But instead of heading to the Austrian border, the overloaded train stopped at Bicske, a town northwest of Budapest that holds one of the country's five camps for asylum seekers, facilities the refugees want to avoid because they don't want to pursue asylum claims in economically depressed Hungary. As the train platform filled with police came into view, those inside chanted their disapproval and their determination to reach Germany, their almost unanimous goal.
The crowd, angrily waving train tickets to Vienna and Munich, refused police orders to board buses to the asylum center, pushing their way past police and back onto the train. A day-long standoff ensued in which police and charity workers took turns handing food and water to the passengers, only to have them tossed out train windows in protest.
"We don't need food and water! Just let us go to Germany!" one man shouted. Children held up handwritten signs reading, "Let's Go Germany."
One man threw his wife and infant son onto the tracks, screaming in Arabic, "We won't move from here!" Police surrounded the prone family, pulled the husband away and handcuffed him as he wailed. His wife and diaper-clad boy, apparently uninjured despite their stumbling descent onto the tracks, were freed and allowed to rejoin other refugees.
The scene of desperation was just one of many that unfolded Thursday as tempers flared in Hungary's war of wills with refugees trying to evade asylum checks and reach Western Europe, a showdown with consequences for the entire continent.
About 100 police kept watch on the train, escorting media – including Al Jazeera reporter Andrew Simmons – from the platform, but didn't remove the refugees by force.
The head of police border control, Col. Laszlo Balazs, said 16 people voluntarily checked into the asylum center, while about 500 others refused. He said officers were using loudspeakers to inform those who would not comply of "their legal obligations."
"Nobody can avoid identity checks. Everyone must submit themselves to this measure, and the police are keeping this train in place until they do," he said.
Back at the Budapest train station, announcements in Hungarian and English – but not Arabic, the language of most of those gathered inside – declared that all services from the station to Western Europe had been canceled. A statement in English on the main departures board said no more trains to Austria or Germany would leave "due to safety reasons until further notice!"
Al Jazeera and wire services