PETER RILEY: The Last Working Narrow-Gauge Steam-Powered Forestry Railway in Europe

The previous evening, at the woodyard, they said to be there by six, and bring food for the day. The woman at the hotel said, ‘They always say six but nothing ever happens until seven or eight.’ But we got there before six.

The ticket office was closed because the woman who sold the tickets hadn’t arrived yet. The only other person there, an elderly German in shorts with a rucksack, said, ‘I’m not waiting around here’ and marched off among the railway lines and rolling stock. We followed him, along the side of a long train of empty trans­porter wagons to a personnel wagon and a hissing locomotive. We climbed on board the wagon. It had a roof or canopy but no sides or windows and held about 20 people. It was already almost full but we found a double seat facing forwards. As soon as we had got ourselves in and sat down there was a great noise and it slowly moved off.

Something had happened to the processes of time. It was not yet fully light. A train was being pulled by a steam locomotive out through the long suburbs of a Transylvanian town, up a big valley. Slowly, at about human trotting pace, on a single track between fencing, the train trundled on past houses and kitchen gardens, alongside and across dirt streets. The houses were low, most of them made at least partly of wood, with oilskin or shingle roofs, each with attached orchard and vegetable patch, quite densely spread on the valley floor. There were hardly any lights showing, but that didn’t mean people hadn’t started their day yet. Everything was submerged in semi-darkness, infused with shadow.

The train went past again, as it did every morning. The engine made the deep rhythmic noises of its kind, and puffed out steam and a sweet smelling wood smoke which wafted back over us, with occasional red sparks floating round our heads. I caught a deep sense of European fate, of people bound to a structure without inhering reward, resigned to subjection, and disposable when it came to political crises. The state power-centre was very far from here, but its forces seemed to inhabit the morning darkness, its hand hovered over everything and might or might not go into action today. At the same time the smoke and noise took me back for a moment to my own 1950s. I was about twelve years old, haunting the station platforms and shunting yards of south Manchester holding a notebook. I was delivered from ageing, as if there was an opportunity for things to begin all over again from 12 and continue without the mistakes. It was over in a flash. The dim first light also meant that there was a war on, which we might be escaping by this transportation to the high forest region. The low houses crowding the valley base were permanently under threat. There was a church on the other side of the valley across the river, with a bright light in its wooden tower. The river shone silver.

The locomotive: 0-6-0T, made in Hungary 1910, still hoarsely puffing its way out of the town nearly 100 years later, pulling about 20 empty transporter wagons, which are to receive felled tree trunks from the vast forests that stretch away in the mountains towards Ukraine, and one personnel carrier containing passengers and an official. We were now on the bank of the river, and had not yet quitted the town when the first stop was made for refueling. It took at least twenty minutes, a gang of three passing long pieces of axed wood from a track-side stack into the covered wagon behind the engine. At least half the passengers got off and hung around, until the whistle blew to collect them and we moved off again. We were to continue for 50 kilometres up the wooded valley of the River Vaser, with 15 such stops for various reasons, and it was to take half the day before we started the return journey. The valley is big and high, curves this way and that, and occasionally narrows, only once to what you would call a gorge, which we crept through on ledges and through tunnels. There are no dramatic vistas, it is for the most part a uniform large-scale forested valley which just goes on and on, and we follow it one side or other of the river, as if to the end of the earth.

The passengers were mostly Romanian families, plus a few of the determined, committed and undemanding people who reach this area as ‘tourists’. They tend to wear very practical clothing. Also several elderly German men who spoke Romanian and so were probably revisiting Saxons[i], and two serious looking Czechs with rucksacks and tents. There were two young men, steam-freaks, whom we hardly saw because they spent more time off the train than on it, being obliged to film it on every bend or whenever a viewpoint was offered and so were constantly leaping off, running ahead, filming and jumping back on. At the speed we went it was easy to get on board in passing. But we also had a comedian among us.

The main feature of a Romanian two- or three-family group situated close to us, was a short plump man of about 40 with a very round face, a moon of a face, and straight thin black hair, sitting with his back to the engine, who kept the whole group entertained continuously. He sat there holding a two-litre plastic bottle of tuica,[ii] and talked. Whatever he said provoked laughter in the group, sometimes extended and uncontrollable. We didn’t know what he was saying but the whole act was thoroughly professional. He held himself quite stiffly, the voice under control, rather thin and tight, penetrative. I think a lot of it was ironically imitative of socially narrow styles, perhaps of his own milieu, but some of it seemed straight, pointed, rhythmically climactic. The way of passing the journey was to feed him opportunities. By the time they got off, for they were going to spend the night at some ‘cabins’ about two-thirds way up, the bottle was empty, having been liberally passed round the entire personnel of the wagon, including the guard or conductor, but the greater part of it consumed by himself. The last 5 Km of their journey found him and two other men leaning against the back rail of the wagon loudly singing popular Romanian songs. These mountain valleys are noted for bears and even rarer animals, which is what a lot of people come up here for, hunters or the opposite of hunters, but this lot was focused entirely inwards; if there’d been a line of five brown bears standing by the track playing banjos they wouldn’t have noticed.

