In the 1860s, when Bulgaria was still under Ottoman rule, the port city of Ruse in the north of the country had double luck. Lying on the Danube river - the most important European waterway at the time - it also had an enlightened governor, Midhat Pasha, one of the first liberals and reformists in the Empire. The result was the completion in 1866 of the first railway line crossing the Bulgarian lands and also one of the first in the Ottoman Empire.
Designed by British engineers, the railway connecting Ruse to the Black Sea port of Varna in 1866 was meant to shorten the way for Western cargo travelling to and from Istanbul, but it also brought one brand new craft to the city on the Danube - train maintenance. The depot for fixing locomotives and carriages was established the same year the train line was launched. During the Socialist era, it grew to become one of the largest state-owned companies in the country. With over 3,000 employees at its heyday in the 1980s, the Locomotive and Carriage Plant (abbreviated LVZ in Bulgarian) was the champion in the maintenance of the country's rolling stock.
Downs and ups of train maintenance
The collapse of centrally planned economy and the first wild decade of free market reforms of the 1990s left LVZ without clients and practically in ruins after it was privatized by Multigroup. Yet, one manager from the factory refused to let all go down the drain and launched a brand new company in 1998. Engineer Anastas Kolev brought as many of the locomotive experts from the factory into Express Service, bought a plot of land near the original first train station where the 1866 railroad began and continued the locomotive and wagon maintenance work LVZ used to do for private clients.
Two and a half decades down the road, Express Service remains the only locomotive repair facility in the country. What is more, it has made a step forward and is designing and constructing its own shunting locomotives - smaller, slower, but more powerful workhorses used for maneuvering and loading of trains in industrial plants. The list of their domestic and foreign clients grows longer every year and from this October would even include TGV, the French "bullet train" operator.
From the Ruse factory to the TGV depot in Lyon
"At the end of the year we will deliver an accumulator locomotive type ES1000 to SNCF, the French national rail company. It would be used for maneuvers in the TGV depot in Lyon," says Tsvetelin Kolev, deputy director of Express Service and son of Anastas Kolev who launched the firm. "This would likely be our best reference up to date, especially if we take into account that our client is well-known for its conservatism," he adds.
To him, the choice of the French company is based on two main considerations: the increased demand for greener and cleaner solutions even when it comes to traditionally eco-friendly industries like trains, as well as the improved energy efficiency of the company's machines. Express Service has clients from all over Europe, including railway cradles such as Switzerland and the UK alongside other large and modern economies like France and Germany. The most sold product of the company is its heavyweight 48-ton ES3000 battery-operated shunting locomotive suitable for medium and heavy load manuevers in industrial yards, ports and train stations.
Prototype of the future
But this is not the company's most advanced locomotive. This title goes to MDD5 (which stands for Mobile Diesel Device - Mark 5), a 72-ton prototype radio-operated machine that was created in collaboration with and for the needs of Holcim Bulgaria, a large cement factory based near the village of Bely Izvor. MDD5 is powered by a twin US-made Caterpillar diesel engine holding a Stage V eco-standard that is higher than all EU standards at the moment.
"MDD5 is our largest and most powerful locomotive by far. It is an old idea of ours that had been developed for a decade as we were waiting for the right investor into the prototype," Mr Kolev says. He adds that the company aims to sell the model as a substitute to the obsolete Romanian-made LDH1250, workhorse of Bulgarian industry manufactured from the 1960s to the 1980s.
One of the secrets of the company's success lies in the fact that it has managed to maintain an R&D team of four-five people, which is constantly improving the solutions proposed by the company - something similar-sized companies in Western Europe can hardly afford. "They are young engineers from Ruse University who have never worked for the Bulgarian State Railways (BDZ) and have never seen ineffectiveness and destitution in their life," Mr Kolev explains.
Complicated relationship with BDZ
Everyone who has used the services of BDZ knows what the Express Service manager is talking about. For the past three decades, BDZ has become a synonym of corruption and mismanagement of public funds and property. A manifestation of this had been the refusal of the state-owned company to acknowledge the existence of Express Service. Instead, BDZ had been sending its locomotives for repairs abroad, rather than to the Ruse depot - for several times the price.
"In the last decade the BDZ management pretended we did not exist in order to cover up schemes for embezzlement of public funds through fixing tenders for fictitious companies," Mr Kolev says. Express Service, which has always relied on the private sector for its business, did not shy away from criticizing the state railways openly, causing several serious public scandals.
In the last two years things seems to have taken a positive turn, with BDZ finally starting to work with the Ruse-based firm (which used to be part of its own structure in the past ) on several projects, including repairs of narrow-gauge locomotives and the newest Siemens Smartron locomotives, in operation since the beginning of the year. Hopefully, the relationship will go on into the future and BDZ will take advantage of the expertise of the innovators from Express Service.