The International Steam Pages

Ahead of the Four Horsemen – Jugoslavia 1982

Robert Hall writes:

This is an account of a week’s railway expedition in September 1982 to what was then still Jugoslavia, primarily in quest of surviving steam workings. An “un-obvious” choice: of the few remaining European countries with, at that time, completely genuine everyday steam line working on their national systems, Jugoslavia had both the smallest quantity of that commodity, and the highest degree of official hostility toward railway photography. Poland would have been the preferred option, but was just then – with martial law fully in force -- effectively “off the menu” for railway enthusiasts. Thus, myself and a friend (referred to as “G.”) decided to undertake a week’s tour of Jugoslavia.

The team initially considered themselves to be in possession of a powerful secret weapon seldom available to British enthusiasts, namely that thanks to a Croatian parent, G. spoke fluent Serbo-Croat (but had never previously visited Jugoslavia in order to grice). It was hoped that this accomplishment would, among other things, give a handle on the normally horrendous difficulties there, regarding photography of anything railway-related. Policy decided on from the start, was to photograph only in circumstances where some sort of permission to do so was forthcoming; the general tenor of reports and first-hand experience suggested that risking unauthorised photography, carried just too-likely consequences of trouble with – and loss of pictures to – authority. Concerning the photographic hurdle, language skills – sadly -- availed nothing, for a good deal of the visit. The tour began in Belgrade. Strategy suggested by my experiences on my one previous visit twelve years before, was to go to the Jugoslav Railways’ (JŽ) head office, close by Belgrade main station, and request some form of photographic permission. “Mice and men…”: some have felt that Jugoslavia was a “jinxed place” concerning railway photography -- it was so rarely that anything in respect of that activity went right, no matter how one tackled it. (Would that said jinx had applied only to – with all due respect for railway photographers and their passion for their pursuit – harmless and trivial issues.) In the days which we spent in Belgrade, many hours which might otherwise have been given to gricing, were burned up in ultimately fruitless questing for photographic permission. It emerged gradually, over those many hours, that the sole official at the Belgrade office, or in the whole country, with the right to authorise such permission, happened to have picked for a holiday, the same week which we had chosen for our grice. According to G., people were regretful and apologetic – but nothing could be done.

Mercifully, neither of us were enthusiasts of the kind for whom, if they may not phot, the whole thing is worse than useless: it would have been greatly preferable to be able to take pictures, but if not, the steam experience could be relished anyway; and in the approximate words of G., who had his share of the enmities which racked the unhappy country, “this is Serbia; when we get to Croatia and civilisation, things may be different”. Thus, in this part of Jugoslavia where G.’s perceived compatriots did not dwell, “hands off cameras” was faithfully complied with. Frustrating, especially given the fact that while active steam locos seemed very few in number (for me, a tragic decline from the way of things in 1970), they still came in, proportionately, a considerable range of classes.

Class 62 0-6-0Ts (close cousins of Britain’s USA) were observed shunting and piloting around Belgrade; and according to our most recent “intel”, passenger workings on the Lapovo – Resavica branch some 80 km. south of Belgrade, were shared between class 33 “Kriegslok” 2-10-0s, and the beautiful four-cylinder 2-6-2s of class 01, German-built in the 1920s. Our visit to this line had to be tackled with the outward journey made by bus direct to branch’s outer terminus at Resavica (much of the morning’s being consumed by the continuing abortive permit-hunt, did not allow time to do the outward trip by rail). Latest information also had it that Resavica colliery (the branch’s chief raison d’ętre) was shunted by two ancient ex-JŽ – originally, I think, Hungarian – 0-6-0s, of different classes: 120 and 126. Disappointment in this matter – we found the former in a semi-dismantled condition; and the latter obviously serviceable, coaled-up, but not in steam. It appeared that this loco, 126.014, was now spare to the two small diesels recently acquired by the mine, one observed shunting coal wagons there. However, it proved a case of “lose some, win some”: to our pleasure, motive power for the 1550 Resavica – Lapovo passenger, on which we were to travel, was not a “33” Kriegslok, but 01.020 of 1922, at the head of its short rake of four-wheeled coaches. 33.119 stood at the same time in Resavica station, steam up but not moving. When we reached the main-line junction at Lapovo, 33.068 was there in steam; seeming indications that it was likely to work the 1925 departure for Resavica; but we had to set off on our electric-hauled main line train back to the capital before that could be ascertained for sure. Per “the then-latest”, freight working on the branch (coal and other) was reputedly part-class 33, part-diesel; but no freight action at all was seen during our several hours on the branch.

