The International Steam Pages

The Last Logging Line 
Vișeu de Sus, Roumania

Robert Hall writes of a visit in 2018. You may wish to compare what he found with my own (RD) visit 20 years earlier in 1998. There is an appropriate map at the end of the account.

With septuagenarian status recently attained, I occasionally feel it incumbent on me to brush up my qualifications for grumpy-old-personhood – a “conceit” which I like to think of as increasing my entitlement to the rather curmudgeonly view which I have long held about “real”, as against “preserved / heritage”, steam and railways. I incline to the sentiment that any sort of rail operation essentially happening in the interests of pleasing people who like it – and of course taking the money which they pay for the experience; is less valid and less gratifying to me, than genuine not-for-fun 100%-commercial doings, conveying freight or passengers to the needed destination. (Pleasure taken by me in there still being on Earth at the time of writing, a tiny amount of totally-commercial day-in-day-out steam action, now more than fifty years after the end of everyday steam on British Railways; at times in the past few years, it has looked as though this “real deal” would finish before that particular milestone was reached.)

There are in all this, assorted areas of various shades of grey – and I feel no obligation to be consistent as regards what I like more or less, therein. In February 2018, I had the chance of spending a short while on an attractive and interesting narrow-gauge rail scene still in proper commercial use with modern traction, but playing host to several functioning preserved steam locomotives used on tourist and enthusiasts’-special passenger workings – which opportunity I gladly seized on.

This venue was the forestry / timber-hauling line based on Vișeu de Sus, in the far north of Roumania. Until about a generation ago, Roumania boasted – chiefly in its more mountainous parts – a great kilometrage of 760mm gauge railways, in many geographically widely-separated systems, dedicated to the timber industry: hauling the felled product out of the forests and serving the sawmills which processed it, and linking with the standard-gauge state railway system. These forestry lines were throughout their career, overwhelmingly steam-worked – latterly for much the greater part, by a standard modern type of 0-8-0T, 764-*** class. The 21st century above all has seen the demise as regards their primary purpose, of nearly all these railways: with either substitution of road transport, or cessation of timber extraction in the areas concerned. Some short sections have been preserved; but at the time of writing, the country’s last survivor in commercial service for the timber industry is that at Vișeu de Sus. Per my understanding: this one’s still being with us, is due to the factors of its being a large-scale operation covering a wide area; and – thanks to the general geographical layout – remote, and difficult for road access. At all events – logging needs are seen to, via diesel traction: with a tendency toward one return big train daily (empty, up; loaded, down) plus “smaller fry” to be described below. There are also several serviceable 764-*** 0-8-0T, with their necessary facilities. These locos work a regular and well-patronised seasonal tourist train over a “close-ish-to-base” portion of the system; and are available to be chartered ad lib for special workings for railfans.

The visit to this location was a concentrated “much-in-little-time” expedition, set up and run by Bernd Seiler, specialist in maximum-action steam photography tours for very dedicated exponents of same. I, by negotiated agreement, tagged along as an interested but non-photographing participant. A four-day tour, with for the photographers, guaranteed plentiful snow scenes in the mountains – time for accessing and leaving, was over-and-above the four days. Three very full and action-packed days were given to the Vișeu de Sus venue; the final day was on a preserved remnant of a different, once very extensive forestry system some 100km further east.

Ventures run by this organiser are highly specialised for those wishing to carry out artistic photography of steam in action; and are not for the indolent – the maximum “product” is squeezed out of every daylight moment. I, not a photographer, was kindly invited by a friend who is: to accompany him on this tour, plus other doings in eastern / central Europe. A greatly-loved part of the world for me – and Roumania, visited by me once before nearly half a century ago, particularly delights me; plus the interest of a still-working logging railway, in remote and beautiful mountainous country – I accepted with alacrity. Reassured my friend that I’d have no problem in co-existing with the 100%-full-on-photting everyone-else of the company.

