FolkestoneJack's Tracks

Misty morning in Arbaroba

Posted in Arbaroba, Eritrea, Shegereni by folkestonejack on October 26, 2018

A new day, a new plan and some hope that we might see more action than yesterday. I’m not sure what this expectation was founded on, but in any case we had a relatively low baseline to improve on.

The plan for the day was to take our minibuses to Arbaroba and then roll down to Lessa with 442.55. However, this changed when we reached Arbaroba and saw that the valley was shrouded in thick fog. It would have been utterly pointless to go downhill as we wouldn’t have been able to see or photography anything. Instead, we would go uphill.

Good morning Arbaroba!

The day started well with three runpasts in the fresh morning air and the steam billowing beautifully. The village offered plenty of opportunity for photographs with all manner of foreground interest, though I had to admire the attention to detail that saw one member of the group re-arrange a washing line to best photographic impact (even if I am not entirely sure that the owner of the washing would have appreciated the filthy gloves used in that process!).

Unfortunately, it didn’t take long before the loco showed signs that it was struggling. It was all very well having a passenger coach in the consist but not at the expense of a train that actually moves.

Overall, the morning generated a familiar mix of hope and despair. In the space of two hours we managed to get a variety of shots from runs around tunnels 22, 23 and 26. Sometimes the loco struggled, needing some sand to make the gradient, while at other times the loco made great progress. The pressure in the cab varied between 16 bars when we were going well to 6 bars towards the end of the morning – compared to a normal level of 12 bars. Eventually, with the pressure down to 5 bars, it was decided to send the loco light to Devil’s Gate for water.

Gravity in action

The spectacle at Devil’s Gate was fascinating in its own right. At an awkward ninety degree bend in the road a water tanker had stopped, much to the annoyance of passing trucks which clearly find it tricky at the best of times. The driver dropped a hose over the side to fill one of the side tanks. Nothing more complicated than gravity in action. It held our interest for a little while and gave us an opportunity to photograph the loco running light around the sharp curve with a view of the valley below. It is one view that never gets any less impressive however much you see it.


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The art of the possible

Posted in Arbaroba, Eritrea by folkestonejack on October 24, 2018

An evening update gave a clearer picture of the problems facing us.

First off, we have two broken locomotives. Today’s rescue locomotive (55) failed en route after suffering problems with both injectors (as well as some other issues). This is not a new problem – the same issue was evident about four years ago and some relatively straightforward fixes were identified at the time, but clearly not implemented. This loco is now in Arbaroba.

442.55 at Arbaroba

Our original locomotive (54) is also in Arbaroba but now only has 7 bars of pressure. The leak is now really heavy. Again, this is not really a new problem – the railway has some past history with washout plugs that were again evident four years ago.

On top of this, there is a problem with the crew. There are two locomotive drivers from the state railway – one is in hospital and the other who has been working tirelessly for us since 5am. To remedy the shortfall the railway has re-hired a former driver that they had dismissed a year back.

The new plan devised by Bernd is to send a car to Arbaroba to bring the only working driver back to Asmara to get as much rest as possible and then send him to the depot to fire two locos – 202 and 440. Even this has its difficulties. One of them is not facing the right way and although they have a turntable that worked 4 years ago it probably doesn’t work now. So, we will attempt some shunting in the yard, visit the workshop and then send the small loco with freight wagons from Nefasit to Lessa.

At times like this you really appreciate the massive effort that Bernd has to go through to keep a tour on track when everything is failing around us. Especially knowing that the plan you have just devised may all fall apart at 5am the next day.

Let’s see what the new day brings.

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Bunker first to Nefasit

Posted in Arbaroba, Asmara, Eritrea, Nefasit, Shegereni by folkestonejack on October 23, 2018

A new day brought with a new loco, 442.54, a mallet built by Ansaldo (Italy) in 1938 which would haul our mixed train bunker first from Asmara to Nefasit. The workers are still clearing the track today so it is only when we get to Nefasit that we will discover if we can continue on to Embatkala. Fingers crossed…

Departure from Asmara

The passenger coach was a welcome sight and allowed us to spread out a little more. On the first two days we hit the tracks tightly packed into a single box car which had its moments, but a little comfort is good too. Still, it was memorable – it even included a lady roasting fresh coffee beans on a small metal box fire, ready to serve small cups of coffee during the brief pauses in action!

