The Conductor: A Train Story From Austria

Innsbruck had been great, but I was excited to finally be leaving Austria.

Of course, I had never planned on traveling this far south. The plan from the beginning was to putt around German-speaking Europe for 3-5 months and fly back home after I had learned a bit of the language. But after the couple renting my apartment back in the States had canceled on me prematurely, I was forced to find a new renter and this, in turn, freed me up an additional four months of travel.

“Where am I going to go now?” I thought to myself. But I already knew. I would head south – toward Greece.

Accompanied only by a small red folding bicycle and four waterproof bags, which contained all my worldly possessions, I needed to take two separate trains in order reach Slovenia, the first of many stops on my quest into the Balkans.

The train from Innsbruck had gone by without a hitch. There were few passengers on-board and even though the Zug (that’s “train” in German) was not equipped for bicycle transport, the fact that I had a folding bike had kept the conductors from booting me off or fining me along the way.

But somewhere in the mountains of southern Austria I had to change trains. The name of the city escapes me, but it doesn’t really matter. I’d be there for less than ten minutes as my first train left the station and my second one pulled in soon thereafter.

Traveling alone isn’t usually all that difficult. But boarding a train with a bicycle and four loaded panniers can be tough.

However, I had developed a system by this point in time. This would be the 33rd train I had taken in the last three months, so I had the process down. As the train pulled into the station I would lift all four panniers in my arms and carry them inside the nearest car, quickly placing them in an overhead compartment and then rushing back out to the platform to haul my folded bicycle inside while the rest of the passengers took their seats. It had been working like a charm and I had never had any problems… until now.

As the train to Slovenia pulled into the station, the passengers scrambled to be the first on-board. I too pushed myself through the herd of people and quickly found an open compartment in which to store my gear. In my very best German I explained to the gray-haired woman sitting beneath by bags that I’d be back in just a moment. She nodded and gave me a wry look, as though she weren’t too pleased with the information I had just given her.

I didn’t have time to dwell however. I ran down the narrow isle of the train, jumped out the door, and landed on the platform.

My bicycle was the only thing left in the area and I quickly scooped it up in my arms and ran for the door.

But then, just as I was about to step on board, the door slammed shut – right in my face.

“Shit!” I said out loud. I wiggled one on my hands free and tried pressing the green button near the door. No luck. It didn’t work.

Then I heard it. A whistle, from down the platform. At first I just ignored it, running from one door to the next, trying to find a way in before the train pulled away with everything I owned already on board. But the whistles kept getting louder and I quickly realized they were aimed at me.

Down the platform, about four cars up, was a short, stalky conductor in a dark blue uniform. He was leaning out an open door, a whistle is his hand, looking directly at me, his brows furrowed.

Looking at the man I motioned with my eyes, “Let me in.” But he wasn’t going to have it.

“No bicycles!” he yelled back at me.

“You gotta be kidding.” I thought to myself.

He was four cars down and I could barely see him, let alone talk to him, so I started to run. Carrying my bicycle the entire way, I reached him in a sweat.

“No bicycles!” he screamed at me again. I could tell he didn’t speak English and that these two words were all he likely knew of my native language.

It had taken me nearly thirty seconds to run down the platform to speak to the conductor and by this time several of the passengers were starring out the window at me as I held my little red bike in my arms, like a dying soldier about to take his last breath.

“Please,” I said. “The woman at the desk said it wouldn’t be a problem.” But he failed to understand.

With evil in his eyes, he stepped inside the door of the train and slammed it shut. From where I stood, I swear I saw him smile.

“Holy crap!” my brain raced. “He’s going to leave me here!”

I looked around in a panic, trying to find someone else to help me, but there was no on else around.

Milliseconds later, the train started rolling down the track. Slowly at first, but then quickly gaining speed. For a moment I ran along side, yelling in my best German at the conductor behind the thick glass, “Please, my bags are on the train! My computer is on the train! Everything I own is already on the train.” But he wasn’t having it.

I was running now and the bike was weighing me down. Not thinking about anything but getting on that train, I chucked my bike and it crashed into the concrete platform, but I just kept running. At a full sprint now, dozens of passengers were gazing out at me in horror through open windows as I pounded my first up against the glass door where the conductor stood.

Struggling to think of the correct German expressions, the only words that came to mind were four lettered words known pretty much everywhere in the world.

There was only about 50 meters of platform left now as I sprinted on my toes and used my weary eyes to plead with the cold-stone conductor.

