FolkestoneJack's Tracks

Sightseeing in Cluj-Napoca

Posted in Cluj-Napoca, Romania by folkestonejack on October 4, 2015

A bright morning beckoned, so I took myself off on a two hour walk around Cluj-Napoca to round off my week in Romania. I had already been given a wonderful view of the Orthodox Metropolitan Cathedral at sunrise from my hotel. The cathedral was built between 1923 and 1933 so it’s not really that old, but it has certainly stamped its mark on the skyline of the city.

The Dormition of the Theotokos Cathedral at sunrise

The Dormition of the Theotokos Cathedral at sunrise

Wonderful architecture abounds and the incredible church building program we have seen across Romania is visible here too with a Greek Catholic cathedral under construction to rival the stunning Romanian Orthodox basilica (or Dormition of the Theotokos Cathedral to give it the correct title).

The official title of the new cathedral is Catedrala „Martirilor şi Mărturisitorilor sec. al XX-lea” (which I believe translates as the cathedral of the martyrs and confessors of the twentieth century). Construction of the cathedral has been a rather long winded affair. Work started on 27th January 1991 but stopped in 1999 when the money ran out.

Over a decade would pass before building works resumed. This year the fifth and final stage has begun, which will see the completion of the dome topping the building and take the cathedral to its full height of 48 metres (you can see a picture of how the finished cathedral will look in the article Catedrala din Piaţa Cipariu ar putea fi gata în 2015).

Catedrala „Martirilor şi Mărturisitorilor sec. al XX-lea”

The Greek=Catholic Cathedral under construction

Around midday I checked out of the hotel and headed to the airport for my homeward journey. The first flight, on a TAROM ATR 42 to Bucharest was twenty five minutes late departing but miraculously ended up only five minutes late by the time it landed. I had plenty of time to make my connection and before long was back on a British Airways flight to London.

The week long tour of steam in Romania has been a pleasure from start to finish, despite the challenging conditions for photography. I can’t see myself coming back anytime soon, but I would recommend it to anyone else. It’s a wonderful adventure and if you get the sun on your side too…

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A slice of rural life

Posted in Abrud, Câmpeni, Romania by folkestonejack on October 3, 2015

Our afternoon run would see us take a short mixed train hauled by 764-243, the Budapest built locomotive that we had used at Comandău earlier in the week, from Câmpeni to Abrud.

Our train awaits us at Câmpeni

Our train awaits us at Câmpeni

The short surviving section line was once part of an astonishing 94km narrow gauge line between Turda and Abrud, passing through the Aries valley and the Apuseni mountain range with a combination of bridges, tunnels and viaducts. It was rarely anything other than spectacular (as we could testify from our bus ride alongside the remains of the line at the end of the day).

The line was built in 1910-12 and offered passenger services from 21 stations in addition to its use for freight, though it was by no means a quick undertaking with services from one end to the other taking six hours! Sadly, it was deemed to be uneconomic after the revolution and the last trains were operated by the former state railway in 1997.

It is hard to avoid the thought that this was quite an astonishing lost opportunity to develop a quite marvellous tourist attraction for the area, but instead the line was lost until Georg Hocevar acquired the short section of line in the beautiful valley from Câmpeni to Abrud and began running occasional tourist trains in 2004. However, the line is not without its challenges as we were fast discovering!

Passing through the occupied station at Câmpeni

Passing through the occupied station at Câmpeni

The station building at Câmpeni has been taken over by gypsies and in the final stretch of line to Abrud it passes through a gypsy camp with buildings right up to the edge of the line. Last night we learnt that the gypsies had bought 30 tons of stones to build an illegal wall at their camp and dumped this on the track. Worse still, they had begun to build the wall and it encroached onto the track.

The City Council were initially reluctant to act because of EU funding for the Roma community, but agreed to bring in the police once things began to escalate. A construction company estimated that it would take four hours to clear the stones and demolish the wall, with the risk that they might damage the track in the process. In the end the standoff was resolved when the police informed the community that they would be charged. The gypsies removed the stones themselves, clearing the track.

Now that the last obstacles were out of the way our loco could be unloaded at Abrud and brought to our start point at Câmpeni, ready for the afternoon’s run up the valley. The crew had encountered a small problem along the way after a low branch hit and broke a pipe, but this was easily fixed before our arrival.

Crossing the bridge at Câmpeni

Crossing the bridge at Câmpeni

We set off on our afternoon charter at 2.15pm with some shots around the bridge and occupied station, then took a rather tight shot at a signal. The only way to take the signal shot was for the group to stand on the track and jump out of the way as the train approached, not a strategy I would recommend repeating anywhere else!

Around 3.30pm we reached a small farmholding at the side of the valley which offered a variety of shots. The delightful owner, an elderly lady, kindly allowed us to enter her fenced enclosure to take photographs of the train with her apple tree in the foreground. It wasn’t long before she was persuaded to appear in the foreground herself, picking some apples. Georg told her that she should have been a cinema star! It was a lovely moment and she very generously offered us some apples afterwards.

Apples anyone?

Apples anyone?

