Estonia has decided to be a bus country, but trains are a perfectly serviceable and inexpensive way of going places -- and punctual, too. It's too bad there's only one a day on this itinerary, and it gets to Narva at 9pm, when activities are limited. So I'll write about Narva later. I'm going to hop on a bus to Narva-Jõesuu and come back to the the broad avenues on the way back.
Trains used to be sociable affairs, so I packed a “picnic basket” in a plastic bag, just like old times. If anyone offers me some "Moskva" sausage or chokeberry wine, I can reciprocate, and hopefully enrich en-train zakuski with some new ideas.
I have bread. I have a head of raw garlic -- what would a train ride be without the communal clove? Tomato and cucumber, of course. But here's what no one else will have: Vici Norwegian-style fish cakes -- a real steal at $1.20 for a pack of six. A little salty but 30% cod and no preservatives.
But I'm starting to realize that in fact there is going to be no one else on this train ride. The Estonian kids who boarded with me in Rakvere to visit their grandmother in Jõhvi have left, and a guy wth a collapsible bicycle got off in Kiviõli. It's just me. I'm just going to type what comes into my head -- a train Chautauqua. Think of it as the guy with the fish cakes and garlic rambling on to himself.
I was actually a little sorry to leave Rakvere. I had a feeling I could have squeezed out another worthwhile day here -- there were two old churches and a museum I didn't get to -- and still not have had a bad meal or service experience. Rakvere can’t be confused with a Baltic resort town, but it doesn’t waste what it has. I like what they have done with the central market square, for example, with modern art cum fountains and sculptures, plus it's surrounded by just about every existing retail store other than a Rimi. Downtown Tallinn doesn't have that.
Something needs to be done with a few blocks that appear to be consistent with old war damage and have the usual collection of 1960s housing and .vacant lots, but I can’t think of anything else that was ugly. Old hardwood trees, parks, and lots of big buildings make it a restful place. Maybe an "Elva of the north" would be closer than the Tartu comparison.
Rakvere is on the main Tallinn to Russia train line but interestingly there were no signs to the train station, although everything else from “Central Library” to “Oak Grove”. is covered by new tourist signs. I made the relatively uninteresting long walk to the station twice today. I had had a bad experience in the Netherlands about a year ago coming in on the train from Schiphol. They had recently changed the rules and I was nearly fined 40 euros for not having a ticket when I boarded. The evening train to Narva was a bit late in the evening, so I wanted to be sure. But at 3pm, the doors were locked.
It does open for an hour before the train leaves. There were two doors inside:
They were not facilities for mehed and naised or ticket cashiers. This is a place to stand and talk about what the hell is behind the doors, while waiting for the one thru-train per day. I took a picture and then went outside to pee on the freight tracks.
Those who live in the Baltics probably know that Estonia's railway policy has been schizophrenic.
Beides the long-term trend of disappearing lines and schedules, the long and terrible privatization saga has bred a number of wacky results, directly or indirectly. For example:
1) the northeast line which I am riding on is operated by a company called Southeast. Fair enough: the intercity line to Tartu in the south is the company’s flagship and pride; this is sort of understandable.
Less so the fact that 2) if you want to take a train from Tallinn to, say, the capital of Latvia, you have to take a train to the last stop on the line, Valga, then disembark, walk across town to the Latvian side of town and wait for a train to Riga. Remember, these are countries with the same track gauge, and don’t even have full passport control anymore.
3) The American company that bought Estonia's railway infrastructure in the 1990s found out somewhat later that its freight division had to compete unfairly with Russian free agents transport companies. And -- surprise of surprises -- guess whose side the new Estonian government took? As a result (to oversimplify a bit) the freight division was hemorrhaging cash, which the infrastructure division could have invested (and was in fact was supposed to invest under the privatization agreement) into the tracks.
The last one doesn’t matter, now. The solution on the part of the Estonian government was to drive both the Americans and the Russians out. Which I guess is elegant enough – if someone is going to preside over the long decline of the Estonian rails, let it be the Estonians themselves.
My personal testimony is this: Back in the American-led consortium era, Eesti Raudtee happened to be a good translation client. They – the American CEO and the British CFO, I believe -- ordered press clippings weekly for years, so I was sorry to see them go, if only for that reason. Though they developed an unhealthy fixation with articles on Savisaar in later years, my impression was that they were truly concerned about small town life (or at least how they were perceived in Tapa or Jõgeva) even thogh, let’s face it, they did not invest enough into fixing tracks, building crossings and avoiding fatalities. Then again, things were made difficult for the Americans every step of the way, incdluing by the Estonian executive branch – economics minister Savisaar of course, but Reform Party elements as well.
It was easy to make the American investors look bad in small town Estonia.. Railways are evocative, emotional things, especially if you live in a medium-sized town off the main highway, or Tapa, a town that only exists because of the rails..
There was a grain of truth behind the populist criticisms, too. It also didn’t help that the Americans even looked the part of early 20th century profiteers -- suspenders, spectacles and cigars and all. It didn’t help that they had brought in a bunch of fancy, heavy new US locomotives that pounded the hell out of the Soviet-era tracks. There was also a spate of fatal trck-train collisions in the first years of this decade, caused mainly by bad drivers, but still…