“My computer is gone.” I thought to myself. “My wallet, my passport, everything. Gone.” I had given up. There were only a few more feet of platform left and this train was leaving without me… or was it?

Just as I had given up all hope, an older man wearing a matching blue conductors uniform stepped into the car. He said a few words to the man who had failed to let me board and then pressed a big red button on the wall near the door.

The brakes of the train screeched to a halt and in an instant my mood changed. They were stopping!

As the train slid to a stop just inches outside the station, the door opened up and the stalky conductor stepped outside.

“Get on,” he said, waving me in like it was suddenly no big deal.

But by now my bike was a hundred meters back and in pieces on the floor of the train station. I ran back for it, sprinting really, dripping sweat, astounded by what had just taken place.

Picking up the bike I tried entering the nearest door, but it didn’t budge. A familiar whistle blew in the distance and again I could see the conductor leaning out his command post four cars down.

“Hier!” he shouted at me, an astounded look on his face – as though he thought it unfathomable that I might want to get on the train where all my bags were.

“Whatever…” I mouthed to myself as I ran, bike in hand, toward the angry conductor.

As I approached he gave me what my mother refers to as “The Evil Eye” and waved me into the train.

“All the way in the back!” he commanded, pointing with a strong finger toward the back of the train.

“Okay,” I said sheepishly. “Thank you.”

At some time during the ordeal I had cut my hand. I was bleeding now and covered in grease and sweat. I carried my bike, over passenger heads and through the dining car, though eight different wagons before finally reaching the back of the train. My arms now shaking with exhaustion (and a little bit of fear) I slowly made my way back to my things, still sitting in the cabin with the gray-haired woman, four cars up.

“I’m back,” I said, dripping with sweat, as I entered the cabin.

There was an empty seat by the door and I fell into it, no longer caring what the people around me might think. I had made it… and in an hour, I’d be in Slovenia.


11 thoughts on “The Conductor: A Train Story From Austria

  1. Jimbo says:

    Darren, that sucks, but at least you got on! But I wonder if this (and other) situations could’ve been avoided by packing your folding bike in a large, lightweight duffle bag (or canvas GI bag). I have an Alpine Lowe unpadded nylon bag that’s big enough to swallow a fully-loaded 6,000 cu inch backpack (would easily fit your bike.) It’s great for airline/train/bus travel, because it’s keep my pack’s exterior straps & buckles from getting damaged from handlers, conveyor belts, etc. It also disguises the contents. This latter point, would especially be beneficial in your case.

    My other curiosity is to why you’re not biking to some (or all) your destinations (country to country). IMHO, I thought that was the point of bike touring, but obviously you’re doing your own thing, which is cool. Maybe that would eat up too much time, but most of the Euro countries are fairly small. You’d also save a lot of money by not having to take trains, but I guess time is more precious on your trek.

  2. Darren Alff says:

    Jimbo, I think the bag for the bike might have helped in this situation. But I met another cyclist in Croatia who had been kicked off a train even when his bike was in a case. So it really doesn’t matter it seems. I think that more than anything it just depends on which conductor you happen to get and what kind of a mood he/she is in.

    As for why I was taking trains on this trip, I was doing this because I was traveling in the winter and did not want to cycle through the mountains of Austria in the snow. I did do some crazy winter cycling in Switzerland and Austria, but in many places I just took the train so I didn’t have to sleep/ride in freezing locales.

    So I took the trains partially for weather and partially for time, because I have been working the entire time I’ve been traveling here in Europe and could not afford to go for extended periods of time without being in touch with my clients back in the United States. All my past bike tours have been where I biked to every location. This trip was just a little different. I was traveling…with my bike… rather than doing your more traditional bike tour. Just a different way of doing it.

  3. Jimbo says:

    Ah, I understand…I don’t blame you for not wanting to ride & camp in cold conditions…it’s not very fun! But I would definitely get a bike bag, and take your chances. (at least for the next tour, when you’ll be using trains.) A full-sized bike in a big or box might still warrant suspicion, but I’d think a folding bike in a bag would be totally incognito! If a conductor doesn’t see an obvious bike, they’d just assume it was just another piece of luggage. Panniers might be more suspicious! I’ll bet you’ll never have another problem. But If I knew you were this was happening to you, I would have loaned you my duffle…

  4. Darren Alff says:

    Ah, thanks Jimbo. I think I am going to hunt down a good bag for the bike after I get home from this trip. I know Bike Friday sells them, so I’ll start there I guess.

