Bulgaria’s rail between sea and mountains

Bulgaria runs one of the world’s most isolated railway systems. It’s within reach of the sea, yet only reaches 4.5 miles from end to end.

And it’s a notoriously dangerous one. It’s on a single-track main line and connects the only towns on the country’s eastern side – Salta and Krasnogor. One crash kills two people every year – with two others dying in a derailment in 2015.

From 2012 to 2015, the government invested $191m (£136m) to upgrade the railway, complete with track-lining to allow trains to roll along the bridge a few hundred feet above the Sera Duse river.

But half of the train tunnel, which is over 16 million square feet (1.5 million square metres), has been left unfinished. Work on the project stopped in 2016, when the state railway operator, Sovanet, went into a “lapse of control”, failed to meet its debt payments and closed down.

Onerous paperwork

There are few means of transportation in Bulgaria – but a narrow-gauge train is a rarity.

A Bulgarian national railway employee arranges a train car.

Bulgaria is the last country in Europe to use such a train, but it has an additional hurdle. The train is on the road from Sofia to Sofia, the only way for migrants and refugees to reach the capital from the Black Sea coast.

While the government has been trying to send migrants back to Turkey by bus, over 40,000 people are stuck in Bulgaria and are requiring hotels.

The government began legal proceedings to recover around $16m from the railway operator but found the process a time-consuming one and too difficult to complete in time for the end of the year.

Despite the delays, crews have managed to lay a small section of track under the bridge.

“The biggest challenge for us was getting this bridge built,” Head of Standard Railways Ekaterina Novakova told DW. “We weren’t sure how big the international market was, how many will come to Bulgaria, how will we get it ready. [But] I think we’ve succeeded in the end, even though it’s hard to believe.”

Protected corridors

A part of the railway being laid under the bridge in front of the tourist center in Krasnogor.

Ms Novakova says the project will improve connectivity to towns and cities in Bulgaria’s Adriatic region and decrease the time it takes trains to cross.

She adds that, once the entire tunnel is complete, passengers will be able to use “traditional ticketing and payment methods”, not just for trains, but also for freight.

Bulgaria’s modern railways have plenty of niche business with enterprises. There are motorbikes, cars, trucks, and even private islands – but they are typically costly investments compared to the Balkans, which consist of largely ancient train networks.

But Ms Novakova is hopeful for a bright future for Bulgaria’s railway.

“We believe that the railway will change over time,” she says. “Of course, every modern, sustainable country needs certain legacies.”

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