Page last updated at 12:19 GMT, Saturday, 7 November 2009

The rail thread that links Europe

In the week the Lisbon Treaty was finally ratified, the BBC's Johnny Dymond travelled the continent's railways to glean a sense of its past and future.

It is early in the morning in Warsaw, far too early to be doing anything but sleeping. It is cold and dark outside, and the only sound is of crows calling raucously to each other beyond my window.

Train generic
Once railways measured Europe's balance of power

I am waiting to take the train to Berlin. It has been a long week, bound together by long train journeys through the cities and farmlands of Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland.

I like trains. A cynic might suggest that this week was designed around my desire to spend long days staring out of a train window watching the scenery change around me. That is not true.

But in a scramble around central Europe, piecing together people's memories of the past, as the EU stumbled towards the future, trains provided a moment of respite that cars and aeroplanes do not.

Once railways were a measure of the European balance of power and the great industrial nations vied to lay down track in territories near and far.

Now, as Europe's light is overshadowed by the fast developing East, they are more parochial measures of national pride.

Empty carriages

In Budapest, the eastern railway station is a monument to faded imperial glory. There is soaring Hapsburg architecture, and the kind of scale that speaks of high industrial ambition.

But now pigeons rootle around in the international ticket hall and raw wooden beams hold up the ceiling.

The frescoes in the grand entrance have been restored and the fluted columns painted a brilliant white and gold, but they only serve to show how decrepit the rest of the place is.

"We spent a fortune doing this place up and now we can't afford to maintain it," despaired a Hungarian colleague.

Budapest Eastern Station
Budapest station is a monument to faded glory

Twenty years after the fall of communism, nearly everyone I spoke to in Budapest said the greatest change in their lives was the freedom to travel.

So I was a little disappointed to find the train to Prague nearly deserted. Maybe the motorways were thick with cars.

My phone rang all through the afternoon. The Czech president had announced that he had signed the Lisbon Treaty - after eight years of drafting, wrangling, voting and wildly-overblown rhetoric on every side, the reform treaty would come into force.

If the train would only hurry up, I might get to Prague on time and be able to get my report to London.

The train, the 171 Hungaria, rumbled along, but there is no rushing a good train ride.

Little charm

The train to Warsaw left from the modern, fairly ugly Prague city centre station.

It is tempting to blame it on the communists, but it could well have been a typically dry Czech joke, all that squat concrete thumbing its nose at the fairy tale city around it.

There are few more unhappy stations in Europe than Warsaw Central. Ugly inside and out, its windswept, neglected spaces cry out for the wrecker's ball

Cocooned by the train, I watched the landscape change again.

Czech communists clearly specialised in clumsy industrialisation and ugly urban planning.

Concrete houses rotted into the wet soil, tower blocks wept dark trails of rain.

Pre-war, red-brick factories provided some meagre relief.

Up in the hills the fir trees were already covered with snow.

But there are few more unhappy stations in Europe than Warsaw Central.

Ugly inside and out, its windswept and neglected spaces cry out for the wrecker's ball.

What marvels might have come before have been long forgotten.

The departing Nazis razed the city and it is now a place of much concrete and little charm.

Joined up

Platform scene Prague
Trains have connected parts of Europe for over 100 years

But there was time in Warsaw - often spent in choking traffic jams - to ponder the role that trains have played in making Europe a joined up reality, rather than a disparate collection of countries, cities, towns and villages.

More than a century ago, trains knitted together the map of Europe as never before.

And now, with most of Europe free of border checks and controls, the great intercity trains pass with no hindrance through country after country - the only mark of changing sovereignty, the font and colouring of railway station signs.

The smug satisfaction that so often grips the railway traveller rose in my heart.

I looked out of the rain-streaked window of my long-stationary car.

Two grey stone slabs faced me, behind them two more, with names carved into them, and plaques engraved in Polish and Hebrew.

"It's Umschlagplatz," said my friend. "It was a railway station. Where the trains took the Jews of the Warsaw ghetto directly to Treblinka."

Our car jerked forward, and on we drove, into the wet Warsaw night.


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