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!?

Gallery

The mysterious case of the missing wagons

Posted in Bulgaria, Kardzhali, Momchilgrad, Podkova by folkestonejack on May 18, 2016

The afternoon in Kardzhali offered us a last chance to take the shots on the short stretch of line to Podkova, including the elusive viaduct between Kardzhali and Momchilgrad which had resisted all our efforts to photograph it in sun from the high vantage point. However, when we assembled at Kardzhali station ready for the re-start at 3.30pm it was clear that the plan had already fallen to pieces.

Awaiting news at Kardzhali

Awaiting news at Kardzhali

We had the locomotive and the sun but not the freight cars that we needed to make up the train! The wagons of the right historical vintage, that are certified to run on BDŽ lines, were en route from Dimitrovgrad but apparently running 2-3 hours late. The station master at Kardzhali said that the section between Most and Kardzhali was not blocked (i.e. our train had not entered the section) and would be between Haskovo and Most. The sad conclusion was that there was no real hope of them arriving before the light disappeared.

In this unenviable situation the horrible choice before the organisers was between light engine or no engine, knowing that neither of which would be popular with anyone. Who would be a charter organiser!? Trying to put a positive spin on this I suppose you could say that engines did run light at times so it’s not historically inaccurate, just not what anyone would like to see!

To add to our frustration there were plenty of wagons in the yard at Kardzhali but we couldn’t use any of them in place of the wagons we had ordered. One line of wagons looked ok to my untrained eye but was apparently made up of condemned stock that were unfit to run, whilst the modern stock could only be used with a little flexibility from BDŽ. Needless to say, flexibility is not on offer…

Light loco

Light loco

Light loco it was. We headed off by bus to a lovely green landscape just outside Kardzhali, accessed by crossing an old airstrip. The shot of 46.03 passing through was lovely in its own way, but definetly lacked something.

At this lowest point we received news from the field (quite literally) that our wagons were arriving at Kardzhali! The crew realised this when they stopped the loco in the fields ready for us to get into position – they heard the diesel arrive (just ten minutes after we left by bus) and contacted the station master at Kardzhali by mobile phone. He confirmed that the wagons had indeed arrived.

The station master at Kardzhali told the crew that if we wanted the wagons they would have to go straight to Momchilgrad and get there by 4.14pm or he wouldn’t authorise the departure of the wagons. The only option was for our loco to continue light to Momchilgrad and wait for the wagons there, skipping the ever elusive viaduct. Totalitarianism is still working here!

Awaiting our wagons at Momchilgrad

Awaiting our wagons at Momchilgrad

We carried on to Momchilgrad and sure enough the freight cars arrived at 4.40pm. Now the game was back on! We had three runpasts at the viaduct on the line between Momchilgrad and Podkova between 5pm and 5.15pm, though sadly the sun disappeared just as we got to the spot (in desperation I grabbed a few shots of the loco setting back as I saw the sun about to slip behind the clouds).

The next three runpasts took place in glorious late sun at the level crossing we had visited previously. It really is a lovely stretch of line between Momchilgrad and Podkova. I think there is more potential for shots from the road taking in the sweeping scenery and it will be interesting to see the results of the local car-chasing photographers.

A burst of sun at Podkova

A burst of sun at Podkova

Finally, we made it into Podkova just after 6pm to find that a good crowd of locals (more than we had seen on previous days) had gathered to enjoy the spectacle. A more fitting end to an enjoyable four days with 46.03 than the madness of the previous few hours.

A crazy, crazy afternoon. You would have thought that BDŽ would know where their own trains are, but evidently not. It’s not exactly reassuring is it!? Still, we got some nice shots in the end, even if it was a painful process getting there!

Gallery

Wanders through Kardzhali

Posted in Bulgaria, Kardzhali by folkestonejack on May 18, 2016

Our schedule gave us a lengthy gap in the middle of the day before our activities on the tracks resumed. I took the opportunity to have a good look around the centre of Kardzhali. My guidebooks were remarkably dismissive of the place, but I figured there must be more to this place than they would have had me believe.

