Bulgaria operates more than 8,000 miles of modern, fast-growing railroads, but the country also has a narrow gauge railroad that dates back to the 1500s. Now, nearly 120 years after opening its last northbound line, the 130-mile-long Tisnowzer Railway, spanning up to 4 miles deep, is under threat from environmentalists who want it rerouted to the country’s sprawling and sparsely populated interior.
“It would destroy agricultural land to travel on one side, and it takes too long to travel [by train] from the town of Oban to Ruse by way of a tunnel that sits [in the] heart of the country,” Jan Šarakov, a well-known regional historian and critic of the remaining railroads in Bulgaria, told Fox News. “The prospects of the railroads are not bright,” he added.
Since the railroads have become a problematic issue as more travelers call Bulgaria home, the government in the Balkan nation has been working hard to save them. But that has been easier said than done.
“The government gets us carried away with new projects,” Šarakov said. He explained that environmental bureaucracy is “outrageous” and “strictly intended to halt projects.”
Although the government has come to an agreement on the preservation of the Tisnowzer Railway — that basically means preserving it — there is still a significant fight over what to do with the forest canopy — an often nonsensical request, considering Bulgaria is practically comprised of forests — that lies at the bottom of the railway tracks.
With the ecosystem constantly changing, none of the tracks were built to withstand future deluges, heavy snowfall, or even the current drought, which can make trains move slowly or break.
Cameron Peel, who founded a nonprofit to preserve Bulgaria’s rail heritage, said many UNESCO sites in Bulgaria have been affected by the same phenomenon.
“The sea has this hydrology and so when the glacier melts, it goes into the mountains,” Peel explained. “And it expands like a potato.”
The UNESCO experience, he added, has been “extremely tricky.”
Peel said conserving the Tisnowzer Railway “takes time and money,” as well as an enormous staff effort. He added that “simple requests to UNESCO are simply ignored and they find some other community to fight over the Tisnowzer.”
The European Union has set off a process of making Bulgaria rethink its earlier plans and show how the railroads will help to move freight and exports between the country’s more developed coast and its peri-urban interior. But how that transition occurs may take years.
The environmentalists are also pushing for the EU to drop plans to give the country a slice of a huge grant package that is geared toward helping developing nations. The project would also include segments of tracks in Slovenia, Estonia, Finland, and Hungary.
Critics of Bulgaria’s track preservation project say the entire allotment of 500 million euros (about $575 million) could be used to help build a wall and fence along Europe’s southern borders to protect refugees from the war in Syria.
“They are spending the money for something they don’t want on the actual cause, which is conservation of the railroads,” Vejay Radovanov, an analyst for Greenpeace in Bulgaria, told Reuters.
But Peel said the money should be used to help Bulgaria expand its rail network, modernize existing sections, and create a public-private partnership to support commercial traffic on the track.
“You can go as fast as you want,” he said, “but in terms of the cost-benefit, it makes no difference.”