From our 2016 archive
Few heritage lines have quite the history of this narrow gauge line in Poland. Andrew Rapacz reports on a successful tourist operation on a railway which has served a number of different European countries since it was built.
Bieszczady is an area in the extreme south east of Poland which has been a national park since 1973 and contains the Bieszczady mountains, part of a range that also runs through Ukraine and Slovakia. A large proportion of the park is covered in forest.
The highest parts of the Bieszczady mountains, with their wild and desolate treeless summits, attract a number of tourists to the area. Just outside the national park is a narrow gauge tourist railway, the Bieszczady Forest Railway, which has its roots much earlier in history.
In the first half of the 19th century vast tracts of the forests in the Bieszczady area were sold, but due to the lack of roads, timber exploitation was limited.
The first standard gauge railway arrived in the area around 1872, but the narrow gauge took somewhat longer, arriving in 1898. The initial 24km section connected the village of Majdan with Nowy Łupków on the standard gauge. The railway expanded a further 17km east between 1900 and 1904.
Ownership of the line changed in 1911. Prior to the First World War Poland was partitioned and the railway lay in the territory of the Austro-Hungarian empire. The Imperial Royal Austrian State Railways added the line to its virtual monopoly of rail transport within its own territory.
First World War
During the battles of the First World War, the Bieszczady area and the then exclusive military use of the railway changed between the Russian and Austrian forces. In 1914, the failure of the Austrian forces on the eastern front resulted in the evacuation of the railway workers and rolling stock. The majority of bridges were destroyed.
The invading Russian army reinstated the line and it was back in operation by the spring of 1915. During an Austrian offensive the next year the Russians retreated and removed a portion of the rolling stock. This was soon replaced and the railway was quickly back in operation.
WW2 and damage
In the interwar years the railway was repaired, bridges rebuilt and returned to service. As a result it revived the economy of the region, but at the outbreak of the Second World War, the railway was taken out of service, but quickly reinstated for military use by the occupying German forces in November 1939. The railway was also utilised to move timber and quotas of crops and livestock extracted from the local population. In 1942 the railway and rolling stock were regauged from 760mm to 750mm.
Following the outbreak of the Russian offensive on the eastern front, German railway employees and their families were evacuated and rolling stock was moved from the line. The ensuing warfare and sabotage activities of Soviet partisan groups caused massive destruction to the line. This continued after the war until cessation of activities by the UPA in 1948.
It was not until the early 1950s that the state forest administration commissioned the rebuilding of the line, and not only was the line rebuilt but it was extended in both directions, being the largest postwar investment in a forestry railway in Poland.
In the west a new 15km connection was made to the standard gauge line and new timber processing plant at Rzepedź. In the east the line was extended a further 10km into the forests to Moczarnego. All the main bridges on the line were replaced with reinforced concrete structures, while curves with a radius of less than 100 metres were eased. In all 62km of line was built or rebuilt. From the time the rebuilding commenced, the railway was extensively utilised and indicative of this, from 1956 to 1980, 2.4 million cubic metres of timber was moved by the railway.
Decline and closure
In April of 1993 the railway was transferred to the three forestry managements in the administrative areas (municipalities) through which it ran, that of Komańcza, Wetlina and Cisna. The forestry management of Cisna tried to keep the railway operating but mounting costs forced the railway to close on December 1, 1994.
In 1996 a non-government organisation was formed to save and promote a section of the railway for tourist use. This was assisted by the addition of the railway to the national register of monuments (similar to listing of buildings in Britain) by the relevant provincial authorities and this prevented the line from being dismantled.
Since then the railway has grown in strength and last year the number of passengers carried topped 100,000. The railway’s headquarters is at Majdan and it runs services to Balnica, (9km to the west) and to Przysłup (12km to the east).
The station at Przysłup has prominent views of the wild treeless mountain summits to the east and a restaurant that serves fried local produce and smoked rainbow trout to arriving passengers.
In the early postwar years the railway operated with three steam locomotives, of which details are a little scant, but at least two are believed to have been tender engines built prior to or around the First World War period. These three locomotives were strengthened by the addition of RyŚ (Lynx class) 0-4-0T and Las (Forest class) 0-6-0Ts built at Chrzanów locomotive builders in Poland in the postwar period. An example of the Las type locomotive, which has been modified as a tender loco, is No.10 Naklo on the South Tynedale Railway.
Two examples of the more commonly known Polish narrow gauge locomotives, the Px48 0-8-0, arrived on the railway in the mid-1950s. However, they were frequently found to derail when running light engine tender-first and their use was limited to the western section from Rzepedź to Smolnik during their stay on the railway.
In 1957, six Kp4 0-8-0s were purchased for the railway and became the mainstay of operation, based on a Soviet design produced in 1941 at Kolomna. There was a great postwar demand for narrow gauge locomotives of this type for industrial use in the Soviet Union and of the 877 built at Chrzanów in Poland all but 20 were exported. The design was perpetuated in China and building continued until 1987 as the C2x class. It is believed that this is the most numerous type of narrow gauge locomotive built in the world, totalling over 5000 examples.
Steam traction finished on the railway in 1980, the first diesel having arrived in 1972.
Two of the locomotives detailed that worked on the railway have survived. Of the two Px48s, No. Px48-1253, was withdrawn in 1979 and is now a static exhibit at the narrow gauge railway museum at Sochaczew in Poland.