Although we had the good fortune to experience several passenger runs behind steam, by the early ‘80s, infinitely more Jugoslav branch passenger duties were handled by JŽ’s idiosyncratic variation on the railmotor theme: four-wheeled railbuses in silver-grey livery, almost always running in multiple, in various numbers. The undertaking’s designation for such workings was “šinobus” -- the word used accordingly, in this article.

A couple of days before the Resavica trip, we had made the acquaintance of another “sexagenarian” German-built type – the class 20 2-6-0. Venue for this was west of Belgrade, at Šid, junction for Bijeljina -- a small fleet of 20s, of which we found several in steam, one of them energetically shunting Šid goods yard. The picture was got, that line working by the 20s did happen; but catching any such, required good luck. The timetable showed the Bijeljina branch’s quite generous service as being all-šinobus except for one return working each day, supposedly a mixed train – it is gathered that that had been the published passenger-service arrangement on the branch, for a couple of decades. G. found, however, conversing with railway staff, that the “daily mixed” had become pretty much a notional thing. Class 20s worked down the branch when there was freight to haul – a far from daily occurrence by 1982 – or to cover for the rather frequent šinobus failures. Certainly on the day of our visit, our return journey on the branch was by šinobus -- though a class 51 2-6-2T (an ex-Hungarian loco type) was, for reasons unknown, in steam but stationary and unattended at Bijeljina terminus. This branch, incidentally, is marked on the latest Cook’s Europe rail map, as with services suspended – the junction being in Serbia, and the terminus in the Serb part of Bosnia.

The following day brought another experience of class 51, and the tour’s best new steam discovery. The timetable for the line running east-and-north from the capital’s small separate station of Belgrade (Dunav), showed just one working each way per day not marked as šinobus, to wit between Belgrade, and Kovačica some 35 km. out: 0400 ex the latter point, the balancing working northwards at 1518. This section had had no recent mention in the British journals furnishing information to us (in Jugoslav official eyes) dastardly “spy” types – our investigating it was a bow drawn at a venture. After most of a day’s unproductive bureaucratic misery at JŽ head office, relief was sought in repairing to Belgrade (Dunav) station in mid-afternoon – it was felt most probable that the 1518 would be headed by a diesel loco, but one never knew. Almost-incredulous delight was occasioned by the sight of 51.152 at the head of the train, and tickets were hastily purchased. In the course of the following hour or so, G. ascertained from the loco crew that this working and the abovementioned 0400 were almost always 51-hauled.

The 2-6-2Ts were allocated to the depot at Pančevo Aerodrom, a few kilometres out of Belgrade on the route concerned. Daily practice was for the 1518’s loco to be stabled overnight at Kovačica, ready for working the following day’s 0400. Time at the Belgrade end was occupied by changeover at Pančevo Aerodrom, and assisting that location’s resident class 62 0-6-0T on shunting duties. From the 1518, we indeed saw at “P.A.”, a 62 in steam, and a 51 “serviceable but cold”.

The Kovačica trip proved memorable, not solely because of our steam discovery and the pleasure of Prairie tank haulage. With Tito a couple of years dead, Jugoslavia was observably heading into uneasy times – though 1982’s worries were small ones in comparison with what lay some years down the road. The country was in trouble economically, with various shortages making themselves felt – one such, involving oil supplies. Thanks to this factor, we ended up being regaled with an evening of comedy, drama and suspense – mercifully, with a relatively happy ending.