Our prolonged stop had the unintended side effect of delaying our arrival at a traditional wooden church by the lineside, the classic shot on the line. Unfortunately the sun had already dropped too low to make this shot viable, but it was worth it for the utterly charming stop at the farmholding.

The run through the gypsy camp was interesting to put it mildly. The buildings have been built up incredibly close to the line and the carriages all but brush the walls as they pass here. On one side of the line the dirt track runs higher than the track and we could see that quite a crowd had gathered. We had been reassured that the police were at the encampment to ensure that our train would pass through safely, but it was still unnerving to see young men running alongside the train and grabbing on to the sides in an attempt to force their way in. Around seven managed to hang on for a bit, but none made it inside.

The end of the line at Abrud

The end of the line at Abrud

At 5.23pm we made it to the town boundary at Abrud and tried some shots here before our arrival into the station just before 6pm. In spite of the underlying tensions to our visit it had turned out to be a rather splendid afternoon run and the scenic setting here rounded the day off nicely. Once we packed our cameras away the crew set about their preparations to get the loco onto the waiting low loader for its journey home whilst we boarded our bus for the journey in the opposite direction to Cluj-Napoca. The tour was over.

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Blue skies over Brad

Posted in Brad, Crişcior, Romania by folkestonejack on October 3, 2015

A beautiful morning with blue skies, sun and a steam loco at the ready! What more could we want!? After a week waiting for these conditions we didn’t need much encouragement to get snapping…

Our Resita locomotive and freight cars in the beautiful morning light at Brad

Our Resita locomotive and freight cars in the beautiful morning light at Brad

The line between Brad and Crişcior (Hunedoara County) was built 1906-1907 by the Mining Association “Ruda 12 Apostoli” and is today recognised as the oldest Romanian narrow gauge mining railway. The original purpose of the line was simply to transfer the produce of the gold and silver mines at Brad to the Arad-Brad railway, but later found a new use transferring coal to the power station at Gura Barza.

In 1998 the line closed and would have gone the way of so many of the industrial railways of Romania had it not been for George Hocevar whose work in rescuing, restoring and reopening lines has preserved some of the most significant lines in the country. The line re-opened in 2001 and has been used for occasional tourist trains ever since (more details of trains can be found at CFI website).

It is an interesting line, running parallel to the road for most of its 7km length, including a stretch through a residential area, through a rural landscape and alongside an industrial pipeline. A bit of everything really!

Horsepower

Horsepower

Our day of photography began in earnest at 8am and ran smoothly for an hour and a quarter. At this point one of the cylinder cocks was broken off, requiring twenty minutes of repairs before we could continue. Luckily for us the repairs held for the morning, the left side piston cock only failing as we arrived at the terminus!

At Crişcior we had a whistle-stop tour of Georg Hocevar’s works, which seemed to hold one surprise after another. At the time of our visit a locomotive from Vișeu de Sus was undergoing restoration for display at the museum (apparently it had been in use until 2001-2 but was too badly damaged for return to working order and had since been used as a donor of spare parts). In another part of the complex we could see carriages being fitted out for a preserved railway in the UK. All very impressive.

Our loco framed by the pipework near Crișcior

Our loco framed by the pipework near Crișcior

Our morning’s work complete we re-boarded our bus and headed on to Câmpeni for a spot of lunch, satisfied that we had the opportunity to produce a decent set of photos. Whether we grasped those chances is another matter entirely!

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Back on the road

Posted in Romania, Sibiu by folkestonejack on October 2, 2015

It took us an hour to make it down the 20km unsealed road from Comandău, reaching Covasna just after midday. It was always going to be a long, long day on the road but few of us would have guessed how frustrating it would be once we headed it into the brilliant blue skies of the afternoon… here was the weather we had been hoping for all week and we couldn’t do anything with it. I think we must have been sitting under a cloud surrounded by blue!

Catedrala Ortodoxă Sfântul Ioan Botezătorul din Făgăraș (under construction)

Catedrala Ortodoxă Sfântul Ioan Botezătorul din Făgăraș (under construction)

The drive was not without points of interest, ranging from striking fields of blackened sunflowers to the impressive Făgăraș mountain range (the highest peaks in the Southern Carpathians). It was inevitable that we would see plenty of churches along the way, on which oodles of money must have been lavished, though the prize for the shiniest must go to the gold capped orthodox cathedral that is under construction in the centre of Făgăraș.

After passing through the centre of Făgăraș we continued on our drive to the west, reaching Sibiu around 3.15pm. As we were making good time we were able to take a break at the small open air museum attached to the railway depot. It is a little tricky to find, accessed down a short alleyway from a back street on the opposite side of the railway to the station (the museum can be accessed by passing through the castellated blue arch marking the depot entrance, ignoring the signs stating that access is only permitted to railway personnel).