Indeed, things were thus. The group, numbering approximately twenty, were an interestingly mixed bag: several Britons, a solitary American, a half-dozen Germans, several Swiss; and a half-dozen Japanese – particularly-dedicated photographers, who on the whole kept to themselves (most of them appeared to have little proficiency with Western tongues) but were polite and cordial in such interaction as there was between them and the rest. (We were joined also for one day by a small party from Hungary, who had that day only available for taking part.) My fellow-participants, while seeming to me -- railway-wise -- tunnel-vision exponents: they were highly eager to artistically photograph working steam, the majority of them with little discernible interest in other railway matters – were, shared languages permitting, on the whole friendly and sociable, and with assorted discoverable non-railway interests. On my only other tour experienced, long ago, with a group with similar objectives; my impression was that my fellows thereon were somewhat dour and uncommunicative, and largely wishful of just existing within their individual mission-focused steam-photography “bubbles”. People are endlessly variable…

“Out on the line”, for most of the time I stayed in the bogie coach marshalled in the chartered steam train, while at the very numerous photo-run-pasts, my fellow-members vacated it to get to their phot-spots – involving feats which often included their scaling impressive heights, with the line’s route essentially climbing gradually up the valley of the Vaser river; I remained in place through the sometimes repeated reversing and run-past-ing – occasionally, I got out: to stay on the lineside, but enjoy the spectacle of the train’s full-blast approach and passing by, with steam-and-smoke-and-audible effects. This was done many times a day, in the course of nearly every run. As put to me rather neatly by a member of the group whose English was non-British: “perhaps you were under the misapprehension that you were going on a train journey?” I’d have liked to riposte with a quote from a novel by Georgette Heyer, involving Regency-trendy-set kindly uncle, and proto-gricer nephew mad about all transport-related new inventions some two centuries before now: “I have the impression that mere travel, is not the object of balloons”. The coach was warm, with its stove diligently stoked by the accompanying staff, who also supplied unlimited coffee; the natural environment outside was delightful; if the ever-repeated back-and-forth-and-back-and-forth movements for photting purposes became tedious, I could always read my book for a spell – pleasant chat with group members “in the intervals between” -- what wasn’t to like? 

The timber line essentially begins at the town of Vișeu de Sus, where connection is made with the standard-gauge state railway system. Timber railway’s main line runs thence essentially eastward, up the Vaser valley, staying close to the river – it terminates approximately 45km up-valley, high in the Carpathian mountains not far from the border of the Ukraine. There were until relatively recently, sundry branches running basically south and east from the main line; which are no longer in use -- to all intents and purposes, the main line’s route is nowadays where timber traffic is still happening.

Our first day at the venue, reached by road coach the previous P.M. from our meeting-point at Cluj-Napoca (accommodation in various “bed / breakfast / dinner” establishments close to the Vișeu “action”) was a Sunday – no timber traffic, no tourist trains at this time of year, line totally free for puffer-nutters to play with their chartered train; which we did. Up before first light – strongly recommended to be at the narrow-gauge centre of operations for 0730: which we were – in the event, our train actually pulled out roughly an hour later. The general purlieus of the narrow-gauge “where it’s at” involve as well as a depot for the working steam locos; an outdoor “quasi-museum” in which are situated an assortment of no-longer-working steam – including one state-railways standard-gauge 2-10-0, figurably originally German World War II type either 50 or 52. My friend sensibly grabbed the chance to photograph to the max, this static exhibit and the narrow-gauge ones: with the very likeable but unstoppably energetic Herr Seiler in charge, you seize your moment, or he’ll speedily drag you away from it…

Subject standard gauge: Roumania’s state railway system seems nowadays, not copiously served: in a total of six days of which at least part were spent in the country (several of same, admittedly, out of the standard-gauge ambit) we saw just one state-railways train in action: a passenger working on the electrified line north from Cluj-Napoca.