My mini-tour took me on a wander up Bul. Bulgaria to the one sight I had acquired some slim details on, a monument to the Bulgarian soldiers who fell in the liberation of Kardzhali during the First Balkan War between Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire. The date of the battle is either 8th or 21st October 1912 depending on which calendar you use.

The Liberators’ memorial in Kardzhali

The Liberators’ memorial in Kardzhali

The municipality has some grand plans for the redevelopment of the wasteland by the river Arda which they hope to turn into a waterfront park with an open air theatre and other attractions. The first steps towards this goal are already visible but there’s a long way to go before the plans displayed at the entrance are realised.

One of the more curious sights was the grand communist era monument with a grand set of steps, a massive granite backdrop and an empty plinth. It was pretty clear that a statue stood here until it was ripped off, suggesting that it was formerly home to one of a select group of public enemies.

A little digging revealed that a golden statue of Georgi Mikhailov Dimitrov (1882-1949) was erected here on 14th June 1980 and that it was removed in 2010. The plan is to replace it with the unifying figure of St George. This will eventually be the world’s largest statue of St George, but for now a lack of funds has delayed the start of work.

A grand setting and the empty plinth

A grand setting and the empty plinth

Other sights around town included another war memorial, a mural on the side of an administrative building, the children’s railway (inactive today), a graffiti covered Mig 21 plinthed in the large recreational park, the golden domed church of St. Georgi Pobedonosec and the Kardzhali Historical Museum (exterior view only) which was apparently built to be a Muslim College but never actually used as such.

Kardzhali is never going to challenge any of the tourist destinations in Bulgaria but a wander through town on a warm and sunny day was a perfectly pleasant to spend a few hours. I was pleased to have seen a glimpse of the world beyond the railway tracks.

Gallery

Steam and sheep

Posted in Bulgaria, Haskovo, Most by folkestonejack on May 18, 2016

On all our photo charters so far we have headed south from Most, but today we travelled in the opposite direction with a passenger service hauled by 03.12.

03.12 hauls our early morning charter

03.12 hauls our early morning charter

To make our charter possible we were pathed between the regional trains that ply this route in the early morning and we would have to clear the line for the northbound service to Stara Zagora (which offers the only connection that allows you to get to the capital on the same day).

We set off from Most at 7.13am and worked our way steadily up the line. At first the lineside seemed too densely vegetated for any photographic efforts but I was heartened by a runpast at the edge of a wheat field beyond Maslinovo (7.59am). It was a lovely spot with some pretty purple flowers in the foreground and worked reasonably well, despite our best efforts to ruin the shot by trampling them down in our walk to the position!

The next runpast (8.30am), amongst the atmospheric railway buildings at Knizhovnik, was even better. To add to our improving fortunes the sun was finally burning through the thin layer of cloud above us, illuminating the scene before us.

03.12 runs through Knizhovnik

03.12 runs through Knizhovnik

After passing through the station at Malevo (8.40am) we stopped at a field to the bafflement of a shepherd and his flock of sheep. Moments like this can be photographic gold, if everything falls into place perfectly, but often the sheep don’t stick to the script! On many occasions I have seen photographers forlornly chasing sheep across fields, trying to keep them in the foreground as a train passes, but this time we took advantage of the movement of the flock in front of the locomotive to get some memorable static shots.

Once the crew had finished assisting the shepherd in his efforts to persuade the sheep to cross to the other side of the line we enjoyed a lovely runpast (8.45am) with the train rounding the curve. The last clouds disappeared to give us clear blue skies and bountiful sun. If I can be allowed a little photographer’s grumble, I have to confess that this was a little frustrating knowing that we had a long break ahead of us in the middle of the day!