    The main thing is that the bag be strong enough not to get holes in it from the gears, etc… but also small and lightweight enough that it doesn’t take up a huge amount of room when not being used to carry the bike. It’s gotta be able to fold up inside a pannier and not take up a huge amount of room.

  5. Jimbo says:

    BF TravelBag, Standard 34″x 29″x 9″ (Black) $79

    My Alpine-Lowe bag is very similar to BF’s travel case, but mine was only like $25!

    You could probably make your own much cheaper (assuming you have sewing skills…re: Jr. high home econ class!) Maybe $20-30 worth of materials: condura nylon, closed cell foam, buckles & straps, etc. There are all kind of docs on the internet to make your backpacks & gear, so it shouldn’t be too difficult if you’re handy, and enjoy that sort of thing.

  6. Norm says:

    This kind of scenario happens to almost every bike traveler with regularity around the world and it sucks every time!

    I am just glad you didn’t lose the important items! The situation could have just as easily made you leave the bike on the platform to get hold of your important belongings.

    One thing we all find out ; Trains and Conductors take schedules and rules very seriously and sometimes they have a screw you attitude so we must prepare like survivalists to get along.

    Reminds me of the Empire Builder Train I took from Wisconsin to Seattle Washington…Reminds me of several trains in Germany and Italy…Reminds me of The Canadian National Railway…Oddly enough I have NEVER had a problem with fairy boats.

    I learned to go Ultralight, I learned that S&S Bike couplers, boxes, foam and packing tape are Gods gift to bike travelers. Above all else I learned to keep survival items like Identification, cash, Prescription Drugs, important papers, electronics on my person at all times.

    Back in the Day” ‘ I was racing the Iditabike” ‘now its called the Alaska Ultrasport. Anyway I loaded my gear and bike on the Empire Builder at Wisconsin Dells heading for Alaska. I fell asleep, when awoke, I was made aware that my bike did not have a train ticket so instead of loading the bike in the trains undercarriage luggage section they left my race bike in a Montana train depot…never even bothered to wake me up before dumping my bike…I had to jump through hoops to get the bike shipped from Montana to Seattle WA. Truthfully I was just happy knowing I still had possession of the bike.

    Side Note: The term Bicycle tourist in my opinion has become obsolete, the term Bike Traveler seems to cover almost all aspects of cycle’s better.

    Happy trails


  7. anna says:

    this sucks, I use trains in GErmany, its absolutely ok to bring a huge bike if you want with you, not just ok, its likel… MOST ppl do it, nobody bugs you, so its hard for me to think how Austria is different on this, even on tiny bikes:/

    No clue here. It also stresses me cause what if i want to go to Austria and take the bike on the train? Why did he leave without talking to you first?

    Why are Austrians so bitchy? LOL just kiddin:)

  8. Lisa says:

    Wow, what a story! And a warning for the future. I’m so glad your story ended well and you didn’t lose all your possessions and identification. What a nightmare that would have been!

    Keep writing!

  9. Georgie says:

    I know this is a bit late but I understand how you feel, once had to catch nine trains in one day from France to Germany with a group of eight of us fully kitted up with panniers and normal bikes not foldies, that was an experience I can tell you, we were a well oiled team by the end of the day….but yes once you head away from the main cities the train conductors are a hit a miss one station the train conductor and two of the station staff came out and helped us unload (the conductor must have called ahead as we told him what station we were getting off) so the train would not be held up, (yes they are very big with being ON TIME!) and then the station staff helped us move our gear to the next platform. On another train, a nice German woman told a guy (someone she didn’t know) to help me get my bike and gear off at the station. And then we had a similar experience to yours with a train conductor who basically left us standing there at the train station with nowhere to go…I guess that’s what real bicycle touring is about, you have to be prepared for any eventuality and have plans B,C,D,E….in place just in case! Its also surprising to know how many train stations only have stairs and not ramps to get to/from platforms…one of our riders on a moving escalator of stairs did a full somersault down the stairs with bike, panniers and all because he wasn’t strong enough to push down on the front of the bike while going up, oh the joys of trains and train stations. :-). I personally as a rule have a light jacket with zip up pockets on when travelling on trains and keep all my valuables eg money, passport, phone etc on me, very glad you were able to reclaim your gear but a shame that you had to go through so much terror and be at the mercy of a train conductor’s whim. Cheers Georgie

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