On Sunday at Vișeu, our train was hauled by 0-8-0T 764-421 (coal-burning, like all steam locos seen in action on this four-day tour). As mentioned previously: this modern steam design, equipped with spark-arrester chimney, was the greatly-obtaining motive power on Roumania’s forestry railways in their last few decades of meaningful activity. The type was introduced in the 1950s; after a hiatus, there was in the 1980s a burst of new building of these locos at Reghin works – the sense and point of which, was questioned by interested parties. If, late-date, the forestry railways were short of steam locos and needed more: eastern Europe was at that time replete with redundant, not very old, steam locos in good repair, on the basic “two-feet-six-inches” gauge – slight gauge-adjustment if required, would have been the easiest thing in the world – a second-hand trade was crying out to be had; but Mr. Ceaușescu was not about making sense, “so that you’d notice”. Interestingly, Vișeu’s four serviceable 0-8-0Ts had building dates of 1954, 1955 and 1985: in our three days on the system, we had haulage by two “ ‘50s” machines, none by the 1985 one. These “eight-couplers” were from the 1950s on, the predominating motive power not just on forestry lines, but ubiquitously on Roumania’s abundant non-state-railways ancillary 760m gauge. I had made the class’s acquaintance on my previous visit to the country in 1970, travelling behind one on a mixed train on a quasi-industrial line which also catered for general freight and passenger business.

The group’s basic train for the Vișeu three days consisted of (subject to adjustments at times, for photographic or other purposes): locomotive, tender for extra fuel, coach for the participants to travel in, one proper wagon loaded with wood, one four-wheel tank wagon, and ten empty small four-wheel “flats” – primary purpose, carrying timber – with a brakesman (hardy soul) always present at the very end of the train. On the Sunday, this ensemble made its way up the valley, with many, many photo-halts / run-pasts; finishing, with light dwindling, at a point probably a little under 40km up-valley from Vișeu -- thus, most of the way to line’s end. The night’s accommodation – including supper and breakfast – was at this spot, in a lineside-adjoining hostelry with, especially in winter conditions, rather dauntingly sub-basic hygiene-and-sanitary facilities; but for one night, one can endure anything…

On our next two days on this system, we needed to fit our doings in amongst the regular-and-normal commercial ones. This came across as more of an issue on the Tuesday, than on the Monday: things appeared ingeniously worked out so that our sole possession of the line on Sunday, plus the slowness of the logging operations’ getting back into gear on Monday after their day of rest, gave a window of opportunity -- otherwise unachievable -- for our special to run over the large majority of the route. After breakfast at the “primeval inn”, rail movements began to happen a little before 0800 -- 764-421 had been observable sitting in light steam overnight, on a siding adjacent to the accommodation’s building. It was a beautiful, cold but sunny, morning (better weather-wise, than the previous day), with luxuriant reaches of snow – adding up, plus steam, to highly-photogenic.

The first four hours or so of daylight were spent up here in the vicinity of the top end of the line, essentially moving to and fro with our loco (initially on the up-line end of the train, then – having achieved a run-round – on the down-line end) – hauling or propelling, “depending”. Numerous run-pasts took place. A bit of human-interest drama during the morning: one run-past involved a particularly covetable vantage point being attained by precariously crossing an ice-cold stream – the super-enthusiastic Japanese group undertook this manoeuvre, in the course of which one of them missed his footing and fell into said stream. Under the anxious eyes of those who had remained in the train’s coach; he was retrieved and brought speedily into the coach, to shed a layer of clothing and be put in front of the stove. Bearing his ordeal with aplomb – vapour arising from him as he warmed up, he remarked in English – coupling what was happening, with the group’s shared passion – “I am a steamer !” Kudos to someone who, in adversity, can make a pun in a language not his first -- and the incident would seem to confirm the generally-held view of the people of Japan: they’re tough cookies.

Relatively little was seen in our Monday and Tuesday travels, of action involving the outfit’s diesel-hauled timber trains as such: the policy here being, as recounted above, “big trains but few of them”. There was quite copious rail activity to observe, though, in the form of what are locally called “draisines”: smallish motor vehicles on rails, coming in a fair range of different variants – likened by one of the party, to “Ford Transit vans gone wrong” (they are usually six-wheeled); able to carry a few people, and / or a restricted quantity of goods. I asked our American participant whether the transatlantic nickname “Galloping Goose” was an applicable one for these vehicles; but he was adamant that that appellation belonged only to the most famous of that general breed, those which ran on the one-time Rio Grande Southern Railroad (per assorted reading on my part, not all American enthusiasts would agree with him there). It appears that the draisines convey timber- and railway workers and their gear, about their appointed occasions; they are also used by border guards getting to and from their remote locations on the Ukrainian frontier – and if I understood rightly, some private individuals / concerns are permitted to own them and run them on the logging railway’s tracks.