Sibiu (the depot can be seen in the distance, on the left)

Sibiu (the depot can be seen in the distance, on the left)

The museum was opened on 28th August 1994 and exhibits are arranged in a fairly small space between the administration block and the roundhouse, with many exhibits partially hidden behind hedges (a curious display strategy!). The site holds around thirty locomotives and a couple of steam cranes, including:

CFR 077 (Hanomag, 1915)
CFR 20.064 (Henschel & Sohn, 1924)
CFR 94.649 (BMAG – Schwartzkopff, 1914)
CFR 131.040 (Resita, 1941)
CFR 150.1105 (BMAG – Schwartzkopf, 1943)
CFR 375.032 (MAVAG, 1911)
CFR 388.002 (Wiener-Neustadt, 1896)
CFR 389.001 (Wiener-Neustadt, 1885)
CFR 620 (Société Franco-Belge de Matériel de Chemins de Fer, 1890)
CFR 764.201 (Uzinele 23 August, 1949)
CFR 1493 (Henchel & Sohn, 1894)
CFR 6845 (Borsig, 1908)

Although we only had half an hour to wander round this was sufficient to see everything in the museum and take a few photographs (even if one of the grumpy railway workers was easily upset by anyone pointing their cameras at modern traction (even relatively elderly diesels and electric locos) pointing at the steam locomotives that we should be snapping! Blogger Bazsó-Dombi András has put together some really interesting posts describing each of the steam locos which can be accessed through his post Steam Locomotive Museum in Sibiu.

Class 62 diesel-electric loco 62-1011-6 at Sibiu depot

Class 62 diesel-electric loco 62-1011-6 at Sibiu depot

Everyone re-grouped on time, except for the coach driver (and coach!). Half an hour later he re-appeared and led us through the maze of narrow streets back to the main road where the coach was parked (muttering something about the police having stopped him from driving back down the side streets to collect us). After a quick drop-off at the railway station we headed back on our way, using the new motorway (some stretches look close to completion but are unfinished, so the route involved switching from motorway to local roads in a few places). Once it is finished the motorway will run all the way to Bucharest.

The route ran parallel to the railway for a good distance but we had seen very few trains for the most part, but around Turdaș (which we passed through around 6pm) we saw a very slow moving diesel multiple unit, a slow hauled passenger and an electric locomotive hauling tanks. Our mights have been a long drive, but at least we had a bit of speed on our side.

We finally reached our destination, Brad, at 7.22pm. On arrival we were served up a ‘light supper’ at the Pension Juliana which consisted of an endless series of platters until no-one could face another morsel! A good end to a somewhat frustrating day, but with the prospect of good weather ahead.

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The chicken in the depot shot

Posted in Comandău, Romania by folkestonejack on October 2, 2015

The hoped for good weather had not materialised by the time we headed to Pension Mara for breakfast. If anything, the skies looked cloudier than ever with no hint of a break coming our way. Nevertheless, we made our way down to the station so that we could be ready to pounce on any change in circumstances. Our steam locomotive, 764-243, was ready and so were we.

Although the long wait for a change in the skies left us with much time to kill we it also offered plenty of opportunity to look around the commune and the part-derelict complex at its heart. One of the buildings here contains four locomotives (three steam locomotives and one diesel) that had been used on the system in the past and Georg kindly arranged for the doors to be unlocked so that we could take a closer look.

The commune has appeared quite isolated to us as visitors but I wonder if it feels the same to the locals, or indeed, if that could be a good thing in its own way. If the roof of one building is to be believed there is a disco in town, which is quite impressive with a population of around one thousand. I guess that steam is still only a very occasional sight here as the locals seemed quite interested in our little photo-charter.

With no sign of a break in the clouds above us, or in the far distance, I set about photographing some of the abandoned buildings. In one empty window frame a chicken stood, surveying the strange sight of photographers wandering all over his territory. It was a measure of our boredom that the answer to the question “Are you going for the chicken at the depot shot?” was yes. It was soon suggested that this would make its way on to a slide show in 20 years time, but until then this rather naff shot is available here!

One last shot at Comandău

One last shot at Comandău

In the end we tried a few half-hearted photo-stops in the cloudy conditions, though it wasn’t long before we cut our losses and re-boarded our bus ready for the long drive to Brad. Frustratingly, we learned that the sun had been shining at Vișeu de Sus and Moldoviţa for the past two days!

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Going Kommandó

Posted in Comandău, Romania by folkestonejack on October 1, 2015

Our day in the commune of Comandău (or more accurately, Kommandó, to use the Hungarian name) began with the sight of our locomotive (0-8-0 tank locomotive 764-243, built by MÁVAG of Budapest in 1911) on the back of a low loader. Astonishingly, the lorry had come up the same twisting road as us and was now ready to be unloaded along with a load of planks (our freight for the morning’s loaded run towards Siclau). It was certainly impressive to see her steam down the ramp and onto the tracks at the terminus.

The moment of truth

The moment of truth

The origins of many of the forestry railways in Transylvania can be traced back to the arrival of the standard gauge railway and such is the case here where the branch line of 1891 spawned two very different lines that climbed 1000m to reach Comandău – one by means of a spiralling track slowly gaining height and the other by a much steeper inclined plane. It is well worth reading The Railway Age in the Carpathian Forests: A Study of Romania to appreciate the full story.

Unlike most forestry systems, the centre of operations on this system was at the highest point rather than down in the valley (including administrative buildings, a sawmill and loco depot). At its peak it was the largest forestry railway system in Romania, if not the Carpathians overall.

