Since the fall of the Iron Curtain many have lived on and today function as heritage railways as well as tourist attractions, showing off technology that has long since gone out of use. Budapest’s children’s railway, the world’s largest, is also a big hit with tourists giving them a chance to see some of the most idyllic parts of the city.
The history of the children’s railway
The first children's railway was built in 1932 in Gorky Park, Moscow and more than 50 were built in total across the USSR. They were an initiative of the Young Pioneers program that was set up for children aged 10 - 15. Like it’s Western equivalent the Scouts, it’s aim was to give them the chance to take part in educational activities outside of school and was also an active part of the Soviet propaganda machine.
Construction on Budapest’s Gyermekvasút started in 1948 and it was inaugurated in 1950. It has run ever since with only a brief hiatus between 1956-57 after the Hungarian revolution. Although it was immensely popular at launch, interest lulled through the 70s and 80s as people eyed holidays abroad and it wasn’t until the 90s that it got it’s revival. The tracks and carriages were refurbished and it started to become more of a tourist attraction rather than a commuter line.
Taking a ride on the Gyermekvasút
Today the railway runs along 11.2km of 760 mm narrow-gauge track, travelling through 7 stops from Széchényi-hegy to Hűvösvölgy. The line is operated by the Hungarian State Railway company MÁV and an adult ticket for the whole line costs 800 HUF each way and 1,400 HUF for a return. Children’s tickets are half-priced. The easiest way to reach the railway is to travel to Szell Kalman ter and take an onwards tram, bus or the ever-charming cogwheel tram from there.
The stations on the route sit close to a number of other popular tourist spots making it a great part of a family day out, but of course, the main attraction is seeing the children at work. All the roles, from ticket sellers, to announcers, to conductors and even junction switchmen are filled by children. The only exceptions are the train’s driver, station masters and onboard crew masters, who are all adults that supervise the children on duty and can step in case of an emergency.
To work on the railway children undergo 4 months of training and sit exams in all areas of railway management before receiving a 1 year licence. Children work once or twice a fortnight and switch roles each time to widen their experience. As a bonus, they are even permitted to miss school while working on the railway. Given the rigorous selection process and the prestige of the job, working on the Gyermekvasút looks great on a young Hungarian’s CV.
A glimpse of the past
For train history buffs a visit to the Gyermekvasút is a real treat. At Hűvösvölgy station there is a museum looking back at the railway during the socialist and Pioneers time. Visitors can learn about the railway’s construction and see old artefacts from its operation.
Meanwhile cruising the rails you’ll find lots of vehicles of historical interest, the most prized of which are two original coal and steam-powered locomotives that used to run the line. Steam trains are scheduled to run at weekends, on public holidays and other special occasions and ticket prices are little higher.
Finally, if that’s not enough fun, you can even rent a saloon car for a moving birthday party.