Just beside the Hungarian capital sits a cavernous building which is home to countless relics from a bygone age. Once, this industrial enclave buzzed with activity as workers strove to repair the pride of the nation’s railways. But now, everything is silent, and only ghosts remain here in this graveyard for the trains that time forgot.
Istvántelek train yard was built on a large swathe of land next to Budapest in the early 1900s. Yet its fate would prove just as checkered and complex as that of the country itself. And eventually, the vast facility fell into disrepair.
In its heyday, Istvántelek functioned as a service yard for the maintenance of Budapest’s impressive fleet of trains. But the engines eventually stopped arriving as history marched on. Fast forward to the 21st century, and the place is almost abandoned. Nowadays, just a few commuter routes still run on the overgrown lines.
While Istvántelek may be quiet and still, though, it is far from empty. According to Atlas Obscura, there are the remains of over 100 trains that made their way here over the years – only to go no further. And thanks to the efforts of some brave urban explorers, we have been able to see inside this remarkable space.
The story of rail travel in Hungary stretches back to the middle of the 19th century, when the first steam-powered locomotives ran between eastern Budapest and the town of Vác. High prices initially kept passenger numbers low, though a rethink in 1889 brought this transport revolution within the reach of ordinary folk.
Demand for train travel was high as the 20th century subsequently rolled on. The network was expanding nationwide, and Hungarian State Railways (MAV) continued acquiring more stock. But bigger fleets meant increased maintenance requirements. Therefore, it soon became clear that a new yard would need to be built.
Work on Istvántelek train yard on the outskirts of Budapest apparently began in 1902. But this was no ordinary repair shop. Instead, it was a vast, sprawling complex. According to the urban planning blog My Radiant City, one workshop alone covered an area of more than 250,000 square feet! In fact, that single structure alone was named the biggest building in the city at the time.
The train yard finally opened three years later in time to service iconic Hungarian steam trains such as the MAV 424. Featuring two chimneys and weighing an astonishing 150 tons, these famous locomotives were first rolled out back in 1924. And more than 500 of them were eventually produced by the time production ceased in 1958, according to the Railway Hub website.
Today, these trains – which sometimes bore a red star motif – are considered a symbol of a lost age. But the yard that serviced them ultimately succumbed to a slightly less romantic fate. In 1944 the forces of Nazi Germany invaded Hungary, and Budapest was drawn into the carnage of World War II.
As part of their campaign against the Axis powers, the Allies launched a number of devastating attacks on the Hungarian rail system. Istvántelek itself managed to escape any serious damage, though the wider network was destroyed. By the time that the war was over, more than 50 percent of the country’s main lines reportedly lay in ruins.
Facilities such as Istvántelek naturally faced an uncertain future in this face of this devastation. Then, the landscape of rail travel transformed once more. In the late 1950s manufacturers stopped producing steam trains as the industry turned to electric and diesel locomotives instead. But these require less maintenance – rendering vast facilities like the one in Budapest increasingly obsolete.
With no rolling stock of steam trains to service, life at Istvántelek began to slow down. Though its cavernous warehouses were still put to use over the years. And at one point, according to My Radiant City, the facility was called upon to house a number of engines en route to the Budapest Railway Museum.
The plan, it seems, was to use the ample facilities at Istvántelek to restore the locomotives before putting them on display. But for some reason, the exhibition never happened. So, the engines remained in the train yard, where their rotting metal shells can still be seen to this day.
In fact, over the years, a surprising number of engines have found their way to this bleak, desolate yard on the outskirts of Budapest. And many of them are still there! Take the MAV 301, for example. This steam train was in service in Hungary for three years beginning in 1911, according to Atlas Obscura.
Today, it’s believed that there are only two MAV 301s left in existence. And one of them, startlingly, is at Istvántelek yard. But that’s not all. Over the years, the facility has also acquired a collection of German freight cars rumored to have some sinister links to World War II.
According to reports, Istvántelek also houses a number of carriages dating back to the 1960s when the Hungarian People’s Republic was in power. Overseen by the Soviet Union, this communist regime held sway for 40 years beginning in 1949. And even though it was disbanded in the late 1980s, its influence on cities such as Budapest can still be seen today.
With all these historical trains, then, you would think that Istvántelek would be a magnet for aficionados from across the globe, right? Actually, the site – known as Red Star Train Graveyard after the MAV 424s still housed there – is not on any tourist maps! And although it’s possible to plan a visit, the trip is not suitable for the faint of heart.
According to Atlas Obscura, Istvántelek was made off-limits to the public back in 2017. Now, anyone who wishes to visit must apply for the right documentation. Towering walls tipped with barbed wire also ring the site – discouraging any illicit explorers from trying to break in.
All this, it seems, has created an ominous atmosphere for any would-be adventurers hoping to bypass the law and see what lurks inside this abandoned yard. On the travel blog Awesome Explorations, a writer and photographer known as Steven recounted his trip to Istvántelek and the challenges that he encountered.
According to Steven, the adventure started when he jumped into a cab along with his companion and headed to an industrial area outside Budapest. Eventually, they reached Istvántelek – climbing out and leaving a perplexed driver behind. But the 6.5-foot wall that greeted them did not exactly promise an easy entry!
