the way, Dutch people, who have the reputation of being grumpy, are remarkably upbeat under circumstances of duress.