ARGENTINA : UNDER THE VAST SKIES OF PATAGONIA

In Argentina, the development of the railroads south of Buenos Aires began in 1865 and by 1910, almost five thousand kilometres had been completed. It wasn’t until then that the massive investments were made which encouraged the movement of settlers into these immense territories. Between 1909 and 1924, construction of new railways was carried out in Patagonia, from the cities on the Atlantic coast to cross over towards the west, to the heartlands of this immense country. Starting in San Antonio Oeste, the route finally linked San Carlos de Bariloche in 1934.

The “Expreso Patagonico”, the “Trochita”, connects the province of Rio Negro to the province of Chubut. Initiated in 1932 in the small town of Ingeniero Jacobacci, it reached Esquel, in 1945, 402 kilometres further south. From the 1950’s to the end of the 1980’s, the “Trochita” was used for the transportation of goods and passengers. Stopping in 1992, traffic has since resumed on three small sections but now with tourist trains.

This little narrow-gauge railway (only 750 mm wide) has ,since its construction, operated exclusively with steam engines, a remarkable and unique fact within the railway world. To this day it has kept its original equipment including Henschel and Baldwin locomotives and wooden wagons built in Belgium.

 

BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA : COAL MINES RAILWAYS

The country has several coal mines in activity where the movement of wagons filled with coal and their transfer to the main state lines is still carried out by steam locomotives, mainly class 62 (0-6-0) of Yugoslav manufacture on an American model, assembled by the Duro Daković factories in Slavonski Brod, in present-day Croatia, between 1952 and 1961.

In December 2000 I had the opportunity to visit two of these coal mines, located a little north of Sarajevo, in the canton of Zenica-Doboj.

The Breza mine, whose tunnels reach 475 metres deep in places, was opened in 1907. Before the Civil War, 2500 employees worked there daily, including 1800 miners. After the war this number decreased to 650 miners, and the monthly extraction was reduced to 16,000 tons against the usual pre-war level of 35,000 tons. In the year 2000 just only one remaining locomotive was in service, the 62,672. Slowly it pushed daily a line of wagons, which one by one passed under the coal loading belt.

In the Kakanj mine a class 62 381 was still in operation, laboriously pulling 8 heavily loaded wagons from the washing installations at the Zenica railway station over a reinforced concrete bridge in the village of Dodoj across the Bosna river.

 

CHINA : DESERT ESCAPES

The Sandaoling coal mine is located approximately eight hours by highway southeast of Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. This place is one of the very last coal mine using steam locomotives.

Coal mining began here in the early 1960s. The site is gigantic. In this infinite, windswept plain, where once wild camels roamed peacefully, the landscape has been completely altered. Around the city are an open cast mine and several underground mines sites at Zikeng, Xibolizhan, and Erjing. There is also a coal washing station in Xuanmeichang and a cement factory in the southeast, on the outskirts.

The day begins before dawn, in the tiny Dongbolizhan railway station nearby , where some JS (Jian She) 2 -8-2 locomotives are under pressure ready for the day. The two-track line (one for empty downhills, the other for loaded uphills), where the most of the traffic is concentrated, is located in a vast valley about thirteen kilometres long, south of Sandaoling. This valley is almost two kilometres at its widest point and is colloquially known as the “canyon”. Raw coal, extracted from the Xikeng pit, is brought by conveyor belt to the loading dock and loaded into a dozen waiting hoppers cars. Once loaded, the convoy sets off, passing through the signal box at “station 82”, where the two trains usually meet, one empty descending, the other loaded with coal, going up. At the end of the valley it will have to overcome a final gradient of 1:60.

Night falls. The sky is usually clear, an ocean of stars touches both the black edge of the cliffs and the steaming slag heaps. And then, because of the poor combustion of coal, a column of millions of sparks comes out of the locomotive’s chimney, thrown into the air like a never ending geyser. The bright red and gold of the glowing coal particles and the white glow of the stars mix against an inky black background. This unique fireworks show is extraordinary; it will remain in my memory for ever.

 

ERITREA : ITALIAN REMAINS

The history of the railways in Eritrea goes back to the first decades of the Italian presence in Africa.

Connecting the capital Asmara, located at an altitude of 2325m, to the sea was, by rail and by road, essential. The construction of the railway was a real challenge. This narrow-gauge line required the construction of thirty tunnels and sixty-five bridges and viaducts in an inhospitable environment. At the time, it was an engineering prowess over 120 kilometres, on the vertiginous escarpments and against seasonal bad weather conditions.

After the Second World War the railway network peaked in 1965 with just under 450,000 people and 200,000 tons of goods transported that year. But it had to close down definitively in 1978 due to the multiple attacks linked to the war of liberation.

In 1993, following the proclamation of Eritrea’s independence, hundreds of workers and all the old railway workers, mechanics, technicians and engineers, sometimes over 70 years old, were put to work to reconstruct the line. In 2003, Asmara was once again connected to the port of Massaoua after thirteen years of titanic work. Obsolete as soon as it was reborn, the railway quickly disappeared under the competition of the road traffic. In the end, it will only be used for tourist purposes.

All the rolling stock is original. The rails and sleepers, scattered during the war, were recovered and reused. The rare steam engines, miraculously survived to all the conflicts, were restored and put back into service, despite the almost total shortage of spare parts. Most of them are Mallet, a high-powered articulated steam locomotive capable of operating on winding tracks, built by the factories “Ernesto Breda” (Milan) and “Ansaldo” (Genoa).

