Narrow gauge military railway in York

The remains of a short 18-inch (or thereabouts; I didn’t actually measure it) railway are visible by the River Ouse on the south edge of York, just upstream from the Millennium Bridge.

Here are some photos I took on April 19 2003.

[Photo of narrow gauge railway by Rive Ouse in York]

The line ran through a now-blocked gateway in the wall.

A nearby noticeboard explains:

Military stores were unloaded at an Ordnance Wharf, built in 1888, and taken to the army depot in Hospital Fields Road on a narrow gauge railway, a small section of which is still visible at the southern end of New Walk. Explosives were brought in the schooner ‘Princess’ known locally as the ‘Powder boat’.

[View towards river]
There is a set of points, and then both tracks turn left to run parallel to the river. The Millennium Bridge is in the background.


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A visit to the Harzer Schmalspurbahnen

Some (rather badly scanned) photographs I took while on holiday in Germany in July 2003, along with an article I wrote for Eagle, the journal of the Cambridge University Railway Club.

[Steam loco at water crane]
99 7238-1 takes on water at Drei Annen Hohne. 2003-07-18.

The famous Harz narrow gauge railway network is operated by Harzer Schmalspurbahnen GmbH. Owned by the various local authorities, it still provides scheduled steam services on the 131.24 km network, which became the first non-federally owned railway in the former East Germany on 1 February 1993. HSB declares its aim as to “preserve all three railways in the Harz region in their entirety as a tourist attraction, a monument to engineering, a facility for freight haulage and as a local transport facility”. HSB has 25 steam engines, six railcars, and 16 diesel locos.

We began our July 2003 visit to the Harz in Wernigerode. An attractive town, it looks rather like a German theme park might be built, with brightly-painted and half-timbered buildings. The Harz railways station is, as so often in Europe, located just outside the main station. Stepping off our DB train we could see smoke rising in the distance, but the DMU from Halberstadt had been 44 minutes late, so out priority was finding the Youth Hostel.

The hostel was a surprisingly respectable place, though a bus ride from the town centre, and not as well sign-posted as it could be! From the window of our room it was just possible to see passing steam trains through the trees. Dumping our bags we headed into town for dinner in the restaurant under the Rathaus – being a major tourist centre, there are plenty of dining options in the town. We wandered over to peer over the fence at the railway sheds, and bumped into a local who explained all about what Bismarck did in the dramatically-sited castle, but sadly our German wasn’t up to it.

The next morning we headed into town to photograph the 08:44 departure from Westerntor station cross a large level crossing outside the western gate to the town centre. We then walked to the main station to acquire tickets. The staff were well used to tourists, and with schoolboy-German and pointing at the map we were soon sold a suitable ticket. This was a €24 BrockenCard, valid for one return trip from any HSB station to Schierke and Brocken, and one other, non-Brocken, return trip within three days. A three day rover ticket costs €35, 5 days €40 and 7 days 50.00. Dogs under 20cm high go free, but bigger ones are half-fare.

We caught the 09:25 from Wernigerode to Brocken, hauled by 99 7238-1, and very busy with German holiday makers. The trains are formed of balcony carriages of a design common to the former-DDR’s narrow gauge lines. Riding on the balcony was popular, but Germans are averse to open doors. One chap held his nose to point out that the carriage might start to smell of steam if the door was left open, and leaving us to wonder why he was sat in the front carriage. It was clear that some of the Germans found their own insistance on keeping the doors close rather amusing, and they were slightly theatrical in closing doors after returning from trips to stand on the balcony!

[Loco in the mist]
The loco runs round its train at Brocken station, 1125 metres above sea level. 2003-07-18.

The train arrived at the 1125m high Brocken station at 11:07, disgorging its passengers into the misty and slightly cooler surroundings. There is the typically German collection of sausage sellers, a restaurant and a hotel at the top of the 1142m high hill. The former military listening post is now a visitor centre with information on the national park, local wildlife and history. We bought postcards, but didn’t pay the €4 go in. There is a ban on using the train toilets between Schierke and Brocken, and we soon began to wonder if this was anything to do with charging people €0.50 for the ones on the hilltop! We wandered over to the railway to photograph 99 7242-3 hauling the 11:52 arrival, before boarding for the 12:08 back down.