The plan was to make only a few stops on our bunker first run after leaving Asmara at 7am. The first stops came not long after we set off, at a hill and puddle just beyond the depot gates. It probably sounds a bit unlikely but the hope was to take advantage of the rains that had caused us so many problems. If you got it right there was a reflection shot to be had, though my attempts were less than successful. Sometimes it is all too easy to miss the photographic equivalent of an open goal…

Our journey up and over the peak continued, delivering us a continuous feast of stunning vistas interspersed with scenes from everyday life, such as a spot of open air butchery by the lineside. After reaching Shegereni at 8.20am we clambered down from the coach and walked through tunnel 23 to get to a hillside viewpoint which allowed us to photograph our train with the monastery in the background. Once the shot was in the bag everyone packed up and got back on board.

Our mixed freight train passes below the monastery

The familiar watering facilities at Arbaroba provided the next photographic opportunities as we took on water and our crew made some small running repairs/adjustments. Once this was all complete we continued on our way, stopping before a sequence of tunnels for a runpast at 10am. To reach the intended photospot we had to walk through a couple of tunnels (complete with a few bats flying around) which disorientated me a little, but I think the view we were presented with was of the track curving round between tunnels 15 and 16.

For the runpast I found a spot away from the group that required a little scramble up the loose rocks of the hillside but after a little effort discovered that it was a little too much on the dark side for my liking. Not all gambles pay off but nevertheless I was quite happy to have rediscovered my inner mountain goat along the way. It always come in very handy on a FarRail tour!

Our onward travels took us through the abandoned sidings at Lessa (10.20am) and then into the sweeping curves that brought us into Nefasit (10.55am). It was pretty obvious that a train full of westerners was heading into town and we soon spotted plenty of kids following us down the curving road to join the crowds on the platform. I don’t know how often the train runs (in theory a tourist train runs on Sundays if enough tourists turn up to make it economic) but it is clearly still a spectacle that everyone enjoys.

The moment of truth

The rail truck of the track gang was in the station and a small group of workers had gathered round some officials. The moment of truth was almost upon us. How far would we be able to go?


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Afternoon trip to Arbaroba

Posted in Arbaroba by folkestonejack on October 22, 2018

The afternoon on the line around Arbaroba presented the opportunity to try a few shots around some of the many tunnels on the line with a short freight train hauled by 440.008.

Members of the group get a shot from a hillside vantage point

There are 39 tunnels on the entire line between Massawa and Agordat, with the majority (25) located on the stretch between Ghinda and Asmara. Our photographic efforts for the day concentrated on tunnels 13+14 (1.30-2pm), 18+19 (up to 3pm) and 20 (3.30-3.50pm). All of this gave us much more of a taste for the magnificence of the line, even if the conditions were not always as co-operative as we might have hoped.

After these efforts we climbed up a gentle path through the cacti to a spot with a view over the line. It was pretty obvious from this point that the mist was rolling in incredibly quickly, much as it had at our hilltop vantage point in Sri Lanka earlier this year. It was particularly striking to see how quickly the conditions had changed. Not long before it had been sunny and clear.

The clouds close in on 440.008

Our short freight train returned to Arbaroba at 4.15pm, which was now looking very atmospheric with the mists swirling around the watering point. It took a little for the crew to fill the tanks of our loco but once they were ready we ere able to take a photograph of the departure (at 4.55pm) before continuing on to Shegereni. The light had gone by this point so we re-boarded our buses for the half hour drive to Asmara.

The evening at the hotel was livened up by a couple of blackouts (a common occurrence in Asmara) but on each occasion the hotel staff were pretty quick to get the generators up and running. Hopefully, the next time I will not be ladling soup into a bowl as the light vanishes!


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