The lifeline train of the Rhodope mountain

Steam is expelled from the train’s heating system as the day’s first train is being prepared for departure from station Velingrad for a 5:55 departure.

The lifeline train of the Rhodope mountain

Bulgaria’s last narrow gauge train continues to serve remote communities as it celebrates 100 years

Steam is expelled from the train’s heating system as the day’s first train is being prepared for departure from station Velingrad for a 5:55 departure.

© Jodi Hilton


Sabie Djikova wakes up at dawn to tend to her cows before filtering and bottling their sweet, fresh milk.

Photographer: Jodi Hilton
Sabie Djikova with her granddaughter, 5 year-old Sabie in the yard behind the house that is shared by three generations in the Muslim majority village of Ablanitsa. The family keeps three cows as well as rabbits and a horse.
Photographer: Jodi Hilton

Just before 8 am, she heaves a military grade backpack containing 20 kilos of milk onto her back. Carrying some extra bottles in a tote bag, she walks from her family home 750 meters down a dirt road to the Tsvetino station. At the age of 65, things are harder for her than in the past. "I carried 30-40 kilos when I was younger," she says.

Sabie pours milk through a sieve to remove any impurities as she bottles it in used cola bottles and then delivers to customers in Velingrad. Her granddaughter, also named Sabie, watches. Most younger community members aren’t following their parents’ example and the tradition will likely die out.
Photographer: Jodi Hilton
Nearly every day, Sabie Djikova carries 20 liters of fresh milk from her home in Ablanitsa to the station Tsvetino. She boards the train to Velingrad. In Velingrad, she makes home deliveries before returning back later in the morning. I carried 30 or 40 when I was younger," she says.
Photographer: Jodi Hilton

For more than 20 years she's been repeating the same routine, boarding the narrow gauge train at 8:13 to Velingrad. Arriving at 8:40 at Velingrad South station, she goes house to house delivering bottles of milk to about 10 clients, covering 3 km before meeting other Tsvetino women at the town's main station and catching the 10:14 home. Sabie works to help support her large family, which includes her husband, six grown children and two grandchildren. Each liter of milk sells for 2 leva (1 euro).

Around the village of Tsvetino are several Muslim villages which are known for milk production. According to local traditions, women take the train in order to sell the milk in bigger towns, especially Velingrad, Cherna Mesta and Yakuruda— all reachable by train.
Photographer: Jodi Hilton
Sabie Djikova gets off the train at station Tsvetino which serves several small communities that rely on train service for its main connection. The local roads were unpaved and difficult, especially in winter, until they were paved this year.
Photographer: Jodi Hilton

The train that makes this livelihood possible is the Rodopskata tesnolineika, the Rhodope Narrow Gauge railway. During WWI, Bulgaria urgently worked to develop infrastructure in order to shore up its territory against rival states, particularly in mountainous regions which were otherwise nearly inaccessible. Narrow gauge railways were amongst the quickest (and cheapest) to build and eventually 37 such lines crisscrossed Bulgaria. Most were eventually replaced by standard gauge tracks until only three remained.

Sabie Djikova carrying bottles of milk on her delivery route in Velingrad. Several other women do the same thing. Each has her own area.
Photographer: Jodi Hilton
A customer greets Sabie as she stops along her route to deliver milk directly to his home in Velingrad.
Photographer: Jodi Hilton

Last narrow gauge line standing

State funding decreased after Socialism ended. As many people left the country, ridership decreased. From 2002, the Bulgarian National Railways (BDZ) let the line fall into disrepair. Due to track conditions, the train was obliged to travel "so slow that one could walk next to it at the same speed or faster," says Ivaylo Mehandzhiev, 27. Ivaylo grew up hearing his grandfather's narrow gauge train stories. "I loved hearing them each time. This was the best train I could imagine." By 2004, the Cherven Bryag to Oryahovo line - the 119 km line that was the other remaining narrow gauge railway in operation - was gone, following the fate of the other 35 lines. "The people still mourn their loss," Ivaylo adds.

