Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Children's Railway

 We noticed signs on the Minsk subway announcing that the Children’s Railway is running. I figured it would be like the little trains I rode as a kid in various zoos and amusement parks. I was surprised, then, to see that it’s a fairly large-scale model of a real Belarusian passenger train. We saw the train running along the edge of a city park where we had gone for a walk, and we decided to see about taking a ride.

Following the train, we found our way to a little  station not far from the main park entrance. The architecture reminded us of many Soviet train stations, though in this case it was scaled down in keeping with the Children’s Railway idea. Whereas in a real railway station they play tinny patriotic music when a train arrives, here they played tinny children’s music continuously. There was also an actor or actress who kept reappearing in various animal suits reminiscent of cartoon characters. My favorite character was the wolf, and the person inside the costume let me pose with my head inside the wolf’s huge mouth.

Since we arrived just after a train left, we had a 20-minute wait for the next train. I toured the exhibits inside the station, which included a fine electric-train diorama operated by kids in railway uniforms. At the back of the station I found a huge classroom filled with kids in railway uniforms, including giant hats like the ones police and military officers wear here. If I spoke more Russian, and/or had paid attention, I might have realized that these kids were in training. As it was, I just figured they were on a school outing, took a couple of pictures, and went back outside to wait for our train.

When our train arrived we realized that there are two of these trains and that they take a surprisingly long excursion. My real surprise, however, was to discover that the train was operated almost entirely by  children in uniform. Each car had at least two conductors, and the engine carried one adult engineer and two or three apprentice engineers. I think there may have been a second adult on the train somewhere, but as far as the public is concerned the operators are all children.

The train cars even have little cabins for the conductors. I believe each car has a separate P.A. system. In our car we saw a conductor in his office talking into the microphone to announce our trip.

When the train pulled out of the station, all the conductors stood in their doorways holding yellow flags straight out. As each door passed the end of the platform, the conductor would lower his or her flag with an authoritative snap. (Later I paid attention when a real train left Minsk station. In real life, most of the conductors take their arms inside the train long before their cars clear the platform. Only the last conductor shows the flag until the last car passes the end of the platform.)

The children’s train runs about three kilometers through woodlands and stops at a secluded picnic area. We debarked there and waited for the next train back, giving us a chance to understand more of the children’s duties operating the railroad. They are very serious and I suppose many of them will end up working in railroad as adults.

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