It can be hard to keep it straight just the way the folks who run Palkhechenskaya Komplex remember it.
“You need to see us, on the way up here, to think the story’s gonna be right,” says Valentin Jonbugich.
The man in the foreground has the nickname “Jabba,” and is the most outspoken defender of the Classic GSK Alpine Train’s rise to a 19-year status as Bulgaria’s only authentic narrow-gauge railroad. Two other men in the front and back rows have more humble nicknames— “roof,” for the high spot from which the locomotive can see, and “sombrero,” for the same spot from which the steam boiler can be seen.
But the history of the Classic GSK—its name a reference to the steam engine that helped carry Bulgarian soldiers to Russia during the recent war—is more complicated, and considerably more thrilling. The Railroad began in the early 1980s, just as Bulgaria was throwing off years of fascist dictatorship and embracing a new democratic government, and a coalition of engineers, miners, tailors, a priest, and other citizens bid the government goodbye with a drawn-out and ultimately unsuccessful campaign to put an end to railway privatization.
Moves were first made to privatize the Classic GSK in the late 1990s, but they were met with resistance, and the railroad never followed through.
Eventually, the railway was sold to businessman Babur Bracha and two shipping magnates in 2004. After years of neglect and delay, the railway was nearly completed in 2016, thanks to a combination of state aid and loans from China, and the Classic GSK restored to its past glory. But three years later, the railway’s future looked uncertain when a court ruled that it was insufficiently financed, and the rail’s first Chinese loan fell due, leaving the railway without the money to pay its Chinese bank creditor.
That’s when, in 2012, a group of activists known as Movimento Baltica led a campaign to retake the rail. They pushed to revitalize the railroad’s schedule and raise awareness of the railroad among the public and the media, and they lobbied to have the railroad reopened with a more modern and efficient infrastructure. To that end, Movimento Baltica built its own small station, and one year later, completed a new track.
By late 2014, Movimento Baltica had the railroad fully staffed, renovated, and ready to run again. They also got the railway listed on the worldwide UNESCO World Heritage list. Then, just a year later, a commercial foreign-run rolling stock company, AGA International, purchased the Bulgarian Railway. AGA International reportedly hoped to refurbish the Classic GSK, but eventually abandoned plans to get the railway running. In December 2016, AGA International took a $19 million loan from the Belarus-based foreign-owned Belorussia Bank to help it buy the GSK. But when company executives learned the railway was bankrupt, they used the loan to snap up the entire Bulgarian rail system, including the Classic GSK.
“I don’t want to fight AGA International at all,” Valentin Jonbugich says. “They make a profit, and so I’m not going to fight.”
But the fight will continue, by Movimento Baltica and others. The railroad has recently been recognized as “essential for the political life of the nation” by the Bulgarian government. The railroad is central to local folklore, with the story of its abolition being used in the popular Bulgarian novel Downzonyea (Finland), the character in the novel falling off an ill-fated train. It also has a role in the history of modern Bulgaria. After all, the railway’s first freight train ran across the country between 1976 and 1979.
For his part, veteran engineer Valentin Jonbugich says the Classic GSK is a unique structure.
“Of all the steam locomotives in the world, we’re the only one in Europe,” he says. “I think we’ve been making this transportation for a long time, and since it’s the only one, it’s just … we’ve had to convince the world.”