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Budapest Bares All, Part I: Transportation

June 11, 2008

As promised, I present my first segment on the surprising, the strange and the sketchy that Budapest has to offer. I devote Part 1 to an essential (and often enigmatic) part of my urban routine: public transportation.

 

1. Musically-Inclined Transportation

The metro and the newer buses and trams play a fun jingle when you get on and off; different jingles for different routes. Different jingle combinations for door openings and closings. And as far as I can tell, there is no rhyme or reason as to which jingle in particular pairs with which route or which door motion. But if you’re curious, the English version of the BKV Transportation website has them all!

2. The Metaphysical Metro Line

The Budapest metro consists of three lines (Yellow, Red, and Blue, or M1, M2, and M3, respectively) which exist in this worldly realm and one superphysical, incorporeal “Green Line”–officially known as Metro4–that definitely DOES NOT exist. Rather, Metro4 has been in the works for so long that its conception and long-over due construction have outlasted the Cold War, disco, smallpox, bell bottoms, and dinosaurs! In fact, it has existed in this abstrusely discarnate form (think Casper or the heavily modified war surplus dolphin from Johnny Mnemonic) for so long, that it even has ITS OWN WEBSITE. According to this site’s timeline, Metro4 has passed through 20 or 30 development phases, without great success, it seems, since 1972. That’s 38 years of nonexistence!

Now, if you don’t believe me, on to Exhibit A:

Budapest Metro Map

See the dotted green line? That means… the line does not exist! While this is an acceptable answer to a math proof or a philosophical puzzle, I’m not sure it’s appropriate that BKV has posted one of these maps at every single metro stop–not as a promise of things to come–but as a guide to the currently accessible subway system. It goes without saying that since the dotted line is hardly a universally accepted signifier for a transportation route lying in wait somewhere in the fourth-dimension, the map (often without a key and usually entirely in Hungarian anyway) leaves many commuters perplexed, lost and even stranded.

Now, there are some good news and some bad news…

The good news is that at least now construction on the mythical green line is finally underway. It is due to open in 2009 or 2010, although some locals have their bets on a date closer to 2012. If you’re wondering, “What will Metro4 be like?”, it seems you are not alone. There is an entire short film devoted to this timeless quandary. It is available for screening through the official Metro4 site at the page “What will Metro4 be like?”. “With Metro4, a long-standing dream of Budapest will come true,” the same page declares. “Long-standing”? I’d call that an “under-statement.” This may seem harsh, but remember: 38 years! And counting!

The bad news is that once the green line finally graces this blue planet with its trains and tunnels, BKV will likely print a new set of madly misinforming maps which will include the proposed Metro5 North-South suburban line, due to intersect the city center, if the project ever gets off (or into) the ground. It’s already on the current map (see the pink dotted line in the map above), and the city hasn’t even voted on it yet! My guess is we’ll all have hovercrafts by the time the first M5 shovel hits the ground.

3. Metro1: the second oldest subway line in the world

The Yellow Line is the oldest metro line on the European continent. It opened in 1896, and it is a World Heritage Site. It’s also very useful, even to this day, despite the fact that stops are roughly two to three city blocks apart. It’s great for the lazy, and it runs just one flight of stairs below ground. It follows the busiest street in Budapest, and it takes only eleven minutes to run its entire length, because it’s only about two miles long, although it manages to make eleven stops along the way.

4. Railroad strikes are all the rage in Hungary

Railroad strikes are very common in Hungary. In fact, they are so common, that “Sztrájk” appears as one possible option on the enormous billboard of a timetable at the railroad station. So, when you read the arrivals/departures board (which is not digital, but rather analog, so to speak, with a finite number of possibilities listed on individual flip up/flip down plaques) the options for any given train are as follows:

  1. Arrival/departure at any time “00:00″ through “23:59.”
  2. Arrival/departure set as “Delayed.”
  3. Arrival/departure set as “Cancelled.”
  4. Or… “STRIKE”!

I did not realize how frequently these strikes occur, until one cold morning, I showed up at the train station 5am with the rest of my CEU/Bard group (we were planning on going to Prague via Vienna) only to find hundreds of disgruntled travelers, half a dozen news crews, and zero trains. We quickly saw that our ride would not come, because the railway workers had declared a surprise “Sztrájk” to begin at 3:00am. The union was demanding about $1500 and a 16+% pay raise, effective immediately; it goes without saying that given such demands, the negotiations lasted somewhat longer than a few hours. My group of eleven ended up splitting three taxicabs to get to the Vienna train station (about 2 hours and one international border away… not a very cost-effective option), where we barely made our connecting train to Prague.

Several days later, we returned to Budapest without incident. Lucky for us. The following day, the strike was back on, and as a result, a train full of passengers headed to Budapest from Moscow came to a twenty-four hour standstill at the Ukrainian-Hungarian border.

And I thought Amtrak was unreliable.

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