After arrival at Kovačica at 1647, we found a more interesting possibility open to us, than tamely going back to Belgrade by modern traction over the same route. There was a connecting šinobus working, going north-and-then-west to Novi Sad, some 70 km away. Novi Sad was suspected to see some steam activity, and there would be an ample choice of trains back along the main line from there to Belgrade. We accordingly boarded the 1654 for Novi Sad – scheduled to reach its destination two hours thence. An agreeable early-evening run through unspectacular but pleasant countryside was experienced, until reaching a point in between stations, some 15km. short of Novi Sad, and coming to a standstill. With G. and his understanding of the local tongue, on hand, more could be understood of what followed, than would have been comprehensible to a bemused Brit on his own.

The problem was that our diesel fuel was on the point of running out. Quite a frequent mishap in those times, it transpired: in an attempt to address the oil shortage, diesel motive power was often sent out filled with barely enough “juice” for its assigned journey. Our train comprised a pair of railbuses; the second such was no help here, as it was running purely as a trailer. Night had fallen by now: there ensued a longish spell stationary, mostly in darkness with the railbus’s interior lights out. The driver opened the access hatch in the vehicle floor leading to the fuel tank and peered in, assisted by a torch (scarily, with a lit cigarette hanging nonchalantly from his lip); much discussion and exchanging of suggestions took place meanwhile, among the train crew -- numerous, for a not very important local working -- and the passengers. It emerged that we could be in something of a predicament. Halted as we were between stations, we had no means of contacting the outside world -- and, it was found, none of the crew were willing to undergo the inconvenience of walking in the dark to the nearest station, in order to telephone “base” (not exactly devotion-to-duty medal-winning stuff, one felt). Mobile phones – loathsome things – do have their uses; but were undreamed-of in 1982. If getting moving again proved impossible, we seemed faced with a long night: nothing would happen until those at Novi Sad station, concerned about our failing to arrive though long overdue, decided to send out a loco or train to look for us.

We were spared that “worst possible case”, by some tinkering with the motor getting the unit moving again on the tiny amount of fuel left in the tank. By dint of cautious running, coasting on down-grade stretches, and a bump-start at one pint, we managed to travel forward and reach Rimski Šančevi station, and from there phone Novi Sad for help (and release an eastbound šinobus waiting in the passing loop, considerably delayed by our misadventure). G. and I found it irresistible to imagine a scenario in which “help” would take the form of a steam loco sent out to tow us to Novi Sad – while acknowledging that that was most probably a gricers’ wish-fulfilment fantasy. Sure enough, our deliverer, when it arrived, was a class 641 diesel locomotive, from whose tank enough fuel was siphoned to get us to appointed destination. We reached Novi Sad (where, by the way, we observed no steam) about an hour and forty minutes “down” on scheduled arrival time – but as we were aware, things could have worked out a lot worse. As matters were, we got back to our hotel in Belgrade by midnight.

In a sensibly-run country (as opposed to the hapless South Slav federation; or for that matter, “most places most times”) a way of tackling the diesel-fuel problem might have been -- with plenty of serviceable coal-burning steam locos being still available – to bring numbers of inactive ones of same back into service, while the emergency obtained. In his conversations with railway staff during our tour, G. learned that there were a few people in JŽ management who were advocating doing exactly that. Sadly, it would seem that their advice was not significantly acted on. Possibly the oil crisis caused a bit of slowing-down of the elimination of such steam duties as still remained – but no more than that.

JŽ’s narrow gauge, which a couple of decades before our “bash”, had been of a magnitude and splendour unrivalled in Europe – proved in 1982, to be “dead but not yet buried”. Bijeljina – over and above its standard-gauge attractions – had until abandonment a little over three years previously, played host to the system’s very last narrow-gauge section with a passenger service: the 760mm line to Bosanska Mezgraja. The Bijeljina visit found the narrow-gauge line’s track lifted beyond the station limits; but on remaining metals in the station area, stood the line’s three class 83 0-8-2s – one of these, plus a few items of rolling stock, marked for preservation. Not being an impassioned number-cruncher, I omitted to record any of the numbers concerned – to my regret decades later, because of a perceived likelihood that one of the trio may well have been 83.173, now active on the preserved Šargan Mountain Railway. It would be pleasing if this suspicion were ever to be confirmed.

