Food Feature: The Railway Children

Budapest's Pioneer Railway offers a unique glimpse into Communism's past

Of all the remnants of old Communism left in Eastern Europe, one of the most charming is the Pioneer Railway, a 11-kilometer rail system twisting its way through the beautifully wooded hills of the Buda side of Hungary's capital, Budapest. It's a unique rail system because nearly all the tasks of maintaining and operating the system are performed by children under the age of 14.
Begun in 1948 and officially completed in 1950, the Pioneer Railway was one of the most ambitious projects of the Pioneers, a Soviet youth organization along the lines of the Boy and Girl Scouts, only injected with a strong dose of proletariat cooperative spirit and Socialist camaraderie. The idea was that an entire rail line in miniature, snaking its way through 11 km of suburban Buda, could be built, staffed and maintained by children. Designed to teach a young generation of Communists the value of cooperation, and to give them some experience in one of Hungary's most important industries, transportation, the jobs on the railway became one of the highest points of prestige among the Pioneers, awarded only to those who had earned their red kerchief. (Even today, you can find young Hungarians in their 20s who speak with a mixture of some nostalgia, affection and regret about how close they came to earning their red kerchief before the final fall of Communism in the late '80s and early '90s.)
The name was changed from the Pioneer Railway to the Children's Railway in 1990, and it's still entirely staffed by children, under the supervision of a few adults, running the same leisurely wooded route through Buda. The trip along the entire 11 km line at 20 km per hour takes about 45 minutes. The kids are 8-14 years old, but take all the responsibility for working as the cashiers, conductors, flagmen, ticket inspectors and traffic managers. Gone are the red kerchiefs and uniforms of the Pioneer elite: The children nowadays wear scaled-down versions of MAV (Hungarian National Railways) uniforms, and must merely express a strong interest in learning more about how trains work, rather than be the cream of the crop among Socialist youth. The children still take their jobs very seriously; little flagmen salute the train as it leaves the station, and the girl who takes your ticket will waste no time in charging you the penalty (about 50 cents) if you've been careless enough to step on board without a ticket.
Because the trip is an easy and accessible escape from the noise and smog of the city — with plenty of sites to see along the way — it's remained a popular day trip for Hungarian families. The trains themselves, which have real diesel engines, are a somewhat disconcerting three-quarter scale: little doorways, aisles, even little luggage racks above your head. The trains stop frequently at specially designed stations. Like the trains, they are scaled down and very sweet, surrounded by woods and covered with Socialist murals of happy and surprisingly buff Pioneer children at work.
At each stop, families climb down from the train to explore the wooded trails that snake off into the surrounding forests. At a couple of the larger stations there are even surprisingly good restaurants, which serve simple and hearty Hungarian fare. There's a Railway Workshop at the Huvosvolgy stop, complete with a turntable for train cars, which has been in operation since 1951.
One of the best ways to get to the Children's Railway is to take another one of Budapest's eccentric conveyances: the chair lift. Just as on a ski lift, each chair holds two people, taking passengers up from street level in Buda up to the top of Janos Hill, the highest point in Budapest. The ride up offers stunning open-air views of Janos Hill with the panorama of the city unfolding behind. At the top is the Erzsebet Kilato lookout tower, at 520 meters, offering some of the best views over Budapest anywhere. From there, it's a short walk to the Janos-hegy stop of the Children's Railway.
At the Szechenyi-hegy terminal there's a playground and a stop for still another of Budapest's unusual transport systems, the Cog Train, which can take you back to town when your visit to the Children's Railway is done. The Cog Train eases its way down one of Buda's steep, pleasantly suburban residential hills back to the bustle of Moskva ter.
The Children's Railway is open from May-Sept. 9 a.m.-7 p.m., Oct.-April 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Closed Mondays. Tickets are 45 cents for adults and 15 cents for children. Go to www.gyermekvasut.com/english.html for information.

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