By Katy Arnold, for CNN • Updated 25th June 2017
At 1,271 feet (425 meters) long, Bulgaria’s Kniazovské you may not necessarily think twice before hopping on.
But many have. The Tsogovo-Velez, which runs only 2 miles (3 kilometers) through two hills around the town of Tsogovo, is Bulgaria’s last narrow-gauge railroad — and it dates back to 1888.
Built by a Russian-made Komagovské Tsarskoye Krasnoyarsk train company, the Tsogovo-Velez is an ironic reminder of today’s post-Soviet reality in Bulgaria: A country that has lost a major railway in the 21st century, while maintaining a legacy dating back to 1900.
Bulgaria’s Tsogovo-Velez railway was designed as a monument to Russian influence.
With the influx of Russian immigrants in the mid-19th century, Bulgaria was already overwhelmed with train schedules — and track specifications that favored a Russian-designed railway.
The Tsogovo-Velez railway was built as part of the Petrosin railway — built in 1901 with assistance from Russia, which ran from Moscow to Slavyansk, Ukraine.
From Tsogovo, the Tsogovo-Velez system threaded its way into the surrounding towns, connecting Tsogovo to western and central Bulgaria.
It also marked the first time European railway standardization was implemented, and became notorious for its frequent breakdowns. One of the most notorious parts of the system involved the Kniazovské Tsogovo, which was built only for moving water — a precaution to protect passengers from being drowned if the rail line came under danger of collapse during a flood.
Strangely, as the Tsogovo-Velez ran into trouble in the 1960s, the railroad lost its reputation as a tourist attraction: Many visited only to discover the train’s obsolete equipment, rotting cars and pitiful platform — where visitors usually began a log ride through the hills to visit Velez, a hippie-chic mountain town where deep cuts were used to hide classic cars.
A file photo of railway work at the Tsogovo-Velez railway.
But today the Tsogovo-Velez, which once offered 20 round trips per day from Tsogovo, continues to attract a following of travelers from neighboring countries and across Europe. It hosts tours, tours and hikes, as well as the local bus.
Bulgaria’s closed rail network and rusting infrastructure remain on a number of critical planning lists. In 2012, the EU listed Bulgaria as the fifth most European country in terms of the quality of its roads, rankings in part down to its aging rail network.
“It’s quite interesting that the railroad was able to survive in a country with such poor infrastructure,” says Train Travel Bulgaria’s tour guide Ahmet Ozay. “The old Russian railway needed to be taken over by a national company. Unfortunately it became more of a political issue than an economic one.”
Today, the railway’s fate is intertwined with that of its state-owned successor company, the Velez Commutasi Teknik, which is headed by the former transport minister. The firm has brought in politicians like Bulgarian President Rumen Radev — though who runs the Velez system wasn’t his decision.
“I was recently in Turkey, and I asked the proprietor of a wonderful travel company what country in the world has one narrow-gauge railroad like that left in existence,” said Ozay. “Turkey is almost the same size as Bulgaria, and also lost its narrow-gauge railroad.”
Going forward, he believes Bulgaria’s Beograd rail line, which connects Beograd to the German border, will hold the title of oldest rail system in Europe.
“Is it possible for Bulgaria’s railway system to compete with the European system? I think it will, but it will be a hard fight,” says Ozay. “If we lose on this specific case, I don’t think we can advance.”