Mon, May 01, 2017 - Page 14 News List

China steams to the rescue for Bulgaria’s old railways

AFP, CHEREPISH, Bulgaria

A driver looks out the window of a locomotive prior to its departure from Cherepish train station in Bulgaria on March 2.

Photo: AFP

“Granny Bear” has proved a big hit in Bulgaria since the 1930s steam train returned from retirement, chugging day-trippers through stunning scenery from Sofia to the Cherepish Monastery.

“She is super, the engine. I like it better than a modern one,” said Dimitar Kirilov, 12, taking the trip on the Baba Metsa train with his grandparents.

A particular attraction is the luxury carriage used by former Bulgarian king Boris III (1918-1943).

“So elegant and modest,” Rada Gancheva, 58, said.

The comforting hoots, whistles and puffs of steam trains have proved a big moneymaker for Bulgarian State Railways (BDZ), earning it 250,000 euros (US$272,388) last year.

“The Vitosha Express diesel train of [former communist Bulgarian president] Todor Zhivkov will soon be made available also,” BDZ’s chief executive officer Georgy Drumev said.

However, the success belies the dire state of the railways in the EU’s poorest nation.

According to a 2015 Boston Consulting Group study, Bulgarian trains have the worst quality and safety record among 25 European nations surveyed.

The number of Bulgarians using trains halved between 2000 and 2015 and the volume of freight is a 10th of what it was in the 1980s, Georgy Minchev of the Freight Transport Association said.

Creaking infrastructure, aging locomotives and rolling stock mean that the average train speed is just 55kph. The 440km trip from Sofia to Varna on the Black Sea takes eight hours — and that is on the so-called “express train.”

“We started with a 40-minute delay and it grew to four hours by the time we arrived in Varna, making it a 12-hour journey,” one traveler, Maria Damyanova, 48, said.

Horror stories abound on the Internet about people’s experiences, particularly in winter when the simplest journey can turn into a nightmare.

“Iron nerves and plenty of food are needed if you want to take the train in Bulgaria,” read a social media entry by Margarit Blagoev, 35.

People are sometimes forced to take extreme measures.

In January, 50 frustrated passengers jumped off their regional train when it was brought to a stop mid-journey and stood on the adjacent tracks in the path of an oncoming express train to make it stop and allow their train to head off first.

The BDZ is saddled with debts of 240 million euros, hindering investment and renovation.

Obsolete infrastructure, and thefts of bits of track and signaling systems make derailments common, especially of cargo trains.

A freight train transporting gas in December last year derailed and exploded, killing six people, injuring dozens more and devastating a small village in the northeast.

However, after failing for years to attract funds, help might be on the way from China, which is seeking to invest heavily in infrastructure projects in eastern Europe and elsewhere.

The China Railway Rolling Stock Corp (中國中車) group has pledged to reimburse 130 million euros of BDZ’s debts and invest 170 million euros in new trains, according to the Bulgarian Ministry of Transport.

In addition, it has offered to invest 300 million euros in a new train assembly plant.

The Bulgarian government is studying the proposals.

However, not everyone in Bulgaria is pleased at the prospect.

“This offer will result in a mere restructuring of the debt and to new borrowing due to the BDZ’s overindebtedness,” economist Georgy Angelov said. “The project will aggravate the risk of bankruptcy.”

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