The Great Train Adventure

I’m sorry if you’ve seen this post before but I know no one reads the older posts, which is why I’m taking the opportunity to re-write one per month. This is my favourite travel story ever and I really want to tell it to everyone.

It was late October 2014 and I was in Helsinki, which is a beautiful city. I had a train ticket for a long ten hour ride up to Rovaniemi, right on the Arctic Circle and I’d been looking forward to it for a while. I could have flown but why fly when you can take the train and enjoy five hundred miles of scenery?

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I got up in the morning and trundled across Helsinki, making sure I had plenty of time. I needed to check that my printed email confirmation would be ok on its own and I wouldn’t have to exchange it for a real ticket (it was fine), I needed to get a drink or two and I needed to find the right platform.

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But when I got to Track 11, as written in big yellow letters on the departure board, something seemed off.  It was definitely, beyond any shadow of a doubt, the right platform but the information board at its head was blank. It was a single-decker train when my ticket stated I had reserved a downstairs seat, strongly implying a double-decker train. It just felt wrong. So I lurked and watched, deciding that if I saw people getting on it, well, they’re locals and they know what they’re doing. And people boarded, so I boarded.

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I settled in for my ten hour trip, got out my drink and some breakfast, took a photo of my little domain, updated Facebook and generally waited for the train to depart.

Fifteen minutes before it was due to depart, there was an announcement in Finnish over the tannoy and my neighbours began to get up and retrieve their luggage. I had no idea what had been said but, following the locals, I also began to gather my stuff together. Too late – the train started to move, more than ten minutes early. I had no idea what was going on but I knew something was wrong.

We chugged our way slowly out of Helsinki and I realised I needed to know what was happening. I tapped a shoulder and asked in my best lost-and-confused-tourist English “what’s going on?”

Thankfully, this lady spoke English. Not very good English but infinitely better than my Finnish, which consists of two words. The train was being taken out of service, it was no problem, we’d be taken to the depot and then we could take a taxi back to Pasila and it would be fine.

It didn’t sound fine to me. Pasila is only five or ten minutes on from Helsinki Central and I wasn’t at all convinced we’d be back there in time to get the correct train. I became even less convinced when it took us over ten minutes just to reach Pasila on our slow train. Just north of Pasila, we began to creep through the outskirts of the depot – which is huge! We crossed a sort of private level crossing and there was a lady in a hi-viz jacket standing next to it. We banged on the windows and waved but all we got in response was a blank stare.

That wasn’t all we were doing. There were six or seven passengers on this wrong train and they all gathered in my carriage. One of them was a man, whose name I never got, who was a journalist, and he was busy phoning the train company – to no effect. They wouldn’t, couldn’t, understand that he was phoning because there were people trapped on the train and were adamant that he was telling them he’d left luggage on it. I don’t know whether that’s down to pig-headed refusal to listen to the problem or whether there’s some quirk of the Finnish language that makes it difficult to specify such a thing.

Since the authorities couldn’t release us, we tried to resort to more desperate means. We were going really slowly, hardly at walking pace – maybe if could get one of the doors open, we could jump out. A part of me was quite excited about that: how many people have got a real story of escaping by jumping off a moving train?! But another part of me didn’t fancy jumping two or three feet from a moving vehicle with a small but fairly weighty suitcase and I wasn’t leaving the case behind. So a part of me was quite glad when it turns out the doors lock automatically to stop people jumping off.

The journalist had another go at phoning the train company and the rest of us did our best to attract attention. By this point, I was concerned. We’d been on the move for twenty minutes and we didn’t seem to be any closer to the depot than when we’d left. Was I going to get back to Pasila or Helsinki in time to get another long-distance train? Was there another one? I knew there were sleeper services but I’d deliberately chosen a daytime one. Was I going to end up paying for a flight? Was I going to find myself in Helsinki for another night?

At that point, the most absurd thing happened. We went through the train wash and that was enough to distract me from being on the wrong train with my journey in tatters because it’s ridiculous to go through a train wash. I was also a bit delighted. A trip through the train wash is not something your average tourist to Helsinki gets to do. It’s not something most people get to do anywhere. A train wash is a lot like a car wash but the bristles stay still while the vehicle moves and it’s wet and sloshy and scratchy and hilarious.

But we were still trapped. A few more minutes and we started to roll into the depot. Now we were becoming desperate. How long could the train sit untouched and unobserved in the depot? Maybe we would die.

We redoubled our efforts. One of the women was whacking at the window with her umbrella, whether in an attempt to smash it or simply to make the loudest noise she could, we didn’t know. We were waving and yelling at everyone we passed and now there were quite a lot of them. The trouble was that most of them just waved dumbly back. It wasn’t until we came to a stop that someone standing on the platform started to do something useful and at long, long last the doors were released and we jumped down into the depot.

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We were not especially welcome in the depot. We were put in a big storage room while various officials argued over what to do with us. One of the ladies handed round chocolate and I felt like I’d just got off the Hogwarts Express at the beginning of Prisoner of Azkaban, with the train wash playing the part of blue-and-yellow fluffy Dementors. It was good chocolate – dark Finnish chocolate filled with raspberry yoghurt and very much appreciated after an adventure.

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A taxi was called for us. We were led through underground passages, lined with silver-padded pipes and reindeer stickers, where we were strongly discouraged from taking photos, and popped up next to a very busy four-lane main road. I remember it being beautifully hot and sunny that day and yet it was late October, so it couldn’t have hot, at least. We hung around there for quite a long time before our taxi appeared – I have no idea who summoned it – and we squeezed in, all six of us plus our luggage and were taken back to Pasila.

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Our journalist leader explained matters to the nice girl at the ticket office and one by one, we had new tickets issued. When it came to my turn, she asked if I wanted an upstairs or downstairs seat which confirmed my suspicions that I was meant to be on a double-decker train. And frankly, there’s only one correct response to that question, so by the time the next train to Rovaniemi came along, just after 1pm, I was in possession of an upstairs seat and a gnawing feeling that I’d be arriving two hours after reception at my hostel closed.

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(It was 11pm by the time I arrived; Rovaniemi was blanketed in sparkling frost but no real snow, and reception had closed at 9pm but my key was left for me in the mailbox.)

Oh, and all this happened over a distance of less than three miles.