Part of the time at Bijeljina between standard-gauge arrival and departure was whiled away with a brief walk along the former narrow-gauge trackbed – during which G. talked of Jugoslavia’s bitter ethnic divisions, and likely escalation scenarios for those. I, no very keen or attentive student of current affairs, had observed that my companion, while highly well-informed about same, including those of his parent’s country, had something of an “overgrown bloodthirsty schoolboy” streak; and. listening to this analysis, I felt that G. was exaggerating the situation’s potential frightfulnesses, for the fun of indulging this “Fat Boy in ‘Pickwick’ “ tendency of his. If only that had indeed been the case… I have not visited this part of the world since, and experience a good deal of melancholy hindsight in recollecting this 1982 tour.

Halfway through the week, a Belgrade -- Zagreb overnight train journey brought the expedition into regions where G. felt more at ease. The steam position in Croatia was found even poorer than that further east; but “photting” proved easy enough, and a fresh steam class was met with. It emerged that the current official line on railway photography here, was that it was permitted in all locations where there was no sign specifically forbidding it – “paper” permits no longer bothered with. The unspoken catch therein, was that most railwaymen and police on the spot were unlikely yet to be familiar with this rather new directive; we hoped, however, that G.’s being fluent in the local language, would deal with that difficulty. So it proved: in two full days in Croatia, photography was almost problem-free – one sticky moment at Zabok was speedily resolved.

An eye-catching item at Zagreb’s main station, noticed on arrival there, was the locomotive which had in times past been set aside for hauling President Tito’s special train – now preserved static, in a prominent spot, immaculately clean and polished in its unique dark-blue livery. It was a 4-8-0 of class 11: a Hungarian design, identical save for small details, to Hungary’s commonest steam type (class 424) in latter years there -- big, relatively modern, ugly, but rather impressive mixed-traffic locos. I had seen these class 11 in action in Jugoslavia in 1970; a dozen years later, none were left in use on JŽ, if I have things rightly, though dumped specimens could be observed here and there. As regards active steam in Croatia in ’82, though – not a total wash-out, but an instance of life’s perversity: something approaching photographic freedom, but not much on which to use it.

The secondary-main-and-branch-line centre of Varaždin, 60-odd km. north-east of Zagreb, proved to be the tour’s least successful gamble. According to reports read, this had been, a year previously, a minor steam paradise, subsequently diesel-invaded to some degree; investigatory visit made, a propos to how great a degree -- “lesser”, of course, was hoped for. A vain hope; all workings on the cluster of lines radiating from Varaždin were found diesel – variously locomotive-hauled, šinobus, and new blue and white bogie d.m.u. sets. Outside Varaždin’s main loco depot – turned over to catering exclusively for diesels -- stood, dumped, three class 33 Kriegsloks and two class 22 2-6-2s. Our call-in at this venue was just redeemed from total disaster, by one stroke of luck. Varaždin had one (sometimes) active steam loco left – 51.053, housed in its own small shed adjacent to the station, and kept in reserve to the new diesel shunters. On the day of our visit, one of these had failed (quite a frequent occurrence, G. was told), and the 2-6-2T was shunting the station and goods yard – photographic consent willingly given.

Disappointment at Varaždin, triumph the following day at Zabok, most of the way back to Zagreb. The 14-km branch from this junction to Gornja Stubica, proved to be at least predominantly steam-worked, and in a novel fashion. A year earlier, this line had been a class 51 preserve; it was now in the hands of another ageing ex-Hungarian, of a different class -- 2-6-2 22.024, based at Zabok’s small shed. The diagram as per timetable, made it possible for the one loco to handle the entire daily branch passenger schedule. General data available, pointed to the likelihood of 22.024 being the last of its class remaining in JŽ service. Pleasant runs were had behind the veteran on the 1246 from Zabok and 1324 return from G. Stubica, and photographically it was “go for it – no problem”.