Gradually as Monday morning ran on toward lunchtime, and later, encounters between our train and draisines became more frequent; but it was above all, in our run on the Tuesday (penetration only about halfway up the line, possible that day), that the things seemed to be popping up everywhere – often preceding or following our train by only a few yards, in conditions of what appeared to be rail-traffic anarchy. (On at least one occasion our steam loco was uncoupled from the train to give an ailing draisine in front, a little uphill assistance.) One could only cross one’s fingers re all these events being more under control, than they appeared to the unpractised eye – with the factor also, that the slow speeds of all workings on the line hopefully limit opportunities for mayhem. The general picture got, was that rough-and-ready railroading is what obtains on this system: not a place for zealots about health-and-safety and totally “civilised” procedures. The locos’ frequent watering requirements are met more often than not, through their being equipped – as has often been the case for “outback” lines / conditions, worldwide – with flexible pipes and steam-pressure pumping gear by which water can easily be taken from any convenient natural body thereof (such sources always close to hand in this part of the world).

Monday mid-morning, about two and a half hours after our special had commenced its day’s activities, it was crossed at a passing loop by an apparent passenger working – diesel loco plus two coaches and a goods wagon. This was the weekly workmen’s train, taking the timber workers uphill to the “front line”, where they would live for the week in accommodation of a basic kind while doing their felling stuff, before travelling back to town on their corresponding train, at the week’s end.

After the crossing-of-trains, our special continued its up-and-down-and-being-photographed doings till about midday; after which the essential direction of happenings came to be “downhill and toward civilisation”. At Făina, a prominent intermediate point a little over 30km out of Vișeu, the train’s make-up was altered: behind our coach (now, with swapping-around, directly behind the loco for travelling downhill) there were coupled on, instead of the “empties”, four-wheel timber flats bearing large-ish felled logs, possibly about ten logs in all – this to make a decent-length photographic imitation of a timber train (and presumably, also to convey the logs from forest toward final fate). For some thirty kilometres, we were thus a logging train in more-or-less truth: journey including a number of photo-stops / run-pasts of varying length, for folk to alight and record the timber’s progress behind steam.

All the way down from the top end, the loco ran bunker-first. This surprised me a little, what with photographers’ perceived keen preference for shots involving steam travelling chimney-first; and this tour operator’s eagerness to give the clients what they most want, to the limits of possibility. The explanation in fact turned out to be that at that particular period, there were no facilities – turntable or functional triangle -- anywhere along the line, for turning locomotives. Borrowing words from Lewis Carroll (who one often feels – in the nicest possible way – would have felt very much at home in Roumania): “If it was so, it would be…”

As per standard, I stayed put in the coach, and “valued” the goings-on in general terms. For long spells the line runs cut into a hillside ledge, with the substantial and impressive Vaser river a fair and steep way below on the north side. Associations with things back home: looking back along the train, with the log-flats tacked on behind the passenger accommodation, sinuously following us around the mountain-and-gorge curves – brought up thoughts of (in an Eastern European distorting-mirror way) the “two-foot” gauge in North Wales, read of as it was long ago. A kind of evocation of the pre-World War II Ffestiniog Railway, with its uphill passenger workings hauling behind the coaches, hugely long tails of empty slate wagons (here in Roumania it was downhill, and laden timber vehicles) running along twisting, vertiginous ledges carved from the mountainside; though here, with the proximate river, thoughts were rather more of similarity to Aberglaslyn Pass on the Welsh Highland – where the lengthy tail of freight vehicles was never a factor in any way.