The remnants of the logging complex at the heart of Comandău

The remnants of the logging complex at the heart of Comandău

The system at Comandău fell into gradual decline following the damage caused by flooding in 1974, but repairs ensured that the railway staggered on to the 1990s. However, the system never really recovered from a dramatic reduction in felling to help the forests recover after the wild storms of 1995. The sawmill closed in 1999 and railway operations ceased with immediate effect. The restored sections of line available to us today give just a little flavour of what a marvellous system this was in its time.

After watching the shunting around the terminus we set off in mid morning’s for a short run in the direction of Siclau that would take our train along a re-built section of line across the bridge over the Râul Cuțan. The sun even deigned to make an appearance!

On the move at Comandău

On the move at Comandău

In the afternoon we set off for a run deeper into the forest with some empty logging trucks, travelling around 7km towards the end of the line at the old loading point of Cumpana. Here a TAF forestry machine was waiting to load a pile of logs on to our train ready for the return to Comandău. However, nothing about this was as straightforward as it might have seemed to the casual passer by.

You might think that obtaining logs to create our authentic looking logging train would be quite easy in an area entirely surrounded by forests and where logging is the primary industry, but no, by some strange logic the local companies would not supply the logs we needed out of a ridiculous fear of competition from the railway. Instead, the logs would have to be transported from a forest 60km away!

As if this wasn’t already complicated enough, there was now the added complication of the rather extreme, if understandable, bureaucratic processes brought in after recent scandals over illegal logging in Romania. In order to transport logs by road you need a transport number from a central authority in Bucharest. Any transport without this number risks confiscation if stopped. Needless to say, this system hadn’t quite anticipated photo-freights! Thankfully, a solution was reached and everything could go ahead as planned.

Building a bridge for the delivery of lunch!

Building a bridge for the delivery of lunch!

On arrival at Cumpana we still had the small matter of our lunch delivery to attend to. A minor technical detail emerged at this point – our lunch was on one side of the river and we were on the other! No problem at all it turned out… the TAF forestry machine picked up a couple of logs and built an impromptu bridge over the river. Ingenious.

I’m glad that we were not made to savour the delicious combination of schnitzel, gherkin and mash potato from afar! It was well worth all the construction of the log bridge, as were the two superb home made liqeurs (made from cranberries and blueberries respectively) that it was all washed down with.

After everyone was suitably fed and watered the crew got on with the job of loading our wagons. The process was interesting to watch at first, but after the second wagon was fully loaded I joined the rest of the British contingent on a pleasant walk down the track back to the bridge where we spent an hour, maybe two, before the loaded train arrived (it had derailed twice on the way, necessitating re-railing with jacks).

Crossing the river with a loaded train in late afternoon

Crossing the river with a loaded train in late afternoon

It was certainly worth waiting for our train as the four runpasts with the loaded train over the bridge were probably the best photographic opportunities of the day – even if we didn’t quite manage to get the colour in the sky that we hoped for.

The opportunity here was a significant improvement on the spot by the river further up the line (from earlier in the afternoon) where I was reminded of one of the essential commandments of railway photography – if you are going to risk getting your feet wet, the shot better be worth it. Needless to say, I only remembered this as my feet plunged into the icy water and my soggy socks made sure I didn’t forget it in a hurry. And no, the shot wasn’t worth it!

All in all, it had been an interesting and rewarding day. It seemed only right to have a beer to celebrate with Hungarian-style Ćevapi and pancakes in the evening! Tomorrow we will try again and hope that the forecaster’s promise of blue skies and sun delivers…

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The long drive to Comandău

Posted in Comandău, Romania by folkestonejack on September 30, 2015

The long drive south to our accomodation in Comandău was something that most of us had been dreading with Georg’s prediction of a nine hour slog. I didn’t know whether to be cheered or alarmed at the prospect of our would be racer in the driving seat, but it did seem likely that we would be able to shave something off that time by dicing with death in the traffic.

Our driver’s secret turned out to be divine assistance, crossing himself at every church that we passed along the way, though this didn’t make his overtaking attempts any less terrifying! On one occasion he committed us to an overtaking move with a lorry heading straight for us and no place for us to go. Thankfully the lorry driver pulled over to the side of the road to let us complete the move. Occasionally his efforts (such as a pass of two lorries and a police car) received a round of applause, though I don’t think he needed any encouragement from us…

Although it was a long drive there were plenty to see along the way. Inevitably this included no shortage of churches, ranging from beautifully decorated parish churches to big, ugly monsters (such as the Catedrala Înălțarea Domnului that we saw under construction as we threaded our way through Bacău). Other sights included abandoned mills, a MiG-21 plinthed at a roundabout outside Bacău airport and signs from the old Austro-Hungarian border.

Around 7pmish we made our way across the Oituz Pass (inevitably accompanised by hair-raising overtaking moves on lorries on the zig-zagging roads with no margin for error) and started to see signs for Covasna, near our destination.

Unfortunately, the main road to Comandău was closed so we needed to take a detour up 20km of unpaved road (not shown on maps) to get to the hilltop town. The road used to be the steep and dangerous forestry line (running from Brateş to Comandău) which closed in 1945, probably requiring two locomotives to cope with the steep incline, though no-one around today has seen it to confirm the detail.

