The Great Train Adventure

It’s Saturday and I finally have time to tell this little story.

As I mentioned, I was in Finland the other week. I flew into Helsinki on the Tuesday afternoon with the plan to take the train to Rovaniemi on the Arctic Circle on the Wednesday.

So off I trundled with my little wheely suitcase (little – this was my hold luggage and I saw people with bigger hand luggage!) to Helsinki Central on Wednesday morning. I had an eticket, so I took it to the ticket office to check if it was valid on the train or if I had to exchange it for a real ticket. No, the eticket was fine.

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The departure board said the 10:06 train to Rovaniemi was leaving from platform 11. I trundled up to platform 11 and looked thoughtfully at the train. I will openly admit right now that I had a bad feeling about it. For a start, the departure board at the platform was blank. For another, the electronic info boards on the side of the train were blank. For a third, my ticket stated that my reserved seat was downstairs and this was a single-storey train. Of course, that might be the default so I shrugged it off. I now know that if I have a bad feeling about it, it might be wise to listen to that bad feeling.

In my defence, I waited until other people started boarding the train before getting on it myself. I decided that if I was doing something stupid, at least I wasn’t doing it alone. So I got on the train, I found my reserved seat and I settled down for ten hours, with drinks and food and laptop and so on.

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At approximately 10.50, there was an announcement – in Finnish – and the other occupants of my car jumped up and started gathering their luggage. I had no idea what the announcement said but I could understand that we were getting off this train for some reason. However, before we’d even managed to get suitcases out of the overhead racks, the train started moving. This wasn’t a good sign. My fellow travellers went into action mode – much phoning, much talking, a lot of laughing. I got up the courage to ask one of them if they spoke English and she explained that this train was going to the depot. It’s no problem, we’ll just get a taxi to the next stop.

Since there was literally nothing I could do and there was free wifi, I did what every sensible person of my generation does: Facebook update.

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The other passengers on the train gathered together in car two. There were six of us altogether, I think, and my ally seemed to have forgotten I didn’t know what was going on. Two people were on the phone, one incessantly. Everyone was laughing a lot, except me. Not understanding the situation or having any real idea of how things work in Finland, I was aware that I’d missed my train by now and I had no idea what was going to happen. Was I going to get to Rovaniemi at all? Was it going to be today? Should I go back to Helsinki, spend another night there, buy a new ticket and try again tomorrow? Was it even worth it by now? Was I even ever going to get off this train? Yes, I was concerned. Yes, I was a bit scared.

We crawled through the outskirts of Helsinki, crawled through Pasila and then slowed so much that my fellow prisoners appeared to think of jumping off the train while it was moving. We passed a level crossing at such a slow speed that it seemed entirely plausible, other than that modern trains have built-in safety mechanisms to prevent passengers jumping off moving trains. I wish we could have done it because that’s a life experience, isn’t it? Jumping off a moving train!

They suggested, I think, walking up the train and banging on the driver’s door. I don’t know why they didn’t do this. I would have done it except that under the circumstances, I sort of felt like my life was in their hands and I wasn’t going to separate myself from the group.

The man who’d been on the phone now produced a pad of paper and a pen and started speaking to us and writing things on it. He looked expectantly at me. Now, I don’t speak a word of Finnish (well, I know linna, castle, and now kiitos, thank you) but even I could take a guess at what he was writing. So I asked “Name? You want my name?” at which point the group as a whole discovered they had a poor ignorant foreigner among them and turned into a group of mummies – “you poor thing, you must have been so scared!” etc. Which I was, to be honest. I’ve never felt so helpless.

It turned out the man – I still don’t know what his name was – was a journalist. He’d been taking photos of us, squashed into the end of the compartment and now he was taking names and contact details with the intention of writing an article about our adventure. He’d also been on the phone to the train company. As far as I understand, VR is a company that bought out the Finnish railways a year or two ago and there have been no end of problems ever since. Our problem at the time was VR’s inability to understand that there were people trapped on this train, they were determined to believe that someone had left some luggage on it.

Now we were creeping through the depot. We were passing human beings in fluorescent jackets, banging on the windows and trying to attract attention and getting no interest whatsoever. And then we went into the train wash and everyone had hysterics because it’s a ridiculous thing to end up in a train wash by accident. We just stood there laughing like crazy people at the soap and the rollers and the rinse.

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On the other side of the train wash was the inside of the depot building. Now there were lots of people in fluorescent jackets. We waved, we banged on the windows, we even used an umbrella to bang on the windows. I wasn’t sure whether that was to make a louder noise or whether it was an attempt to smash the window. But all we were achieving was getting people to wave stupidly at us, as if we were over-excited four-year-olds on a steam train, rather than people who are quite clearly not supposed to be on board a train in the depot.

At last, someone with half a brain cell worked this out and we were released. Fresh air (fresh-ish, we were inside the works), freedom, finally in a position to make plans other than die undiscovered on the train. We were taken through the depot and into a storage room while the working decided what to do with us. One of my new friends handed round chocolate, Remus Lupin-style, because chocolate genuinely does help when you’ve had a scare.

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It all ended pretty easily. A taxi was called for us and we were taken five minutes down the road to Pasila, which is the next stop after Helsinki. The whole adventure had taken place within such a tiny radius. See this beautiful map? The bottom marker is Helsinki Central, the middle one is Pasila and the top one is the depot. According to my rough measurements, that’s about 4km.

So we got our taxi to Pasila, the journalist man explained the whole situation to the poor girl on the ticket desk and she reissued our tickets for the next train. I thought the 10:06 was the only daytime train Helsinki to Rovaniemi but it turned out the next one was about 13:15ish. It was now a little after eleven – yes, the whole adventure had taken less than an hour and a half. I’m an expert at killing time in stations and airports. I got through three or four books sitting at Shetland airport a few years ago. The young couple who’d been most helpful in using English, had left since they didn’t have as far to go as I did and therefore could get an earlier train. The journalist man vanished and so I went off to the restaurant upstairs to use my €7 token on food with the two remaining women. Except I’m a Special Person so food wasn’t going to happen and besides, I had a bagful of food intended to last me a ten hour train journey. I opted for hot chocolate and was convinced that it would be a better use of my token to buy it with cash and save the token for the restaurant car on the train later – the result being that I still have that token, which has now expired and is useless as anything except a souvenir.

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It actually wasn’t even good hot chocolate

They talked, partly in Finnish, partly in English. One of the ladies, an art teacher, brought out her sketchbook to show us and then a book she’d made about her family history, showing us her grandparents and the house where she grew up and maps showing the fields then and now.

A little before 1, I gathered my stuff and they followed. I wasn’t going to miss my train now, no way. On the platform, we met our friend the journalist and then we finally, three hours late, got on our train to the north. It took a very long time, it went dark before 5pm and there was nothing to see for the next five and a half hours. I still think of it quite fondly and I’d be tempted to do it again.

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As an addendum to this whole sorry tale, my dad’s response was “why didn’t you pull the emergency brake?” I did see it but I thought it wasn’t really an emergency. He said under the circumstances, he would have done and events would have gone like this: the train would have stopped at Helsinki immediately, maybe delayed a couple of other trains coming in for a minute or two, we’d have been found and unloaded, the brakes would be reset, the train would go off to the depot and we’d have got the train we were meant to. In fact, situations like this are partly what the emergency brake is actually there for. So… if you find yourself stuck on a train going to the depot, pull the emergency brake and save yourself a lot of hassle, unless you really fancy a once-in-a-lifetime trip through the train wash.