Steam and sheep

Steam and sheep

The last runpast of the morning took place at a sweeping curve through a patchwork of fields (9.08am). We had clambered out in the nearest field but soon discovered that the grass was so tall that it obscured the track from all but the tightest of positions. A short walk up to a hillside vantage point gave us a much better prospect and a great opportunity to admire 03.12 for a longer stretch.

Before the rural landscape gave way to urban sprawl a tractor driver ploughing a field next to the line honked up our train. There can’t be many steam specials here and most must be concentrated on the more scenic stretches around Kardzhali, rather than this stretch.

03.12 passes through the rural lanscape between Malevo and Haskovo

03.12 passes through the rural landscape between Malevo and Haskovo

We finally reached Haskovo at 9.30am. The crew gathered in front of the locomotive for a small presentation and thoroughly deserved the round of applause that followed. It was time to say goodbye to the crew, to 03.12 and to our passenger carriages.

The carriages, from the Corona Express set, are as remarkable as the locomotive. The carriages were originally manufactured for the use of Tsar Boris III, Tsaritsa Ioanna and Prince Kiril in 1938. Although this luxury might seem inappropriate for a group of railway photographers it is well known that Tsar Boris III was something of a rail enthusiast himself and he was often to be found travelling on the footplate and even drove steam locomotives on occasion. I hope he would have approved of the future use of his royal train!

After our farewells the crew set off for Dimitrovgrad where 03.12 will overnight before continuing on to Sofia tomorrow.

Gallery

16.27 to Podkova

Posted in Bulgaria, Kardzhali, Momchilgrad, Most, Podkova by folkestonejack on May 17, 2016

The afternoon gave us our only run behind 16.27, a steam locomotive constructed by the Lokomotivfabrik Floridsdorf, Vienna, in 1948 to a simplified wartime design (class 42) and exported to Bulgaria in 1952 along with 32 other locomotives of this class. The numbers in Bulgaria may have been relatively low, but across all the manufacturers 849 class 42 locomotives were built between 1943 and 1949.

16.27 at Most (with diesel 07.126 lurking in the background)

16.27 at Most (with diesel 07.126 lurking in the background)

In Bulgaria the locomotives were designated as class 16 and were an immediate success, hauling heavy freight trains on steep and curvaceous sections of network from their home depots of Ruse and Gorna Oryahovitsa in Northern Bulgaria. The class had a good lifespan, continuing to haul trains in regular service until 1990. Today, the only member of the class in operational use in Bulgaria is 16.27 following the completion of her restoration in 2015.

Our run with 16.27 began with departure from Most at 1.35pm and ended at Podkova around 6pm. The results were a little mixed photographically, principally because the cover of the spark arrestor often had the effect of pushing the smoke down, smothering the train. As one member of our party said, nothing that an oxy-acetylene torch couldn’t fix! However, when everything was in favour the results were splendid (for the conditions) and we got a good selection of shots.

16.27 on the viaduct between Perperek and Sredna Arda

16.27 on the viaduct between Perperek and Sredna Arda

This was be our last run on the stretch of line between Most and Kardzhali, giving us a last chance to grab any shots that we have missed so far. The delights on offer this afternoon included a false departure from Most, two runpasts at a viaduct beyond Perperek (2pm-2.15pm), a single runpast at a tight spot beside a lineside posthouse just before Sredna Arda (2.35pm) having beaten down thorns to create a position, runpasts at Sredna Arda from low and high (2.48pm and 2.55pm) with the latter shot taken from a handy ‘seat’ in the rockface, a runpast at tunnel portal 3 (3.15pm), a runpast at the exit of the next rock cutting (3.24pm) and a runpast at the tunnel portal 4 (3.37pm).

