FolkestoneJack's Tracks

A meeting with grandmother bear

Posted in Bulgaria, Kardzhali, Most by folkestonejack on May 15, 2016

An early start from Sofia put us on the road to the Eastern Rhodopes with just a small detour to the University of Transport ‘Todor Kableshkov’ to see the plinthed locomotives in their grounds (narrow gauge steam locomotive 615.76 and electric locomotive 42.072) and a couple of comfort stops along the way.

Our 85 year old 'Grandmother Bear' on the line between Most and Kardzhali

Our 85 year old ‘Grandmother Bear’ on the line between Most and Kardzhali

Around 1pm, at the small station of Most, Kardzhali Province, we got our first glimpse of 46.03 as our train arrived from the direction of Haskovo, hauled by a diesel.

Maybe I am too much of a railway geek but I struggled to see why the Bulgarian railwaymen deemed these tank engines to be ugly enough to warrant the nickname of ‘Grandmother Bear’ (quite what they would have made of the Q1 class of austerity steam locomotives in the UK I dread to think!). Other accounts I have read suggest a more positive perception of the class with the nickname of ‘Grandma’s Boy’ mentioned on more than one occasion on account of their habit of saving the day in tricky conditions.

The appearance of diesel 07.126 was a nice bonus, as I have a soft spot for these heavy freight diesels. This class are better known as ‘Ludmillas’ and produced in large numbers by the Soviet Union for the eastern bloc and other communist states. Around ninety were built for Bulgarian Railways alone but the total number runs into the thousands, distributed as far across the world as Cuba and Syria.

Ludmilla 07.126 heads off towards Kardzhali with the water tank

Ludmilla 07.126 heads off towards Kardzhali with the water tank

We made our departure from Most at 2.20pm for the run to Kardzhali. The number of photographic opportunities in the afternoon was dictated by the limited supplies of water and the tight schedule we had to stick to, but we made good use of some spots around Sredna Arda to get some shots of 46.03 in action. Our timing was spot on as black clouds and a distant clap of thunder suggested that rain was on its way. We made it into Kardzhali at 4.45pm, just seven minutes late.

The heavy freight giant made an immediate impression as soon as we saw her in action. It was hard not to forget about taking pictures and just stand in admiration as the 2-12-4 tank engine made easy work of this line through the Easter Rhodopes with a few light carriages. I have simply never seen a tank engine as big or powerful as this so it was quite spellbinding to watch. The mind boggles at how much more spectacular it would have been to see these locomotives hauling 1,200 tons of coal at the peak of their working lives.

Twenty locomotives of this class were procured by BDŽ between 1931 and 1943, constructed by H. Cegielski of Poznań and Berliner Maschinenbau. The order for a second batch of eight locomotives was a confirmation of the success of the design, though this didn’t stop them making further improvements at this stage. Notably, the first batch had two cylinders of 700mm diameter (Zwilling) whereas the second batch had three cylinders of 550mm diameter (Drilling).

46.03 at Sredna Arda in mid-afternoon

46.03 at Sredna Arda in mid-afternoon

The design of the locomotive was developed to suit the demands of the Bulgarian railway network – specifically, the need to haul heavy freight using coal with a low calorific value over the mountains and through long sections of tunnel (requiring the installation of a fresh air system). The challenge was not insignificant – some of the track had a gradient of 1 in 35 and beyond.

All of the class survived to have lengthy post war careers, mostly seeing service on the line between Pernik and Sofia, despite initial use on other lines (e.g. Stara Zagora to Gorna Oryahovitsa and Mezdra to Sofia through the Iskar Gorge).

The last of the class was retired from service on 21st August 1975 and two examples have been preserved (one from each batch). Our locomotive, 46.03, was one of the batch constructed by the Polish company and was the first to be adopted into service on 7th June 1931 (46.01 and 46.02 were officially adopted into service a day later!). 46.03 returned to operational use in May 2015 after restoration at Sofia Depot in 2014.

For further information, there is a splendid account of the history, technical data and the work involved in the restoration of 46.03 on the Bulgarian Railway Modelling website (in Bulgarian).

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