Getting Bulgarian railway tours on track

Getting Bulgarian railway tours on track :Much about Bulgarian state railways BDZ seems to stop a bit short of the platform.

It is not that BDZ is bad, and nor is this rail enthusiast about to try to dissuade anyone from train travel in Bulgaria. However, the state railways – and all the arms of the entity in charge of rail travel in Bulgaria – just does not seem capable of getting it quite right.

There was much hilarity and some indignation recently when, after Sofia Central Railway Station fully re-opened after a multi-million-euro refurbishment, it was obvious to anyone with the slightest understanding of English that what little signage there was in that language was in an embarrassingly poor version of it.

“Stay arriving trains on platform is 30 mins. Please timely passengers to take seats in wagons” and “Please passengers timely release wagons!” indeed.

The mangled English is not the only shortcoming. As one recent passenger told The Sofia Globe, a digital station clock shows a slightly different time to the analogue clock next to it. Neither agreed with his – accurate – watch. In any case, station officials appeared to signal the train to leave after consulting the clocks on their phones.

Other matters of detail about the refurbished station include a choice of surface of floor, in a form of glossy marble, near the main doors – quite likely to be a slippery hazard when it rains or snows. The newly-fitted recessed lights are not quite fitted properly, creating the risk of moisture getting in. The same traveller reported a shortage of signage, in any language, indicating immediately outside the main doors of the station the way to the metro.

All of these shortcomings, none necessarily fatal, say something about how things are being run, just short of adequately. They symbolise much about Bulgarian authorities’ attitude to the railways. In the case of Sofia Central Railway Station, it is not that there was no budget; the problem is that in certain elementary aspects – the choice of a non-slip floor, the standard of English (important in a place that is not a village station but one that is an international station) – insufficient effort was made to get it right.
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We may move on to the BDZ website, which is something of a curate’s egg. For the non-Bulgarian-speaker, a person of particular interest to the Globe, it has an English-language version, of which not everything is in English, though certain vital parts – looking up train timetables, for instance – are. The online booking system still seems to be in a pilot phase, applicable only to certain destinations linked by rail to Sofia – Blagoevgrad, Bourgas, Varna among them. There is some information in English about foreign destinations reachable by rail from Sofia – Thessaloniki, Istanbul, Belgrade, Bucharest and Budapest – but the information about offices where rail tickets can be bought is solely in Bulgarian. At least there is a link, in English, to the InterRail system. There’s another, about Deutsche Bahn, solely in Bulgarian.

I am writing this not to suggest a wholesale fix for BDZ, because that is a complex and long-standing issue, the result of decades of neglect and a lack of competent management. It is a spectacular loss-maker, 51 million leva in 2014 alone, and Bulgaria previously has had to resort to multilateral help regarding its railways. At the moment, it reportedly owes about 255 million leva to banks and who knows how much to the National Railway Infrastructure Company, and there is a plan to deal with this, at least in part, with proceeds from the concession of Sofia Airport – whenever that happens.

The state of Bulgaria’s railways is just part of the portfolio of the country’s Transport Ministry. Leaving aside the question of how well that ministry does its job, its brief is considerable. Looking back at some of the things the ministry has been dealing with in recent months, these include the bus industry, the safety of school buses (routine checks ahead of the school year), the February 2016 blockade by Greek farmers at the southern border, various telecoms issues, the marvellous if belated idea of connecting Plovdiv Airport to that city by bus, a plan for a rail line to connect Bourgas Airport, and the periodic collywobbles of the government Falcon.

There is clearly some awareness, and major projects being implemented, to do something about rail infrastructure, including big-ticket projects such as the linkage between Svilengrad and the Turkish border, the re-doing of the Plovdiv – Svilengrad rail. In recent years, BDZ put into service modern, air-conditioned, Turkish-made sleeping cars for the routes between the capital city and the Black Sea coast cities.
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But there are some other areas where Bulgaria could improve the experience for rail passengers and possibly, yes, make some money.

The unwary traveller choosing BDZ for long-distance travel may not be aware of the need to stock up on food and liquid refreshments for the journey, because dining cars or any form of catering aboard the train are hardly known. At very least, a sandwich and coffee trolley would do. This is not to suggest BDZ takes on more staff, given the ructions in recent years over downsizing, but would seem suitable to be awarded on tender.