[Steam loco in trees]
2-10-2T locos 99 231 to 99 247 were built at Karl Marx Locomotive Factory in Babelsberg in the 1950s for use on the narrow-gauge Eisfeld – Schönbrunn, Gera-Pforten – Wuitz – Mumsdorf, Harzquer and Brocken lines. Carrying its former DR number, 99 7234 is heading up to Brocken, while the downhill train waits in the passing siding. Once the uphill train has passed, the downhill train reverses out of the siding back onto the main line, then heads forwards to Schierke. 2003-07-18.

Halfway to Schierke the downhill train runs into a siding, where it waits for the uphill train to pass. The downhill train then reverses out of the siding, before heading forwards again. Throughout the journey staff wandered up and down the train with baskets, selling small bottles containing some form of alcoholic beverage.

We got off at Schierke, to watch the trains pass and grab some currywurst and bottled black beer, and be impressed by the range of tacky witch-themed souvenirs in the station shop (the German witches who apparently meet on the Brocken seem to wear a lot less clothing than British ones!). We then took the 13:40, seven coaches and a van hauled by 99 7234-0, down to the junction at Drei Annen Hohne, where the station features a beer garden, and there is a tourist information centre. After 15:00 we had the now unusual sight of three scheduled steam trains waiting to depart in three different directions.

The loco from the Eisfelder Talmühle – Wernigerode train, which includes an open wagon fitted with seating for which a supplement is payable, is swapped with the loco from the Brocken – Nordhausen train. The Wernigerode – Brocken train keeps its loco.

At 15:33 we set off for Nordhausen behind 99 7236-5. At Elend there was a slight pause as the station cafe supplied mugs of drinks for the loco crew.

The countryside is heavily wooded, and many trees later we arrived at Eisfeld Talmühle, junction of the two routes. A diesel railcar connection arrived from Nordhausen and went off towards Steige. The station building seemed to be under reconstruction, and there was a collection of freight rolling stock in DR livery stood in a siding. We passed through Ilfeld, the northern limit of a more frequent service which provide about one railcar an hour to Nordhausen, but at irregular intervals.

Nordhausen – closed for rebuilding

[Railcar]
There is short link between the HSB lines and the tramway in Nordhausen, allowing railcars to serve Nordhausen Nord, the bus and tram stop.

187 016-1 is one of four diesel-hydraulic railcars built to reduce costs on Alexisbad – Nordhausen Nord services and to provide school and commuter services between Ilfeld and Nordhausen. Partly paid for by the states of Thüringen and Sachsen-Anhalt, the 50km/h railcars were built at DB’s Halberstadt works and delivered from March to August in 1999. The design was developed using experience gained with prototype vehicle 187 015 which had been built in Wittenberge in 1996. (Photo 2003-07-18).

The HSB terminus in Nordhausen, just to one side of the DB station, gives the distinct impression of having seen better days. The one modern feature among the decay is the provision of a short link between the HSB and the town’s tram network. Branching off the HSB just before the station, this allows the HSB railcars to access the bus and tram stops in front of both railways’ stations.

The tram network comprises two lines electrified at 600 V DC. The 3.22 km Line 1 runs from the hospital in the north to the station in the south, the 4.55 km Line 2 runs from Parkallee in the northwest to Nordhausen East, crossing Line 1 in the town centre. During our stay much of the city centre was being dug up for rebuilding, and instead of serving the station via a large loop around the block the trams were terminating in a construction site a few minutes walk away.

The tramway was obviously having serious money spent on it, with some of the stops being modernised to light rail standards. In 2002 the town ordered 3 dual-mode Siemens Combino trams with 180 kW diesel engines, and from May 1 2004 these will operate an hourly service on a new Route 10 from the hospital, through the town centre and then under diesel power over the HSB lines to Ilfeld. We noticed that the southern end of the HSB also had very modern platforms, perhaps in readiness for the integration with the tramway.

