The International Steam Pages
Slovenian Rail Adventure, 2007
Photos and text by Andrew Robinson - this originally appeared in the Ocean
Beach Railway, Dunedin, New Zealand newsletter and is reproduced by their kind
permission. For more information on this preserved railway please see http://www.obr.org.nz.
I left the train at Jesenice, the first station beyond the Karavanke tunnel. I had been traveling on Croatian carriages that were luxurious even by European standards. I suspect that they were former first class OBB stock that had been remanufactured by the Croatians, and despite the new furnishings, were designated second class. Their only oversight was the lack of a door on the smoking compartment. Actually 2 sealed doors and a turbo powered extraction system would have been a sound investment. The train had been hauled by a Slovenian owned Adtranz electric locomotive, similar to the Austrian one that our train had recently parted from. (European trains often gain or lose carriages en route, this train originated in Munich and traveled via Salzburg as OEC 113 and the majority of it was now heading for Graz.
As my eyes became accustomed to the bright sunlight at Jesenice station, a puzzled railway official came over to find out what I was up to, as tourists normally continue south to Ljubljana on the express. Once satisfied that I was not meant to be on the train and the wheel tappers had finished their important work, he waved the train away, the locomotive having no difficulty whisking the 3 carriages off on their journey south. Jesenice station had an air of faded importance about it. It had several long platforms and a large building offering a full range of amenities, although it felt as though the only investment in recent years was the large blue signs that showed Slovenia was a European Union country.
The next thing to be dealt with was finding the train for my onward journey to Bolonjska Bistrica. There were 4 different trains at the station, all bound for equally unpronounceable destinations, none of which was where I wanted to go. By a process of elimination, I figured that the articulated diesel railcar seemed the most likely prospect as it was not destined for the main line, wouldn’t take me anywhere I had already been and left at about the right time. I handed my ticket to the guard, an attractive girl in her mid 20’s with an immaculate 2 tone green uniform and red hat and she replied in perfect English “yes this is your train”.
I climbed on board and at the appointed time commenced the journey. The train had an underfloor diesel engine connected to an epicyclic gearbox, which presumably would give a similar sound to the NZR Drewry/Fiat railcars. The architecture of the outer suburbs of Jesenice was a bit mixed with some new or well maintained building amongst others which hadn’t seen much maintenance for a while. Some of the suburban stations seemed to be out of use. Toward the rear of the carriage, some of the passengers were a bit high spirited and a situation was rapidly developing. However a few sharp words from the guard quickly silenced things.
Once beyond the city limits, the European Union's investment in infrastructure become apparent, with new concrete highways and bridges cutting a path through the steep sided valley. Perhaps the new roads are a reflection that the railway no longer fits the passenger and freight corridors of the new Europe, being more suited to the old empire or being focused on the Soviet Union. Fortunately Slovenia's rail network includes two arterial trans-European lines although neither are in the region I travelled. The train paused at all the rural stations, each slightly different but with a uniform architectural style and usually accompanied by an equally picturesque village. All to soon, the guard advised that we would soon reach my stop of Bohinjska Bistrica. The station was no exception to the elegance of others further up the line, its waiting room was lavishly decorated with interpretive panels detailing the history of the region with signs outside covering the contribution of the railway to the area's development.
From here I traveled the short distance to Ribcev Laz, my base for this part of the trip. Ribcev Laz is a small town on the edge of a picturesque lake surrounded by the Juhian Alps on all sides. I stayed at a family run guest house that exceeded all expectations. I was the only guest and had been upgraded to a room with a balcony overlooking traditional farms with snow capped mountains in the distance. The following day was spent skiing at Vogel at the other end of the lake. The fog that was predicted to lift rapidly, turned to a downpour of hail which was fun to ski on but made the journey on the world's slowest chairlift fairly bleak. Faced with the option of skiing in the fog and hail again or continuing with the railway adventure, I opted for the latter. First glance at the timetable did not look very promising, there was a train in an hour that only went one stop south, with another going on to Nova Gorcia twenty minutes later.
