Incompetent and corrupt management has rendered the State Railways bankrupt but the remaining stations bear witness to better times
Issue 65, February 2012
by Bozhidara Georgieva; photography by Anthony Georgieff To a month-long strike, immense debts with little hope for refinancing, and 2,000 jobs axed add the obsolete rolling stock, frequent accidents, possible privatisation and talk of spending "optimisation": in the beginning of the 21st Century the future of the BDZh, or the Bulgarian State Railways, is looking very gloomy indeed.
The first railway in Bulgaria was built in 1866, while the country was still under Ottoman rule. It was a British venture and connected the busy ports of Ruse on the Danube and Varna on the Black Sea, considerably shortening the old trade route through the Danube delta. Other investors followed suit and in 1873 Baron de Hirsch inaugurated the Constantinople-Belovo railway line. When Bulgaria regained its independence, the nationalisation of private railways became a top priority. In 1888, employing somewhat dubious methods, the government of Stefan Stambolov acquired the Ruse-Varna and the Tsaribrod-Sofia-Belovo lines, establishing what is now known as the BDZh.
In the following years the company went through many changes – from network development and the creation of a special training school, to the railway workers' strike that literally brought Bulgaria to a halt between December 1919 and February 1920. The company was favourеd by the Communist regime, which saw the value of its role in any potential conflict. The network was expanded, electric engines were introduced in the 1960s, and the railway staff became a privileged elite who enjoyed perks. They received good salaries and even better bonuses, plus train tickets for the whole family, housing, food, holidays in company resorts all over Bulgaria, and clothes and shoes. Few Bulgarians owned cars and BDZh had the undisputed monopoly of country-wide transport. This explains why, although the trains were old, badly-maintained and usually ran late, they were frequently overcrowded.
Things went from bad to worse when Communism fell in 1989. The state could not afford to keep all the staff privileges going, and the company started losing custom when many former clients bought cars or switched to the comfort of private coaches. Wages became unappealing and, inevitably, railway workers started to leave. Equipment and machinery became increasingly obsolete and even the introduction of several recycled carriages and the borrowed Desiro diesel locomotives did little to ease the uncomfortable inconvenience that train travel had become. Most attempts at modernisation were derailed by corruption and misuse of power. In 2011, for example, Bulgarians learned that about 1,000 carriages had gone missing from the BDZh. Missing. Carriages.
Several governments promised immediate reforms, but most of them did nothing more than make more employees redundant and reduce train stops, closing stations and even whole lines, citing low passenger numbers.
However, the decades that passed after the first train steamed its way through Bulgarian territory have left the country scattered with silent witnesses of the times when travelling by train was the way to go. The railway stations, some still in use and others abandoned, all have a personality and a story to tell. Here are some of them.
70 years ago, on 10 March 1943, Bulgaria's pro-Nazi government decided to defy Berlin and halt the deportation of Bulgaria's 50.000 Jews. This was down to the actions of one man - Dimitar Peshev. Just two years later he faced Communist justice and found himself on trial for his life. His niece Kaluda Kiradjieva remembers