Kalev, the head of Our Bulgaria Railway, speaks in front of, from left, Sofia River Railway Commissioner Bodies Commission Chairman Eleni Mihalopolova, Bulgaria’s Minister of Railways Nikos Mazevitch, and Andrey Pristunin, owner of Bulgaria’s oldest freight train company, the Novosibirsk River Railroad. (Katerina Mateva for The New York Times)
For centuries, here in northern Bulgaria a narrow-gauge railroad cut through the green hills near the Vranitzarskoye River and connected the capital, Sofia, with the most remote villages along the Danube. But now, the railroad and its people could be extinct.
Today, the Vranitzarskoye rail line, which once connected the important cities in this mountainous country, is one of thousands being sold off as the shipping and locomotive industries survive the global economic crisis. “The rail line would be buried under a deposit of rocks,” Katerina Mateva, the field manager for the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Transport, announced last month in front of a crowd of hundreds that included Sofia’s deputy mayor, Andrey Pristunin, the owner of the Novosibirsk River Railroad (NBR), and the president of Our Bulgaria Railway, Gheorghe Kalev. A total of 27 rail lines, stretching from Greece to the Baltic Sea and from the Black Sea to the Balkans, are on the market.
Over 50,000 people in Sofia know this must-save story well. But Kalev is trying to sell it even more to the world.
While more than half of Bulgaria’s trains are fueled by natural gas, Our Bulgaria Railway, the only remaining narrow-gauge line in the country, is guzzling diesel. It relies on Russian-made Ozyrey Kosovozhiyevlesilpek, or OGK-50 engines, and although it is now equipped with local engines, this arrangement was supposed to last only for five years. And now it’s been reported that OGK-50s are unreliable, and in June 2017 one derailed, the flames blazed, and the earth erupted.
Tutkovo, in northern Bulgaria, looks like any other town in Bulgaria: The official name means “Hill Town.” But the hill is Kalev’s mountain, an impenetrable mass of rough limestone with an iconic structure — a gondola, famous as the glamorous subway for the 1936 Berlin Olympics. These kinds of images were laid down in a book titled “Binding Europe” by the 19th-century French journalist Jean Mailloux. Bulgaria’s narrow-gauge railway has since learned from its mistakes. Kalev thought he knew what made for a good and safe operator. The business was part of the rich tradition of entrepreneurship here. Kalev is a shipbuilder, and his father was a shipbuilder in the early 20th century. His family worked with captains from the British and Danish navies on the Gulf of Piraeus and Iceland, and with Greek officers, too.
At first, he did not foresee the horrors of digging a deep tunnel under Tutkovo, and the delays that would accompany buying the rare old trains and maintenance equipment. I met him in his home near Bilousi Castle, in central Bulgaria. Kalev’s room was filled with big old wind-up radios, musical instruments and barrels of Bulgaria wines. We spoke in front of his immaculate kitchen, with the catch-up TV in the background.
Kalev explained how he worked as the assistant organizer of the 2010 tour to the South Seas, sponsored by the British Virgin Islands, the Emerald Group and several American companies. The goal of the trip was to take cruise ships to Manaus and Manaus, Chile, and Cook Islands, and then on to South America.
He said the organizers had promised Bulgaria a route between the cities of Ruse, not far from where Tutkovo is, and Sochi, home of the 2014 Winter Olympics. “There is nobody for me to ask questions,” Kalev said. “The money was delivered and the plane tickets. The Russian government sent us a patrol boat and a cargo plane with insurance.” But when Kalev went on to discuss the planned route from Moscow to Yalta, he stopped short: “I could not believe it when I saw it. I was stunned.”
The organizers had agreed to sell the unused-but-fulfilling title of the super-