The International Steam Pages

Gricing with the professor - Roumania 1970

Robert Hall continues his reminiscences with tales from a very different Ro(u)mania from today's rapidly modernising country. 

Other parts of the holiday are covered elsewhere on this site:

Going east of what was called the "Iron Curtain" to pursue railway enthusiasm, was never altogether easy; but was found more, and less, troublous varying between one country in those parts, and another. Oddly enough, there was no obvious correlation between how relatively liberal or otherwise the country was in political terms, and how high a level of spy-mania prevailed, over foreigners taking an interest in railway subjects -- and particularly, seeking to photograph them. Jugoslavia - not even part of the Soviet bloc, and enlightened in some ways (not all!) was more or less always found, from a railfan perspective, "the seventh circle under the Pit". Poland - the USSR's most troublesome satellite, always striving for greater freedom - was nonetheless very difficult for photographers. The few enthusiasts who ventured to the Soviet Union itself, seem to have experienced a surprising amount of tolerance, or at least disinterest, from railway staff and police there - it was just that when you came unstuck in the USSR, usually you did so very badly. In most ways, Roumania ( I know "Romania" is the favoured spelling nowadays; but am used to the "roo" pronunciation of the first syllable, so will spell it "as above") was one of the nastier huts to inhabit, in the Soviet concentration camp - but gricers who went there, tended to get a fairly easy ride. Overall "feel" was that Roumanians, left to themselves, were too good-natured, and too averse to making life more toilsome than necessary, to put great effort into making things miserable for others - so frequently (by no means always) the gricer was just allowed to get on with it - whether photting, or just absorbing the scene and recording it in writing.

My only visit to Roumania, in summer 1970, was certainly one of my less-stressful experiences of "gricing beyond the Curtain". Some ten days were spent in the country by self and companion. The majority of our railway-focused doings were in the furthest-west part of Roumania. As so often in my life (and many other railway enthusiasts of my acquaintance have made similar observations concerning their own experience), chosen goal was reached, later than would have been ideal. By 1970, steam on the Roumanian State Railways (CFR) - though still very greatly in evidence - was in retreat. The large majority of long-distance trains, both passenger and freight, were diesel-hauled, where the main lines weren't electrified. Steam functioned mostly on local workings - passenger and freight, main-line and branch-line - and on shunting. This was a less good steam situation than obtained at that time, in some other countries of Eastern Europe; but it was nonetheless, far from being a bad one - for the pair of us, with British Railways having eliminated that form of traction two years previously, it compared to having died and gone to steam heaven.

The majority of our time in Roumania was spent in and around the - then anyway (one gathers that the country spent the 1970s and 80s being rather comprehensively and hideously "uglified") pleasant city of Timişoara, close to the Jugoslav and Hungarian borders. This circumstance was linked with my having had, for the previous couple of years, a pen-friend in that city. The "bash" was combined with visiting my pen-friend - whom I will call here, "Kati" - not her true name. She and her parents very kindly put up, for most of a week, me and my companion. After many years, a debt of gratitude is owed to Kati (touch lost long since) and her "folks" for their hospitality - and to her, for her kindness and forbearance towards one who on meeting in the flesh, turned out, for sure, to be no kind of Prince Charming. Citizens of Eastern European countries would have been other-than-human, if many of them had not entertained some hope of getting out of their not very happy situation, and going to live in a part of the world where people were materially better-off, and enjoyed more in the way of freedom of speech, opinion, and action. An excellent way of accomplishing this could be, to marry a Westerner - not least, because it left you able legitimately to come back on holiday, to visit your near and dear ones left behind in the old country. Kati had initially - in the interests of improving her English -- sought a pen-friend (gender not specified), and I, interested in her country -- not solely because of its steam content -- had responded. It's pure speculation, that she ever thought of me as a possible marital "get out of jail" card; but she was a spirited lass, who I suspect could not but, at times, have dreamed of escaping the constraints of life in the Soviet bloc. It must have emerged during our correspondence, that I did not look like a very good prospect as a potentially affluent provider - but maybe the possibility was still entertained, until we actually met. Finding, though, that I was in most respects "twenty-two going on fifteen", and an obsessed "train-spotter" - if the idea had ever been there in the first place, this would have caused her to think, for sure, "scratch this one".

The thing wouldn't have had a prayer of happening, anyway. Kati - though intelligent, vivacious, and excellent company - was totally "not my type" physically; and being in a place with genuine commercial steam action, usually renders me pretty well oblivious to all other considerations. My companion managed to fall in love with a friend of Kati's - wildly but briefly, i.e. pretty much for the duration of our week in Timişoara -- but that's another story.