Of the six Kp4s based at the railway, one, Kp4 1257, has survived. Withdrawn from service in 1980 it was initially placed on static display on the railway but later moved to the narrow gauge railway museum in Sochaczew. It returned in 2012 and is now a static exhibit at Majdan station, prominently visible from the entrance to the station yard.
Only two locomotives have worked on the railway in preservation, and both are representative of those used on the railway in its latter years. Ty 1884 a Las, (Forest class)
0-6-0T built in 1956 originally worked at a sugar factory in Kruszwica, Poland. Withdrawn in 1988, it too became a static exhibit, but overhaul commenced in 2003 and it steamed at the railway in 2005. It is currently stored and out of ticket.
The current working steam locomotive, Kp4 3772, also came from a sugar works at Kruszwica, arriving at the railway in 2011. It steamed in 2012 and is currently the sole working steam locomotive.
A brief note about coaching stock: In 1974, five eight-seat passenger coaches rebuilt from freight wagons were added to the railway. A further 13 summer coaches were added during 2007-2011, also rebuilt from freight wagons.
I had visited the railway during 2007, but outside the operating season. Since then I have enjoyed seeing results online from photographic charters on the line, run sometimes in May but typically in October to make use of the autumn colours. I eventually got the opportunity to visit the line in 2015 with a charter organised by the Krakow Railway Enthusiasts’ Society (Stowarzyszenie Miłośników Kolei w Krakowie).
I flew to Krakow and travelled to the small village of Cisna by bus. Connections vary during the year but I got there without any changes, however for a five-and-a half-hour trip there was only a short refreshment stop!
The charter commenced around 10am and we set off in the direction of Balnica, the shorter and more easily-graded of the two routes. In the event of rainy weather a passenger coach initially formed part of the charter train. However, with the fine weather this was removed at the request of the organisers and travel for the charter participants was in two open wagons.
The first runpasts took place at a roadside location near the village of Żubracze. These incorporated the San coach, which had been hired for the day. It was built in 1959 in the nearby town of Sanok and created a brilliant period cameo scene. While the location was rural some road traffic was encountered. At an opportune time it was possible to stop the traffic in both directions and the train was hastily called to produce what was perhaps one of the best shots of the day. I made sure to give a thumbs-up to the motorists who were mostly appreciative of what we were doing, some car passengers taking pictures of the locomotive on their mobile phones.
The bus was utilised again at a level crossing after which we left the road and departed towards a more isolated area in a valley near Solinka. In its freight days the railway had a loading point near here and a passing loop is still located here.
After some runpasts in this wooded location, we headed to one of the tightest curves on the railway, which changed our direction from southerly to north westerly. Here we left the Solinka river and reached the summit of this section of line. Descending through a closely wooded section we arrived at the station of Balnica. The train was shunted so that the timber and log-carrying wagons were behind the locomotive. Some additional oiling and inspection of one of the wagon axleboxes was performed before we set off to return to Majdan. Tender-first, we now had another couple of runpasts with the coach near the level crossing utilised earlier.
The train retired to Majdan for a lunch break for all the participants. Arriving back at Majdan we drew alongside a diesel-hauled passenger train, drawing much attention from its passengers.
In the afternoon the charter covered the more steeply graded 12km section to Przysłup. A further series of photographs with the bus caused traffic holdups, including that of a tourist coach. A break at Przysłup to re-marshal the train was only intended to be short and although tantalisingly close, a long queue at the fish restaurant meant I had to give it a miss. Further runpasts took place on the return, including a few riverside locations; the overcast skies seemingly duller now.
Throughout the trip, the train ran as
loose-coupled. Descending on gradients, handbrakes on two of the wagons were periodically screwed down and released by a pair of brakemen travelling on the train.
The majority of services are in the hands of the railway’s diesel locomotives, and steam operates during July and August on Fridays only on a single return trip from Majdan to Balnica. This is repeated on Saturdays from the end of January and through most of February to coincide with the school holidays. I wanted to sample this winter run and so I set off in February of this year.
Earlier forecasts looked very disappointing as rain and above zero temperature were predicted for the week. However, due to the prevailing weather conditions, miraculously at around midnight the day before the run, the rain turned to snow and next morning the whole area was carpeted with a layer of 1-2cm of snow with not a breath of wind.
What may seem surprising is that only one of the enclosed passenger coaches was utilised on the train, the remainder being the open summer coaches. However, this is part of the attraction of the ride and people were dressed for the winter weather anyway.
A couple of the summer coaches had wood burning stoves on board that were helpful. The railway eventually hopes to have all the summer coaches equipped with such stoves. The snow-covered scenery was the real attraction on the run to Balnica, although the hard-working locomotive could also be heard near the back of the train.
On board were four re-enactors dressed in Austrian uniforms of the First World War, which generated interest amongst the passengers. However, this was just a chance encounter, as their presence was not organised by the railway.
A 15-minute break at Balnica allowed people to stretch their legs before the return to Majdan. So popular was the service that on the day of my visit and on the previous two Saturdays an additional diesel-hauled train was in operation.
There is no doubt that this a friendly and delightful railway well worth visiting. Further details and reference material for this article came from the Bieszczadzka Kolejka Leśna website and in Kolejka Leśna w Bieszczadach by Stanisław Wermiński 2012.