The International Steam Pages
The Railways of Volos
James Waite writes:
Volos is the principal port of Thessaly, a region which was ceded to Greece at the Conference of Berlin in 1878 after many hundreds of years of occupation by the Ottoman Empire. The Greek state moved quickly to encourage railway construction and granted a concession in 1881 for the construction of the Σιδηρόδρομοι Θεσσαλιας, (Thessaly Railways), a network of metre gauge lines based at Volos, the region’s principal port. The first to be built, the 61km stretch between Volos and Larissa, the regional capital, opened in 1884. Another line between Velestino, near Volos, to Kalambaka, 142km away to the west, opened in 1886. It would be another eighteen years before the standard gauge line northwards from Athens arrived in the region.
Attention next focussed on extending railway communication eastwards from Volos into the difficult country around Mount Pelion. The Thessaly company adopted the
600mm gauge for this stretch which started by running through the main streets of Volos and continued along the twisting coastline, still in or alongside the road, as far as Agria before veering inland. After Ano Lechonia the line follows a tortuous course as it climbs into the mountains to the terminus at
Milies, 28km from Volos. The railway opened in stages between 1892 and 1903.
This wasn’t quite the end for the metre gauge system as a museum operation was set up at Velestino. Its star exhibit is a 1937-built Linke-Hofmann dmu, a metre gauge version of the railcars being built for inter-city services being set up by the Nazi authorities in Germany at the time. It operates on occasional open days along the scenic stretch between Velestino and Aerino.
Back on the 600mm gauge fortunately the line had never been dismantled after the 1971 closure. In 1988 a short stretch through the streets of Volos reopened as a tourist attraction but earned the disapproval of the Volos municipal authorities who succeeded in having it closed down in 1994. In 1996 the 16km through the mountains between Ano Lechonia and Milies reopened and has run ever since. Much work was done, largely with EU funding, to reinstate the track and to rebuild the stations.
Until the end of the 1999 season it was exclusively steam-worked and must have been one of Europe’s premier narrow gauge operations. The OSE succeeded in acquiring two steam-outline B-B dm locos, reputedly at the expense of the EU in 1999 as part of a scheme to reopen the rest of the line. Trains actually did operate along a short part of the coastal route for a couple of years but their main sphere of operation has always been on the mountain stretch where they now operate all scheduled services. Trains now run at weekends from the beginning of April until the autumn with daily trains at the height of the holiday season. OSE continues to be solely responsible for its operation and in this respect it’s a bit like the Vale of Rheidol was during its BR days.
In recent years only one steam loco, “Milies”, has been in working order and it has operated only on very infrequent special occasions. I’ve been wanting to see it in action for several years but it’s always been hard finding out when it will run. Margaret, Thomas Kautzor and I were invited to take part in a trip organised on fairly short notice by the SFS, the Greek enthusiasts club, on 6th March 2010 – very kind of them, this, as the trip was quite heavily oversubscribed.
Woke up next morning to find that the nation's public transport employees had gone on a 24-hour strike to protest against the government's latest emergency economic measures. Not good news, this, as we were planning a trip to the Athens railway museum. It’s run by the OSE and so seemed likely to be closed. First, though, we called at the old Attica Railway station at Markopoulo which is home to a ΣΠAΠ (Peloponnese Railway) Δι class 2-8-2 built by Breda in Milan in 1953 and a short train of freight vans. The loco looks to me as though it's a close copy of the Indian/Burmese YD class. Sadly most of the train is covered with graffiti like much of the country’s rolling stock, both operating and preserved.
The road on the way into Athens was gridlocked. Got there eventually and happily the museum was open after all. The gentleman manning it was expecting us and was very helpful as he showed us round. We then headed off north to Volos, arriving around 3.00pm.
A large proportion of the Thessaly Railways’ steam locos have survived. We started off visiting the ten metre gauge locos now at Volos station and works. Five are kept close to the buffers and easily visited - they were built by Krupp in the 1930's and more, a modernised version, by Jung in 1951. The other five are older. They include two obtained second hand from the Brunig line in Switzerland in 1947 to help make up for machines which had been lost during WW2. One of them was rack-fitted until its arrival at Volos. They’re kept in the works yard at the north end of the site and apparently can't be visited easily without a permit. However there’s an excellent view of them to be had from a public footbridge which crosses the line alongside them. The whole site was like a ghost town, no doubt because of the strike. The main gate was open but no-one around at all so we had the run of the place. A surprise close to the first group of locos was a shed containing two old coaches. By the look of them I think they must be old royal coaches or something similar. I couldn't get close enough to check out the gauge.
Next up were the 600mm gauge locos and stock stored at the old loco shed and works to the east of the main complex. The star attraction here has to be WD no. 973 Baldwin 4-6-0T – an ex-British Army WW1 machine which was sent to the Salonica front during the war and never left Greece. It ended up at Volos for use on the Pelion railway but never actually ran on the line. It now in a small open-sided shed behind the station. It lacks its chimney and some of its motion but otherwise seems to be more or less complete. Next to it are the frames and tanks of no. 102 “Pelion”, one of the three 2-6-0T’s which operated the Pelion line for many years up to the 1971 closure. There are other sheds containing no. 103 “Jason” (of Argonauts fame - they lived on Mount Pelion) and some vintage open-air rolling stock. I failed to find “Jason” though Thomas Kautzor tracked it down a couple of days later.