Kati - having discovered the nature of my terminal lunacy - very kindly introduced us to a fellow-Timişoaran who had been one of her teachers at school, for whom she retained a great affection, and who was afflicted with the railway bug. I shall henceforth call this - delightful -- gentleman, "the Professor". Like her, he was ethnically German. The far west of Roumania seemed an amazing mish-mash of different "tribes", all Roumanian citizens. Marvellously, the local newspaper purveyed its party-line - stuff - in four different languages in each issue: Roumanian, Hungarian, German, and Serbo-Croat. The different "ethnicities" seemed to get along with each other in fair harmony, and were all, on the whole, friendly and cordial to foreign visitors. No doubt "all was not well" - but Roumania, unlike its neighbour to the west, has stopped short of the different communities committing mutual mass-butchery on each other. The Professor was plainly of a liberal and dissident persuasion - presumably he conformed outwardly to what was required, in order to have and keep his job, but privately kept his own counsel. In view of the gruesome things which went on in Roumania over the next couple of decades (in 1970, Mr. Ceauşescu was barely beginning to get into his stride), I was greatly pleased to see a mention in a news item end 1989 / beginning 1990, of our Professor friend (identified by name) as a leader in the Roumanian-German community in his area - still alive and well, after liberation. Kati struck me as a great survivor - I never felt much fear for her (likeliest, she found a Westerner - better prospect than me -- as husband and exit-ticket).

The Professor very kindly took us under his wing while we were in his town, (his command of English was about the same as mine of German - i.e. fairish - so communication was "no biggie") - and introduced us to railway attractions in his corner of the country. We were ignorant of any details of same (most data in this article re classes, was obtained as we went along, or "after the fact") - not that such information was unavailable in Britain by 1970, rather that we hadn't known where to find it: all that we'd known was that, basically, Roumania still had plenty of steam. Which indeed it did - one had to adjust to most long-distance action of any kind, being diesel (chiefly, standard home-built Co-Co, class 060DA); otherwise, if not paradise, it was a pretty good substitute. So we had found, on our first entering the country at Jimbolia on the Jugoslav border, 40 km west of Timişoara. The long-distance train on which we were travelling, crossed the border behind a J class 17 ex-Hungarian 2-6-2T, and was taken over by a Roumanian 4-6-0 of class 230 - "Prussian P8" type. This was to Timişoara only - a diesel came on there, to take the train eastwards toward the capital.

Roumanian steam loco classification seemed wonderfully straightforward - basically, it just followed the wheel arrangement (counting axles, not wheels) - so a 4-6-0 was "230": differences of design and origin, were taken care of by the number series for individual locos. A change from certain other Eastern European countries, where the steam classification system appeared designed to do the thing of - to quote the schoolkid's "book review" assignment - "this book told me more about penguins than I really wanted to know". (Poland reigned supreme in this "too much information" league.)

CFR's classification system did have some anomalies: for instance, a legacy of the long-standing, mostly unloving relationship between Roumania and Hungary - including involvement in two global conflicts - was, numerous examples of the Hungarian class 324 2-6-2 tender loco, and class 375 2-6-2T (both also plentiful in Jugoslavia, under J designations), in the CFR loco fleet. CFR chose to class these locos as - 324 and 375. As to why - ask the State Railways' logicians.

At all events, on "morning of entry" our 230 took us sedately to Timişoara, which was found positively heaving with steam locomotives of various types - 230, 324, 375, 150 ( German-built 2-10-0s of "variously" 1940s vintage)), 50 (Prussian "G10" 0-10-0s), 142 (Roumanian-built 2-8-4 express locos, now relegated to local passenger trains); and 131 - pleasing to me, post-WWII Roumanian-built 2-6-2Ts. The same basic situation - with local variations in the steam classes -- obtained in virtually all places in Roumania: long-distance stuff largely diesel - otherwise, steam mostly ruled.

The first trip on which the Prof. kindly took us, was to a line totally unknown to us - but which later achieved some renown among Western enthusiasts, and which turned out to be one of CFR's very last regular steam line-working locations: dieselised in 1980, but still a venue for steam specials long after. This was the Oraviţa to Anina branch, in the hill country south-east of Timişoara. In a way, Roumania's "Ffestiniog Railway", though standard-gauge - opened in the mid-19th-century by Austria-Hungary (which empire this area belonged to until 1918) as part of a route between the coal mines up in the hills at Anina, and the River Danube. Rail connection with the rest of the system -- to the north -- followed a while later. The learned journals tell us that Oraviţa - Anina is 33 km by rail; the atlas would indicate that it's some 18 km as the crow flies. Maybe Roumanian crows differ from their counterparts elsewhere, maybe the line's very numerous twists and turns add a lot of distance to the journey. In the course of travel with him, the Prof. wisely counselled us as to when photography would be no problem, and when it would be prudent to keep cameras hidden. If I still had the results of when "photting" could be dared, they would accompany this piece - but life often fails to oblige. In my opinion, little loss to anyone, in any case - have never considered self an Eric Treacy or Colin Gifford, or that American chap who, some think weirdly, took his pictures at night.

