Author Sam Margolis Illustration Graham Roumieu
“Ladies and gentleman, the eleven o’clock train bound for Széchenyi-hegy will depart from Track One in ten minutes,” says the announcer at the Huvosvolgy train station, in a voice that is authoritative, if curiously high-pitched. Inside a small hall, passengers purchase fares from a bespectacled ticket seller whose head barely rises above the counter. They’re then directed to their seats by two diminutive individuals in matching navy blue uniforms and caps.
For a few moments, visitors could be forgiven for wondering if they have wandered into some kind of Eastern Bloc Lilliput. In reality, they’re boarding the Gyermekvasut: Budapest’s Children’s Railway.
Located high in the hills of the Hungarian capital, the 60-year-old, seven-mile Gyermekvasut is the largest scenic train line in the world operated almost entirely by children. Kids from 10 to 14 do (almost) all the jobs their adult counterparts would: conducting, granting engineers permission to start the trains, selling tickets, and pulling switches and signals. (Adults drive the trains, which can reach speeds of 12 miles per hour.)
Children’s railways were once commonplace in the Soviet Union. Leaders saw them as a good way to introduce youngsters to the world of work. There were 52 when the U.S.S.R. collapsed in the early 1990s; just a handful are still in operation. Competition to work on Budapest’s line is fierce. Hundreds apply every year, and candidates must take a four-month course and pass a series of exams before they can join the crew.
Over the course of its 45-minute journey, the trolley-size train travels past a lookout tower named after Austro-Hungarian Queen Consort Erzsebet and the ruins of a medieval monastery. “This has got to be the best toy train set in the world,” muses Hungarian passenger Csilla Botos near the end of the line. “Especially since it’s real.”