One classic shot that eluded us up to this point was a view of the causeway coming towards Kardzhali – we stopped at the spot today (at 3.59pm) to the delight of one of my fellow photographers. An Australian chap in our group commented ‘Your fairy godmother is looking after you’ but then as we were halfway out we were all told to re-board, leading the same chap to admit that he spoke to soon ‘Your fairy godmother just ****ped on you!’. It was a pity that we had to abandon the shot to keep to our timings, but to be fair we were running 40 minutes late at this point!

At Kardzhali we boarded our bus and drove to the spot overlooking the viaduct between Kardzhali and Momchilgrad. On this occasion I chose the high viewpoint, which involves walking along a busy four lane road with no pavement to a couple of spots that look down onto the viaduct. After two runpasts we began our walk back along the road, staying as close to the guard rail as possible, only to hear the locomotive going for a third run and reached a distant viewpoint in time to see a fourth.

16.27 on the viaduct between Kardzhali and Momchilgrad

16.27 on the viaduct between Kardzhali and Momchilgrad

The bus continued on to the next viaduct where we had the opportunity to photograph the train on two runpasts from a high vantage point (5-5.30pm) with a terrific view of the landscape beyond, before re-boarding our train. A couple of stragglers got left behind this point but some nifty footwork from our organisers got some local gricers to pick them up in their car, dropping them off at Podkova where they were bemused to see an empty train arrive (we had climbed out at a level crossing a short distance from Podkova for two runpasts and then walked back to the station).

Over the past three days we have covered most of the good spots on the line between Kardzhali and Most, with the obvious exception of the causeway in the direction of Kardzhali. The number of spots is limited by the dense vegetation that surrounds much of the line, though it is possible that there could be some shots to be had with rural and industrial scenes on the stretch of line just beyond Kardzhali. I’m quite happy with the opportunities that we’ve had, even if I’m convinced that I’ve made the most of that!

Gallery

Storming to Most

Posted in Bulgaria, Kardzhali, Momchilgrad, Most by folkestonejack on May 17, 2016

A night of rain has given way to a cool and cloudy morning, though the pools of water around and about leave you in no doubt what had come before. Although the conditions are not going to have any photographer leaping for joy it is clear that they could have been an awful lot worse. The glass in front of me is half full…

03.12 at Momchilgrad

03.12 at Momchilgrad

The photographic day started with an outing to Momchilgrad to capture 03.12 in front of the rickety old engine shed. I didn’t have the highest of hopes, but we got lucky with a burst of sun through a rare break in the cloud cover. It might have been short-lived but it was sufficient to get the shot before the clouds closed back in.

Our morning charter with 46.03 took us from Kardzhali (departing at 9.08am) to Most (arriving at 12.07pm). Along the way we got to see just how much the overnight rain had transformed the lineside landscape with streams in place of dry ditches and water running off both sides of a rock cutting that we walked through).

46.03 storms through the rock cutting on the approach to Sredna Arda

46.03 storms through the rock cutting on the approach to Sredna Arda

In my opinion the morning worked out much better than expected photographically and nothing could diminish the spectacular sight of 46.03 storming through the rock cutting towards Sredna Arda.

Gallery

Dodging the rain

Posted in Bulgaria, Kardzhali, Momchilgrad, Podkova by folkestonejack on May 16, 2016

Our train headed on from Spirka Zvezdelina at 3.43pm with stops at Kardzhali (4-4.10pm) and Momchilgrad (5-5.10pm) before reaching Podkova at 6.06pm.

Turning back the clock: Three steam locomotives at Momchilgrad

Turning back the clock: Three steam locomotives at Momchilgrad

You can’t help but consider Podkova an odd place for the line to end, with the line petering out just beyond the station confines on the outskirts of a small village in the Eastern Rhodopes. However, this makes more sense when you consider that the village lies just 15km from the Makaza Pass on the Bulgarian-Greek border. Politics dictated that the line would never be extended to the border but that was clearly the original intention.

