Narrow Gauge to the Rhodope Mountains

Narrow gauge railways have always held a particular fascination for me and one which I had long wished to visit was the 125km (78-mile) 760mm gauge Septemvri-Dobrinishte line in Bulgaria. Despite persistent closure threats the line continues to be run by Bulgarian State Railways and is the country’s only narrow gauge line.

IMG_1057This is a truly remarkable railway that traverses some fabulous scenery and feels like a step back in time when you are able to look out of the window and see horse-drawn ploughs being used in the fields. With the four daily round trip hauled by diesel locos dating from the mid-1960s, it is a trip not to be missed.

Getting to the railway is remarkably straightforward. Septemvri is roughly midway between the Bulgarian capital, Sofia and Plovdiv, the country’s second city, so I opted for a round trip, flying out to Plovdiv with Ryanair from Stansted and spending a night in a hotel near the railway station, then returning a couple of days later from Sofia to Heathrow with British Airways.

Bulgarian train fares are ridiculously cheap, with a single from Plovdiv to Dobrinishte costing me just BGN 9.50 (about £3.50) for a journey which took most of the day. Since a journey along the narrow gauge line takes five hours, I booked a night in Bansko, Bulgiaria’s principal ski resort, which is the penultimate stop on the line, just a few miles short of Dobrinishte.

IMG_1210 (1)On the day of my May 2015 trip to Dobrinishte, I took the 09.47 from Septemvri (arriving in Dobrinishte at 14.38) and my train was headed by the oldest working loco on the line, 75-004. As I discovered on my return the following day, the shed at Septemvri is some distance away from the station, so there was no sign of the line’s working steam loco (609-76) or the rest of the fleet, with the only other loco in evidence being 81-002, one of what later appears is three surviving TU7 Russian-built shunters from a class of 10 delivered to the line in 1982.

IMG_1111My well-loaded four-coach train offered numerous opportunities to take shots of the train at its many leisurely stops, notably at Avramovo, where I was able to get an excellent panoramic shot of sister loco 75-005 arriving on the 10.15 ex-Dobrinishte service and passing one of the line’s few semaphore signals.

During the journey I got talking to a Greek bloke, currently living in Middlesbrough, who is married to a Bulgarian lady and was heading to a family funeral somewhere near Dobrinishte. He told me he is from a place in Northern Greece that is not far from where we are headed and rightly notes that the railway and surroundings having a feel of being straight out of the 1960s!

After a night in the comfortable Lucky Bansko Aparthotel (seven minutes’ walk from the station) I headed back to Bansko station where my single ticket to Sofia on a service departing at 10.33 costs a modest BGN 11.30 (about £4.30). There are more chances to photograph my three-coach train (hauled again by 75-004) at Bansko and at a number of other stations en route, with the highlight being our crossing at Kostandovo, where I get  shots of an Alsatian dog jumping for tit-bits from the driver of my train.

IMG_1283On arriving at Septemvri, I noticed the locomotive shed on our approach, so head straight there, where the head man allows me to take photos, declining my offer of beer money (!) and shows me where preserved steam loco 609-76 is standing behind the shed.

Apart from 609-76, the line’s diesel fleet comprises six surviving members of the Class 75 units delivered from the German manufacturer Henschel AG in 1965/5, of which only three appear serviceable, and four survivors of a former ten-strong fleet of Class 77 locos, built in Romania and delivered in 1988. In addition to this “main line” fleet, I noted three remaining members of a ten-strong fleet of Soviet-built TU7E shunting locos (Class 80/81).

There were also a number of derelict locos, as noted below:

Locos noted on the Septemvri-Dobrinishte line (21/2 May 2015)
75-002         76-011        77-002       80-001       81-002
75-004                             77-005                          81-008
75-005                             77-008
75-006                             77-009

402 (yellow/black livery)
609-76 working steam loco
1-76 derelict steam loco (0-6-2T)
470-60 derelict steam loco
506-76 derelict steam loco (0-10-0T)
82-01 derelict railcar (at Bansko)
504-76 derelict steam loco (at Bansko)

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