A crashed van in a ditch at the start of the road looked ominous, but our progress through the pitch darkness was not too eventful with only the occasional logging truck coming the other way. However, it was really hard to believe that civilization lay at the other end of this! Finally, we arrived at 9.10pm. Our drive had taken 7 hours and 20 minutes.

A hot dinner awaited us in a hunting lodge with a memorable selection of interior fittings (deer skulls and antlers decorated with shiny baubles!) and then we were taken by taxi to our pension near the station. Along the way our driver explained that Comandău is a little pocket of Hungary in Transylvania, with a population of about 1000, all of whom are Hungarian rather than Romanian. It’s hard to see much of the place in the darkness, so tomorrow will give us our first proper view of the place.

Mocăniţa in Moldoviţa

Posted in Moldoviţa, Romania by folkestonejack on September 30, 2015

After a few days at Viseu de Sus we now had the opportunity to see one of the forestry railway networks that almost completely vanished in the early years of the 21st century.

Locomotive racing in Moldoviţa

Locomotive racing in Moldoviţa

The line at Moldoviţa was opened in 1888 but only converted to the present gauge of 760 mm in 1909. At its greatest extent, just before the revolution, it covered an impressive 73 km. Today, the restored line between Moldoviţa and Argel accounts for 12km of the former track.

A look at a map of the original network centred on Moldoviţa shows how those 73km were achieved, with an impressive number of branches reaching into the Roșoșa river valley and the forests of Bucovina. However, the decision of the state forest service to switch to heavy lorries for the transport of timber proved devastating, not just for the railway but also the communities that had grown to depend upon it.

The line was almost completely abandoned and things looked quite bleak for a time. However, the past ten years have seen quite a turnaround with the time and money committed by Georg Hocevar, the owner of the railway workshop of CFI (CALEA Ferata Ingusta) and undoubted saviour of Romania’s narrow gauge heritage. The progress in this time is striking – progressing from 3.5km of track in 2005 to around 12km in late 2013 with the extension of the line into the village of Argel (requiring an expensive bridge over the Moldoviţa river).

Crossing the Moldoviţa

Crossing the Moldoviţa

Although the line of today cannot match what came before, it is still very impressive and presents a quite beautiful setting for a railway. In many ways, I preferred this line over the railway at Vișeu de Sus as it seemed to have so much on offer, from street running with cattle through to great vantage points from which to watch a train steaming through the valley.

Our day on the line saw us use 764-404R (Reghin, 1984) to haul a photo-freight with logging trucks and a couple of cosy vans at the back for us to travel in. A second loco, 764-431 (Resita, 1957), was under steam in readiness for another group who would be following us up the line later in the day.

We set off from the depot Moldoviţa just after 8am and soon had the quaint sight of cows being herded along the road that runs parallel to the track for most of the way. The road was paved in recent years, adding the slight complication of dodging traffic to get our shots but in other ways the scene hasn’t changed. After getting our shots we re-boarded our bus and effected a slow speed chase!

Cows everywhere!

Cows everywhere!

At Raşca we walked up to a hilltop position that gave an excellent view of the line and we repeated a runpast here three times in the hope that the sun would make an appearance. It was no great consolation to learn that they had 35 days of full sun and then 2 days of heavy rain before we arrived. In essence, it could have been worse or it could have been better!

After a lunchtime stop at a hunter’s lodge (for the unlikely combination of deer, doughnuts and liqueur) we continued our run to the terminus at Argel-Zigreva. The short stretch of line packed in plenty of attractions, including shots from the hillside looking down on the bridge over the Moldoviţa and a woodcutter’s yard. The woodcutter looked slightly baffled at the horde of photographers that descended upon him but happily played along with our request for him to keep chopping as our loco pased by!

The woodcutter and our photo-freight

The woodcutter and our photo-freight

My reluctant camera added some unwanted excitement to the dat by failing to fire at some stops, but hopefully the shots I managed to get show why this is such a delightful stretch of line. I hope this line has a good future ahead of it. Unlike many other lines it has the added draw of the Mânăstirea Moldovița, a Romanian Orthodox monastery built in 1532, which is noted for the frescoes painted over the entirety of its exterior walls.

We finished our day on the line at 1.45pm and began our long drive south soon afterwards. In theory the drive ought to take around 9 hours, but with our driver it could be considerably shorter!

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Searching for sunshine

Posted in Romania, Vișeu de Sus by folkestonejack on September 29, 2015

A wet and miserable morning greeted us when we awoke, dashing any hopes of brighter weather for our last day at Vișeu de Sus. Nevertheless, a new day with a new loco (the 0-8-0T 764-211 named “Mariuta” minus her nameplate for the day). Although new is probably the last word that should be attached to such a venerable locomotive, now over 100 years (she was built by Orenstein & Koppel in 1910).

Orenstein & Koppel loco 764-211 at Viseu de Sus

Early morning preparations with 764-211

A drab stop at Valea Scradei turned into an inspired choice when someone suggested a posed shot of the locals with some props as the steam locomotive charged up the line. Our brakeman demonstrated a hidden talent for comedy as he posed with a bottle of tuică that no-one could resist smiling at, in spite of the conditions.

