Amid protests and plunder, Bulgaria aims to bring trains up to speed

Sun May 10, 2015 10:24pm EDT
 
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By Angel Krasimirov and Tsvetelia Tsolova

DOBRINISHTE, Bulgaria (Reuters) - The narrow-gauge train snaking its way through the valleys and gorges of southwestern Bulgaria is a lifeline for surrounding villages, but could face the axe as the government tries to modernize a network mired in losses and debt.

Corruption and mismanagement have for years hobbled the state railways, which are among the least efficient in Europe, while workers have been caught stealing fuel from locomotives. Many lines have barely changed since the fall of Communism in 1989, despite a sharp drop in population due to emigration and an end to the planned economy.

But the Septemvri–Dobrinishte line through what was once ancient Thrace has long been part of the local community. When Reuters took a journey on the scenic route, passengers who met as strangers were soon talking and laughing together.

Women in headscarves struggled across slopes by the line, laden with bags and baskets carrying their own produce, including milk and vegetables, to market.

The train was half-empty and slow - it typically takes about five hours to cover 125 km (78 miles).

"Should the government close the route, most activity in those small, remote stations would grind to a halt," said Dochka Ivanova, a pensioner traveling on the train. "It would be disastrous for the region."

Local people are horrified by the possibility that their railway might be replaced by a bus. "This train is the only option for people in several villages. And we're talking about poor people whose only income comes from the milk obtained from one or two cows they breed," Ivanova said. "They must travel to sell the milk and buy some basic products to survive. They continue to live as they lived 100 years ago."

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A train arrives at Varvara railway station, Bulgaria April 28, 2015. REUTERS/Stoyan Nenov