Arrival at Vișeu was a little after 1700, with beginnings of dusk descending. Back for the night, to our Vișeu “digs”, luxurious compared to the previous night’s austerity.

As mentioned, Tuesday’s journey was somewhat restricted -- necessary but constraining fitting-in amongst the commercial movements; plus the requirement to leave the Vișeu area in the P.M., to travel by road the approximate 100 kilometres eastward to the following day’s venue. Our ensemble – essentially the same configuration as on Sunday’s outward journey, only with two coaches instead of one -- set out from “base” at Vișeu a short while after 0800, hauled by a different sexagenarian 0-8-0T, 764-449. Up the line with, as on previous days, much setting-back and running-past; and entertaining box-and-cox interaction between us and numerous draisines. Morning of this day, one of the group – rising early to get some pre-dawn shots at the Vișeu locoshed – witnessed the day’s empty logging train setting off up the line: diesel loco trailing numerous vacant four-wheel flats. Around lunchtime on the Tuesday, at a point a little way short of the limit of our day’s travel, our special crossed with an unexpected lesser, downhill and loaded, timber working: diesel loco plus staff coach and a relatively short train of massive logs; six trunks’ worth, on the little four-wheel flats. It was assumed that this was a small, incidental happening; and that the day’s loaded-logging-train “big show” would take place some hours later.

The end of our special’s travel on the Tuesday, was Paltin: not quite 22km. from Vișeu, and the limit of the line’s regular – mostly summer – steam tourist workings. A group photo including 764-449 was taken, and around 1500 the train set off back “down the hill”, loco of necessity bunker-first: no more run-pasts, the plan being just to get back to Vișeu, onto the road coach and off east to the site of the morrow’s action. A few kilometres onward, some consternation was caused when a bogie of one of the coaches (happily, the “extra” -- not the one in which the group were travelling) suddenly came off the track. Fears were experienced of life becoming difficult, in the event of problems with re-railing; rescuing us with road vehicles was not a viable solution – that would require a road: not to be had, the greater part of twenty kilometres up the Vaser valley. In the event, anxiety proved groundless. The crew of several staff – who as a varying cast, travelled with all of our specials – and their accompanying equipment, proved more than equal to the situation: it would seem evident that minor derailments are far from rare on this line. They set calmly to work; an hour’s labour with crowbars and an ingenious Y-shaped device with flanges to fit 760mm gauge wheels, had the bogie back on the rails – and us once more mobile, with some caution; we got back to Vișeu not problematically late, with no further drama. An admirable Carpathian equivalent of “off again, on again, gone again, Finnegan”…

And so, off in the road coach as per plan, eastward to the Moldovița area: a night’s accommodation in a quite plush hotel with a gourmet-ish restaurant, full advantage of which was taken. On Wednesday morning – as ever, up for breakfast extremely early, and onto the coach to the nearby gricing venue. I confess to some apathy concerning this day’s doings – I’m hard to please in general concerning “things preservation / heritage”; plus, Bernd Seiler’s tours tend to be gruelling – this elderly and not very fit, even if mostly passive, participant, was getting inklings of “battle fatigue”. The venue was Moldovița town’s state railways standard-gauge terminus, and starting-point of what was once an elaborate 760mm gauge forestry / timber railways system of some scores of kilometres, quartering the forests northwards way up toward the Ukrainian border. Thriving thirty years ago, a shadow of its previous self twenty years ago, now all gone except for some 10km running north from Moldovița, worked for passengers / tour groups only, as a preservation / heritage operation. Not my personal “scene”, with my tendency to feel that dead-and-gone is often best left dead-and-gone -- 

“But you can’t refuse when you get the card, / And it’s Bernd who gives the party.”