Podkova has remained a sleepy spot with the southernmost railway station in Bulgaria for many years. However, what the railways failed to achieve has recently been rectified on the road network with the assistance of EU funding. A new border crossing at Makaza was opened on 9th September 2013 as part of the plans for a crucial Pan-European Transport Corridor that will link Romania and Greece through Central Bulgaria.

46.03 at Podkova

46.03 at Podkova

The conditions had been steadily deteriorating through the afternoon but the darkening clouds gave us ample warning of the storm brewing in the distance as we left Kardzhali and we spent the remaining hours of daylight just about staying one step ahead of the rain.

Heavy rain began to fall just after we got back to the hotel, accompanied by thunder and lightning, prompting the cancellation of the night shoot. The scene outside looked pretty miserable with rivers forming in the roads. As bad as this looked, it was nothing compared to the flooding which hit Varna, where whole neighbourhoods ended up under water at the height of the deluge.

Gallery

Messing about in boats

Posted in Bulgaria, Kardzhali, Most by folkestonejack on May 16, 2016

The afternoon promised the tantalising, if somewhat unsettling, prospect of a session photographing 46.03 and our three coach train from boats. It was easy to sign up for this months ahead of the trip, but now that the moment had arrived I wondered quite what we had let ourselves in for…

After arriving at the familiar territory of Sredna Arda we followed some steps down to a small jetty at the edge of the Studen Kladenets reservoir where we found a collection of small boats and a motley crew of boatmen awaiting us.

The convoy en route

The convoy en route

We nervously clambered aboard our fleet, with around six to eight photographers per boat, then set off across the water to the first of two spots where we would attempt to form a photographic line. The theory was sound but the practice was rather more chaotic!

Our small boat was rocking madly in the choppy waters from the off and this only seemed to get worse as the crews attempted to tie the ships together by rope. Soon the boats were drifting in the way of each other or floating too far away from the ideal shot.

A photograph of photographers photographing our train!

A photograph of photographers photographing our train!

Inevitably, the moment a run started the boats became wildly unstable as photographers moved around to try and get a decent shot. It was a miracle that we avoided dunking any photographers into the cold waters, though some might argue that was precisely what we needed to bring us to our senses!

Sometimes it seemed that the boatmen were a little too enthusiastic in their rivalry, trying to out do each other in their attempts to give their photographers the best view. At one point we were slap bang in everyone’s shot until our captain was cajoled into re-starting his engine and falling back into line.

It was a wonderful opportunity to take some different shots in the spectacularly photogenic rugged landscape of the Eastern Rhodopes, but I think we were all a little relieved when we motored to a small pebble beach and clambered off onto dry land. We walked along the beach and up the line to find our train taking on water at Spirka Zvezdelina.

Gallery

The tortoise and his new friends

Posted in Bulgaria, Perperek by folkestonejack on May 16, 2016

After a morning playing with express trains it was time for 46.03 to make a re-appearance, but rather than hanging around for over an hour at Most we headed on to the village of Perperek. A short distance beyond the station a relatively tight shot was possible from both sides of the line with a mosque in the background.

46.03 in the midday sun at Most

46.03 in the midday sun at Most

It was under these circumstances that I found myself perched on a ridge 300m down the line with a tortoise (probably Testudo hermanni) and a few friends for company. The tortoise was less than thrilled with his new found companions, despite my efforts in the newly established role of protector of the tortoise. The tortoise decided his strategy of retreating into his shell was not working and eventually opted to swap his quiet sunbathing spot for a marginally less precarious hideaway at the feet of a British gricer.

The tortoise was probably as relieved as we were when 46.03 appeared at 1.45pm, over an hour since we left Most by bus. We were lucky enough to get the shot in sun too, though it was a close run thing. The clouds were certainly beginning to roll in, steadily filling the clear blue skies of the morning.

46.03 passes through Perperek

46.03 passes through Perperek

And so the tortoise survived to live happily ever after – at least until the next tour group strolls up to Perperek!