We embarked, early-morning, on a semi-fast from Timişoara to Reşiţa - 70 km south-east, site of CFR's chief steam loco building works. Train was diesel-hauled - travelled thus, until disembarking a little way before Reşiţa, at the junction of Berzovia. Branch train here, heading south to Oraviţa (junction for Anina) and beyond, was headed by a German 2-10-0. Memory seems to supply, that loco was German class 50 (CFR's 150.00 series), rather than class 52 (150.10) - but after thirty-eight years, wouldn't swear to it. Agreeable branch-line run behind the "decapod", to Oraviţa; change there, for the truly-exciting part of the day's itinerary.

The exacting Anina branch, sharply curved and steeply graded, has been worked during its life-span, by a fair number of different locomotive types. Early on in the line's life, Engerth semi-articulated locos were tried - part of the "permutations and combinations" played on same, involved basic 0-6-4 wheel arrangement, and I recall seeing seemingly dumped at Oraviţa, something that looked like an ancient 0-6-4: but combined ignorance at the time, and fading memory since, appear likely to consign this one to the "mystery" department. At that time, the Anina branch had three mixed trains each way per day - we duly joined the mid-morning one. I learn that from 1956 until dieselisation, the Anina line's motive power was ex-Austrian 0-10-0s of class (guess what) 50.00. Somewhat elderly locos - well suited, as few classes were, to the line's sharp curves. So far as I know, by 1970 the Anina branch was the last location on CFR where this class was active. One of them headed our train (two or three coaches, plus a "tail" of coal empties), and duly took us the 340-odd metres in height, and however many kilometres in length, from Oraviţa to Anina. Wonderfully sinuous-and-tortuous run up into the hills, including an intermediate station which - like Killarney in Ireland - was located on a spur off the "main", and had to be reversed into and out of. Final arrival at Anina, and time for a celebratory beer, alongside happy and thirsty coal-miners coming off shift.

As our acquaintance with the Prof. deepened, it became increasingly clear that he was what the song from "South Pacific" calls a "cockeyed optimist" - probably what a liberal democrat in Ceauşescu's Roumania, had to be. He had plans for our day's grice, more ambitious than boringly going up to Anina and back home again the same way. There was to the north-east of where we'd got to, a line (standard gauge) running between Caransebeş and Subcetate -- whose more-easterly stretch, beyond Bouţari, climbed such severe gradients as to necessitate rack sections, worked by rack-and-adhesion 2-8-2Ts, class 40.00 (for this designation, "go figure", as they say). That was on his agenda for the day - he had boundless confidence that we could hitch-hike from Anina to Caransebeş, and so "on to the rack-and-pinion". The Prof.'s local knowledge involved venues which later became well-known-and-beloved on Britain's continental-gricing scene - Anina, and the section where the 40.00 class performed. It seems that where steam line working was concerned in Roumania, as time went on it was the odd, non-standard stuff which outlasted the "everyday" - the Subcetate rack line endured, with its 2-8-2Ts, to the late 1970s, when it was abandoned.

Optimism is fine, but sometimes life gives it the thumbs-down. Hitching - even with the Prof.'s effervescent personality - didn't deliver the hoped-for results, and we ended up, many hours later, cold and unhappy and no further east than on the main line back to Timişoara, but too late for anything other than - tails between legs - getting on a diesel-hauled train back to starting-point.

"If at first you don't succeed" - the cynical reply "give up", makes more sense than one wishes it would. The Prof. had another grand idea for a bash, on another day - involving the narrow-gauge line nearest to Timişoara, with a public service. This was not one of CFR's then-numerous 760mm gauge sections, but a basically-industrial line of the same gauge. Ran from Găvojdia, 70 km-odd from Timişoara on the main line eastwards towards Bucharest, some 15 km to the ironworks at Nadrag.

Off we went on the day, departure bright and early from Timişoara on an eastbound local which would call at Găvojdia - motive power one of the 230 class, which had a high profile on stopping trains in the area. As quite often happened, and happens, in the Communist world, there was no uncrossable line drawn between "industrial" and "common-carrier". In addition to its primary purpose, the Nadrag narrow-gauge line carried general freight, and had a publicly-advertised passenger service: a matter of mixed trains -- on our ride on the line, involving one bogie coach together with the wagons; motive power a chunky-looking, basically modern-design 0-8-0T, with spark-arrester chimney. The journey headed into the hills, up the beautiful valley of a river (according to the Prof., badly polluted by industrial waste), to "iron-city Nadrag". Some of the freight being carried on our train, was tarmac and other materials for improvement of the parallel road - which did not look good for the narrow-gauge line's future. However, reading of the journals informed me that the line was still running nearly ten years after our visit; and I don't recollect hearing of its having been abandoned between then and now - who knows?