This line’s operational steam fleet proved to be 0-8-0Ts 764-404 (R), 764-423, and 764-431. Our special train’s loco for the morning was 764-404(R) – the (R) betokening its having been built in the 1980s at Reghin works, rather than, like its shed-mates, in the 1950s at Roumania’s then all-purpose loco-building works at Resița – our only experience on the tour, of haulage by the “younger generation”. The action commenced about 0800. Our special was made up of loco; some ten empty small logging flats as at Vișeu – not carrying logs, but trying to make the ensemble look at least a little more authentic for the photters; and two bogie coaches, one to carry the participants and the other “just because”. Unlike at the other venue, the coaches brought up the rear of the train, after the “flats”. The preserved 10km-odd runs roadside-tramway-fashion throughout, closely alongside a poorly-metalled road through some mild semi-urban sprawl from the town of Moldovița, punctuated by more rural scenes – and fine hilly / snowy / woodland scenery in the background. (As previously noted: the Vișeu line, once a little way out of town, sets out into the deep forests and has no further truck with roads.) The same routine was followed on this day, as on the Vișeu line: numerous halts-to-disembark / settings-back / photographic run-pasts. The train ran about two-thirds of the way up the preserved line; loco then ran round, and return was made to the locoshed / preservation centre; where the preservationists kindly provided us with a tasty lunch.

Sometimes life in “Seiler World” is a little like the army is reputed to be: it’s not found necessary always to meticulously keep the punters informed as to what is going on – on occasion, they are just pointed in a particular direction, and told to get on with it. Lunch lasted till about 1400, after which I had been envisaging our boarding our road coach for the as-crow-flies, bit-under-200km journey (longer on the ground through the mountains, ubiquitous in these parts), to Cluj-Napoca: last overnighting-place of the tour, before folks’ dispersing on the morrow. Not so: there came about a sudden quite hasty scramble to board our special once again; which set off up the line with different motive power – 1950s-built 764-423. Much further run-past-ing, with the “heroes of photographic labour” grabbing with both hands, the chance for their last bout of the tour. To be honest, I’d had enough: disliking the envisaged prospect of this stuff for the remainder of the short winter daylight, up the line and then wearily back again to Moldovița base; followed by hours in the dark in the coach, to Cluj-Napoca at some grim hour of the clock – I sat and tried to mentally “zone out”. Nothing less than delight ensued for me when after a couple of hours, the decided-on limit of progress was reached, and our road coach was there to meet us: no rail return to the preserved line’s base, after all. I felt inclined to light a candle to whatever Eastern Orthodox saint looks after eccentric travellers who undertake crazy journeys… About an hour’s road travel before full nightfall, with chance of sight of interesting scenes traversed; and subsequently a not-hideously-late arrival at our Cluj-Napoca hotel for dinner and bed.

A fascinating few days (the final one, I could to some extent have taken or left)… not solely for their railway content. The chance of a glimpse of a marvellously wild and remote corner of Europe: by general acclaim, a wildlife paradise – though close proximity to noisy steam trains, in the depths of winter, are not circumstances tending to afford much revelling in wildlife joys. Many of us took pleasure in observing the use by numerous local inhabitants of our venues, for their daily transport needs, of horsedrawn four-wheeled carts – a rarity in 2018 Europe.

Roumania’s narrow-gauge forestry railways were – for better or worse – one of Europe’s very last big genuine steam scenes. Thirty years back there were half-dozens of such systems, in sundry parts of the country: very extensive, busily in action and virtually all steam-worked – mostly by the modern 764-*** type, but plus some oddities – older narrow-gauge types, and interesting attendant standard-gauge machines. Roumania under the regime of “Nick the Insane” – particularly in the later decades thereof -- was in many ways not a pleasant place, unappealing to visitors from abroad. Those circumstances made railwaying in general there and then, more difficult than it might otherwise have been – but not to the point of rendering it impossible; a number of enthusiasts visited Roumania’s n/g forestry lines in that era, and found them wonderful. I having self-confessedly no conscience as regards propping-up of hideous regimes by visiting: if other circumstances had allowed, I’d have gone there for that purpose. Only ten years after the fall of this particular crazy edifice of despotism, most of the forestry-rail scene was gone -- now, it’s almost all so: the (commercial) way of the (standard) world, as one accepts. I’m glad to have witnessed briefly the IMO very last knockings of the genuine kind, of this particular milieu – with a pleasing dressing of active steam.

Rob Dickinson