And a conductor, or guard. A thin active man in a kind of uniform, including a peaked leather cap, his face marked by the smile of a wide mouth and a constant alertness in the eyes. He took our fares, quietly amused at our request for a ‘return’, and was in charge of everything all day long. He supervised all operations and staff, kept an eye on the passengers, dealt with eventualities, moved around the wagon chatting in Romanian or German, joined the comedy audience for a while, and communicated with the driver by a code of whistles whenever necessary. He was under no constraint of regulations, and stopped and started the train as and when he thought necessary (a German tourist has gone for a pee in the bushes and is in danger of missing it, for example). He worked, or was active, the whole day through from six in the morning to seven in the evening, if not longer, never had a break and never ate, and never seemed tired.

So this long slow train with this mixed crew at its head of rowdies and contemplatives, screaming with laughter or mesmerised by the tree-coated valley sides and the river always beside us, puffed and hissed and snorted its way up into the mountains. And although we had left the town behind, it was still with us in the trees and rocks, in the milky water of the river, in the very air. Its slowness, its low income, its makeshift, its beggars and its cheerful souls shouldering the daily burden of inadequacy. And over the town was suspended the state. The blue sky covered a great uninhabited massif unable to escape the town’s melancholy or the state’s suspicion. So we went quite plaintively on for all our enjoyment.

We stopped at five ‘stations’ which were permanent logging camps: Cozia, Bardau, Botizu, Faina, Valea Barbei, duly named on rail-side huts. Here wagons were dropped off to be loaded with trunks and picked up on our return journey, and the tender was re-stocked. At one such place three men were engaged in splitting sections of tree-trunk with sledge hammers and wedge to make the arm-length pieces for the locomotive. It took them about twelve minutes to reduce a piece of trunk standing upright in front of them to a heap.

There were always people around at these places, workers, mostly not looking very busy, or if on their way somewhere, on it slowly. They were utilitarian places without a trace of decor. A building or two in concrete if big, but otherwise wooden, in constricted open spaces among the trees. Stores of trunks and boughs. Not a trace of ‘peasant culture’. Most of the men, for they were all men, looked like hard specimens, dark skinned, tough wiry bodies in compendia of old working clothes, boots, normally a hand-axe tucked in a belt. They looked a good deal grimmer than most of the men hanging around in the town, which is saying something. They stood watching or ignoring the daily train, some of them attending to it as necessary, paying scant attention to the coach load of ‘visitors’ at the front. And sometimes we passed them, alone or in groups of two or three, walking along by the railway. Set, unsmiling faces, solitaries. They were obviously very poor however much they worked. And some of them travelled with us for various reasons; there were normally three or four workers on our carriage or nearby wagons. They were needed for loading and unloading and for eventualities. In several places the constant uphill gradient became steeper and the locomotive couldn’t manage it, its driving wheels spinning as the steam mechanism raced, and the train halted. Then the guard and two or three others had to jump onto wagons at several points down the train to turn on their individual screw brakes, otherwise the train would have rolled backwards out of control. Then the train had to be split and be taken up a half at a time. They threw track-side gravel under the wheels of the engine to help it get a grip.

They sat with us but didn’t join us. They seemed acutely aware of their distance from us, didn’t speak, didn’t look at us except rather quickly and nervously, nor at the forest, but stared ahead waiting for the next task. They accepted a swig of tuica with thanks but it in no way unfroze them. Neither did they sit with each other. If there were two on our vehicle they were at far ends of it. Solitaries. One of them seemed obsessed with water. Every time the train stopped he walked over to the river and waded in it, and also drank water a great deal, filling his plastic bottle from springs whenever possible. These workers were like details from old Russian novels. Intimate knowledge of the behaviour of wood, ability to handle it in its massive raw forms, the experience and alertness to act in a team when an enormous tree trunk comes sliding fast down a gully, how to construct a wooden hut single handed in a few day, what to do when a bear approaches… Forest spirits and television game shows might have been equally within their repertoires.

At one point a bulldozer had to be loaded on, at another an excavator, to be carried from one stopping-place to another, for we also stopped at places with no buildings at all, where gangs were working in the forest. Both machines were driven up steep ramps hardly wider than their own tracks onto a flat wagon. Usually it took four or five attempts. They seemed to be climbing into the sky until they suddenly keeled forwards and crashed onto the floor of the wagon. This involved all available workers as helpers, drivers, advisors, witnesses.