Express through the Eastern Rhodopes

Posted in Bulgaria, Kardzhali, Most by folkestonejack on May 16, 2016

After departing Kardzhali at 9.15am our express continued to the bridge across the river at Sedlovina. The railway bridge here runs parallel to a small causeway and is also a popular fishing spot, providing some additional interest and local colour to the scene.

03.12 crosses the bridge at Sedlovina

03.12 crosses the bridge at Sedlovina

A second runpast offered us the chance to climb higher for a better perspective of the scene but as this required a sure footed balancing act I opted not to go all the way up – with a cliff to one side I really didn’t want to go missing in action. As it was, with barely a third of the group at the top it already looked like an attempt to see how many railway photographers you could fit onto a pinhead!

The rocky hillsides between tunnel portals a little farther on provided some more great vantage points over the railway, though I decided to take a less treacherous route up that brought me out at a higher spot for the first two runpasts then followed the rest of the group along the track to a spot above the tunnel portal that afforded a great view of the lake and the mountainside.

03.12 passes the rock niches at Sredna Arda

03.12 passes the rock niches at Sredna Arda

Our next stop delivered us at Sredna Arda where we tried a variety of shots, including one through the rock cutting and a false departure from the station. An unusual feature of this spot is the presence of a series of rectangular niches carved into the rockface by the ancient Thracians, generally believed to be associated with cult rituals in some way.

No further photo stops were possible after our departure at 11.15am as we had to reach Most on time to allow a diesel pathed through here to pass. Our loco struggled on the final stretch, stopping at a couple of spots out of steam, then slipping as she got going again. We eventually made it to Most at 12.15pm.

Gallery

Madness at Momchilgrad

Posted in Bulgaria, Kardzhali, Momchilgrad by folkestonejack on May 16, 2016

The run to Most began with a ridiculously tight window for a shot on the other side of the viaduct between Momchilgrad and Kardzhali. The timings allowed us to work around the morning commuter service operated by a modern diesel multiple unit (Momchilgrad sees four services a day in each direction between Kardzhali and Podkova, plus a couple of services to/from Dimitrovgrad).

03.12 hauls a light express across the viaduct between Momchilgrad and Kardzhali

03.12 hauls a light express across the viaduct between Momchilgrad and Kardzhali

Our train departed from Momchilgrad was scheduled for 7.45am and just seven minutes was allocated for a photostop at the viaduct – in this time the entire contingent of photographers would need to disembark, clamber down the hillside to the riverside, take their photographs and then clamber back up. If it sounds impossible, that’s because it is!

In reality our train departed a couple of minutes late from Momchilgrad at 7.47am and we only made it back onto the train at 8.17am, arriving into Kardzhali at 8.32am. However, the shots from the riverside in beautiful light were absolutely worth the effort.

On our arrival into Kardzhali the crew got a heroes welcome from a school party who just happened to be in the right place at the right time. The children waved, cheered and squealed each time the whistle blew and their faces showed sheer delight in the scene. I don’t suppose any of them are likely to have encountered steam before (although steam charters are run on this line occasionally you would be doing well to stumble across one by chance).

03.12 at Kardzhali

03.12 at Kardzhali

At 8.59am the local commuter service arrived from Momchilgrad bang on schedule, so our longer stop at the viaduct had not caused any delay. Presumably the schedules for our train have a degree of generosity, so the panicked scramble down to the riverside (‘hurry up and safely’) was a little unnecessary.

A brief pause in our steam activities gave us a chance to grab a coffee from the stall on the platform and try some shots of our train through the windows of the booking office.

The commuter train left on time at 9.10am (back to Momchilgrad) whilst our train headed in the opposite direction five minutes later (towards Most).

Morning express to Most

Posted in Bulgaria, Momchilgrad by folkestonejack on May 16, 2016

A fresh day, blue skies and sun. The perfect conditions for a long day of photography, starting with a return to Momchilgrad to board the morning express to Most. For the moment let’s ignore the fact that a small station in the middle of nowhere would be an unlikely destination for such a train, let alone one using carriages built for Tsar Boris III!

03.12 passes 16.27 outside the shed at Momchilgrad

03.12 passes 16.27 outside the shed at Momchilgrad

Our train for the day is hauled by express locomotive 03.12, built by Henschel & Son for Bulgarian State Railways (BDŽ) in 1943. BDŽ had originally placed an order for fifty locomotives of this type, designed to haul heavy passenger trains over the challenging gradients of the Bulgarian railway network.

In our off the cuff lessons in Bulgarian railway history we have been struck by how the railway factories in Germany were churning out a series of relatively sophisticated locomotives whilst switching to the production of radically simplified versions of pre-war locomotives for the home markets. However, it was for precisely this reason that work for the export market stopped. In the end only twelve locomotives of this class were built, with the last being delivered in early 1943.

As with the other designs produced for BDŽ the locomotives were designed with the characteristics of the network and the lower calorific coal in mind, although their heritage can clearly be seen in German locomotives. In their post war lives the locomotives were converted to mixed oil and coal firing, further tailoring the locomotives to the Bulgarian network with much improved performances on the mountain lines.

The entire class survived the war and were used on the major routes, particularly through the mountains from Gorna Orjachowiza towards Pleven and Varna. The locomotives were withdrawn in the 1970s. Our locomotive, the last of the series, returned to operational use in 2011.

Gallery

Lessons in light

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

After our arrival at Kardzhali we headed off by bus to check in at Hotel Ustra, our base for the next four nights, but there was no time to get settled. We needed to get back out on the lineside to photograph the empty train hauled by 46.03 on the viaduct between Kardzhali and Momchilgrad.

Everyone dumped their stuff and re-boarded the bus at 5.45pm for the short drive out of town. The empty train was expected to depart from Kardzhali at 6pm so we had only a small window to reach the viaduct and get to a good spot. There are two options – to walk along the edge of the busy road to get the view looking down over the viaduct or to follow the well-trodden path to a position looking up to the viaduct. I opted for the latter.

The position was perfectly illuminated when a few of us reached the optimum spot by the water’s edge and we even had a remarkable concert of birdsong to entertain us. All we needed was a train…

The view at 6.30pm

The view at 6.30pm, mid-way through our wait.

The minutes ticked by, but no train materialised. We watched as the shadows gradually crept across the river, up the namk on the opposite side of the river and then up the pillars of the viaduct itself. I can tell you that there are few things more galling for a photographer than to see a shot slipping away like this. It might almost have been better to have turned up at the last minute than to have seen how perfect it was a little earlier!

In the end the empty train arrived at 7.01pm, over an hour later than expected, when almost all the light was gone. Moments after the train passed the sun dipped below the hills and took with it the last of the light.

The empty train crossing the viaduct at 7.01pm

The empty train crossing the viaduct at 7.01pm

It would be an understatement to say that the group was a little deflated after this, having seen the potential for a lovely shot crumble into nothing, but most of us have enjoyed moments that have fallen the other way too. In truth, the formation of the train, with the water tank between the loco and the carriages, would never have made this the perfect shot but no photographer would ever let such a small detail get in the way of a grumble about the light!

Most of us were gluttons for punishment and/or eternal optimists, choosing to return to Momchilgrad later in the evening for a night shoot at the pretty shed and water tower. We finally staggered back to our rooms just after 11pm.

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).

Gallery

Steamless in Sofia

Posted in Bulgaria, Sofia by folkestonejack on May 14, 2016

Our steam tour was to begin with a relatively limited photographic session with the express locomotive 05.01 moving around under steam at Sofia Depot. However, this proved to be more limited than anyone expected…

05.01 outside the shed at Sofia Depot

05.01 outside the shed at Sofia Depot

When we turned up at the depot we were delighted to see 05.01 basking in the sun but it soon became clear that there was a problem with the locomotive and that she couldn’t move under her own steam. Instead, a diesel shunter was called in to move the locomotive into photo positions on the turntable and on the line from the shed.