The station master stops an incoming train at Station Dolene. Station masters not only direct the incoming trains but are also in phone communication with other station masters, giving signals to let each other know whether or not it’s alright to send the train onwards.
Photographer: Jodi Hilton

The Rhodope Narrow Gauge is Bulgaria's last railway of this type (760 mm between rails). All the others have been converted to standard gauge. Four trains cross the Rhodope mountains and return daily, traveling 125 km each way. (Two others make shorter trips.) The train follows the course of the Chepinska and Ablanitsa rivers through a gorge until it splits from the river and climbs uphill and makes a hairpin turn followed by a spiral leading into a figure 8, before ascending to Avramovo, the highest station on the Balkan Peninsula (1267 meters). The narrow gauge makes all those tight turns possible. From there, the route proceeds downhill towards the mountain resort town of Bansko, terminating at Dobrinishte. The entire trip takes 5 hours and 4 minutes and costs just 6.50 leva (a pittance for tourists but for local people, a price that they can still afford).

More than a transport link

Every day, Fatima Ismail and her sister would travel from their home in Avramovo to Velingrad by train in order to attend high school. "The tesnolineika is connected to my education and development," explained Fatima, director of the Charity Association Margarity, which provides help to orphans and refugees in Bulgaria and beyond. "It gave our community access not just to education but to jobs and hospitals."

A train conductor checks rail passes and sells tickets to a group of women heading home by train from Velingrad after selling their milk and other products. Sabie gets a pensioner’s discount and pays 216 BGN per year.
Photographer: Jodi Hilton

People would travel from the small villages to attend weddings in Yakoruda. And trains brought young lovers together. Fatima, who is now a 32-year-old mother of two, recalls her teenage years. "A boy used to come from Tsvetino by train to see me. We would meet at the station." The train provided employment to local people, many of them coming from the small Muslim communities. Fatima's cousin Mehmet was a station manager, and two other cousins Ali and Mustafa were both engineers.

Women from Tsvetino board the train at station Velingrad after selling their products in the market or delivering directly to customers.
Photographer: Jodi Hilton

Since riding the train as a small child with his parents, "I have loved this train," says Kristian Vaklinov, 26. When he was a child, the local branch Pazardzhik to Varvara had yet to be discontinued. Later, as a teenage train enthusiast, he studied the remaining trainline and learnt about the problems faced by passengers. One big problem was the lack of a night train from Dobrinishte to Yakoruda, which was needed by workers to return home. At the age of 17, he began writing letters to BDZ, the Ministry of Transportation and even the Prime Minister requesting the evening train. After much effort, his voice was heard. The revived evening train began running again in 2012.

The older generation in Ablanitsa tend to live in a gendered system whereby men work as lumberjacks and women tend to the cows.
Photographer: Jodi Hilton
Mysa Djikov, one of Sabie’s sons, uses a big Russian truck while working as a lumberjack but keeps a Russian heavy draft horse in the stable next to cows. He used to work in the agricultural sector in the UK but has returned to his childhood village.
Photographer: Jodi Hilton

Young man to the rescue

But by 2014, rumors were circulating that the Rhodope train line was going to be closed. Although it was expensive and served few passengers, for those who depended on it, the trainline was a crucial connection. "The BDZ had planned to cut the number of daily trains to 2, which would have been fatal," according to Ivaylo.

Engineers Jamal Starkov, right, from Cherna Mesta and Halil Mustafa from Avramovo take a break at station Kostandovo. Many of the narrow gauge train lines approximately 300 employees come from the Bulgarian Muslim communities along the train line.
Photographer: Jodi Hilton

The train costs the state 10 million BGN annually and takes in about 1 million BGN. A lot of human labor is needed to keep the trains running, explains Vaklinov. As there is no automation, "everything is done manually." 300 people are employed to run the trains, including engineers, conductors, station masters, and track and engine maintenance workers. Another big cost is the fuel. It takes 500 liters of diesel for each round-trip run. Yet, the value of the train line can't be measured in leva, says Vaklinov. "This train has a social function. It belongs to the people and is our national treasure."