[Tram]
Three-section Siemens Combino tram number 105 tram negotiates the road and tramway rebuilding works in central Nordhausen. The tramway is operated by Stadtwerke Nordhausen. (Photo 2003-07-18).

The city has a fleet of 7 Siemens Combino trams, a mix of uni- and bi-directional models. No. 107 was carrying vinyls referring to the tramway in the Austrian town of Gmunden where it had recently been demonstrated. Only having doors on one side of most of the trams was awkward in the city centre, where rebuilding of the southbound track meant all trams were using the other line, making the doors inaccessible from the platform.

Tickets are bought from machines on board the tram, which seemed to be quite new as some locals were struggling with it. While we debated whether it was worth getting a four-journey ticket, a local thought we were confused and came to offer help. Then the tram stopped, luckily on a reserved track section, and the driver came back to join in!

The youth hostel is one stop from the northwestern terminus of Line 2, but within walking distance of the town centre; the tramway really is tiny. Outside the hostel were two sidings in a locked compound containing older trams, now displaced by the Combinos.

Like so many towns Nordhausen was devastated by air raids in WWII (V2 rockets were produced in a nearby labour camp), was perhaps unsympathetically rebuilt, and is only now being restored; it is quite odd to see a section of medieval city wall being built! The whole town gave the impression of being shut for rebuilding. We ate at a cheap bar round the back of the Rathaus, which was the only sign of life we could see. We weren’t unduly disappointed to be leaving Nordhausen the next morning, but I think it will be a reasonable place once they have finished building it, though with few attractions other than its transport network.

Down the pit

At 10:06 the following day we set off for Netzkater behind 99 7236-5. We had planned to change trains one stop further on at Eisfelder Talmühle, but on the way in we had spotted a mining museum with a collection of narrow gauge rolling stock, and a beer garden.

A tour of the mine was departing as we arrived at the museum, and after relieving us of €5 the ticket office simply gave us hard hats pointed towards the drift entrance. We dashed down after the tour group, for a 45 minute walk around the disused coal mine. The tour was in German, but if you have ever done a tour of a mine you can work out much of what was being said and fill in the gaps! Part of the tour is completely unlit, visitors having to feel their way forwards through the tunnels. There was a demonstration of a cable hauled incline inside the mine, then we returned tot he surface, where for €0.50 rides on a 60cm gauge man-rider train were available. A beer later we caught the 12:10 diesel railcar for Hasselfelde on the Selkatal line.

Limitations of GCSE German

All but one of the other passengers disembarked at Stiege, but we continued to Hasselfeld. The ‘genuine’ passenger left, and the driver retired to the station cafe. We wandered around the station yard, where a steam loco boiler is on display. A shed contains another loco, which we think is privately owned and non-operational. We then returned to Steige, where the passengers who had got off earlier got on again! There were now 13 passengers,and the other 11 seemed fairly genuine, rather than simply there for the ride. In contrast, all seven or so coaches of the trains on the Brocken line had been pretty full.

de-brocken1-small.jpg
An uphill train approaches the Brocken summit. 2003-07-18.

Numbers had thinned to four by Siberhütte. As we approached the station a stout gentleman in a bright pink shirt could be seen rushing towards the station, followed by a snaking line of 10 hikers. Unfortunately the train left the station before he made it to the platform. This left us with a problem, as I was off school during the “bang on the cab door and tell the train driver he had left the passengers behind” module of GCSE German. We pointed out to the other two passengers what had happened, and after some hesitation they went to establish communications with the driver. We stopped some distance beyond the station, and I hung out of the window to wave and shout at the hikers, who came trotting along the track behind us to catch up.

We got off at Alexisbad, the junction for the Harzgerode brach, and took the change to sample the local apple wine. A steam train arrived from Gernrode, and we caught it up the steeply graded branch. Many of the passengers seemed to be enthusiasts, and there were a few British people on board. A the terminus there was just time to glance into the castle courtyard, then it was time to head back down to Alexisbad, and change for a steam service to Gernrode.