The locomotive had not seen use for nine months before our visit and was working fine when they steamed it up two days before our visit for a test run. It was only when they moved it into position today that they found that they couldn’t close the regulator. Once they finally got it shut they didn’t dare open it again.

05.01 on the turntable at Sofia Depot

05.01 on the turntable at Sofia Depot

In all honesty, 05.01 wasn’t ever going to do that much in the confines of Sofia Depot so if we have some bad luck on our tour I would much rather it was here than on the longer runs we will be making over the next five days! Besides, there was plenty of diesel and electric locomotives to be photographed around the depot along with some other steam survivors lurking inside and outside the shed.

The most amusing moment of the day came towards the end of the vist when 05.01 was positioned on the line from the shed. The skies had been darkening during our visit but now came the crack of thunder and the opening of the heavens. Everyone took shelter as best they could, but then the sun came out illuminating 05.01 beautifully despite the rain continuing to lash down. You could see everyone grappling with the dilemma – do you get drenched to get the shot or do you stay in the safety of shelter? Sooner or later most of us cracked and made a mad dash for it…

After the rain

After the rain

Despite the disappointment of not having 05.01 move under her own steam it was still a delight to see this mighty engine up close. The class 05 steam locomotives were originally commissioned by Bulgarian State Railways (BDŽ) as part of a plan in the 1930s to build a fleet suited to the requirements of the network and the lower quality coal available in the country. The class 05 locomotives were the fastest steam locomotives to be developed in the history of the Bulgarian railways, principally intended to haul fast and light expresses across flat country.

Five class 05 locomotives (originally designated 07 class) were eventually built by the German manufacturer Krupp and delivered in 1941 with the factory numbers 2459-2463. All five locomotives survived the war and were mainly used by BDŽ on express and passenger trains between Stara Zagora and Burgas. The locomotives were retired in the 1970s, but 05.01 (factory number 2459) was brought to Sofia in 2002 for restoration and returned to operational status in 2010.

01.23 in the shed at Sofia Depot

01.23 in the shed at Sofia Depot

Inside the shed we could see 01.23, an express locomotive built at SLM Winterthur locomotive factory, Switzerland, in 1935. The locomotive was saved for preservation in 1979 as the last of her class and has since been restored. At the moment she is in the works for an assessment of her boiler after a lengthy spell in operation.

The three steam locomotives located immediately outside the shed were 26.26, 36.10 and 48.04 with a fourth engine heavily camouflaged by vegetation on the far side of the turntable.

Gallery

Dobŭr den Bŭlgariya

Posted in Bulgaria, Sofia by folkestonejack on May 13, 2016

Arrived in Sofia this afternoon, ready to join up with a steam photo charter tour in southern Bulgaria organized by Dietmar Kramer with Ulpia Tours. The charter will utilise five operational steam locomotives and probably give us sight of many more lurking in the weeds, in the works or on plinths (the first example being 47.05 on display at Sofia Central Railway Station).

Sofia Central Railway Station

Sofia Central Railway Station

Our photographic adventures begin tomorrow with a visit to Sofia shed before we move on to the stretch of line between Haskovo and Podkova in the Eastern Rhodopes. Our final day will take us part way down the scenic narrow gauge line in the Western Rhodopes from Septemvri to Velingrad.

The principal attraction for the tour is the remarkable 46.03, one of the largest tank engines ever to be constructed in Europe (built by H. Cegielski of Poznań in 1931) which joined the BDŽ fleet of operational steam locomotives in May 2015. The class 46 2-12-4 tank locomotives were originally intended to haul heavy coal trains through the mountains, so our three carriage train ought to be a relatively easy challenge!

Gallery