I quite liked a shot across a field a little farther up the line which captured some of the charm of the valley. Other stops saw us taking in the delights of bridges, rocky outcrops and a saw mill with the occasional pause to let more of those wonderful homemade railcars pass. We reached Paltin just after 1pm and took our lunch stop there before returning back down the line in the afternoon.

It’s hard to know what the future will hold for this line. It is an amazing survivor, given how many other forestry railways have fallen by the wayside, but it still faces many challenges in the yeats ahead. The line is currently operated by a private Romanian company, but the infrastructure and forest still belong to the state.

According to some accounts the quality of the wood coming out of here is pretty poor and even this production is being challenged by new operations that are not reliant on the rail system. Even today we had seen loggers from with hefty tractors dragging logs from one side of the river to the road-connected side of the river. There’s no doubting the appeal that the valley holds for tourists and photographers, but is that enough?

Our loco, 764-211, passes through the well watered Vaser Valley

Our loco, 764-211, passes through the well watered Vaser Valley

I’m not sure I would come back again, at the risk of another wet week but then again I said I would only visit China once and ended up making four trips to see real steam there! Nevertheless, I take my hat off to the tormented souls that have been back time and time again with only a handful of sunny days to show for it. When it is good, it is clearly very good… quite a lure.

Our day on the line finished with our arrival back in Vișeu de Sus at 4pm with what we understood to be a three and a half hour drive between us and our pensions in Moldoviţa in Suceava County. In fact, our journey didn’t take as long as that because our driver treated it as an open audition for Top Gear.

To achieve a shorter time involved driving through villages at way over the minimum speed (on one occasion topping 95km per hour where the speed limit was 45 km per hour) and some hair raising passes of logging trucks on the zig-zagging mountain roads. Our tour leader, Bernd, was spot on when he said that it was better to sleep and not see what was happening on the road!

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Into the forest

Posted in Romania, Vișeu de Sus by folkestonejack on September 28, 2015

The direction to ‘follow the man with the chainsaw into the forest’ sounded like it should have belonged in a dodgy horror movie rather, but it’s not the maddest moment to have occurred in a railtour by a long stretch! In fact, we were going to watch the traditional logging process, beginning with the felling of a tree in the forest and its rather perilous transportation down a steep slope to the lineside, dragged by a pair of horses.

The traditional loading process

The traditional loading process

At the lineside we watch two forestry workers loading wagons from the loading platform which was more interesting than it probably sounds, involving some synchronised movements from the workers to lever the logs onto the ramp and roll them carefully into position (occasionally using axes to even out their passage). An impressive exercise in co-ordination but a skill that is inevitably disappearing.

Yesterday’s journey had brought us most of the way towards the end of the line, but there was still a little further to go this morning so we left our freshly loaded wagon behind and set off for the terminus at Comanu at 9.25am. Our proximity to the Romanian-Ukrainian border was indicated by a rather battered sign for a Politia de Frontiera control post, although there didn’t seem to be any guards present (we had spotted one of their four wheelers a little earlier so they were around somewhere).

Our loco ran around and the brake man followed this by skillfully controlling the descent of the carriage and wagons back down to it, ready for our departure down the line. We set off at 10.50am and by 1pm we had made it to Botizu. Here we dropped the empty logging wagons, replacing them with six loaded wagons. This change turned our charter into a revenue earning production service so the opportunities to photograph this would be limited.

Our revenue-earning logging train

Our revenue-earning logging train

On the way back to Vișeu de Sus we had the opportunity to see some more of the rail vehicles on the system, including a railcar (named the Rossiya 1) and a diesel hauled logging train (using a CFR class 87 diesel-hydraulic loco) which provided an interesting comparison between our train and an authentic logging train of the present day. Other sights included a group of locals distilling on the waterfront using the murky waters of the Vaser (astonishing to think that this is the base for the very clear and potent liquer that is țuică).

A diesel hualed logging train passes our steam hauled logging train

A diesel hualed logging train passes our steam hauled logging train

As we made our way down the line the rain returned and the wind picked up. Not the grimmest of conditions, but not great. At Valea Scradei, the last stop before Vișeu de Sus, we stopped and climbed the hillside to get a shot of our logging train in the landscape but with the wind carelessly blowing the smoke the wrong way there was a danger that we wouldn’t be able to see the train at all. For good measure the rain got heavier at this point too, telling us (if we hadn’t already guessed) that our luck was not in today! The resulting picture says it all…

Smoke everywhere!

Smoke everywhere!

After returning to Vișeu de Sus we made our way to our pensions and the prospect of a lovely home cooked meal – a delicious vegetable soup, sarmale (cabbage rolls stuffed with minced meat and vegetables), apple strudel and țuică. A wonderful way to end a challenging day.

Gallery

Derailed

Posted in Romania, Vișeu de Sus by folkestonejack on September 27, 2015

The derailment of the lone railcar had taken place just 1km up the line from Faina, just before a small bridge. It had involved one of the more unusual vehicles on the line, a ranger’s draisine, which was essentially a road going minibus converted into a railcar. On the railway we had already seen a wide of variety of these home-built vehicles, ranging from Ford transits to VW camper vans, but this one was adapted from a Mercedes 2120.

