3rd & 4th October 2015 - Greek Odyssey (part two)
Saturday 3rd October 2015
We had enjoyed the PTG tour across Northern Greece last year so making sure that we were available for “part two” which would cover most of the rest of the country was a priority. Just like last year, there would be a bonus visit to Bulgaria as BDZ (Bulgarian Railways) would be providing the coaches again so a return flight to Sofia with Wizz Air was booked and we chose to stick with the hotels booked by PTG rather than make the effort to find our own.
The chosen flight was a sociable 12:15 departure from Luton and we arrived in plenty of time to check in where Wizz appeared to be relaxing their usual draconian stance on hand luggage as someone was handing out the small “hand baggage checked” labels as if they were sweets with no apparent checks on bag sizes. Down at the gate, we were allowed outside even though people were still getting off the plane so had to line up under a covered walkway, good job it wasn’t raining as the lack of sides meant there would not have been much shelter from the elements.
Bulgaria is two hours ahead of the UK so it was around 17:30 by the time we got off the plane, looking forward to trying out the Metro extension to the airport which had opened earlier in the year. It was a good idea in theory but where was the Metro station? Seeing no sign of it, we spotted two policemen outside the terminal who directed us to the shuttle bus to Terminal 2; although we had registered that Sofia Airport had two terminals we didn’t realise that they were so far apart! The bus was only a large minibus so was already full, meaning that we had to stand but at least we managed to get on it, the next one was half an hour later.
Once at the correct terminal, we soon found the Metro and bought a ticket (cost 1 LEV, about 40p) from the lady in the ticket office who was busying herself with some knitting between customers. We had just missed a train and had to wait 10 minutes for the next one, not so bad except we just missed the next connection when changing at Serdika - another 10 minute wait.
The hotel (Ramada Sofia City Center) was very busy when we arrived with a dentists conference taking place (smile please, or maybe not!) but we managed to check in without too much hassle before a quick trip down the road to the Billa Supermarket then to the Hadjidraganovite kashti for dinner. The latter was very busy with at least two large groups so we had to sit in the entrance “lobby” and service was rather slow but the food was excellent and plentiful as always.
Sunday 4th October 2015
Breakfast at the hotel started at 6:30 this morning, which did not quite leave enough time for a 7:30 departure from the station so we were all issued with a take-away breakfast in paper carrier bags. Sofia station was still a building site over a year since our previous visit but there were some signs of progress, notably on the platforms, but the main body of the station was still very much a work in progress.
We had been told that the train was leaving from platform 4 so a large contingent of tour participants entered the bowels of the station and picked their way through a tortuous subway only to find that there was no sign of a platform 4. OK, maybe it’s one of the bay platforms so back along the subway, pick your way along the obstacle course outside the front of the station to the bay platforms on the west side only to gaze across to a class 07 diesel on three coaches burbling away in the main platforms. Of course the only way to those platforms was return along the front of the station obstacle course and down the winding subway to what turned out to be platform 7 which, by now had a gorgeous sunrise as a backdrop.
We departed on time and settled down for the slow journey to the Greek border over 200kms away so it was time to investigate the contents of the breakfast “bag” which was actually more like a packed lunch. It wasn’t too long before we had our first stop at Pernik and the chance to get the first daytime photographs of the trip whilst we waited to cross a northbound passenger train.
On to Blagoevgrad where there was a further stop and a chance to top up the breakfast offerings at the kiosks next to the station. A loco horn was heard whilst we were queuing up and a red and blue diesel could be seen emerging from a freight line which joined the main line a short distance from the station. Very small cups of strong coffee appeared to be the only hot drink on offer from the kiosk, so we quit the queue and ran down the platform to the level crossing just beyond the station where it was possible to get a photo of the freight.
The line rose slightly to join the main line and the loco had a bit of a struggle to haul its fairly lengthy train of tanks off the branch, it had to set back for a second attempt much to the disgust of the road traffic waiting at the level crossing. It eventually managed to drag the train off the branch before setting back into the sidings alongside the station enabling the people who missed the move off the branch to get a photo of it there instead.
Shortly after leaving Blagoevgrad the line entered the scenic Kresna gorge and our train stopped in Kresna station to cross the daily train from Thessaloniki. Whilst the sun was just right for the tour train, it wasn’t for the IC which was a bit of a shame as it was hauled by one of the blue and yellow liveried class 46 electric locos.
Next stop after Kresna was Kulata where we would get our first Greek loco of the trip but, before that, there was some new track south of General Todorov where a long cut-off had been opened since the tour last year. This was nearly 4km long and had shortened the line by around 1.5 kilometres though we doubt that the residents of Marikostino were exactly thrilled as their station was now well over a mile down the road rather than on the edge of the village.
