The third class train rounding the mountain above Python Valley
This account combines the experiences of several rail rides between Asmara and Massawa in the late 1960s before the Ethiopians closed down the route in 1976.
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Now get our your railway cap and enjoy your ride.
The sun was just coming up that February morning. The fog, though not thick, laid like a blanket between the buildings and the tree tops. I could taste the smell of wood smoke in the cool, damp, still air. Wes and I boarded the post bus and watched a waking Asmara pass by as we road through the town to the far end of Haile Sellassie I Avenue. We got off the bus and walked the last two blocks to the train station.
We paid for our ticket to Massawa and headed for the platform. A steam engine stood puffing quietly on the second of three tracks. Just before the platform the "train" we were taking to Massawa stood on the first track. The single-car train with streamlined silver sides and large flat windows looked more like a trolley car than a train. It was a Fiat Littorina, our transportation.
Though it was a cool morning, standing in the sun at Asmara's 7600 feet quickly melted any chill so that our wait for things to happen was not at all uncomfortable. Others were gathering too. A young Italian woman arrived with two children in hand. Two Ethiopian students (you can tell them by their books and dull white uniforms) came next. And then a couple of Ethiopian business men arrived wearing suits that told of a culture different from what we were used to. Their khaki pants were topped with white shirts and blue sports jackets. The blue was that of an old, blue car, that odd white-blue that comes from years in the sun.
Finally, a couple of khaki-uniformed guys got on the Littorina. One went to the front, stuck a handle on something, turned a key and a diesel truck motor sound rumbled from the car. Equally distinctive dirty diesel exhaust rose from the top of the car. The engineer twisted the handle and the car moved forward stopping in front of us. We all got in and sat in pleasant leather upright seats that held two people. Thirty-two could sit in pairs of facing seats. Many more could stand. We were only 14 that day.
The engineer sat at a group of controls at the front, like on a bus. Midway, storage compartments jutted into the isle on both sides splitting the 32 seats into equal groups of 16. Another driver's console on the other end sat below the same Art-Deco-styled streamlined windows as in the front. In fact, the "front" and and "rear" of this two-way car were the same. To go in the opposite direction, the engineer took his key and crank from one end of the car to the other and drove from there.
We sat in the rumbling diesel engine's light, sweet exhaust smell. It sounded more like an idling, semi-trailer truck than a train car. But that was the train car's secret--it was really a two-headed bus on rails.
After a while, the engineer turned the crank a bit, the motor revved, and we began to move. He turned the crank a few more notches and we moved even faster. The clackedy-clack of the wheels against the rails sounded above the motor's dull rumble. We were off. We climbed over a treeless, stony plain. The Littorina actually shifted gears like the bus I knew it was.