Derailment at Faina

Derailment at Faina

Thank goodness the derailment had not occurred a metre further on, at the bridge, or the results might have been rather more serious. The first step was to pull the railcar back from the brink, which was simply achieved by our steam locomotive and a cable ‘tow rope’. Next, the crew set about jacking the railcar up so that they could lift it back onto the rails, succeeding at the second attempt (impressively just over half an hour after our arrival).

The broken rail that caused the derailment was easy to spot. The crew set about tackling the track repairs next, including the replacement of the old sleeper. The repairs were completed and successfully tested at 4.50pm, exactly an hour after our arrival. The crew’s efforts were all the more impressive considering that they had the distraction of thirty photographers snapping away from every angle!

Derailment on camera!

Smile for the camera…

We followed our train over the bridge and re-boarded the ‘Valei Babei’ express for the last kilometres, arriving at 5.15pm. Our accommodation for the night was a school dormitory with some rather curious frescoes (Baza didactica “valea babi”) which turned out to be quite a bit more civilised than any of us expected (though the members of our parties with ground floor cabins might have taken a different view after finding chickens in their beds!).

As rain began to fall we scurried over to the dining hall where we were served up a hearty meal of cheese porridge (mămăligă) with sausage, goulash and cherry sponge – washed down by beer, tuică and homemade blueberry liqueur. Fueled for the night, all that was left after this was a quick dash across the rain drenched grounds to the dormitory. Time to snuggle down under our donald duck duvets in time for lights out!

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Steam in the Vaser Valley

Posted in Romania, Vișeu de Sus by folkestonejack on September 27, 2015

An early-ish start from Vișeu de Sus for our trip up the Vaser Valley in Maramureş County, travelling relatively light with just a few extras ahead of an overnight stay in a basic guesthouse at the other end of the line. On top of this, we made sure to pack our passports just in case they were needed – the line takes us pretty close to the Ukrainian border and it is not unknown for border patrols to stop travellers in these parts.

An early start at Vișeu de Sus

An early start at Vișeu de Sus

The plan was simply to head up into the Carpathian mountains, past the end of the line for tourist services at Paltin, then on to Faina and to our stop for the night at Valea Babei. Our special train would be hauled by Resita locomotive 764-449 (manufactured in 1955) and consisted of a couple of passenger carriages, a special tender and some wagons. All very authentic.

Starting early allowed us to make a few runpasts on the lower stretch of the line for a couple of hours before the tourists services got going. Although the weather was not at its kindest there was something rather atmospheric about the damp conditions in the valley.

A stop at Valea Rea gave us the chance to stretch our legs, crossing a rather suspect suspension bridge over the river which tested our ability to dodge the slippery, rotten wood planks! I’m sure we exceeded the recommended load as our party trooped over but somehow we all made it across and clambered up the hillside for a wonderful view of our train rounding the curve, the smoke lingering in the air for an age.

Rounding the curve at Valea Rea

Rounding the curve at Valea Rea

A second runpast gave us the chance to repeat the process from the riverside, standing around in near liquid mud to get the shot (whilst also dodging a would-be rally driver who seemed hell bent on splashing our motley handful of photographers!). If we had any complaints about the conditions these were tempered by the knowledge that the weather overnight had been considerably worse – this place wouldn’t be much fun in heavy rain.

After returning to our train we carried on a little further to a passing point near Delta Novat where the two steam hauled tourist trains could leapfrog us (at 9.45am and 10.15am respectively). It was encouraging to see that both trains were packed full at such a relatively late date in the season.

Crossing the river

Crossing the river

The shots on the line beyond this point included an opportunistic shot with a young shepherdess and her flock, at a water stop (where the loco took water from a pool of water from a mountain spring using a pump) and at a photogenic rocky outcrop.

Along the way we saw plenty of the beautiful surroundings that make this line such an attraction, as well as the reconstruction work on the riverside that stands testament to the power of the ever present danger of flooding (large sections of the track were washed away in floods in 1982 and in 2008). I have to admit that it had been a surprisingly good morning with some almost respectable photographic results, even if we didn’t have beautifully illuminated forest in our shots!

Hay

A haystack at Bardau

At the tourist village at Paltin, the limit of normal passenger services, we re-passed both of the trains from earlier in the morning (around 12.30-40pm) before progressing up the line towards Valea Babei. From this point we had the line to ourselves, barring for one railcar further up the line. The scenery continued to deliver yet more photogenic sights, from traditional haystacks at Bardau to a tunnel and bridge at Botizu.

Around this stage we learned that the railcar ahead of us had been heavily derailed and that the track was badly damaged. The initial assessment seemed to indicate that it would take two hours to make the necessary repairs, so if we wanted to make it to our destination before midnight (if at all) we would have to make sure not to delay the repair crew (i.e. the railwaymen on our train!). It was essential that we arrived in daylight…

A water stop

A water stop

We set off with added urgency, stopping to take water from a stream at 2.45pm before heading through Șuligu and Faina on the way. The latter location offered the wonders of a reflection shot, though we must have made for a strange sight huddled around a muddy puddle! Finally, we reached the derailment at 3.50pm…

Gallery

Clouds over Cluj

Posted in Cluj-Napoca, Romania, Vișeu de Sus by folkestonejack on September 26, 2015

The morning turned out to be as grey as predicted, though nowhere near as wet. A wander through town took me into the striking Orthodox Metropolitan Cathedral (1923-1933) and the austere Roman-Catholic Cathedral of St Michael (1390) before heading up to Cetăţuia Hill for a view across town. It looks like an interesting city with plenty of beautiful buildings, though perhaps better seen on a less gloomy day!