The station area at Gernrode cannot be considered one of Germany’s greatest scenic delights. After ascertaining that the semi-derelict structure opposite the HSB terminus really was the DB station, and inferring from the presence of another, local-looking, passenger that there might really still be a train service, we had the best part of an hour’s wait for our two-car DMU. This took us to the very attractive town of Quedlingburg, which has an impressive gothic-style station, and a centrally-located – and this time well sign posted – half-timbered youth hostel where we were given a room in the attic.

Visiting

The Harz railways are well worth a visit. Wernigerode is geared up for tourists, and the Brocken line is very popular. The use of steam over the whole system can feel slightly “preserved”, but I felt the Selketal line had a slightly more genuine feel to it, with real passengers, and the railcars certainly provide a real service.

The one thing to beware of when planning a trip is that south of Drei Anne Hohne the trains are not very frequent, with four services per day over some stretches of line. The pattern of through trains is quite complex, and a trip over the whole network does require some planning.

HSB’s official website at gives full timetables, details and histories of the lines, and enthusiast oriented information on the rolling stock in both German and English.

Bulgarian narrow gauge

The Septemvri – Dobrinishte railway

Bulgaria’s last remaining narrow gauge line takes passengers on a five-hour journey through an highly atmospheric corner of the Balkans. In June 2006 I went for the ride.

Bulgarian narrow-gauge train

Lineside mosque

THE HOLY GRAIL of European travel seems to be the ‘new Prague’, as short break travellers seek the next ‘undiscovered’ city before Eire O’flot fills its streets with stag nights and the sort of Britons who inspire the rest of us to let people think we are from somewhere, anywhere, else.

Sofia isn’t it. However ancient a church is, once it is submerged in a roundabout it loses its appeal. Moving the national museum from the city centre to somewhere on the far side of the local equivalent of the M25 was a brave move, equalled only by the bravery of the people who try to cross the road to reach it.

In the woods

A much better reason to visit Bulgaria is the country’s last surviving narrow gauge railway, a 125 km line between Septemvri and Dobrinishte in the southwest of the country which take passengers on an attractive 5½ hour journey through the Rhodope and Pirin mountain ranges.

The obvious place to start a visit to the line is Plovdiv, a city which was already old when it was trashed by Alexander the Great’s dad in 342 BC, before he modestly re-named it after himself. You can still clamber over ancient ruins in the UNESCO-listed old town to get a fine view over the city’s Ottoman mosques and communist concrete, and six of its original seven hills (one was getting in the way, so they removed it).

Plovdiv to Sofia train

Bulgaria seems to be where German trains go to die, and the 08:15 departure from Plovdiv was no exception, still adorned with signs still telling us what was Verboten while the train was stopped in the Bahnhof.

Ties to Germany stretch back to the construction of the railway, which was undertaken by German financier Baron Hirsch under a concession agreement with the Ottoman empire. The line between Plovidiv and Septemvri opened in 1872, as part of a railway from Constantinople to Belovo built under a scheme to link the capitals of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires “not only in support of their imperialistic strivings, but also a factor for political consolidation against Russia”i. It was subsequently extended to Sofia and on to the Austro-Hungarian empire at Tsaribrod (now Dimitrovgrad in Serbia) from 12 August 1888, with the opening of this first line built after Bulgaria’s liberation from the Turks been seen as the birth of Bulgarian State Railways.

Septemvri boasts a large station building, and a café selling substantial spicy sausages with bread and dark beer which proved useful on our return the next day. Narrow gauge trains leave from an island platform, and, as ever, the tourists are easy to identify as they are to only people who bother to penetrate the Stygian depths of the subway to cross the main line. The narrow gauge station is pretty basic, with some staff accommodation and a dark room which passed as the loo – completely unlit, but that’s probably for the best.

