Hopes (fulfilled!) for some winter sunshine, and the offer of bargain-priced flights with recently-troubled Ryanair, were all that it took to persuade me back to Bulgaria this week, for another chance to travel on the remarkable 125 km-long (78-mile) narrow gauge railway that winds its way from Septemvri – a town on the main line linking capital Sofia and second city Plovdiv – all the way up to the noted ski resort of Bansko and a terminus at nearby Dobrinishte.
My round trip once again took me from Stansted to Plovdiv, for a night in the splendid Alliance Hotel, a five-minute stroll from the railway station, before a 30-minute trip the following day to Septemvri. From here there are four round trips a day on the narrow gauge line, the earliest of which leaves at the unearthly hour of 02.05, with the most civilised departure being my chosen service, the Mesta, at 13.10 (all services on this route are named).
An end-to-end journey takes around five hours, so doing it all in a day is a pretty tall order. Having stayed in Bansko last time, on this occasion I opted for a couple of nights at the route’s other major destination, Velingrad, a pleasant spa town and tourist hot-spot. Here my bargain-priced and comfortable St George Hotel was just a four minute walk from the town’s main railway station.
Velingrad station is a rather magnificent structure at the eastern edge of the town, with a number of redundant sidings and a large amount of dumped freight wagons, some of which have been abandoned for so long that large trees have sprouted up inside them, as shown below.
Freight traffic on this line seems to have ended some considerable time ago, but this is one of a number of places where lines of wagons remain, not least at Septemvri, where there is a huge amount of disused freight and passenger rolling stock.
Three locos a day are required to work the four round trips a day, in addition to which there is one unbalanced early morning “commuter” working from Velingrad to Septemvri. During my visit from 5-7 December the working locos were 75-006 from the original German (Henschel) 1965/6 fleet, along with two of the later (1988) Romanian-built locos, 77-002 and 77-009.
Most trains comprise four 30-seater second class coaches, with comfortable seating and very welcome steam heating. While passengers seemed to board and alight at all but the remotest stations, this formation was more than adequate for the relatively light loadings of trains at this time of the year.
One exception to this standard formation is the early morning Kleptuza service, which leaves Velingrad at 04.50 for Septimvri. This comprises a solitary passenger coach, which proved ample for the four fare-paying passengers (including me) who travelled in darkness for the 90-minute journey behind 75-006 on Thursday (7 December)!
There is very little visible signalling on the Dobrinishte line, but there are colour lights at Velingrad and Bansko and also a handful of semaphores – some controlled by crossing keepers along with their manually wound crossing barriers. One of the few is this up home signal at Avramovo, photographed when my train was halted at it.
Steam traction was displaced from the route with delivery of ten Class 75 locos from German manufacturer Henschel in 1965/6, of which three remain in active service. The line’s one working steam loco is a 2-10-2 tank loco 609-76, which is stored behind the Septemvri depot and available for private charter, but unfortunately has no regular work.
77-002 waits to pass a northbound train at the highest station on the line, Avramovo, on 5 December 2017, with the 13.10 Septemvri-Dobrinishte service
At Bansko there is one surviving member of an earlier steam class, 0-10-0 tank locomotive 504-76, which looks abandoned (pictured below), but is presumably preserved, as it retains its number plates and its builders’ plate on the dome, showing it was built by CKD of Prague in 1927. According to the notes of my May 2015 visit, a sister loco, 506-76 is one of a number of other surviving steam locomotives at Septemvri.
Fares on BDZ (Bulgarian State Railways) services are extremely good value, although main line time-keeping does not seem too good, with a single from Plovdiv to Avramovo – one hour south of Velingrad and the line’s highest station – costing BGN 7.40 (£3.45), a return from Velingrad to Bansko – a three hour trip – costing BGN 7.60 (£3.50) and a Velingrad-Sofia single costing BGN 8.20 (£3.80).
Water columns survive at a number of locations along the line, including this one at Bansko, from where 77-002 departs on 6 December with the 13.08 for Dobrinishte
Besides being an unforgettable experience, a visit from the UK to the Septemvri-Dobrinishte line is remarkably inexpensive. My four-day trip from 4-7 December cost a grand total of £192.70, helped by Ryanair flights from London Stansted to Plovdiv (£25.00) and Sofia-Stansted (£11.70), along with very modest hotel prices in both Plovdiv (£30 a night) and Velingrad (£20.50 a night).