If there’s one thing populists like Victor Orban should be good at, it’s making things popular. So when it turned out that a pet-project of his, the Vál Valley Light Railway was attracting less than 70 visitors a day, with some days no tourists coming at all, I went to Felcsút near Budapest to find out what was going wrong.
Spoiler alert: Diverting wads of EU cash to build a choo-choo train through your home town from your dad’s newly acquired mansion to your very own football stadium isn’t really at interesting to other people. Perhaps spend the money next time on the nearby school where the leaky roof is affecting kid’s health…
Anyway, here’s a tourist’s-eye-view of what may be going wrong and my top 10 tips for getting things back on track.
Tip 1: If you make a tourist attraction, you need to tell tourists how to get there
The railway’s website is one of the slickest I have seen with some very impressive drone footage and text in both Hungarian and English. Unfortunately, the English pages have only been partially filled in with the most notable omissions being the timetable and how to get there.
It feels like a job started with plenty of enthusiasm which just tailed off when it got to the boring details.
To find out how to get there, I had to switch to the Hungarian text and use Google Translate along with Google Maps.
First I took a train to Bicske which is only half an hour from Budapest and gives a glimpse of the real Hungary, warts and all.
That should have been all I needed to do to get the tourist train. After all, this railway was a reopening of a line that ran from Bicske. So what went wrong? See Tip 2.
Tip 2: Don’t employ football fans to build the railway
I find it really hard to simply walk passed any football match, even Sunday-league in the local park. Before I know it, I’m routing for one of the teams and muttering ‘advice and insight’ from the touchline.
And that is what seems to have happened when they rebuilt this part of the old Székesfehérvár- Bicske line. Instead of going all the way to Bicske, which would then connect to the railway network, they stopped short at the mightily impressive Pancho Arena a few miles away in Felcsút.
Don’t get me wrong, it is a wonder to behold and has a capacity twice as big as the town. If this were in Budapest, the arena would be able to seat 3 million people.
So I was now stuck in Bicske and I had to get a bus to Felcsút.
Asking bus drivers whether they went to Felcsút wasn’t too difficult. Understanding their replies was another matter, especially with a queue of people behind all itching to get on.
The good thing that came out of it was that I was able to sit and talk to a very nice old lady who was also waiting for a bus. No she didn’t know which bus I should catch…
Tip 3: Make the timetable legible
For unswerving enthusiasts like me who still want to go on the little train, publishing a photo of the timetable on your website means it can’t be put it through Google Translate, which is fine if you are only interested in Hungarian visitors.
I tried to catch the train from the top station at the arena, but the train didn’t turn up when I expected, so I filled my time by walking to the middle stop. This took me through the small town, which is incidentally the hometown of Prime Minister Victor Orban. What a coincidence…
The good news about my walk was that I was able to buy an ice cream on the way – I would be grateful for that sustenance later.
Tip 4: Actually open your cafe
I didn’t bring lunch with me as I had read that the middle station has a cafe. It was closed, which I suppose makes good financial sense when you don’t have any passengers.
I had enough time to walk back into Felcsút and past the array of barking dogs whose day I had made by walking past them the first time around. However, I decided instead to wait until the train had actually taken me somewhere and then I’d forage dog-free.
When the train arrived, no-one got off, so I must have been the first passenger of the day on my ride down to the final stop at Alcsút. The train driver and guard were very friendly. They rode in the cab together, presumably for a bit of company until I got on.
I decided to splash out on a ticket that would let me ride the full length of the line up and down. It was the least I could do.
Tip 5: Budget for breakages
Despite the railway being only three years old, it is already showing signs of wear and tear. At the top station, it looks like the wrong type of screws were used for the railings and they are already rusting. The plywood on the accessibility ramp is flaking away and as I later saw, several of the windows in the trains have large cracks in them.
This maintenance is all going to have to be funded somehow.
Tip 6: Tourists aren’t interested in seeing dad’s new mansion
Alcsút is the site of an old Hapsburg estate and an arboretum that is open to the public.
Going into the arboretum actually cost more than the little train and after reading about the dubious purchases of these old Hapsburg lands for Győző Orbán, father of the prime minister, Victor, I felt rather put off of going in.
Instead, I made do with wandering down the lanes and nibbling on a packet of sunflower seeds I had found at the bottom of my rucksack.
Tip 7: Give your staff a sense of purpose
When the train returned to pick me up, perhaps unsurprisingly no one got off and I was the only person to get on.
It made me wonder what it must be like to drive the diesel train up and down these tracks day in, day out with hardly anyone using it. However much you like trains, or at least having a job, it must feel pretty pointless.
So, how about giving your staff time off to go and fix the roof at the nearby school in Etyek where it was reported that mould spore counts exceeded WHO safe levels. Parents have had to club together to pay for basic repairs.
Tip 8: Find a rich benefactor
No, the EU isn’t a wealthy uncle. Or even if it is, they will keep poking their nose into other business interests which could become awkward.
Keeping the little train running, means finding someone with deep pockets who has an attachment to the place. If you can’t think of someone in the area who might want to give something back, how about going further afield?
My advice would be to write a polite letter to ex-pat George Soros asking for help.
Tip 9: Don’t turn away passing trade
I got off the train at the Pancho Arena having been, as far as I am aware, the only passenger that day. But on the platform were four people.
They were work colleagues and one of them was from the Ukraine. The other three wanted to show her some of the local sights after work and they were hoping to go for a little ride.
Unfortunately, this was the last scheduled stop. The train was going to back to the depot. No exceptions could be made, even if it would have quintupled their income for that day.
They didn’t seem too disappointed at missing out on the ride.
Tip 10: Leave this sort of thing to the experts
With my trips up and down this little line, something felt like it was missing, apart from passengers, but I couldn’t put my finger on what it was.
Then I realised – enthusiasts.
Train lines that had been closed in places like the UK were reopened by volunteers.
All the little trains I had been on had been run by avid enthusiasts who gave up their free time to pursue their rail-based passion. Where was the gift shop manned by staff grudgingly selling Thomas the Tank Engine toys?
Where were the staff who wince at you for confusing a train with a locomotive and who simply have to tell you their gripe with current national transportation policy.
I love these people.
They keep the wheels on track and their questionably placed passion is, of a sort, infectious.
Let’s be clear, tourist attractions like this could be a great idea. Anyone with kids (or work colleagues from the Ukraine) want things to do.
It’s also not surprising that the local boy, who became prime minister would want to give something back to his hometown. Who wouldn’t?
But benefactors usually give their own money.