Tracks

Railways had come late to Bulgaria, and the initial 39 km of the narrow gauge line from Septemvri as far as Velingrad has just completed its 80th year, having opened in 1926. Construction began five years before, the relatively late construction start reflecting the historic lack of development in Bulgaria, a shortage of funds and the difficult terrain. Further complications came from the convoluted conflicts and border changes that the Balkans are infamous for, with the full area of the line only brought into the country during the First Balkan War in 1912, and further adjustments following the financially-damaging defeat in World War I. During the global conflict various 600 mm gauge lines had been built with German equipment to support the campaignsii, demonstrating the potential for reaching the parts other railways couldn’t, at a price which Bulgaria could afford. After some discussion as to whether sufficiently powerful locomotives could be produced to anything less than metre gauge, the government opted for developing narrow gauge lines using the 760 mm (2ft 6in) gauge which had proved successful in Bosnia and elsewhere.

Two substantial 760 mm gauge lines were built in Bulgaria, but the 105 km Cerven Briag – Oriahovo route closed in December 2002, leaving Septemvri – Dobrinishte as the last narrow gauge route operated by state railway operator BDZ. A greater loss from a tourist’s point of view is the 600 mm line which once linked the Sofia to Greece line at Kocherinovo with Rila and its famous monastery, which is Bulgaria’s foremost tourist attraction but rather difficult to reach without transport. A loco and coach from the line are preserved on the concourse of Sofia Tsentralna station, but I can’t help thinking that had the line survived beyond the 1960s until recent times, it would now be a very popular route.

Into the mountains

Inside a carriage

Along with a reasonable number of other passengers we hopped on the five-carriage train, and waited for departure at 09:12. The bogie coaches are second-class only and somewhat spartan, but do at least boast padded seats.

Behind the passenger platform are lines of derelict wagons, left over from the extensive freight traffic which unfortunately has now ceased. The route was built for 12 tonne axle loads, relatively high for a 760 mm gauge line, and the 1100 horsepower locos are said to be the most powerful of their gauge in the world. Timber from the forests along the line was a major source of traffic outwards, and construction materials and general goods were brought in from the rest of the countryiii.

Class 81 shunter

The depot is visible on the right as the train departs, with a Soviet-built Class 81 shunter, and a rake of slightly more luxurious passenger stock sat above an inspection pit. There is also a standard gauge rolling stock works.

Approaching the mountains

Turning southwest away from the main line to Sofia, 120 km away, the narrow gauge route follows the side of a road across the open plain between the Rhodope mountains to the south and the Balkan range to the north. The mountains were formed when Thracian bigwig Haemus unwisely compared himself and his wife the nymph Rhodope to Zeus and Hera, which annoyed the gods so much that they transformed the couple into the two mountain chains, forever separated by the River Maritsa.

Our train’s first significant stop is Varvara, which from 27 October 1928 until October 2002 was the junction for a 16 km branch which interchanged with the Septemvri – Plovdiv line further east at Pazardjik.

River Chepinska

The railway then plunges into a rocky gorge marking the start of the Rhodopes, twisting alongside a road and the tumbling River Chepinska, nipping in and out of a series of short tunnels, some of which are replacements for an original alignment which was destroyed by earth movements in 1928. The Ladas and battered old buses on the parallel road have to give way at a barriered level crossing, then the railway jumps across to the other side of the river.

My friend’s FIP [an international scheme for reciprocal railway staff travel] pass flummoxed the guard when she came to check tickets, but it looked convincing enough to be accepted. She seemed excited at the sight of my EuroDomino pass, and then decided to walk off with it. To my relief she returned with a second member of staff, and we established that she had never actually seen a real EuroDomino before, so wanted to show it to a new employee who was also onboard.

EuroDominos make little financial sense in Bulgaria. The fares are as cheap as the trains are slow, and even travelling from one end of the country to the other every day is unlikely to cost as much as the pass. However it does remove the need to queue up to buy tickets, and means you don’t need to know where you are going (not surprisingly, booking clerks can get confused with requests for a ticket to wherever that big throbby diesel loco is going, please). In theory most inter-city trains in Bulgaria require reservations, but on our first day in the country we’d visited three ticket windows at (the misleadingly named) Sofia Tsentralna station to get a slip of paper which no-one ever asked to see, and after that we didn’t bother, with no objections from anyone. The booking we did get specified a coach and seat, but as far as we could tell the coaches weren’t numbered anyway, so it was all a bit academic.