There are other countries that have outsourced the dining car business. No one is expecting the elegance of the Orient Express, but when a journey from Sofia to Varna or Bourgas can take about eight hours, there may well be financially justifiable daytime business for those who would prefer to while away the miles in a dining-observation car, with decent food and drink on sale. Even allowing for the fact that many who use rail travel in Bulgaria do not boast considerable disposable income, the fact that the railways carried 31 million passengers last year suggests that there might be some money to be made.

Further, Bulgaria has many strong assets when it comes to rail travel – and that is no revelation. Already, there are companies offering what sound to be very enticing rail tours of Bulgaria in 2016 – one example is happening in September and the other in October, offering trips out from the UK for what appears to promise a comprehensive and grand rail travel experience. There is at least one other outfit offering vintage rail excursions. (And no, I did not take any cash for mentioning them).

BDZ does have steam locomotives and vintage rolling stock for rental, also occasionally used for “retro” rail excursions, the latter unfortunately rather rarely and not always very well-publicised in advance, largely only on the domestic market and when this website hears of them and saves BDZ the trouble of translating the press notices into English (then again, if the translation was done by the same person guilty of the Sofia station signs, Lord knows what you’d get). There are details on the BDZ website about “attraction tours” – sounds a bit like a singles club on steel wheels, but we think we know what they mean – but the content is largely in Bulgarian. I read it all with fascination, but then, I can. Many millions cannot. You can, by the way, rent rolling stock from the Vitosha Express, the fairly lavish 1970s German-built coaches made for the comfort of long-time communist dictator Todor Zhivkov. As Michael Caine would have it, not many people know that.
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BDZ’s steam locomotive 01.23, built in 1935.

Bulgaria, meanwhile, boasts another rail gem, the old narrow-gauge line from Septemvri to Dobrinishte, with a stop at the well-known mountain resort town of Bansko. For those rail enthusiasts who like to have this sort of thing in their CVs, one of the stations on the line is Avramovo, the highest-altitude station in the Balkans.

The line is popular with foreigners who happen, somehow, to come to hear about it, and ticket prices are customarily cheap, for a journey of about five hours through more than 120km of breathtaking mountain scenery, with lots of tunnels and bridges thrown in for good measure. It is also a functioning line, an important facility for people in villages along its route.

It was astonishing then, that at one point, the government and BDZ had a plan to shut it down. A number of lines have been closed in Bulgaria in recent years, as unprofitable, including others that have charming scenery and tourism potential. The Veliko Turnovo – Elena line is one.

I am not proposing that the Bulgarian state and its rail arm go into the railway tourism business. I would never advocate putting anything like that into the hands of a state that for years has tried and tried again to successfully carry out a project on a new tourism logo and slogan for the country as a whole.

Rather, Bulgaria would be well-advised to realise that it has on its hands the chance to get into the market for people – gricers and ordinary folk alike – who travel to various parts of the world for a chance of an interesting train trip, even better if it’s behind a vintage choo-choo; and Bulgaria has a number of fascinating steam locomotives at its disposal.

The country should rather go for what I would call the Rovos Rail model – enable the purchase of rolling stock and engines by one or more private concerns, let them run them, charge them fees for the use of the railway and related infrastructure. The fact that private companies already are offering rail excursions in Bulgaria suggests that there is market growth potential. Any entrepreneur getting into the business would need to develop further tie-ins with hotels and charter flights; at very least hotels: the Septemvri – Dobrinishte line is not really a day return trip.

Michael Portillo did a wonderful and predictably endearing job of showing off Bulgaria’s attractions when he travelled through part of the country for his Great Continental Railway Journey series (fourth series, episode one, “Sofia to Istanbul”). It would be wonderful for Portillo to be able to come back and see what, hopefully, would be the charms of much more regular “retro” rail journeys in Bulgaria.

As for BDZ as a whole, that is for the state to finally fix, because at the moment, in the American phrase, it’s a hell of a way to run a railroad. Perhaps start with those silly signs at Sofia station. If anyone at BDZ reads this, call me, and I’ll do it for free. We’ve all had our giggle, and it’s time to move on. The debt and unprofitability thing is yours to solve, but you can start with putting tourism matters into private hands, where they belong.

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