Steven was pretty apprehensive after having read stories online about fearsome guard dogs patrolling the area. Nevertheless, he eventually found his way inside the complex. Keeping under the radar of workers still present on the site, Steven began wandering through a dystopian landscape of decaying engines and railway cars. But it was inside one particular building that the true wonder of Istvántelek finally revealed itself.
Like Steven, Laurie at My Radiant City managed to sneak her way into Istvántelek. Though she did so by scaling a low wall. The explorer also found the supposedly abandoned yard surprisingly bustling. Apparently, some of the disused buildings had recently been repurposed by local businesses – hosting scrapyards and similar enterprises.
But this new surge of activity has not penetrated to the heart of Istvántelek. Explorers apparently do not need to travel far inside the complex before they are confronted with the first relics of the train graveyard. And scattered across the site are a number of abandoned and overgrown carriages.
In some places, the carriages are missing their doors and windows – bearing graffiti in white paint against red rust. In others, they appear slightly more complete, and you can see engines still linked to the compartments that once carried cargo and passengers across the country. But in each case, it is clear that decades have passed since these machines were in their prime.
According to Laurie, the site also boasts some impressive architecture – including a pair of viewing towers built from brick and green-painted wood. Yet the real treasure is not out in the open for everyone to see. According to Atlas Obscura, there are two large indoor depots at Istvántelek that house any number of historical relics.
Unlike other buildings on the site, though, it appears that these vast depots are kept unlocked. At least, both Laurie and Steven claim to have been able to enter without any trouble. And once inside, they spotted a sprawling collection of carriages and engines quite unlike anything that they had seen before.
“Wow, an amazing scene lay before us and I came face-to-face with what I had seen in photos on the internet for years,” Steven wrote on Awesome Explorations. Inside, huge locomotives loomed up towards the crumbling roof, and they were easily “three times” taller than the explorer himself.
“… Once the pride of the railways, now they lay decaying and forgotten,” Steven continued. Though that was just the beginning! He added, “There were at least a dozen steam locomotives and all sorts of passenger and cargo carriages throughout the place.” And like the ones outside, these great machines were in varying states of disrepair.
A painted tag on one locomotive apparently revealed that the engine was once destined for a museum. But instead of ending up on display, it never left the Istvántelek depot. The train is instead slowly being overtaken by nature as it sits abandoned beneath the dilapidated roof. In fact, the structure is so decayed that the machines are almost entirely exposed to the elements in many places.
“The roof was in a poor state and shards of metal must blow off it every now and then,” Steven continued. “There was one area in the back corner that looked like it was a live electrical substation and was making an odd noise that we stayed away from.” But even this alarming discovery did not deter him from exploring, it seems.
A young photographer called Mathew Growcoot also recalled the dilapidated structures inside Istvántelek during an interview with the Daily Express in 2014. He said, “The roof was falling to pieces. But it made for a dramatic effect as shards of light pierced the otherwise dingy interior helping plant life to grow.”
In fact, the encroaching greenery seems to be a common theme in photographs and videos taken at Istvántelek. Improbable roots spring up through the moss-covered floor to vines, and branches slowly creep through carriage windows. How long, then, will it be until everything disappears?
Growcoot continued, “It was definitely eerie being in there.” Like the carriages outside, many of the machines inside the depot are daubed in graffiti – the colorful tags standing out against the dull, faded blues and greens. And in many cases, windows and seats have been torn out and leave little more than empty shells behind.
Yet not all of Istvántelek’s trains are in such a sorry state of repair. For instance, several of the locomotives look barely touched – as if they could still be rolled out onto the tracks at a moment’s notice. And although the distinctive star motif has faded on one MAV 424, its five-pointed shape can still clearly be seen.
In some cases, even the interiors of the trains remain eerily untouched – their seats still covered in pristine upholstery as they await passengers who will never come. But generally, the atmosphere is that of a place lost in time, where once-great machines now slumber through their final days. The question is: will they ever wake up?
Given the state of the trains at Istvántelek, it seems unlikely that they will ever be rescued and restored. The Hungarian authorities also seem reluctant to let anyone inside the yard to view them in their decaying glory. Meanwhile, Steven’s time in the depot was apparently cut short when a station worker explained that the area was “forbidden.”
Despite these restrictions, though, Istvántelek train yard is growing in popularity as a destination for urban explorers keen to capture its unique atmosphere on film. For those who have braved the journey out to the industrial suburbs of Budapest, it also seems as if it was worth the effort. For his part, Growcoot summed up the site’s appeal in his interview with the Daily Express.
“I was really pleased that I was able to capture these sleeping giants,” Growcoot explained. “It really brings the past to life when you can walk amongst historical artifacts. It makes you think about how far we’ve come in such a relatively short space of time.” Meanwhile, Steven speculated on whether or not Istvántelek might soon be demolished.
At the moment, it seems unclear what the future might hold for this train graveyard and its forgotten relics. But perhaps Istvántelek’s engines and carriages might get the same lucky break as those that wound up at the Woodham Brothers scrapyard in Barry, Wales. There, hundreds of abandoned locomotives spent years as a forlorn tourist attraction before preservationists gave them a new lease of life.
Although not all of the engines at Woodham could be saved, many of them have now been restored to their former glory and run on historic railways across the U.K. Could the same thing happen with Istvántelek’s forgotten trains? Well, only time will tell. But for now, these sleeping giants will remain behind closed doors.