Dolene interlude

Dolene station

Road and rail eventually part company, the the gradient steepening as the railway heads off into a wooded valley. A sharp horseshoe curve brings the train to Dolene, a small station amid the trees about 21 km from Septemvri. The passengers spilled out for a wander outside or a cigarette, even though on many Bulgarian trains ‘no smoking’ simply means ‘open a window first’.

Dolene

Lacking confidence in my ability to decode the dusty timetable on the station wall, I went to ask the guard if there was time for me to take some photos. She made train noises and waived her hands past each other to symbolise that we were waiting to cross another train, and when I waved my camera she said “da while shaking her head, so I knew I had time to wander off up the line to gets some shots. Bulgarians shake their heads for yes and nod for no, something which I’d suspected was either a travel book myth or a tradition which had fallen to globalisation, but I was happy to discover is true. The trick is to always say da or ne as often as possible, and try very hard not to move your head as you speak!

Class 75 loco

While the uphill train sits at Dolene for about 11 minutes, the downhill makes brief 2 minute stop, and the passengers waved to each other as they passed, a group of kids being particularly keen to ensure they were included in our photos. The other train was hauled by one of the 10 B-B diesel-hydraulic locomotives which were ordered from Henschel in Germany to replace steam in 1965. Attractive machines, they are based on a metre gauge design supplied to Spain, Thailand and Togo.

Loco 77005-7

Our train was pulled by a similar but Romanian-built Class 77 loco. These were built by the 23 August factory in Bucharest in 1988 as an improved version of its Class 76 locos, which had suffered from various problems and are now all withdrawn. Following a drop in freight traffic five of the Class 77 locos were sold to the Rio Turbio Railway in Argentinaix

Climbing the side of the valley, the Septemvri-bound train is occasionally visible between the trees in the valley below.

The spa town of Velingrad boasts 80 hot springs with waters to cure all kinds of ailments, as well as a large station where many passengers got on or off. The abandoned goods yard has an assortment of derelict open, van and flat wagons cluttering the sidings, along with an almost comic-looking 760mm gauge Plasser tramper.

One of the passengers boarding at Velingrad was a retired teacher of German, who gave us a commentary on the next stretch of the line, opened from Velingrad over the Rhodope ridge to Jakoruda in 1937. He’d hoped we were German so he could chat to us, but unfortunately my German is much too limited, and all we really understood was that there was a chance of seeing some eagles on the cliffs high above the line.

Alighting at Cvetino

Many of the stations are excessively substantial for today’s traffic, and the train almost emptied at Cvetino, where we passed another downhill train. The diminutive guard clambered up on a radiator to be able to lean out the window and wave her flag, and then we left for a further section of river gorge, passing between the Rhodope and Rila mountains though countryside once frequented by Orpheus, of underworld fame.

With the departure of the teacher at Cvetino, we raided the food supplies we’d acquired from a kiosk outside Plovdiv station. The station stops on the line are fairly short, and some are rather remote, so there is little chance of acquiring food en route. Bulgarian kiosks offer a wide variety of banitsa, pastries in a range of different shapes and sizes, all tasting like cardboard smeared with grease and marinaded with cling film. There is also a mysterious and foul-smelling brown cereal drink, which we both found undrinkable but is strangely popular with the locals.

Running round

I’d started keeping a close eye on my bottles of water after someone sharing our compartment on a train to Varna used my drink it to jam the train window open and try to get some ventilation. A much cleverer trick which is widely employed is to keep your worldly goods in a carrier bag tied to the window handle, with the weight holding the window open against the invariably broken mechanism.

After the deluge

On August 4 2005 Bulgaria was hit by severe flooding, Railway Transport Magazine describing a ‘crisis was so overwhelming that previous floods seemed as innocent as a children’s game in a swimming pool’. The Sofia – Plovidv main line was out of action for a month, and it took four days to restore a partial service on the narrow gauge line after the ‘most devastating disaster’ in the 117-year history of Bulgarian railways.