We were advised to show up early the following morning to make sure of a good seat on the train and were at the station by 9.00am. We'd wondered whether the train would run at all in view of the previous day's strike but happily there the old loco was, brewing up outside its shed, very dirty and unkempt and with steam oozing from various unexpected places but still looking good. Over the next hour or so passengers gradually arrived. The train set off at 11.00 by which time its three carriages were very comfortably full. Most of our fellow passengers were Greek people, mainly members of the Athens enthusiast club and their families. The only foreigners were a German lad studying at Athens University, Thomas, Margaret and me. We were treated very much as honoured guests – clearly this was going to be a special day.
We were told that there wouldn't be as many photo stops as originally planned as the loco was not in good shape and would only be able to restart the train on track that was more or less level – and there weren’t many of these as the line is steeply graded for most of the way. There's one intermediate station at Ano Gatzea where we stopped for the best part of an hour for drinks etc. at the station ouzeri (bar).
Notwithstanding the loco's wheezy state the train seemed to go increasingly fast as the journey progressed. It's a highly scenic route, increasingly so as it climbs further into the mountains, all curves, often through olive groves and past the backs of the houses in the old villages on the hillside, all with excellent views over Volos bay for most of the way.
We reached Milies, the mountain terminus, around 1.30pm. The loco was immediately detached, turned on the small turntable (actually it was enlarged a little ten years ago to accommodate the diesels) and left outside the loco shed as the crew set off for their lunch. There's a small taverna on the hill above the station. We set off there for lunch as well and took one of the 3 outside tables on a terrace - there wasn't much competition for these as the locals pronounced it to be too cold for outdoor eating. By UK standards it was positively balmy! The lunch break was scheduled to take 3 hours or so and there was plenty of time for lots of exciting local food accompanied by more of the local wine - maybe rather more than was good for us! We had a great view over the station from our table - a narrow gauge enthusiast's paradise!
Back at the station the loco came back to life round about 4.00 but the effort of attaching itself to its train was clearly the last straw for the poor old thing as clouds of steam and hot water started to emerge from the smokebox door. The cause was a burst tube so the crew hastily dropped the fire and the loco's condition was pronounced to be terminal. Eventually we were told that a diesel would appear to take the train back but there would be a delay of around 2 hours. One of the families in our coach organised a taxi for us which was really kind and we were back on our balcony in time for a little more vino and another spectacular sunset over the bay - a really superb view.
Sunday dawned wet and windy. Called at an old brickworks in Volos which has now been turned into a museum funded by a bank in Piraeus – an impressive no-expenses-spared place. They have the old brickworks Decauville on show in what must have been the old yard along with numerous skip wagons, a sort of homogenised recreation of how the place must have looked in its prime. The museum is huge and includes a concert hall and restaurants in addition to displays about the manufacture of bricks and roofing tiles.
We also visited a circular 600mm gauge track around a park built around 30 years ago with some quite extensive engineering works but now all abandoned along with a OK loco which had been obtained from the brickworks. It was supposed to have been restored a few years ago thanks to funds advanced through the Fedecrail organisation but the work has clearly not been carried out. The museum line at Velestino was offering a trip in their vintage railcar later in the day but by then the rain had become torrential and we decided to head back south. This turned out to be a wise move as the storm turned into a blizzard in the mountains – very slow going. We headed for Delphi but by the time we'd got there the oracle had shut up shop for the day and gone home! Even her museum had closed.
Stayed at Markopoulo again and did some sightseeing around the coast on Monday - still very cold and windy but the rain had eased off a bit. We enjoyed an excellent lunch at a small backstreet ouzeri in the town, bought a pack of fat Greek olives and some of their delicious honey at a grocery store opposite and set off to the airport and home.
The general view on the train, even before the tube burst, was that this could well be the loco's last run before overhaul and that that might be some years away given the country's financial woes. Still, you never know. It's a beautiful line - definitely recommended. I'm really glad we made the trip. Special thanks go to the SFS who made the trip possible for us and to many of their members as individuals for many acts of kindness which helped to make the occasion so memorable. A brilliant weekend!
Steam survivors from the Volos district
600mm industrial locos
Two views of Di class 2-8-2 no. 7113 (Breda 2594/1951) at Markopoulo station.
The five locomotives in store in the yard at Volos.
2-6-2T no. 41
2-6-2T no’s. 30 and 34 (Krupp 1497 and 1506/1935).
616. Two old coaches, possibly ex-royal coaches, at Volos. At least one of them is metre gauge.
Ex-WD 4-6-0T no. 973 at Volos. It last worked at the Oropis lignite mine before arriving at Volos with a view to its use on the Pelion line though it never ran there.
Two open coaches for the Pelion railway in store at Volos works.
The three farthest locos are 2-6-0T’s no’s 20-21 (Tubize 1563-4/1908) and 27 (Maffei 3336/1912). Next to them is ex-Brunig 2-6-0T no. 203 (SLM 2222/1912) and nearest the camera is ex-Brunig 0-6-0T no. 1058 (SLM 1912/1908), the former rack loco whose rack apparatus was removed on its arrival at Volos. The two Swiss locos ran on the Thessaly Railway under their old Swiss numbers.
The works plate of Pilion Railway 2-6-0T no. 101 “Milies”. It’s not at all clear to what extent this is the original loco and it may well carry parts from some of the railway’s other locos.
“Milies” on the turning triangle at Ano Lechonia.
Two views on the line between Ano Lechonia and Ano Gatzea.
The stop at Ano Gatzea and a tunnel a short distance out from there:
Two views of the train on the unusual steel girder bridge near Milies. The design originates from the need to avoid the use of piers in the deep ravine which the bridge crosses.
The loco laying over outside Milies loco shed and the view from the terrace of the Old Station Taverna.
The loco attached to its train in readiness for the return run – sadly after the burst tube incident.
The brickworks museum Decauville: