Romanian and British volunteers are working on re-opening iconic heritage railway in Transylvania

Romanian volunteers and British railway preservationists are working together in an attempt to re-open the historic narrow gauge railway line that runs in the Hârtibaciu valley, between Sibiu and Agnita, which has the potential to become an important touristic attraction in Transylvania.

The first piece of completed track, which runs between the Cornăţel and Hosman villages, is scheduled to open temporarily for the weekend of 26-27 September with a ceremony being held in Cornăţel (30 mins drive from Sibiu) to celebrate the hard work of all involved parties and the return of steam to the famous railway.

The celebrations will include hourly steam train rides complete with a single passenger coach (10 to 17 on Saturday and 9 to 14 on Sunday) on a 3.5 kilometer piece of track that the volunteers have managed to repair for this event. Visitors can also enjoy a traditional ‘Transylvanian Brunch’ complete with delicious local cuisine at the farm next to the station from 11am-3pm.

Attendees of the ceremony on the 26 September will include The British Ambassador to Romania, Paul Brummel, and the President of Sibiu County Council, Ioan Cindrea. The European Federation of Heritage Railways (Fedecrail) will also hold their autumn meeting in Sibiu to coincide with the celebrations.

The preservation and restoration project was initiated by the Mihai Eminescu Trust, a local foundation sponsored by Prince Charles, in 2006 just 5 years after the closure of the railway. Additional help was also provided by the London-based New Europe Heritage Railways Trust.

An organisation of local volunteers known as The Friends of Mocănița have made strenuous efforts to save the line, with the help of experienced British railway enthusiasts who hope to replicate the success of preserved British heritage lines, which make EUR 500 million a year for the UK economy, in Romania.

Mihai Blotor, President of The Friends of Mocănița, believes that the restoration will “increase tourist potential” and “firmly” place Romanian on the “heritage railway map of Europe”.

David Allen, President of SARUK (Sibiu Agnita Railway UK Supporter’s Group), also hopes to bring more UK tourists to this “lovely region”. SARUK, an organisation just over 20 members strong, has managed to contribute a total of over £4,000 (24,000 RON/5,500EUR) to the project so far.

One of SARUK’s most active members is Neil McGregor, the managing partner of McGregor & Partners law firm, who is working on clarifying the legal status of the Sibiu – Agnita Railway and the steps that will be required for it to become an operational heritage railway, attracting tourists to the Hârtibaciu valley. McGregor has more than thirty years of experience of practical work on a major heritage railway in the UK in his holidays and spare time, as a personal hobby.

Until now, the volunteers have succeeded to rehabilitate several kilometres of railway, to build a carriage shed at Agnita and to restore the buildings of Coveş, the water tower from the Cornăţel canton and the stable of Alţîna railway station. They have also restored a carriage, have built a moto-trolley and two cycle-trolleys used for pleasure rides in the line. The trolleys with wooden benches can transport 16 people at a speed of nearly 40 km/h. Here are some of their efforts captured on film:

Beyond the physical labour on the line and donations, legal efforts are also required for the project to be successful, as its ownership is not yet clear.

“This is a very challenging project, given that the Sibiu – Agnita “mocănița” is not only subject to the general Romanian legal framework for railways but is also a Romanian national monument. I think that it is probably also fair to say that the future of lines such as this was not a priority when the former single CFR organisation was divided into different companies and entities and also that the model of volunteer-led, community-based heritage railways is not familiar in Romania, although it is well-established and successful in the UK,” said Neil McGregor. (Romania-Insider.com has interviewed him earlier this year, see profile here).

A 109-kilometer narrow gauge line was built at the end of the XIXth century to ling Sibiu with Sighişoara, to transport local people and agricultural and forest products. The line between Sighişoara and Agnita was closed and dismantled in 1965 and the last train ran between Agnita and Sibiu in September 2001, being the last narrow-gauge railway operated by CFR. Then the Romanian railways company CFR just abandoned the track.

A narrow gauge line has a 760 mm distance between the tracks as opposed to 1,435 mm for the standard gauge. A similar narrow gauge line is still operational in Maramureş, northern Romania, in the Vaser valley. Read more about it here.

The southern Transylvania region, especially the region between Brasov, Sibiu and Sighişoara, has gained a lot of attention and popularity amongst the British public after it was discovered that Prince Charles had bought two guest houses within the region. The Prince, who bought properties in the Saxon villages of Viscri and Zalanpatak agreed that tourism had “a vital role to play” in the future of the region, and comes to visit his properties almost every year.

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By Dale Harris, editorial intern

(Photo source: SARUK and Asociatia Prietenii Mocanitei Facebook pages)

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