Roumanians - whatever their ethnicity - seem to be by temperament, laid-back characters; plus, our dear Professor was amply supplied with the "absent-minded" trait attributed to his kind. After arriving at Nadrag, we adjourned to a tavern, and had a beer or two, and conversation over same. Departure-time of the train back down the valley, came and went. "No worries," said the Professor, "we'll get a lift". Hitch-hiking, in my experience, is seldom very easy, no matter where you're doing it. That applied, in this case; we finally got, rather late at night, to Lugoj, from which it was a diesel long-distance train back to base in Timişoara.

Self and companion had rather different "takes" on the Prof.'s way of doing things. I thought it marvellously dotty (and appropriate for the Balkans); he thought it borderline-insane, and irritating. At all events, it gave good conversation-fodder in years to come. Each to their own - anyway, due homage to the Roumanian gentleman (in extreme old age, if he's still alive) whose idea of a good day's gricing, was missing the return train and having to hitch-hike, consequence usually misery.

After our Timişoara sojourn, a "quick flip" was taken round some of the rest of the country, before it was necessary to head for home. As mentioned - where "the railway fancy" is concerned, most of our Roumanian doings which merit chronicling, took place during our week in the far west. My companion on this trip was a pleasant enough fellow, but a rather lukewarm railway enthusiast (or -- seeing the thing through most people's eyes - just a little strange, as opposed to barking mad). His appetite for lengthy journeys on snail-paced local trains, even if steam-hauled, was small-to-non-existent: so in deference to his wishes, our lightning tour of the rest of Roumania was done by rail, but on diesel- and electric-hauled expresses. I much regretted, and regret, not getting a ride behind one of the magnificent 2-8-4s (my only first-hand experience ever, of this wheel arrangement) - at that time, "bumped" off - mostly, anyhow -- express haulage, but still in charge of locals on the Timişoara - Arad - Oradea route: admired, but not travelled behind. However, what's done is done. Given the opportunity for a return by time-machine, to "back then", I'd do the thing differently; but this is a thing for which everyone wishes, for a wide assortment of reasons.

Our "circuit" comprised Timişoara - Arad - Oradea - Cluj - Braşov - Bucharest; a day trip to the Black Sea at Constanţa and Eforie; and then "full circle", Bucharest - Craiova - Timişoara, and thence into Jugoslavia and homewards. New steam classes observed on lesser duties as we travelled, were 2-8-0s of Austrian-type class 140.2, and - seen just a couple of times - class 140.1 American WWI-vintage "Pershings"; Prussian "G8" 0-8-0s (class 40); and, around Bucharest, the graceful Maffei-built class 231 Pacifics, then active on local passenger, but on the wane - though they lingered on in some places in the east of the country for another two or three years. Also seen in plenty -- as further west - were "Kriegslok"-era German 2-10-0s.

Our last journey in Roumania was on a marvellous train called the "Bucureşti Express", plying between Bucharest; and Zagreb, Ljublana, and ultimately Rijeka - steam-hauled in Roumania and Jugoslavia for the middle three-hundred-odd kilometres of its journey. We had entered Roumania on this train, but our journey on it then was brief - had travelled north from Belgrade by railcar, to junction with the Express's route, a little way west of the border. The "Bucureşti" was diesel-hauled between Bucharest and Timişoara, where a 230 took over as far as the border at Jimbolia. Final memory of Roumania of border doings of our fellow-passengers. At exit now, as at entrance ten days previously, many of them were happily, and not very subtly, smuggling all manner of things between the two countries - and seemingly, getting away with it problem-free. When the lengthy and tedious customs-and-security formalities at Jimbolia were at last completed, and the J class 17 Prairie tank which had relieved the 230, was getting the train under way, a ceremony took place in which the passengers took the many empty beer bottles accumulated from the restaurant car during the journey, and threw them out of the open window - object of the game being to smash as many as possible, against the rails of the adjoining track. Bad marks for civic virtue; but it was pleasant to see the repressed citizenry of the countries concerned, enjoying a kicking-up-of-heels moment.

West of the border, the "Bucureşti" spent many leisurely hours wandering steam-hauled across the plains of the far north of Jugoslavia, via Subotica, Sombor, and Osijek, finally handing over to electric traction at Vinkovci on the Belgrade - Zagreb main line. At some point, motive power changed from class 17 2-6-2T, to class 01 2-6-2 tender loco. My experience of this in full, regrettably happened overnight, at the end of an exhausting several weeks' bashing (covering other countries before Roumania) - come nightfall shortly past the border, I basically "zonked out", and was oblivious to the wondrous J steam experience. Another thing that I'd change, given time-machine-access - where that is concerned, though, it's "take your place in the queue".

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Rob Dickinson