The International Steam Pages

Steam in Greece 2016
The Diakofto to Kalavryta rack railway

James Waite reports on the highlight of a 'brilliant weekend'.


The metre gauge railway around the Peloponnese had been completed by the 1880’s and thoughts turned to a new line to open up the mountainous interior. The Greek government had been receiving advice on a number of public works projects from the Mission Francaise des Travaux Publics, a French government consultative body. In 1889 the mission carried out detailed design work on a railway from Diakofto, on the north coast, up through the wild Vourakis gorge to Kalavryta, 22km away at an altitude of 720 metres.

It was intended to become the first section of a line which would continue on through the mountains to Tripolis, some 100km away from Diakafto. A line with rack sections was essential and the gauge chosen was 750mm, both because of the mountainous terrain and in order to keep costs to a minimum.

Construction began in 1892 and the first 22km to Kalavryta were expected to be completed within ten months. This turned out to be hopelessly overoptimistic. The work actually took more than four years and was many times over budget. The plan to extend further was abandoned; the new railway was opened in 1896 and settled down to providing what became an essential link between the plateau around Kalavryta and the coast. It was always publicly owned though the construction work was carried out by the SPAP, a private company which operated the Peloponnese network, and they operated the line for many years.

The first three locos, rack and adhesion 0-6-2Ts numbered 1-3, were built by Cail of Paris in 1891 as works numbers 2343-5; there were no roads anywhere near the route through the gorge and they would doubtless have been put to work on construction trains. Intriguingly the next locos which Cail built were four similar, if not identical, locos for a 762mm gauge railway in the Dominican Republic and it may well be that the seven machines were built as a single lot. They supplied a fourth loco, 4, for the Kalavryta line in 1899.

In 1925 a fifth loco to the same design, though with a superheated boiler, came from Krupp in Germany. It was numbered 11 as the start of a new number series on account of its greater power. A sixth one was built at Piraeus works in 1954 as a non-superheated loco, probably using some existing spare parts; it became 5. Cail must have been pleased with the design as the only other rack and adhesion locos they ever built were two generally similar machines for a 600mm gauge line on the African island of Fernando Poo in 1912.

The railway provided an even more vital lifeline during the Second World War when Greece was occupied by Nazi Germany. The Germans never gained complete control of the interior of the Peloponnese and various competing resistance groups operated there. In October 1943 one of these overwhelmed and captured a group of about eighty German soldiers near Kerpini, the first station north of Kalavryta, and held them as prisoners of war. In early December a large German force arrived in the area to rescue them and to exact revenge upon the local population.

On 8th December they murdered the male population of Kerpini, Zachlorou, the next village along the line to the north and Rogoi, another village nearby, reportedly sparing only those who worked on the railway. The resistance group retaliated by killing the soldiers they were holding. On 13th December the Germans marched the entire male population of Kalavryta, numbering about 600, to a field outside the town and shot them all, having first locked up the women and children in the school and made the men watch as they set fire to the school along with the rest of the town.

A few of the men survived thanks to being buried under the bodies of their colleagues; the women and children escaped, reportedly thanks to an Austrian soldier who took pity on them and unlocked the school. They faced a bleak future with no housing or food and it was largely thanks to supplies brought in by the railway that they were able to survive the winter. Unsurprisingly feelings about these tragic events remain raw throughout the district to this day.

The six locos at Kalavryta worked all services until three diesel-electric railcars arrived from Billard, the French firm, in 1959. Some steam working continued until three more railcars, similar-looking but more powerful and faster, were built by Decauville in 1967. This concern, which had made such a big contribution to the narrow gauge scene in the late 1800’s, was by then diversifying away from railway equipment; these were amongst the last railcars Decauville would produce although the firm continued intermittently to build draisines, small inspection vehicles, for another ten years. In order to keep within the line’s 4.5 tonne axle loading limit and still carry a worthwhile number of passengers the railcars were built with the diesel generators mounted on separate 4-wheeled vehicles; this unusual arrangement had the additional advantage that if plans to electrify the line had ever come to fruition the railcars could readily have been adapted to suit.

The OSE, Greece’s state railway operator, carried out major reconstruction between 2003 and 2009 to increase the permitted axle loading to 6 tonnes and to enlarge the loading gauge. Four new railcar sets arrived from Stadler in Switzerland in 2007 and went into service two years later when the work was complete.

All six steam locos have survived. 3, later numbered Dk8.003, has been on display on a plinth at Diakafto for many years. Nearby 2, 5 and 11 have spent many years in open storage, protected from vandals by a close-fitting wire mesh cage. 4 and one of the original summer cars are at the Greek Railway Museum at Athens. 1, later Dk8.001, and coach no. B131, one of two which had been rebuilt with a modern body in 1954, spent many years on a plinth at Kalavryta. They were refurbished and put back into working order in time for the railway’s centenary but went back into retirement ten years later.

Last year they were taken to Piraeus works and restored for this year’s 120th anniversary. There’s talk now that they may provide a regular tourist service. They live in the old loco shed at Kalavryta and so far have only run over the comparatively level section across the plateau between Kerpini and Kalavryta, about 5km. This runs through attractive scenery though it’s not as spectacular as the railway through the gorge. Maybe one day the train will be allowed to run all the way to Diakofto; this would provide one of Europe’s most scenic steam train rides!

Our objective was to attend the anniversary celebrations of the railway. Their highlight was to be the first public run of the railway’s newly restored steam loco – indeed it would be the first steam train to run anywhere in Greece for more than six years. A test run was expected on the morning of our journey and we were hoping to see it. The schedule, if there was one, hadn’t been published but the journey from our overnight stay on the other side of Corinth took longer than expected and we missed it. Happily for us a second run was needed and soon the train emerged from its shed once more and the trip got under way.  

There were only five of us foreigners attending the anniversary event. We were treated with great kindness by the railway staff and the many local enthusiasts – Greek hospitality at its very best!

The second trial run on 4th November 2016

First picture is leaving Kalavryta, the rest around Kerpini

The official anniversary on 5th November 2016

Rob Dickinson