The last run behind steam of the tour, was during the night following on from the above-recounted day, and was on the Karlovac – Sisak line, south of Zagreb, with a class 51 once again doing the honours. We found it a little surprising that over the course of the week, a greater amount of activity was observed by this mostly elderly 2-6-2T class, than by any other steam type, including more modern ones; but possibly this was simply how the dice rolled for our particular visit.

Karlovac – Sisak was another instance of a branch line with all workings scheduled “šinobus” except for one each way daily, designated as “mixed”; only unlike on the Bijejlina branch, that diagramming was here faithfully adhered to in reality, with class 51 haulage of the trains concerned. The westbound working was a “morning job”, whereas the eastbound ran overnight: they were allotted about five-and-a-half hours to cover the 109-km. line. A far from onerous schedule; but thus planned, to allow for the trains’ “mixed” character. G. learned that goods wagons were not always included in the consist, but that at certain intermediate stations, the loco usually cut off from the train and shunted the goods yard. Circumstances dictated that if we were to cover this line, it had to be on the overnight eastbound Karlovac – Sisak; its daytime counterpart in the other direction would have been preferable, but that turned out not to be an option. What we got, was certainly a memorable night-time spectacular – the 51 hauling seven or eight four-wheel coaches (no wagons included on this occasion, but en-route shunting performed) – we picked a seat in the front coach and duly “valued” the noise and fireworks. In more recent times, fun has been a commodity in short supply in this part of the world – the Krajina region, scene of numerous dreadful happenings. This line sustained much damage in the course of those events, and has never reopened since.

The tour started and finished with myself flying to / from Belgrade, and G., in conjunction with other travels, attaining and departing Jugoslavia by rail – which he did from Zagreb after the overnight steam marathon. I being more of a narrow-gauge devotee than G., chose to spend the last couple of days of the holiday travelling from the Zagreb area back to Belgrade, with open-ended plans – first objective being Prijedor in the north-west of Bosnia, the northernmost point of the erstwhile enormous 760mm system spanning wide tracts of that region. The last news thereof from the railway press was then some half-dozen years old, telling of the narrow gauge southwards from Prijedor having lost its passenger service, but at that time still busy with freight, mostly or entirely steam. I’ve been called a “cockeyed optimist” – but going to take a look, was irresistible. Dust and ashes, was the result. Prijedor – reached, slowly, by rail, early in the evening – is another place where hideous things were done a decade-plus down the line; it struck me in ‘82 as a highly dismal, depressing backwoods town; and one which would have felt thus, even if love and harmony between the different “tribes” had obtained there. And the 760mm gauge was finished, utterly – all track lifted, save for a few metres in and just outside of the derelict and tightly-shut loco shed, within which an equally derelict steam loco could be discerned but not identified. With dusk falling, in a place with no sort of friendly atmosphere, and with me being alone, with some five words of Serbo-Croat at my command, and having to be at Belgrade for flight home some thirty-six hours thence -- any thoughts of trying to interact with the locals with view to finding out more, were rapidly dismissed.

There followed a night and a day, with many train changes, of rail travel -- initially diesel (chiefly loco-hauled coaching stock), then electric – exhausting, but fascinating once resignation to the total absence of active steam thenceforth, had been achieved. Large tracts of Bosnia were traversed, passing through places whose names would, in the future, inspire horror and revulsion. Vinkovci on the Zagreb – Belgrade main line was at last reached, and then it was the “home straight” – express to Belgrade, and plane to London. It is on record that Vinkovci saw some steam working as at that time; but I saw none while there. I did observe steam locos, dead (a very few, of classes 11 and 33, were identifiable); a long line of dumped steam could just be made out; but maddeningly, mostly obscured by intervening rakes of vehicles, thwarting detailed observation. Over the years, the general conclusion reached by many had been, “in all respects, this country hates gricers!” – that often seemed overall, to be the case, to the point that it can well be reckoned more than just simple paranoia. 

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Rob Dickinson