It was the usual procedure at Kulata, stay on the train until the passports had been checked meaning that the 07 had been taken off the train by the time police / customs had got to the coach that we were in. The Greek loco hadn’t arrived yet and the sun was still shining brightly making it quite hot outside but there was a small bar secreted underneath the station which was doing a roaring trade in beer, cold drinks and snacks. By the time we had queued up and replenished our supplies, the Greek loco had arrived; unfortunately it was A456 which worked the tour between Alexandropouli and Thessaloniki last year but, look on the bright side – at least it wasn’t a class 220 ADTranz loco.
Twenty five minutes after leaving Kulata, we arrived at Strimon where the train had to run round and, talking of ADTranz locos, there was an example sheltering from the sun in the old loco shed until it would be needed to work the IC from Sofia later on. The signalling was not fully working (had it ever been commissioned?) so the train had to run through the station and shunt into another platform before the loco could run round and carry on to Thessaloniki.
There was some nice MLW “music” at times from the front end but the timings were a bit astray as insufficient time had been allowed to shunt and run round at Strimon and a further 10 minutes were lost en route to Thessaloniki where we arrived at twelve minutes past three in the afternoon. That wasn’t the end of the day though as we had a further short trip after having around 90 minutes to check into the hotel (a different one than last time thank goodness!) which was a short-ish walk along a back street past plenty of shops selling all manner of mostly second hand motor spares, everything from alloy wheels to engine blocks.
We returned to the station to find A456 run round and back on the front of the train despite there being plenty of other locos on the shed. The object of this short afternoon trip was to cover the Thessaloniki avoiding line which had been out of use at the time of the tour last year but had to be pressed into service in a hurry earlier in the year after floods damaged a bridge on the direct line from Thessi to Idomeni. We had wondered if the train would be topped and tailed as there were some tightly timed reversals at Axios Junction but we set off with just A456 on the front, long hood leading which is relatively unusual for Greece; unlike Croatia or Slovenia.
Axios junction appeared to be nothing more than just that, no sign of anywhere to run round, and the train stopped with the rear end a short distance past the points, next to which a man was waiting. We were just contemplating whether the train was going to propel the 4.5km to Ghefira when an ADTranz loco (220.025) was spied bearing down on us from the Thessaloniki direction. The man waiting by the points then coupled it to the rear of our train and we set off with it hauling us along the avoiding line to Ghefira where the line joined the direct line to Idomeni. The overhead line equipment on the avoiding line was mostly in situ though there was a section missing in the middle which looked as if it had never been completed. Some of the masts and registration arms which had been erected looked as if they had been vandalised and one mast was completely bent over though that had probably been hit by something large.
As the train was now running late (surprise, surprise!) we thought that we would be returning straight away but after a few minutes, we were told that we could get out despite being no platform. The ADTranz loco was taken off the train, coupled to an electric loco and the pair of them set off towards Thessaloniki; the electric loco leading with its pantograph raised – was the direct route actually open? Once they had departed, A456 uncoupled and went to stand on the track next to the station, all very confusing but no doubt there was a method to this apparent madness. A few minutes later 220.025 re-appeared, minus the electric, and coupled to the south end of the tour coaches; A456 carried on round and went on the north end and we returned to Axios Junction. We discovered the following day that 220.025 was stationed in the freight yard specifically to drag freights round the avoiding line and that is probably why it was used to do the same for the tour train.
220.025 was hastily uncoupled from the rear once we got back to Axios, an EMU went past then A456 propelled the train through the crossover to the “right line” before heading back to Thessaloniki. Peeking out of the window on the return journey, we happened to look back and noticed 220.025 following our train at a discreet distance! The signalling in this area was not in use though we did not know whether that was due to the overall financial issues in Greece leading to a lack of money to repair any faults or if it was never commissioned in the first place. Either way round it was no excuse in our opinion to have “two in a section”! A little further along the line at Sindos, we lurched through the platform road even though the through lines looked to be in use; the signals here were actually lit but all had white crosses tied to them indicating that they were out of use. Shortly afterwards our ADTranz-shaped shadow disappeared from view so maybe the signals were actually working on this section.
We rolled into Thessaloniki station about 30 minutes late so went straight down the road to the Berlin restaurant where the owner greeted us like long-lost friends, our only visit was over a year ago so he either had a very good memory or maybe doesn’t get too many English speaking customers. We had an excellent meal with a large basket of bread and a dessert “on the house” which had been home-made by his wife. The bill only came to 23 Euros but we did leave a generous tip before making our way back to the hotel the long way round as there was no early start in the morning.
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