Buildings other than forestry were rare. Higher up there was a quite big and well maintained unmarked house some distance away which I presumed to be border police or army. There was one smallholding near the track quite high up, no more than five small tilled fields, with its own tiny halt. There was a deserted house miles from anywhere with its exterior wall facing the track covered in erotic religious murals. And the minimal ‘resort’ where the Romanian comedian and his families got out, or fell out, to spend the night. ‘He’ll be having a long sleep now’ someone said. A meadow or at least a space free of trees, a building, the river, and some small wooden cabins, somewhere. On the return journey the place seemed deserted.

There was a junction. Two valleys met, two rivers joined, two railway lines joined, we took the left over a bridge. The mountains didn’t seem to get bigger, they just seemed to go on for ever, as did the river, which never seemed to get any smaller — shallow, full of milky water riding over stones. Occasional pools where weirs had been constructed from logs, the water curving over them in a pattern like corrugated cardboard.

To the end of the earth, still held in the hands of the town. To the end of the journey, though not to the end of the line. We halted nowhere in particular, with a siding, and a presumed forestry building not far away. The line continued ahead of us curving as the valley curved to the right. The locomotive went on alone round this curve and out of sight, it was never evident why, hotly pursued by the two enthusiasts. The river flowed beside us as always. We got out onto scrappy ground with electricity posts and no real growth, mainly stones and sparse grass, trees inhabiting the lateral slopes as if nothing else ever had or could. The end of the earth was undistinguished — there was nothing to see or do but to sit by the river and eat the packed lunch we’d been warned to bring. The end of the earth belongs to the state.

The end of the earth is the state. The desert, the stony mountains of Greece, the ice, the great barrier that encompasses produce. Nowhere, where No Name lives.

The locomotive returned and hitched itself to the other end of our wagon, now the only one left. The whistle was blown to assemble the passengers and we were off again, coasting down all the way back, stopping many times, to collect loaded wagons, fill bottles at mineral springs, other reasons. The engine, which had needed at least six loads of chopped wood coming up, needed none going down. The front of the boiler was before us, the old machine hissed, swayed and rattled as it rolled easily down. No more of the thunderous chugging that got us up. The track, looking back, was full of little kinks and wobbles, and grass was usually growing between the rails.

At the big valley junction a horse and cart was waiting for us with three men, who started loading white sacks onto an empty wagon, first laying leafy larch branches under them for protection. Cheeses, from mountain shepherds, on their way to market.

The guard had less to do and sat talking with the passengers a lot, mainly the group of Germans, and they got involved, obviously, in one of those extended, serious, and informed discussions on political and historical matters which most populations other than the British indulge in so readily. He also pointed out things of interest as we passed by, such as big tunnels excavated in the sides of the gorge in quite inaccessible places, presumably by the state, as is the habit of states, always needing somewhere to hide something. The great Nowhere land followed us back to the town as it started to get dark again.

But it had been a hot day and we found some distance before the terminus that our way was impeded by work gangs relaying track which had buckled in the sun’s heat. The halt was long, and when we went on we went extremely slowly, until on unaffected track. It happened again just as we entered the fringes of the town, above the broad river, which had children playing in it here and there, mostly in the middle of it. Some of the scattered, then compacted, small houses were busy, some showed lights, people sitting on the verandas, some proved to be bars with small groups sitting outside them under lanterns — refuges, whatever from. The guard hung over the side of the train and dropped a packet of something, perhaps cheese, into the arms of his son as we passed his house. Then many stops to drop off the loaded wagons, and finally we rolled gently into Viseu woodyard and halted. A few farewells, nothing much, the visitors ambled off towards their parked cars or walked into the town. The guard was still working, busy with something behind another line of wagons, perhaps getting tomorrow’s train ready. When did the guard ever eat?

When he got home, perhaps at about 9 o’clock after putting the locomotive to bed and walking the kilometer up the track to his house, then he relaxed. And us, over-fed, over-spending, living too long, time on our hands, us unneeded persons, how we envy that relentless toil moving at its own pace, wanting only what it needs. How we envy that hunger.


[i] Saxons, a population settled in Transylvania in mediaeval times by the Hungarian monarchy to people and protect the Ottoman frontier, coming from somewhere in what is now Germany or one of its neighbours, and speaking German. They were an important sector of the population who founded and ran several of the biggest cities. Most of them emigrated to Germany during the last twenty years of the 20th Century.

 [ii] Tuica or zuica is a strong home-made clear fruit brandy drunk liberally everywhere. That the family used this word rather than “horinca” suggested that they were town dwellers.


Peter Riley lives in retirement in Hebden Bridge, having been a teacher, bookseller, and a few other things. He is the author of some fifteen books of poetry, and two of prose concerning travel and music. His most recent book is The Glacial Stairway (Carcanet 2011). “The last working…” is an offshoot of the book The Dance at Mociu (Shearsman 2003) — sketches from travels in Transylvania.







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