Recording the experiences of UK Interrailers between 1972 and 1990

With Interrail passes in our pockets and packs on our backs, my friend Graeme and I set off to travel around Europe in the autumn of 1985. Apart from purchasing Hungarian visas in advance so we could go behind the Iron Curtain and visit Budapest, the rest of our trip was unplanned. Almost four decades later, I am about to embark on a different kind of Interrail journey. This time I will be exploring the experiences of other UK Interrailers in the early years of the scheme through a series of oral history interviews.

Just 2,420km from the North Pole, Narvik, Norway, 1989

For half a century, the Interrail scheme has enabled Europeans to travel by train around much of their continent at relatively low cost. Interrail was started in 1972 by the International Union of Railways (UIC) as a short-term offer for young people to visit up to 21 countries in one month. Based on the success of that first year the scheme was continued, and has since expanded and evolved. In 2018 the European Union recognised Interrail’s contribution to education and development by including free passes in ‘DiscoverEU’ which is part of the Erasmus+ programme.

Coinciding with the 50th anniversary of Interrail, my historical research will focus on the years between 1972 and 1990. During that period, both Europe as a political entity and the ways in which people travelled around the continent were significantly different. Europe was divided between East and West although the demolition of the Berlin Wall began in November 1989. This was the era before the proliferation of budget airlines and the widespread use of the Internet and mobile technology. Travellers did not have the almost instant digital access to information and communication tools that their 21st Century counterparts have today.

The countries included in the original scheme were Austria, Belgium, Denmark, East Germany, Finland, France, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom, West Germany, and Yugoslavia. East Germany and Poland soon dropped out but were replaced by Romania, Turkey (the European part only), and Morocco. The original age limit of 21 was increased to 23 in 1976, to 26 in 1979. The scheme was extended to all ages in 1998.

Interrail leaflet cover, 1986

My first Interrail adventure established my lifelong love of travel and a curiosity about people, places, and stories. Our trip got off to an inauspicious start though. Arriving in Dieppe, we discovered that most of the French railway system was closed due to industrial action. We jumped on one of the few trains running south out of Paris and didn’t alight until Nice. We reached Budapest eventually via a circuitous but scenic route along the Côte d’Azur and then through Milan, Venice, and Vienna. This flexibility is one of the beauties of Interrailing.

Budapest was like nothing I had experienced before. We had to register our arrival in the city with the police and then book state-approved accommodation. We were allocated a room in a house in the eastern suburbs. At one of the central Metro stations, a man approached and gave us what were effectively two travelcards which we used throughout our stay. After a day or so, we had convinced ourselves that the authorities were using the tickets to track our movements around the city. Paranoia or truth?

Inside Népstadion, Budapest , Hungary, 1985

Graeme and I made two further Interrail journeys in the second half of the 1980s, mainly focusing on Denmark, West Germany, Switzerland, Norway, Sweden, and Finland. We ventured into the Arctic Circle, using Norwegian State Railways as far we could to view some of the astonishing fjords. We had to a catch a bus between the two northernmost termini, Bodø and Narvik. Then we travelled south through hundreds of miles of Swedish forest to the beautiful city of Stockholm. We took a ferry across the Baltic to Finland and reached the mysterious and forbidding frontier zone with the Soviet Union.  

Do I have any Interrail regrets? Only one, that we didn’t catch a train to West Berlin, and then cross at Checkpoint Charlie into the eastern part of the city. I recall that we talked about going to Berlin but maybe time was an issue. Due to work commitments, I could only travel for just over two weeks each trip. I never had the full month-long Interrail experience but was still able to visit over half of the Interrail countries using a pass that cost only £119 in 1985, rising to £145 by 1989.

I am looking forward to interviewing other UK Interrailers, most of whom will be in their early 50s to early 70s and helping them to unpack their stories. These interviews should enhance our understanding of several areas of historical interest including how backpacker travel was conducted in the pre-digital era, how young travellers experienced aspects of European life in the latter part of the Cold War period, and the extent to which youth travel shaped longer term opinions about Europe and Europeans. This is particularly topical given the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union.

On the Finland side of the Frontier Zone with the Soviet Union, 1989

An oral history approach is well-suited to Interrail because travel is an activity which primarily creates memories rather than trails of documentary evidence. Yet, I hope that some interviewees will have retained their Interrail passes, or perhaps battered and annotated Thomas Cook timetables and guidebooks such as ‘Europe by Train’ or ‘Let’s Go’. Others may have kept diaries or journals which recorded their activities, thoughts, and emotions in greater detail. Photos will provide a visual reminder of people and places, but images were not as ubiquitous or consistent in quality as they are in the age of digital devices.

For me, and I’m sure many other young backpackers, Interrailing was a rite of passage. Not only were we away from home for an extended period for the first time, but we were often incommunicado. Apart from occasional payphone calls home, in the pre-digital era we were largely untraceable. There was no GPS, no smartphones, and few trackable credit card payments or ATM withdrawals. This made travellers vulnerable, perhaps to feelings of homesickness and loneliness, also to being preyed upon by the more unscrupulous. I want to explore the darker sides of backpacker travel.

In September 2022 I started my postgraduate studies at Royal Holloway University of London under the supervision of Dr Amy Tooth Murphy and Dr Edward Madigan. My research is entitled ‘Europe and travel on the cusp of change: Recording the experiences of young travellers from the UK who went Interrailing between 1972 and 1990’. If you were a Interrailer anytime between the early 1970s and the early 1990s, or just want to find out more, please contact me.

Suggested reading

The train ticket that revolutionized European rail travel, Francesca Street for CNN, 2022

45 years of Interrail posters and advertising, Retours, 2017

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