Flood repairs

The waters carried with them inevitable talk of abandoning the line, but on September 15 through services resumed following work to shore up embankments and install concrete flood defences between Cvetino, Avramovo and Cherna Mesta.iv The low running speeds were further cut by temporary speed restrictions throughout the damaged areas, trains crawling across some precarious- looking track over what must have been quite spectacular wash-outs.

The scenery gets increasingly impressive as the line zig-zags up the hills on gradients which reach 1 in 33, and the fragrances of the pine forests and carpets of local purple, yellow and sometimes white flowers fill the train. At one point three short tunnels in quick succession give an interesting view out the back of the train and through all three bores at once, and plunging into one of the longer chasms highlighted that the lighting in our carriage was defunct.

The train pauses briefly at Avramovo, 68 km from Septemvri and proudly announced as the highest station in the Balkans. Our friend the teacher had told us to watch for this, and the guard came along to ensure we saw the notice declaring that we were 1267 m above sea level. Much of the station signage along the route is bilingual, in Bulgarian and, strangely, French. The station appears to have little else to commend it, and the journey continues.

Mosque seen from the railway

The Rhodopes remained outside Bulgaria when she gained her independence in 1878, but were added to the territory in the First Balkan War of 1912-13, and the railway helped to ensure the area would look north towards Sofia and Plovidv, rather than south to the Aegean ports. There is still posses an exotic feel, as headscarfed women in brightly-patterned dresses board the train, which threads past gleaming white mosques and minarets in the villages inhabited by ‘Pomaks’, ethnic Slav Muslims.

Horse and cart

Horse-drawn traffic is quite common, the wagons drawn by horses decorated with red pom-poms on their heads. One cart driver decided to race the train, keeping up with us for a minute or two before we got ahead.

Pirin mountains

The line flattens as it reaches the Mesta valley, and the Pirin mountains come into view, still capped with snow in June. 114 km from Septemvri is Razlog, an industrial town with a paper factory which was once a major source of traffic for the line, employing three diesel locos until 2003v.

Bansko station

The loco is swapped for a replacement at Bansko, which is 118 km from the start of the trip, 936 m above sea level, and the main target of the line. However we stayed on-board to complete the route, having the train almost to ourselves for a further 13 min as far as the terminus at Dobrinishte, 125 km and 5½ hours from Septemvri. This final 7 km section of the line opened in December 1945 and is worth doing if you want to colour it on on your map, but offers little excitement in itself.

Dobrinishte

The timetable gives the option of not quite long enough or far too long in Dobrinishte, and as nothing exciting was visible from the station forecourt we contented ourselves with a few photos. Two more passengers appeared for the 15:00 return journey, equipped for serious hiking with military style gear but also photographing the train from all sides. We couldn’t identify their language, but they were using another railways staff passes, so of the four passengers on the return leg, I was the only one with a paid-for ticket – and even that was a pass, which can’t be too good for the traffic statistics.

Railcar at Bansko

Steam locos at Bansko

Bansko has a small locomotive shed, and dumped (or preserved?) outside are two steam locos which we cabbed, plus a derelict diesel multiple-unit, all displaced by the arrival of the powerful Henschel diesel locos in 1965. We double-checked the next day’s departures on the timetable board, a slightly cryptic listing which includes the time times the various service leave their initial stating point, as well as the station in question. The Cyrillic alphabet initially looks a bit scary to someone with my lack of linguistic ability, but once you get the hang of transliterating a few letters it is fairly easy to spot what you are looking for. It is usefully phonetic, and the locals could generally understand what we were trying to say, as long as we remembered to not to shake or nod our heads!

Time for tourism

A street in Bansko

Bansko is a pretty place of cobbled streets and wooden houses, if a little over-modernised in parts. Property investors are hoping it will overtake places like Poland’s Zakopane as the eastern European ski resort of choice, and signs for estate agents’ offices line the streets, just as adverts for Bansko fill the windows of London estate agents. The winter sports areas are some way from the town, and new developments are sprouting up to serve the pistes.

