The Rhodopi Narrow Gauge: Septembri to Dobrinishte
Probably one of the most travelled and reported lines in Bulgaria from a cranking point of view, this superb line is the last remnant of Bulgaria’s 760mm narrow gauge system and is ‘just’ the 125km from Septembri through the spectacular Velingrad Gorge before a steep to climb to the summit at Avramovo which includes a couple of spirals. After dropping back down to easier country the line runs through the nice town of Bankso – which I’d recommend as an overnight stop if doing the line – through to Dorinishte. It is not rapid at over five hours, but is certainly very real as the mini-hydraulics rasp along through twist and turn, tunnel and climb with steam heat stok and, again as of 2016, fresh air coaching stock. It is not a tourist railway, the trains are busy with locals who just leap off at a ‘station’ that isn’t even in a field with no sign of life anywhere to be replaced by others who appear from the same wilderness!
Narrow Gauge Locos
The service is operated by a mixture of Class 75 and the more modern, but similar, Class 77s of which generally six are available for traffic with another undergoing works attention. When weather conditions require it everything is also steam heated to really add to the atmosphere of a line that seems to be from a by-gone age.
Class 75 – Henschel’s
These are 820kw / 1068hp Mercedes engined locos that were imported from Henschel in 1965. The fleet of ten has been the backbone of the Dobrinishte line ever since and when delivered were the most powerful 760mm locos in existence. Being Henschel built they were clearly to a higher standard than some of the later classes, shown as they are still doing the business at fifty whilst much junior Faur locos have been withdrawn.
- Operational: 75004, 75005, 75006 (under overhaul) 75008
- Stored: 75002, 75009 (both for sale 12/2016), 75010
- Scrapped: 75001, 75003, 75007
To replace the last steam workings on both the Septembri and Chervan Brjag narrow gauge systems, BDZ looked to get further locos based on 75s but to a lower price than Henschel were offering on the ‘wrong’ side of the Iron Curtain. So 23 August Works (FAUR) in Budapest knocked up some basic copies, 15 being delivered to BDZ in 1977-78. By all accounts they were pretty much cheap rubbish and compares to the 75s reliability was poor. Falling traffic and eventual closure of the Chervan Brjag system sees none of the locos now in traffic with just two known to be ‘intact’ in Bulgaria
- 76005/006/012 exported to Argentina
- 76011 stored at Septembri, 76015 abandoned at Chervan Brjag
- Others presumed long scrapped
More knock-off Romanian copies of the Henshels, effectively a 1988 batch with various improvements on the 76s at least. Again, falling traffic saw many unneeded within a few years of service and the majority are no longer in service. The Argentine ones are reportedly laid up as well.
- Operational: 77002, 77005, 77009
- Stored: 77006, 77008 at Septembri
- Exported: Sold in 1996 to RFIRT, an Argentinian mining line were 77001, 77003, 77004, 77007, 77010
Class 80 / 81 Gronks
80001 (ex 92-01) is a 1966 built Henschel 0-6-0 gronk long stored inside Septembri shed. The remaining shunters are the survivors of the once ten-strong 81 class of Soviet TU7 shunters and take turns undertaking station pilot duties at Septembri.
- Active: 81002 & 81008. 81005 exported to Argentina
- Stored: 80001. Others presumed scrapped
Class 93 L45H’s
Gen on these is particuarly sketchy even for Bulgaria! I believe BDZ had three of these standard Eastern narrow gauge locos delivered, apparently for work at Razlog Paper Mill until the traffic there ceased around 2003. Still carrying ‘pre-TOPS’ numbers, 93-01 and 93-02 are imprisoned in Bankso shed – possibly stored serviceable – whilst 93-03 is awol, presumed scrapped.
To their credit, BDZ have kept 609-76, a 1949 Polish built 2-10-2T in steamable condition as well as a small collection of vintage coaches to go with it. It works semi-regular charters, often featuring diesel assistance as we saw here with both locos giving it some out of Bankso!
I’d love to have visited when passenger and freight traffic levels had upwards of 25 locos in traffic!
Visiting & Train Service
There are plenty of websites extolling the virtuers of the line, so I’ll stick to the train stuff I am vaguely competent and commenting on!
The 2017 Timetable has four length daytime trains each way between Septembri and Dobrinishte which are generally formed of four coach sets. The stock is basic, but does have coach style seats in a 2+1 layout and is generally kept in decent condition (toilets included) but anyone doing the 0245 ex Septembri is a braver man than I! This is a pair of locos and longer train to Velingrad where the morning ‘commuter’ back to Septembri is detached. There are plenty of decent hotels in touristy Bankso which out if ski season can be had incredibly cheap for the quality. I’d certainly recommend doing a two day trip if covering the entire line rather than the, admittedly possible, very long day trip from Sofia or Plovdiv. It is fully part of BDZ so all usual tickets are valid (but then again fares are dirt cheap anyway)
There is a semi-official, I think, website here which keeps up to date timetables and has a full line history. I believe it is these chaps that have started to arrange around Bulgarian holidays a trip to be strengthened with pairs and load eight for semi-organised groups going to cover the line as a local tourist type arrangement.