A view of Cluj-Napoca from Cetăţuia Hill

A view of Cluj-Napoca from Cetăţuia Hill

After negotiating the many pavement works in the centre of town (often helpfully arranged on both sides of the road at the same time to thwart the pedestrian) I made it back to my hotel, checked out and headed back to the airport to meet up with the tour group I am spending the next week with. I held out some hope for the week ahead after the skies unexpectedly cleared and the sun began to shine in defiance of the forecasters.

Our ‘posh’ bus left the airport at 2.30pm for the expected four and a half hour drive to Vișeu de Sus, the town in Northern Romania which is the base for the last remaining forestry railway system in Europe. On the way we stopped off at a supermarket to stock up on supplies and whilst we were inside the heavens opened, pounding the pavement with rain and forming rivers of water on the tarmac. I began to wish I hadn’t talked up the chances of good weather…

The drive northwards gave us our first sight of the deathly pallor of local industry, from derelict factories to abandoned power stations, before we made our way into the hills. A fair stretch of the road followed a rather beautiful standard gauge line with some quite spectacular viaducts which must have been a sight in steam days. The route also took us through many hillside villages, with horse drawn carts becoming an increasingly common sight on the road as we got closer to our destination.

We arrived at Vișeu de Sus at 5.45pm, well ahead of schedule, partly because our driver was speeding through the villages with little regard for what he could see ahead of him – living dangerously on our behalf!

Although the town had something of a timeless look, we were assured that change had well and truly arrived here. The asphalt road through town was still a dirt track only a few years ago and a tourist village is under construction near the railway station. The town probably looks quite delightful on a summer’s day, but perhaps not quite so appealing on a damp day such as this. The clouds hung low over the hillsides, threatening rain, as we headed off to our pensions.

CFR 150.216, built at the Romanian factory in Resita, is on static display in the grounds of the railway at Vișeu de Sus

CFR 150.216, built at the Romanian factory in Resita (1958), is on static display in the grounds of the railway at Vișeu de Sus

After settling into our pensions (in my case the rather charming Pensiunea Barsan, complete with a terrace overlooking the railway line) we headed back to a stationary dining car of the Carpatia Express for a four course meal that was served up over three hours. The lure of a night shoot with the locos proved too tempting for most, so only a handful of us were left to sample dessert as the clock struck ten.

Getting back to the pension proved interesting – the road was paved and lit partway, before giving way to an unpaved and unlit track. A torch was essential if we were to avoid succumbing to the gigantic puddles that had formed whilst we were eating. It was a relief to make it back to the comfort of my room without having an unexpected swim!

Steam in Dracula’s empire

Posted in Romania by folkestonejack on September 25, 2015

Arrived in Cluj-Napoca tonight at the end of a two leg journey to Romania that has taken the best part of a day, beginning with an early morning flight from London Heathrow.

The focus of this trip will be to see the forestry railway at Vișeu de Sus in the northernmost reaches of the country, as well as some of the other restored narrow gauge lines. In 1989 there were over 40 forestry systems in active use, but after the revolution the lines quickly began to disappear. Today, only three lines remain and the system that we are visiting is the only one that is operational in real use (with diesel locomotives used to haul the logging trains).

CFF Vișeu de Sus

CFF Vișeu de Sus

The accelerating decline of steam around the world holds few certainties and Vișeu de Sus has seen plenty to threaten its operation in the recent past, most dramatically with a flood in 2008 which almost completely destroyed the line. The line was rebuilt and now holds the distinction of being the last remaining forestry railway system in Europe.

You would hope that the line has a good future, with up to five tourist trains departing from Vișeu de Sus for the run up to Paltin each day at the peak of the summer holidays. However, knowing that nothing is ever quite that straightforward I decided that now was the time to join a FarRail tour to see a historically accurate forestry train in this wonderful setting.

The lure of Vișeu de Sus

The lure of Vișeu de Sus

The journey so far has been relatively straightforward. The first leg took me from London Heathrow to Bucharest on a British Airways A320, followed by a short domestic flight to Cluj-Napoca in a Romanian Air Transport ATR72 twin-engine turboprop. The two flights kept pretty much to time, which is probably just as well given that I only made it to the gate for my domestic flight with ten minutes to spare! The time allowed for the connection clearly couldn’t have been overly generous…

The last leg of the journey offered up some wonderful views of the countryside and through a gap in the clouds to an impressive mountain peak topped with a cross (possibly the Heroes’ Cross on Caraiman Peak). I was struck by how little of the landscape had been built up, with vast swathes of country hardly looking populated at all.

It had been quite hot and sticky on arrival in Bucharest, but as we descended into Cluj we could see the first signs of wet weather, with moisture streaking across the windows. The forecasts for the weekend have not been at all promising, but conditions look set to improve from Tuesday onwards.