In 2014, Kristian Vaklinov helped organize a petition to save the Septemvri-Dobrinishte train line that crosses the Rhodope mountain and includes a stop at the highest station on the Balkan Peninsula. "If there is no one like me, who will stand up for it? It will be gone." Since then he and his friends organized a group of supporters and has since been hired by the Bulgarian National Railway as a customer service expert.
Photographer: Jodi Hilton

The prospect of the train being put out of service spurred Kristian into action. In 2014, at the age of 19, he organized and circulated a petition to save the train line. 11,300 people signed the petition in just 30 days. Kristian gave interviews on national television explaining why Bulgaria needed to save the train. Along with friends including Ivaylo, he formed the nonprofit organization Za Tesnolineikata ("For the Narrow Gauge") dedicated to saving the line by increasing ridership through tourism. They built a website and posted schedules, photos and the train's history in both English and Bulgarian. They organized and advertised special events, like an annual Gergiovden train trip to Yakoruda to celebrate the holiday at the Chapel of St. George. Ivaylo remembers that additional wagons were ordered for the occasion. When the 12 car train appeared, "Some old local men came to us crying, saying they had been dreaming of seeing a train this long."

The view from a 1965 Henschel locomotive, part of the batch of 10 narrow-gauge specific engines put into service that same year. The Septemvri-Dobrinishte route was one of three lines using the 760mm gauge, which was well-adapted to the challenging mountain terrain (and necessary for making the sharp turns along the route). The other two lines (a total of 136 km) were closed down in 2002 for economic reason, leaving the existing line the last narrow gauge line in Bulgaria.
Photographer: Jodi Hilton

Za Tesnolineikata also created a train museum in the abandoned Tsepina station. The BDZ eventually hired Kristian as a customer service expert. On Kristian's recommendation, the BDZ has installed a bistro car on some of the trains and renewed the stop Stoyan Mitev (named for the courageous young engineer who undertook the project after two others quit before him) at a remote part of the track, from which tourists can hike to an overview from where they can view some of the train's most dramatic twists and turns.

A centennial of service celebrated

This month, the centennial anniversary of the beginning of the construction of the Narrow Gauge is being celebrated. The process of building the route was difficult and dangerous and took more than 20 years, not including the last stretch, which was built later by the citizens of Dobrinishte, intent on having the train reach their town. (This way, goods from the mountains could reach Dobrinishte before being trucked down the highway to Gotse Delchev, where wood, tobacco and food production facilities were located.)

Engineer Valentin Petrov checks the train’s engine after returning from the round trip journey (250km in total) from Septemvri to Dobrinishte.
Photographer: Jodi Hilton

To mark the occasion, the BDZ put into service an antique coal-powered steam engine (a 1949 model 609.76) pulling five wagons full of passengers. The locomotive was decorated with pine boughs and a banner proclaiming Chestit Praznik.

The steam train pulled 5 wagons from Septemvri to Velingrad. Along the way, a trio of folk singers performed for passengers as they took in dramatic views of the Chepinska gorge and river, crossing through a series of hand dug and dynamited galleries along the way.

For most of the 21st century, the train served as the only viable transportation link for several of the smaller villages, including Ablanitsa and Tsvetino. However, this year a new asphalt road was built connecting Tsvetino to Velingrad, halving the travel time between the two communities. "It's starting to move things in a positive direction, says Leven Kahajov, also from Ablanitsa. But Vaklinov has mixed feelings. "If someone starts talking about closing the line, they will have a justification. They will say, now you have roads, there's no need to maintain the line just for tourists."

Sabie and the others who travel daily to Velingrad may be the last of their kind. "The older women work really hard," says Hatije Mircheva, 58, another Ablanitsa woman who sells milk, cheese and butter at the Velingrad market, but, she says, "the younger generation is not like this."

The train enthusiasts plan to celebrate another anniversary in 2026, with a really long train, singers onboard and dance groups at every station. "We hope to keep it running until then," says Ivaylo.

Sabie uses a standard military backpack to transport about 20 kilos of milk to the nearby station from where she catches the train to the big town of Velingrad, a 40 minute ride. "I rise at 5 am in order to milk my cow, after that I filter and bottle the milk." She takes the day’s first train (at 8:13 am) to Velingrad, returning after making her deliveries with the 10:14 train.
Photographer: Jodi Hilton

Sabie Djikova wakes up at dawn to tend to her cows before filtering and bottling their sweet, fresh milk.

Photographer: Jodi Hilton
By using this site you agree to the use of cookies to improve the experience, customize content and ads, and analyze traffic. See our cookie policy and privacy policy. OK