FolkestoneJack's Tracks

Narrow gauge steam in the Western Rhodopes

Posted in Bulgaria, Septemvri, Velingrad by folkestonejack on May 19, 2016

After four days in the Eastern Rhodopes we set off on a drive west this morning, with a brief stop at Haskovo to see the world’s largest statue of the Virgin Mary with Jesus.

609.76 with our train at Septemvri

609.76 with our train at Septemvri

Our destination was the rather remarkable 125km narrow gauge line that takes passengers on a five and a half hour journey from Septemvri to Dobrinishte, stopping at 25 stations along the way. The railway recently celebrated the 70th anniversary of the completion of the line in 1945, though the first section opened almost twenty years earlier (in 1926).

A few years ago there were rumours that the struggling Bulgarian State Railway network had earmarked the line for closure, so I have long been keen to see it for myself. I always imagined that I would end up making a visit for the diesel hauled regular services, but the line’s delightful 2-10-2 tank engine (609.76) was so much better!

Fifteen locomotives of the 600.76 class were acquired by the railway in the 1940s (the first five were manufactured by the Schwartzkopff factory in Berlin whilst the remainder were manufactured at Pierwsza Fabryka Lokomotyw w Polsce Chrzanów). Our locomotive came from the second batch and joined the rosters after a successful trial run on 21st December 1949. It was returned to operational condition in 2004 after a year of restoration.

We wouldn’t get to see the entire line in the limited time that we had here – instead, our charter would focus on the 39km stretch of line from Septemvri to Velingrad trip. It was to be a leisurely journey with a schedule that allowed five hours on the line, including a two hour lunch break at Varvara (a necessary evil to enable us to work around the regular services). More of a taster than a hardcore day of gricing!

77009.9 and 75004.2 in the shed at Septemvri Depot

77009.9 and 75004.2 in the shed at Septemvri Depot

Our journey up the line started at Septemvri at 12.50, after a fascinating visit to the depot. The visit gave us an opportunity to see the diesels in the shed and the steam locomotives located in varying states of disrepair around the depot buildings/. Three steam locomotives can be found in front of the depot entrance (1.76, 470.60 and 506.76) whilst another four lurk in the back (10.76, 610.76, 611.76 and one more from the 600.76 series).

The long lunch break began at Varvara just twenty minutes after our departure from Septemvri, providing a welcome opportunity to see the arrival of a regular service hauled by Romanian diesel-hydraulic locomotive 77009.9. Later in the day we would see services in the opposite direction with German diesel-hydraulic locomotives 75005.9 and 75006.7. Varvara also gave us the unexpected sight of a concrete monument to communism (in the form of a red star).

Monument at Varvara

Monument at Varvara

We managed one shot in the gorge but it soon became apparent that this is a tricky line to photograph from the lineside and that it is better from down on the roadside, not that there seemed to be much in the way of safe spots to stop and start taking shots! However, when we passed one of the most beautiful photospots on the line without stopping everyone started scratching their heads. What was the logic here!?

At a stop for water at Dolene the glum faces and angry conversations told their own tale. Our tour leader had not been allowed on the footplate to call the photostops, nor were the crew taking any instructions on where to stop. Instead they were working to their own programme, delivering us at the photospots they knew regardless of whether they were appropriate at this time of day.

We arrived at Konstandovo on time (at 5.14pm) and departed after the service train had passed (5.26pm). A couple more runpasts on the outskirts of Velingrad (5.45-5.50pm) gave us some good opportunities for better shots before we arrived at our final destination around 6pm. A lovely last shot of 609.76 and the water tower here was accompanied by a welcome late burst of sun.

609.76 at Velingrad

609.76 at Velingrad

After waiting so long to visit the line I found the day a little disappointing. Clearly the timings don’t allow for many photo stops so when the crew are as uncooperative as they have been today it makes for a pretty frustrating experience. Nevertheless, it is a beautiful line and I’d certainly recommend it (it’s a bargain at roughly £5 return at current prices). If you are considering it there is a terrific account of a trip up the line from ten years ago on Andrew Grantham’s blog at The Septemvri – Dobrinishte railway and there is an informative unofficial website about the railway at The Rhodope Narrow Gauge Railway.

We re-boarded our bus and settled in for the one hour and forty five minute drive back to Sofia. I have thoroughly enjoyed the tour despite the occasional setbacks and had good fun attempting to take half way decent photographs. I wonder where the next railway adventure will take me in the world!?

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