Due to heavy landslides caused by heavy rains in these last years and a lack of maintenance, the railway is only open between Asmara and a few kilometres east of the small town of Nefasit (1648 meters) passing through the villages of Shegereni (2243 meters) and Arbaroba (2064 meters).

This is nevertheless the most spectacular and difficult part of the trip.

 

MYANMAR : THE LAST HEADLIGHTS BEFORE THE END

The metre gauge railway network in Myanmar (Burma) was started in 1877 during the British colonial era. It was badly damaged by the Japanese occupation during the Second World War and extensively rebuilt from the 1950s onwards. The military government then introduced a policy of expansion which allowed the connection of the major cities to other strategic centres. Diesel locomotives gradually replaced steam engines on the main lines, although a very few remained active on the secondary network in the region of Bago and the Môn State. On 24th April 2008 steam finally disappeared from regular use and the remaining locos were withdrawn and sent to the depot in Pyuntaza (Bago Region).

In 2017, after nine years of tough negotiations, a passionate German entrepreneur, Bernd Seiler, convinced the Burmese Ministry of Rail Transport to restore and return to service three of the less damaged locomotives. With the active support of a highly motivated local team one YC 629 Pacific (4-6-2) and two YD, 964 and 967 (both 2-8-2). It is this heritage that I went to photograph.

 

Poland : Wolsztyn, the EUROPEAN capital of steam train enthusiasts

In Wolsztyn, a small municipality in Western Poland, the Voivodeship Province, steam started to decline from the 1980s. Since 2016, this entire heritage has been preserved by the Local Government of the Wielkopolska Voivodship in Wolsztyn, through a cultural institution, the “Wolsztyn Engine House”. Thanks to this, steam trains are still connecting every working day Wolsztyn to Leszno, and on Saturdays Wolsztyn to the large city of Poznan in the north-east.

These convoys, usually consisting of two brightly coloured carriages, are pulled by Polish steam locomotives, usually the 0i49 (1-3-1) series. A different Polish engine is also in service, the Pt47 (2-8-2), from 1949.

 

Romania : in the footsteps of the last logging trains

Winters are cold and snowy in this historic region of Transylvania, close to the border with Ukraine. In the first days of February 2019, snow falls in large flakes and visibility is low when the convoy, pulled by locomotive No. 764 469 from 1955, a four-axle locomotives (0-8-0) from the Resita workshops, leaves Viseu de Sus. From Novat, the last village before going up the valley and its infinite forests (between 700 and 1500 metres above sea level), the metallic monster, roaring with effort, steamed under the branches of huge fir trees overloaded with snow – the track often in deep shadow. The “Mocanita” or “Train of the Foresters” will travel all day body and soul whipped by the icy wind, to complete the journey to Valea Babei.

In the neighbouring county of Bucovina, the weather is clear, blue sky, bright sunshine, the landscape white, sparkling. From Moldovita, to Argel, its terminus, the train will practically follow the entire route along the national road 176 where few horse-drawn carts carrying hay will pass by without paying too much attention to the locomotive launched at full steam.

 

Sri Lanka : an open-air museum

The Sri Lanka Railways, which originated from the Ceylon Government Railways created during the British colonial era, operate a railway network of about 1500 km, with a broad gauge system (1.676 mm). Unchanged until today, it is the only example of a Victorian era broad gauge railway still in its original state!

In the middle of the 19th century, the idea of building a railway line linking Colombo and the historic town of Kandy, in the heart of the country was born. The first railway branch, between Colombo and Ambepussa in the east, dates from 1864. The train reached Kandy in 1867 and in 1924, Badulla, passing through the village of Pattipola, at 1891 meters above sea level. This is the highest point ever reached by a broad-gauge railway.

At the end of the 20th century, the railways experienced a rapid decline. Steam locomotives were relegated to depots. In 1984, two entrepreneurs created “The Viceroy Special”, a passenger train operated by the “J.F Tours & Travels (Ceylon) Ltd”. Thanks to this today 2 locomotives series B1 251 and B1 340 (4-6-0) built in 1945 by the “Robert Stephenson & Co”, and a locomotive series B2 213 (4-6-0) built in 1922 by the English firm “Vulcan Foundry” (Lancashire) are part of the Sri Lanka’s railways heritage.

 

Zimbabwe : with coal !

In the Matabeleland North Province, near the town of Hwange the largest open pit coal mine in the country, the Hwange Colliery, is still retains a prominent place on the world market. Almost all the coal extracted is transported by rail.

In the site is at work a relic, a Garratt class 16A 611 (2-8-2+2-8-2). Built in England, in Manchester, by the Beyer – Peacok factory in 1953. Despite its very poor condition and limited maintenance, it has found a second life here. Originally designed for freight transport, it is now used as a yard shunter. All day long, it scuttles back and forth, up and down, marshalling trains as and when they are loaded.

Garratts are unusual locomotives. Invented in 1907 by Herbert William Garratt, a British railway engineer, they are articulated to be able to pull heavy trains on narrow winding tracks. Commonly used in southern Africa during the British colonial era, this Class 16A was the last steam engine in daily operation throughout Africa.

 

All rights reserved © Pietro Pietromarchi