Project of the Day: Bulgaria’s midcentury passenger train that went nowhere

In the spring of the 1960s, when man’s task was to dig a depression in central Europe’s rubble-strewn plateaus, the challenge facing railway company PNR Bulgaria was as simple as it was difficult. “Bulgaria…

Project of the Day: Bulgaria's midcentury passenger train that went nowhere

In the spring of the 1960s, when man’s task was to dig a depression in central Europe’s rubble-strewn plateaus, the challenge facing railway company PNR Bulgaria was as simple as it was difficult.

“Bulgaria is the last place on Earth with a train with eight wheels on each axle. That’s the smallest operating railway in the world,” says Peter Feldmann, a former porter.

Like most Bulgarians at the time, Feldmann had worked on the railway, which hadn’t had its own house since the 1930s, taking over a 250km-long track between the Bulgarian city of Isersol and the Romanian border – stretching through abandoned towns, mountains and forests.

“The only decision that was made is to drop one wagon at each direction because you can’t move them [the wheels] too easily,” says Feldmann. “You can’t move them until the end of the day, if that. If the railway company went bankrupt in 1962, then all of the locomotives would go the way of the wagon.”

News that the company was collapsing did not stop Claude Begg, then Secretary General of the French Automobile Workers Union. Instead, he began attempting to secure government support to save the line. As veteran PNR employee Alexander Bilov recalls, “At first we resisted but we eventually accepted this gentleman’s demands”.

Eventually, a Chilean delegation came to look at Isersol and Luminy in late 1968 to design the train’s wheels. In January 1969, however, the Chilean government informed the union that it would pull the project from its list of tourism projects. Bulgarian officials confirmed the news only in March 1969, under pressure from Bucharest.

The line was, therefore, shut down and abandoned, though at a cost. As the unions began exploring another location for the new “tight-gauge train”, Bilov recalls, “At first we thought we could build a railway the same way in another country”.

The late 1970s and early 1980s were a time of free-market reforms in Bulgaria. During this time, analysts suggest that ordinary Bulgarians would have welcomed efforts to re-establish an ailing railway. When construction began in November 1979, however, reports did not come back positive. Many were critical of the project, claiming it was too expensive.

Deutsche Welle sought to address the costs, however, in a 30 December 1979 article titled ‘More money than benefits’, but they found only “very unsatisfactory” results. The article sought to disprove claims that the project would be largely in vain, citing a number of “doubts” about the train, not least its questionable usefulness and continued viability.

The train’s economic impact, never cited as a major point in articles referencing the project at the time, did not stop its construction, for one.

According to Bilov, the project’s critics “knew no history, they didn’t know the history of the railway, they didn’t know what kind of movement this train will generate in the Bulgarian population.”

Bilov’s prediction came true, though. A brief period of prosperity came for Bulgaria’s agricultural regions, such as the southern countryside where Isersol sits, as tourists from throughout Europe flocked to see Bulgaria’s “secret tourist destination”. While the railway and its significance are still disputed among economists, Bilov’s vision was clear: By putting the railway on the map, perhaps even attracting tourists to live there, it would make it easier for ordinary Bulgarians to earn a living.

“Those employees still have not been paid their salaries for the first three years of use and the [agricultural] economy of Bulgaria changed dramatically in this time, especially on the southern part of the country,” he says. “It did not happen in only 10 years – it happened in six years because that is the only thing the train brought into the hands of the people.”

A cable from the French Ministry of Labor in January 1980 confirmed Bilov’s claim. It was soon followed by the same from the Ministry of Economy.

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