After killing time exploring the back streets of Bohinjska Bistrica I returned to the station to find that no ordinary train journey awaited me. The station is of an alpine style and has a mountainous backdrop and the rolling stock were all easily identifiable as being European. However, at the head of the train was a large green General Motors (La Grange, USA) diesel locomotive, creating a jarring clash. The effect was similar to when one puts an American locomotive on Continental model railway layout. Although built in 1985, it still looked like it was fresh out of the box. The rest of the train consisted of a 4 wheel carriage for the conveyance of passengers and bicycles, and 5 automobile wagons. Once the crew returned from refreshments, we departed at full throttle and within seconds entered a tunnel which would leave the Otira tunnel looking tame, although they share the feature of both having a door on one end. We must have traveled at all of the 80km/h speed limit of the 4 wheel coach, the ride over the portion of corroded rail was particularly lively, and the roar of a GM diesel in the tunnel was not to be forgotten in a hurry. This train's role is to take road traffic through the tunnel to save them using the potentially snow covered alpine pass. All of the drama and urgency on the service I traveled on was to deliver a Toyota hatchback to Nemski Rovt, so it could continue on its leisurely Sunday drive. The guard, an older gentleman, kindly waived my fare.
After photographing the view and checking out the infrastructure (token working was still in use) I boarded the railcar for the journey south. The line largely follows a river gorge, which it crosses at several points on high brick viaducts. The river is dammed at 3 points, but the hydroelectric infrastructure is quite old and seems to fit the scale and ambience of the gorge. The river is an unbelievably bright blue. The sides of the gorge are bush clad or host small farms, some of the better land is used for boutique vineyards and seem to have been for generations. The grape vines are surrounded by stone walls, giving the vineyards an air of tradition and permanence.
Arrival at Nova Gorcia was a bit of an anticlimax, with grey damp weather giving the majestic station a sombre deserted feel. The main station concourse was an immaculate time warp of polished timber and wrought iron ticket windows, but totally deserted. I ventured outside to find a particularly stern United Nations sign warning against illegal immigration. The front door of the station is 37 metres from the Italian border. People from either side are allowed to move freely in the station square, but meant to leave from the side they entered. Beyond the square in both directions is the figurative iron curtain, in reality a green wrought iron fence that severs streets and marks the border following the Paris agreement of 1947. With the railway on the Yugoslav side and the old city of Gorcia on the Italian side, a new city was developed based on the ideals and morals of central planning as an example to the west.
Presumably there is a greater degree of cooperation between the two Gorcia’s although the continuous fence seems a bizarre remnant of pre 1990’s politics. The station has an intriguing museum devoted to the history of the station square, the fence and the tumultuous events that had happened here and in the wider region.
The station's own rooftop red star has been preserved in the museum. Beyond the station is a deceptively large steam locomotive, although its history seemed a bit non descript. A quick scan of the surrounding shops revealed that they were either closed or particularly smokey betting slope with food as a very secondary line of trade.
So I followed the railway workers' example and invested a euro in the vending machine and purchased a surprisingly healthy and tasty lunch before rejoining the train. The return journey was mainly in heavy fog although I glimpsed a few heavy industries such as a cement works and steel plant that presumably help the line pay its way. I was amazed to see the train had attracted a stereotypical railway enthusiast, a largish man in a long dark shapeless coat and heavy rimmed glasses. He was armed with train photos and a notebook, even having a coin holder the same as the guard.
While the train galloped through tunnels over viaducts and passed a line side castle, I wondered what really makes a great railway journey. We often hear of trips being one of the worlds top ten, but is it the charm and ambience of the train itself that makes the journey special, or the level of service or the price that places a particular rail journey in a league above others. For a continent well endowed with fabulous rail journeys, this overlooked route provides an exceptional trip at a refreshingly affordable price, and yes they do run steam excursions during the summer.
[And there's an excellent railway museum in Ljubljana, see www.burger.si/MuzejiInGalerije/ZelezniskiMuzej/index.html, also for some pictures http://www.mytrains.at/eisenbahnmuseum_ljubljana.htm (link broken July 2020). RD]