Monument in Bansko

Tourism has firmly arrivedvi, with a selection of restaurants offering alleged local colour and menus available in multiple languages (after a fashion – I opted for a Tickle of the Boss, having decided against Chicken Levers or Cock appetizer). Roadside stalls sell ice cream by weight, and a quid’s worth makes a fine site in the blazing heat.

The accommodation was less of a success, with Hotel Alpin believing that the addition of a sofa-bed was enough to declare the room as a twin, and breakfast seemed to be advertised in purely for decorative purposes.

Belica station

A ski resort in summer is never going to the most exciting place, so we called it a night early and decided to forgo another bland Bulgarian lager in favour of catching the 06:13 train the next morning, which had the advantage of getting us to Septemvri by 11:10, from where we caught the 12:39 departure for Sofia, arriving at 14:34.

Two elderly couples got on for the last stretch of the trip down to Septemvri, and the men launched into an impromptu performance of Bulgarian songs. There was more enthusiasm than harmony, but all the passengers listened intently to what must be well-known tunes.

Worth a ride

Leaving Bansko

The narrow gauge line is well worth the ride, though with just two or three through trains a day taking 5½ hours uphill and 5 back down there is a risk of too much of a good thing. In theory a day trip could be possible from Sofia, but I doubt even the most committed railfan would find the necessary early start and late return would constitute much of a pleasure by the time he was back in Sofia. A two day trip is a more realistic option, with both Bansko and Plovdiv being pleasant places to stay.

The times of the trains aren’t ideal for tourists, but in summer the early morning train does avoid the worst of the heat. The future of the line has been in doubt in recent years, and upgrades to the roads won’t help, but the repairs after the flooding suggest that the railway could still have a role; it was certainty well used. In December 2005 the local councils of the towns served by the line put forward a proposal for it to be operated under a concession, and negotiations have been held with British and German tour operators in the hope of capitalising on the scenic attractions of the line to develop tourist traffic.

Bulgaria’s trains are slow, infrequent and grubby, but there is still a sense of occasion to travelling. Racing horse drawn carts on 2’6″ gauge trains which wind between mosques is well worth doing before things change, whether for better or worse.

Opening datesvii
  Parliamentary approval 25 September 1920
  Construction starts 1921
39 km Septemvri (then called Sarambey) – Varvara – Velingrad (at the time three separate villages) 1 August 1926
16 km Varvara – Pazardjik branch 27 October 1928
closed October 2002
  Velingrad – Velingrad YG 1 July 1927
47 km Velingrad YG – Jakoruda 12 December 1937
15 km Jakoruda – Belica 30 July 1939
18 km Belica – Bansko 30 March 1943
7 km Bansko – Dobrinshte 9 December 1945

A branch from Kostandovo to Batak and a continuation of the main route beyond Dobrinishte to Gotse Deltchev (then called Nevrokop) were approved but not built.viii

The names of settlements along the route have varied with growth, politics, and the chosen scheme of transliteration from Cyrillic. For the sake of simplicity, I’ve used the spellings adopted by the Deutsche Bahn journey planner which we all know and love.

References

So you don’t have to take my word for it!

i 100 Years Bulgarian State Railways, BDZ, 1988 [A commemorative book produced just before changes swept eastern Europe. A typical excerpt: the revolutionary traditions of the railwaymen are best manifested during the armed struggle against the Hitlerite invaders and the Bulgarian fascist bourgeoisie]

ii The Bulgarian State Railways, S H Beaver, The Railway Gazette, 26 June 1936 pp1204-1207

iii Narrow gauge locomotives of great hauling capacity, The Railway Gazette, 1 July 1966 pp524-526

iv Flooded again! T Stefanova, Railway Transport Magazine, September 2005

v Bulgarian railways today, C Bailey, Today’s Railways Europe No.132, December 2006

vi The Rough Guide to Bulgaria, J Bousfield, D Richardson

vii 80th anniversary of the narrow-gauge line Septemvri-Veingrad, D Deianov, Railway Transport Magazine No.7/8 2006 [in Bulgarian]

viii Chemins de fer en Bulgarie, bulgaria-france.net [In French]. This site also has a map.

Links